Small Wars Journal

New Media: A Boon for Insurgents or Counterinsurgents?

Sun, 09/04/2011 - 9:02am

More than two billion people – approximately one third of the global population – now use the Internet, and that figure will increase dramatically over the next decade.[1] With this increased use comes ever-greater decentralization of information, which in turn has profound repercussions on societal interactions. For the purposes of this study, “new media” is defined as a host of platforms, including social media, generally supported by the Internet, that offer immediate and direct potential to receive and share information. The Internet is also ripe for the conveyance of opinions and political messages from a large field of users – including those who have historically lacked the opportunity or resources to frame the debate.

Insurgencies have utilized these new tools to improve their strategic and tactical communications. For the sake of this paper, “insurgency” is defined as any group individuals whose protests and collective action threaten the existing regime. Most insurgents’ communications strategies are indelibly entwined with their political strategies.[2] Information and technological revolutions have allowed insurgent groups through the Internet and its many platforms to compete with counterinsurgents’ long-standing monopoly on conventional mass communication.[3] Personalized media platforms, i.e. social media, greatly benefit insurgents by allowing interaction with and contributions from participants.[4]

Though social media platforms are relatively new, they have already played crucial roles in several rebellions. During the April 2009 “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova, protesters created Twitter ‘hashtags’ that allow those posting the information to indicate a topic or conversation to which their “tweet” pertains. Twitter allowed Moldovans to follow along and contribute to the political discussion and to coordinate with one another. It also allowed international observers to follow the conversation and activity. One hashtag proved so popular that it became a trending topic worldwide on Twitter.[5]

Moldova’s Twitter Revolution highlighted two lessons about the strengths and weaknesses of social media as a revolutionary tool. Twitter’s ability to mobilize support and to raise and sustain international awareness proved constructive.[6] However, it did not assist with coordination of those already involved in actions. As one commenter noted, “When you have angry and disorganized crowds, you don’t need decentralized platforms – you want to centralize instead.”[7]

The social rebellion movement next appeared in Iran. Though most of the tweeting in the “Green Revolution” that began in June 2009 appeared to occur outside of the country or by English-speaking participants (Twitter did not initially support Farsi), much of the information reported by the international media was delivered via the platform.[8] The protests in Iran also dominated worldwide Twitter hashtags during this time. The State Department even requested that Twitter delay scheduled maintenance to avoid disturbing the service of protesters, demonstrating the U.S. government’s recognition of the power of social media.[9]

The rebellions in Moldova and Iran brought the role of social media and the Internet to the forefront of debate regarding the processes of political change. Some argued that social media and the Internet could become a transformative tool for insurgencies, while others downplayed their role, and even asserted they were of greater use to government forces. The more recent uprisings in the Middle East – in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya – have put the theories of the uses of new media in insurgencies to the test. On one hand, these platforms offer many advantages to insurgents. The Internet can facilitate the attraction of new members and international support, and assists with the formation of new coalitions. It can serve as an extension of fourth generation warfare, a core tactic of many insurgencies. It can also allow insurgents to successfully accomplish strategic messaging and serve as a virtual safe haven in which a group can carry on critical functions like recruiting and fundraising.

Conversely, new media poses some disadvantages to insurgents. Using the Internet as a primary strategy can potentially undermine an insurgency’s leadership structure. It also reveals the insurgents’ strategy to its opponents. Further, insurgents may have difficulty uniting disparate elements of the population and may recruit only passive supporters. Finally, counterinsurgents can also utilize new media to undermine the insurgency.

Positive Aspects for an Insurgency

Attraction of New Members

Insurgents can use new media to quickly attract new members and grow the insurgency, turning passive supporters into active participants. Studies suggest that people join insurgencies in part because of their social networks, so insurgents can use existing social networks to attract new members.[10] The interconnected nature of social media may also allow insurgent groups to recruit new members because of the associated peer pressure, a powerful motivator. Though slightly pre-dating the proliferation of social media, a Serbian youth movement named “Otpor” provides a clear example of political movements using peer pressure, in this case the positive form. Conducting street theatre inspired by Monty Python, the group attracted many followers through its use of satire and political pranks.[11] By creating an identity-based community and a corresponding culture, the movement grew from 11 individuals in October 1998 to more than 70,000 two years later and ultimately became instrumental in the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic.[12]

