Friday, May 29, 2015

America And The Idea Battle-Space – OpEd

JB comment -- Since when do ideas have to be "at war"?


In the contemporary affairs the importance of media can never be ignored. Apart from being used by states to convey information to the general public, it is also being used by the non-state actors to convey their ideas and sentiments.
With respect to modern day terrorism, it is very important for a terrorist organizations to convey their message to a larger audience. This results in getting more recruits and also provides justification for their narrative. On the other hand, law enforcement agencies, and countries at a larger level, also use the media to counter the narrative of the non-state actors and terrorist organizations. Hence, the concept of idea battle-space, the war of ideas, is the set of contrasting ideologies, concepts or visions and their interpretations which certain groups use to exercise influence and to promote their narrative. Here, the battlefield and target is the hearts and minds of the people. In the war of ideas, the weapons used are print and electronic media, internet, public diplomacy, think tanks, etc.

The United States, which is leading the war against terror, has now been at war with terrorists for more than a decade. It is more of a war of ideas between America and Al-Qaeda or Islamic State. The terrorist organizations have been using various means to export their narrative and ideas to gain more support in the public. In the information age and with growing technological advancements, this war of ideas has been expanding. The terrorists’ organizations are successfully exporting their ideas and posing a challenge to America and its counter-terrorism policy. The internet is an important weapon in this battlefield as it is available to the terrorist organizations. It has served as a great equalizer in this regard as the current age of information has brought the terrorist organizations in line with the great powers in spreading their message on a global level. It is due to the use of internet and other media that the Islamic State has gained much attention and has risen briskly.

The challenge posed by the Islamic State for the United States in the idea battlefield can be analyzed from the unclassified confidential conference calls between Major General Michael Nagata, commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in the Middle East, and some academics regarding how we can defeat IS in the battlefield of ideas. In one of the calls, MG Nagata said, “We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it. We do not even understand the idea.”

Such a statement by a leading General shows that the Pentagon is not clear in how to fight the terrorists on the battlefield of ideas. Apart from that, recently, in a White House Summit to counter violent extremism, Sasha Havlicek, CEO of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, in her presentation said that the, “Government is ill-placed to lead in the battle of ideas.”
“We are outdone in content, quantity and quality,” Havlicek added, arguing that the United States is facing a challenge by the Islamic State and other extremist groups in the digital propaganda war and in fact it is losing that war. In 2006, Donald Rumsfeld in a press conference categorically stated that Al-Qaeda is better at public relations then we are and United States has a deficiency in the area of public affairs.
This shows that how these terrorist organizations are successful in gaining support and in maintaining their recruitment lines by exporting their ideas through the use of information means and innovative techniques and thus posing a challenge to the world. These terrorist organizations are using blended tactics and have flexible adaptable structures. They have been adopting all the available information means that are serving as weapons for them and most importantly their ideas are doing the work of ammunition. Recently three persons were arrested from New York who were sympathizers of IS and wanted to join – showsing that Islamic State is not dependent upon material conditions, but it is enhancing its capability by propagating its ideas to get the manpower.

Disrupting the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda structure through military action will only be a short term success. Along with military action there is a dire need to launch a vigorous counter-propaganda campaign to discredit the ideas being propagated by Islamic State. Merely promoting the conventional ideals of freedom and democracy throughout the world won’t make America and the American-led coalition win the battle against the terrorists. The United States of America, a super power and technologically advanced country, lagging behind in the idea battlefield clearly reflects the limitations it faces as a super power. The society of the United States is one of the information dependent societies — which also makes it vulnerable. When the conflict is in the idea battle-space then it cannot be won in the physical world, the terrorist organizations take actions in physical world to gain attention. True success for United States lies in winning the idea battle-space.

*Faiza Rashid Lone is an M Phil scholar at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

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