Social media can similarly further the effects of peer pressure. Although individuals may never have met in person, users often discover shared values that lead to the creation of an online community toward which an insurgent group can target its marketing and outreach efforts. Also, social media attracts a younger population, which makes up the majority of Internet users.[13] Youth, who are more susceptible to peer pressure, are typically vital for insurgencies and usually make up a large portion of the critical mass necessary to challenge a government.[14]

The Power of Individuals

Mohammed Nabbous of Libya demonstrated that one charismatic individual with a powerful message and the right skills to transmit that message can have a profound impact. Nabbous created an Internet TV station, “Libya Alhurra” (Free Libya) in Benghazi in February 2011.[15] He carried live footage 24 hours per day, depicting the city under attack by forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Nabbous regularly pleaded to Western countries to intervene on behalf of those that opposed Gaddafi.[16] On March 19, while recording live on the streets of Benghazi, Nabbous was shot and killed. Since his death, Nabbous’ cause has been widely celebrated.[17]

Called the “face of the Libyan protest,” Nabbous was a regular contributor to Western media outlets such as CNN.[18] He managed to overcome government efforts to block Internet access, thereby connecting the international media directly to the opposition in Libya.[19] Images from the Libyan opposition were carried on his Livestream page, and rebroadcast via social media throughout the world.[20] Nabbous stood in stark contrast to the Gaddafi regime’s clumsy disinformation campaigns and outright attempts to obscure unfavorable events. At times, the regime imprisoned and beaten international journalists; within this context, the rebel’s counter-narrative became a powerful force.

Charismatic individuals also played a role in Egypt, where social media was crucial in recruiting new members. In one instance, Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim used his professional experience for recruitment purposes. To advertise for a protest, he created a Facebook group, “We Are All Khalid Said,” named for an individual tortured and murdered by Egyptian police.[21] Ghonim applied his marketing knowledge to building an insurgency, stating, “I worked in marketing, and I knew that if you build a brand, you can get people to trust the brand.”[22]

Attraction of International Support

New media can also provide a direct channel for international support. Globalization and the Internet allow an insurgent group to instantly and continuously broadcast their cause.[23] This could result in an insurgency gaining moral, political, or material support.[24] The use of new media by activists like Nabbous attracted global attention to the insurgent cause. Labels of “freedom fighters” and comparisons of the insurgents’ struggle to the American Revolution[25] raised expectations of some reaction from those in the West who actively promote democratic ideals. Many states responded by providing moral, political, and material support.

New Media and Fourth Generation Warfare

Fourth generation warfare is characterized by the use of all available tools to convince opposition leaders that their political goals are not achievable or will cost more than they are —to sacrifice.[26] It differs markedly from first-and-second generations of warfare in that it does not concentrate on the direct destruction of enemy forces and is often measured in decades.[27] This suits the asymmetric tactics preferred by most insurgent groups. International pressure is a vital tool of fourth generation war. In many ways, new media has strengthened the practitioners of fourth generation warfare by facilitating the insurgent’s ability to deliver a message to its target audience, which oftentimes resides in another country.

In one example of the fourth generation warfare strategy of delivering messages to the opposition’s home audience, following an August 18, 2009 ambush of a French patrol in Afghanistan that killed 10 soldiers, the Taliban managed to appear in a French magazine showing off captured uniforms, weapons, and personal effects of the soldiers.[28] As a result of the ambush, French support for the war effort in Afghanistan plummeted.[29] Defense Minister Herve Morin stated that the Taliban “understood that public opinion is probably the Achilles’ heel” of the international forces involved in Afghanistan.[30]

The recent events in Egypt also provide a strong example of fourth generation warfare. Following fourth generation principles, insurgents in Egypt relied on new media to create intense political pressure on the Mubarak regime. These tools allowed members of the insurgency to carry their message directly to the international media and populace without interference.

Mahmoud Salem, Internet activist who runs a blog entitled “Rantings of a Sandmonkey,” is a prime example of an individual who used new media to pressure the Mubarak regime. Salem received a strong following in Egypt and internationally, which enabled him to become one of the leading voices of the uprising. Salem’s story resonated with international media, and allowed him to transmit his anti-Mubarak message to the world.[31]

Salem also recognized the value of disaggregated information sources in directing public engagement. He and others felt that Egyptian insurgents should use asymmetric tactics; they should never meet Mubarak forces head on.[32] According to Salem, the rapid-fire, open source nature of Twitter allowed protesters to accomplish this.[33] Google’s Wael Ghonim’s group also advocated asymmetric tactics such as flash mobs.[34]

Ghonim also pressured the Mubarak regime by transmitting a contrasting message to the world. Two days after his release by the Egyptian government, an interview by Ghonim appeared on CNN in which he discussed his confinement and the situation in Egypt.[35] This speech strongly resonated with protestors and strikingly re-energized the movement. In an interview the day Mubarak stepped down, Ghonim acknowledged the role of the international media in the resignation of Mubarak and thanked the media, stating, “You are part of the revolution.”[36]

As a result of such pressure and the insurgents’ ability to mobilize large numbers in protest, a decisive military victory over the Mubarak regime was unnecessary.[37] The resonance of their message in the international media contributed to pressure on political leaders in countries like the U.S., from which Mubarak received strong support. This contributed to former allies removing their support and the crumbling of his international legitimacy. This weakened his grip on the country and contributed to his fall.

The Importance of the First Truth

New media likely makes it easier for an insurgent group to be the first party to address and frame an event. Telling the story before one’s adversary holds incredible strategic importance in a counterinsurgency.[38] Doing so effectively forces the opponent to react to the first version of the details. Oftentimes the initial version of the story holds up over the long run, as it is the first one digested by the public.

Insurgents typically hold an advantage in communication due to their presence amongst the population. Social media can emphasize this advantage due to the instant communication it facilitates. A well-crafted, concise piece of propaganda can easily be shared, reach viral levels very quickly, and be virtually impossible for counterinsurgents to comprehensively refute. Insurgent groups like al Qaeda, which operate without the assistance of a host government and the associated access to mainstream media, are particularly reliant on new media for strategic communications.[39]

Insurgents can also use the Internet to capitalize on the mistakes of counterinsurgents. Examples of previous blunders include scandals over the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and the Florida pastor Terry Jones’ decision to burn a Koran. Insurgents can leverage the public relations advantage in the aftermath of such events in order to undermine the credibility of counterinsurgents.

Virtual Safe Haven

The role of safe havens in insurgencies has been well documented. The Internet and social media can supply for an insurgent group a “virtual safe haven,” largely off limits to counterinsurgents. From this sanctuary, insurgents can transfer and receive financial, moral, and personnel support.[40] The Internet can also be used for propaganda, recruitment, training, communications, planning, and intelligence purposes.[41]

Footage claiming to show oppression of Muslims in Iraq, Palestine, the Balkans, and Chechnya frequently pass among jihadist websites to stoke support.[42] Similarly, jihadists post videos showing bombings of mosques and footage of U.S. soldiers using excessive force on civilians.[43] Examples such as al Qaeda’s Inspire English-language magazine and media production unit As-Sahab demonstrate a willingness to use the Internet to recruit new members.[44]

Jihadists also post videos of successful attacks by insurgent groups on counterinsurgent forces to increase morale. The “Baghdad Sniper” videos, which show attacks on American soldiers in Iraq by an individual named “Juba,” constitute one such example.[45] The jihadist presence on the Internet has led to the slogan “keyboard equals Kalashnikov.”

Posting attacks online also publicly demonstrates the capabilities of the insurgency and the vulnerability of counterinsurgents. They display to viewers the military initiative that is critical to maintaining participation and recruitment and to “create the impression that the insurgency has momentum and will succeed.”[46] These demonstrations of potency may very well make the “Baghdad Sniper” videos and others like them the modern day equivalent of attacks like the Tet Offensive, in that they crystallize the cost to counterinsurgents and erode domestic support.

With the advent of chat rooms, email, website posting boards, and blogs, the Internet has facilitated semi-secure communications among insurgent groups.[47] Electronic communication allows leaders to avoid meeting face to face.[48] Strategies that prove effective are frequently shared online and sprout up in insurgencies elsewhere in the world.[49] For instance, improvised-explosive devices, first used in Chechnya, later appeared in Iraq and Afghanistan.[50]

Insurgents can often acquire intelligence on counterinsurgent locations or information on other targets from open source information contained on the Internet, saving time, money, and decreasing the risk of exposure. Readily available sources such as Google Maps can assist insurgents in their operations, as has occurred in Iraq.[51] Al Qaeda’s Manchester Manual stated that, “openly and without resorting to illegal means, it is possible to gather at least 80% of information about the enemy.” Insurgents can also use the Internet to track international reaction to their operations and access national debates regarding the counterinsurgency effort.[52]

New media has played a crucial rule in financing operations as insurgents can quickly and easily collect donations online. Many sites promoting insurgent causes also facilitate money transfers.[53] Counterinsurgents have found it particularly difficult to shut down websites associated with insurgent groups. “Bouncing,” the practice of linking a site on multiple servers (potentially in different countries) makes it difficult to eliminate insurgent material, not to mention identifying the individual responsible for initially posting the content.[54] Finally, problem exists with differing legal codes; posting insurgent-related material may be illegal in one country, but legal in another.[55]

Insurgents can also effectively communicate across borders using the Internet, which is helpful for transnational insurgencies or those wishing to strategically link with groups operating in other states. For instance, the April 6 Youth Movement collaborated online with former members of the Serbian group Otpor.[56] After deposing Milosevic, Otpor went on to form the Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), which has consulted with democracy movement leaders in 50 states, including Egypt.[57] Egyptians benefited from the experience of insurgents in Tunisia, who supplied practical advice via Facebook, including tips on how to counteract tear gas by using scarves soaked in vinegar.[58]

Multiple Benefits of Social Media

 Social media is an ideal tool for transmitting ideas broadly. Insurgents can cheaply and quickly spread their message online, which is much more efficient than traveling from village to village. This also makes promoting antigovernment ideas comparatively safer. Government forces can still identify insurgents based on Internet communication, but this requires technical expertise, and effective users can usually achieve anonymity.[59] The Internet and social media also make logistical coordination much easier. Though government forces can respond by shutting down the Internet, this will not stop access to Twitter, as users can Tweet via SMS on their mobile phones.

Further, the interconnected nature of social media can act as a force-multiplier by allowing smaller groups to project beyond their size.[60] Messages can be instantaneously shared among users on popular social media platforms independently of the creator of the message. This serves to advance the ideas of the insurgency far beyond origination. Also, the government and public cannot easily determine the scope of the originators of the message. Consequently, counterinsurgents (and the public) might overestimate the size of an insurgent group, thus allowing insurgents to leverage the psychological impact of their operations.[61]

The leaderless nature of an insurgency utilizing this platform would also make for harder targets for counterinsurgents. If no centralized leadership structure exists within an insurgent group, government forces could not end the insurgency by removing the leadership structure. Wael Ghonim hinted at this strategy when he claimed the Egyptian rebellion was modeled after the anonymous, faceless leader in the movie “V for Vendetta,” who anonymously leads an uprising in a futuristic, Orwellian England.[62]

Negative Aspects for an Insurgency

Effects on Insurgent Leadership

As mentioned above, one of the hallmarks of a successful insurgency – effective leadership – plays less of a role in a movement driven by the Internet, which may result in a flat leadership structure. This strategy can also stunt the development of leaders. While organizers might contribute to arranging events from the relatively safe confines of the Internet, this does not automatically translate into an active role in insurgent actions, where leaders typically become synonymous with an insurgency.

Further, this flat leadership structure can have profound consequences on the conclusion of an insurgency. For instance, following Mubarak’s resignation, the protest movement lacks a single leader to serve as the focal point for negotiations with the military. A lack of representation could result in a diminished voice in discussions about the new form of government. This has clearly occurred in the aftermath of Mubarak’s resignation. The transitional military council has been accused of abuse, torture, baseless arrests, and incommunicado detentions, and former Mubarak regime officials have been taking up positions in the provisional government.[63] The election system instituted by the transitional military council in May 2011 awards two-thirds of the seats in parliament based on votes in individual districts, which favors the established Egyptian political parties at the expense of the smaller liberal movements formed after the revolution who cannot compete in every district.[64]

A leaderless insurgency also faces a significantly greater chance of splintering. Although this danger exists for all insurgencies, it is acutely so in one developed via social media because there is less of a need for leadership within the insurgency and no real threat of punishment (either social or otherwise) for defectors. Yet a successful insurgency requires cohesion. As Mao Zedong stated, “Without centralized strategic command, the partisans can inflict little damage on their adversaries.”[65] Observers have noted this occurrence in Egypt, where the multitude of participants in the uprising that contributed to the resignation of Mubarak have by and large split to form their own political movements.[66] Libya also demonstrates the difficulty of a leaderless insurgency to act cohesively.[67] The lack of centralized leadership also would make the insurgency more susceptible to outside interference or manipulation.[68]

Questions exist as to whether an insurgency fueled by the Internet can operate effectively or attract international recognition or support. Authors have linked successful insurgencies to the existence of a complex organization capable of efficiently conducting training, performing logistics and intelligence, and coordinating operations.[69] Without a complex unifying organization, an insurgency’s effectiveness is likely limited. An insurgency based on social media would have difficulty developing this complexity given the disparate voices that make up an online community. This might also limit the chances of attracting international legitimacy, as foreign states would not likely grant recognition to an insurgency with an indiscernible leadership structure.

That said, rebels in Libya proved it possible to develop complexity in short order after the challenge to the government began. A political structure was formed by the Libyan opposition on February 27, 2011, and two months later they drafted a constitution for the new government.[70] Whether this government will form an effective base capable of sustaining the insurgency in Libya remains to be seen as the Libyan opposition still struggles to stand on its own against Gaddafi’s forces. They have suffered from an inability to increase their territory and difficulty in defending what they control, stemming from a lack of proper military leadership.[71] The situation in Libya reiterates the fact that a leaderless insurgency faces incredible difficulty in a military conflict because of the impossibility of fighting battles by consensus or as disparate parts.

Donor states are disinclined to support insurgencies composed of disjointed groups.[72] Material support received by an insurgency with an indiscernible leadership structure may increase the fracture within the insurgency. Donor aid in a fragmented insurgency tends to favor one group over others, which might be the intention of donor states.[73]

Revelation of Strategy

Insurgents who use new media extensively are in effect revealing their strategy to the opposition, which should allow government forces to better neutralize the insurgency.[74] Counterinsurgents can monitor new media sources and insurgent communications to identify motivations or grievances. With this information, government forces could produce policies that allay existing societal grievances, thereby undercutting support for the insurgency.

Difficulty in Uniting Elements of the Population

Using new media to organize an insurgency might also cause difficulties in uniting diverse segments of a population. Older persons, less likely to use the Internet than the young, might be out of reach. This could limit the strategy’s effectiveness in states with older societies. Also, those who live in rural areas, away from technological infrastructure and Internet service might prove difficult to recruit.

The Curse of Passive Involvement

An Internet-driven insurgency might also encourage participants to become only passively involved. New recruits might be satisfied with “liking” a group on Facebook or following someone’s Twitter feed, but may not risk personal safety by taking part in street actions. Under such a scenario, the insurgency’s message might expand to reach new people, but its actual strength (and ability to challenge the government) could stagnate.

Other Limitations

The use of new media as a primary strategy for insurgencies has several obvious limitations. Approximately 25 percent of Egyptians have Internet access, and a new media-based insurgency proved successful. However, in a country like Somalia, where only one percent of the population has Internet access, the strategy is not likely viable. Obviously, low literacy rates would also affect the potential value of this strategy.

In addition, as occurred in Moldova, Iran, and Egypt, a government that controls Internet service can respond by shutting down access across the country. While insurgents may develop alternative methods (e.g., text messaging with mobile phones), a lack of widespread access could prove damaging. An insurgency that has become organizationally dependent on the Internet while ignoring the development of traditional insurgent methods such as personal networks may find it difficult to survive if the government eliminates access.

Crucially, the use of new media by an insurgent group is contingent on the existence of societal grievances. If they exist, such grievances can be used to create an alternate vision for the country, which will facilitate the formation of a critical mass necessary to challenge the government. However, insurgents cannot create these conditions using the Internet; they can only hope to exploit existing grievances using online tools.

The Use of New Media by Counterinsurgent Forces

In the end, new media platforms represent just another area of competition between insurgents and government forces. While insurgents can use the Internet to their advantage, the government could use the same tools to undercut insurgent rhetoric, thereby reducing support. On the more aggressive side, counterinsurgents might use the same tools to identify and detain participants of insurgencies. They could also subvert social media platforms, sending false messages,[75] or set up “honeypots,” websites monitored to identify potential insurgents.[76]

Although social media has been widely lauded as a positive force for social change, the successes of insurgents in Egypt might be best explained by the Mubarak regime’s unwillingness to develop a proactive approach to the insurgency, and specifically his disregard of the Internet.[77] Counterinsurgents of the future will likely conduct a pervasive, coordinated, preventive Internet propaganda campaign designed to undermine opposition groups. China and Russia already practice these methods with the purpose of preventing insurgencies from forming in the first place.[78] Pro-regime forces in Syria have used the same new media tools as insurgents to disseminate information.[79]

Governments can certainly possess the ability to conduct counterinsurgencies much more effectively than the Mubarak regime. Chiefly, counterinsurgents can use social media sites to identify the opposition. Following the events in Iran, the government reposted on its own websites photos that protesters had published. The Iranian government then designated the individuals it could not identify, and requested that the public supply names.[80] In the future, counterinsurgents could use facial recognition software to match pictures of known insurgents to Facebook profiles. Facebook is already integrating such software within the platform. In the past year the social networking site added facial recognition to the default settings for users.[81]

It is easy to see a progression by social media platforms towards diminished user anonymity. Advertising revenue for such sites increases when they provide more detailed information about users, so social media sites are motivated to collect as much information as possible about users. It stands to reason that social media sites could become a very dangerous place for insurgents – especially if new features designed to collection information become compulsory. This reality could have contributed to Syria’s decision in February 2011 to allow once more access to social media sites.[82]


The dramatic increases in Internet availability around the world will only increase in the near future. Likewise, the intensity of competition between insurgents and government forces will grow as each struggles to strategically harness the Internet and its diverse array of platforms. In many ways, new media serves as an extension of fourth generation warfare and supports asymmetric tactics. It can allow insurgents to attract new members, form coalitions, gain international support, and serve as a force multiplier. The Internet can also serve as a virtual sanctuary for an insurgent group.

However, reliance on the Internet can also act as a detriment to insurgent groups. It has negative implications for insurgent leadership, plainly reveals the insurgency’s methods, and might fail to support insurgents’ ability to unite dissimilar segments of a population. It could also lack the ability to promote more than passive involvement by the public. Finally, counterinsurgents can use the very same tools to undermine the insurgency.

Experts suggest that the success or failure of any insurgency ultimately boils down to the government’s response, rather than the strength of the insurgency.[83] That is, the government innately possesses the upper hand but can relinquish it by failing to sufficiently respond. However, the Internet has become the main communication platform for insurgencies.[84] These platforms allow users to push the tempo of messaging and to dominate conversation, creating a higher bar for governments to reach in order to quell the insurgency.

As a result, government forces must address the strategic underpinnings of an insurgency, rather than reacting at the operational level. Waiting for an insurgency to establish itself online makes the counterinsurgents’ job much more difficult. This becomes especially true when counteracting an insurgency employing new media. Counterinsurgents cannot possibly shut down all websites or refute all tweets or postings on Facebook. Government forces would be much better served developing a proactive solution. Though it faces many current problems with Islamic jihadist insurgencies, the U.S. has yet to develop an effective counter-narrative on the Internet. Focusing on older versions of media – such as its al-Hura TV station and al-Sawa radio station – may do little to counteract the presence of extremist groups online.[85]

Because it cannot possibly succeed in a reactive role, the U.S and its allies must develop a strategic counter-communication plan capable of undermining insurgent messaging online. They must integrate the plan with their wider counterinsurgency strategy, including military, law enforcement, political, diplomatic, and socio-economic aspects. Further, for transnational threats, the U.S. must institute its operations worldwide and ensure consistency at the strategic, tactical, and operational levels.[86] The U.S. should also tailor its counterinsurgency strategy for individual insurgencies; a one-size-fits-all approach will not succeed.

Insurgent use of new media also imposes limitations. An insurgency will never succeed if it is limited to the Internet. Insurgents must motivate participants to take to the streets or become involved in some other form of action. Consequently, insurgents must create a message powerful enough to not only encourage participation on the Internet but also to risk personal safety and livelihood by taking part in street actions.

Contemporary insurgent successes in the Middle East will serve as a template for future Internet-fueled rebellions. However, they will also inform future counterinsurgent efforts. Recent innovations do not amount to a decisive advantage for insurgents or government forces. Consequently, in the future, the Internet and its many platforms will exist as yet another area of competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents.

The Author wishes to thank Bill Belding for his comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

[1] Molly Oldfield and John Mitchinson, “QI: Quite interesting facts about the Internet,” The Telegraph, March 31, 2011,

[2] Carsten Bockstette, “Jihadist Terrorist Use of Strategic Communication Management Techniques,” The Marshall Center Occasional Paper Series, Number 20, December 2008, p. 11.

[3] Bruce Hoffman, “The Use of the Internet By Islamic Extremists,” Testimony presented to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, May 4, 2006.

[4] Bockstette, “Jihadist Terrorist Use of Strategic Communication Management Techniques,” p. 15.

[5] Evgeny Morozov, “Moldova’s Twitter Revolution,” Foreign Policy, April 7, 2009,

[6] Evgeny Morozov, “More analysis of Twitter’s role in Moldova,” Foreign Policy, April 7, 2009,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mike Musgrove, “Twitter Is a Player in Iran’s Drama,” The Washington Post, June 17, 2009,

[9] Ibid.

[10] Tina Rosenberg interview on the Diane Rehm Show, National Public Radio, March 29, 2011, available at:

[11] Tina Rosenberg, “Revolution U,” Foreign Policy, February 16, 2011,

[12] Tina Rosenberg interview on the Diane Rehm Show.

[13] Alex Priest, “Pew Study Shows Social Media Use Nearly Doubling Among Older Users,”, August 27, 2010,; “Study: Ages of social network users,”, February 16, 2010,

[14] Steven Metz, “Rethinking Insurgency,” Strategic Studies Institute, June 2007, p. 51,

[15] All Things Considered, “Remembering Mo Nabbous, ‘The Face Of Libyan Citizen Journalism,’” NPR, March 22, 2011.

[16] All Things Considered, “Remembering Mo Nabbous, ‘The Face Of Libyan Citizen Journalism.’”

[17] Ibid.

[18] “‘Voice of Libya’ silenced by sniper’s bullet,”, March 20, 2011,

[19] Ibid.

[20] is an Internet site that allows users to stream content live.

[21] Accessed on April 10, 2011,

[22] David D. Kirkpatrick and David E. Sanger, “A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History,” The New York Times, February 13, 2011,

[23] David Kilcullen, “Counter-insurgency Redux,” Survival, Winter, 2006-2007, volume 48, number 4, p. 113.

[24] O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, pp. 142-145.

[25] Russel L. Honoré, “We must help Libya’s freedom fighters win,”, March 18, 2011,

[26] Thomas Hammes, The Sling and the Stone, St. Paul, Zenith Press, 2006, p. 2.

[27] Thomas Hammes, “Insurgency: Modern Warfare Evolves into a Fourth Generation,” Strategic Forum, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Number 214, January 2005.

[28] Jason Motlagh, “Why the Taliban Is Winning the Propaganda War,”, May 3, 2009,,8599,1895496,00.html.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Originally aired February 4, 2011 on CNN’s Parker Spitzer, available:

[32] Speech given by Mahmoud Salem at American University, March 14, 2011.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ivan Watson, “Wael Ghonim: Negotiation days with Mubarak are over,”, February 9, 2011,

[36] Originally aired February 11, 2011 on CNN, available:

[37] In fact, attempting to do so would have likely been counter-productive. Egypt’s army is conscripted, and therefore, the population identifies closely with the military’s personnel (who indicated reciprocal feeling by refusing to arrest protestors). By avoiding massive military bloodshed, insurgents maintained the support of a large base that might have otherwise defected in the face of deaths of family and friends currently in the army.

[38] George Packer, “Knowing the Enemy,” The New Yorker, December 18, 2006,

[39] Bockstette, “Jihadist Terrorist Use of Strategic Communication Management Techniques,” p. 14.

[40] Kilcullen, “Counter-insurgency Redux,” p. 113.

[41] Ibid.

[42] David Kilcullen, “Countering Global Insurgency,” p. 11.

[43] Wael Adhami, “The strategic importance of the Internet for armed insurgent groups in modern warfare,” International Review of the Red Cross, Volume 89, Number 868, December 2007, p. 865.

[44] Peter Grier, “Al Qaeda’s new online magazine: Is it for real?” The Christian Science Monitor, July 1, 2010,

[45] Kurth Cronin, “Cyber-Mobilization: The New Levée en Masse,” p. 85.

[46] O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, p. 107.

[47] K.A. Taipale, “Seeking Symmetry on the Information Front: Confronting Global Jihad on the Internet,” Nat’l Strategy F. Rev. (Summer 2007), p. 5.

[48] Todd A. Megill, “The Dark Fruit of Globalization: Hostile Use of the Internet,” U.S. Army War College Strategy Research Project, March 18, 2005, p. 6.

[49] Kilcullen, “Countering Global Insurgency,” p. 12.

[50] Ibid., p. 114.

[51] Taipale, “Seeking Symmetry on the Information Front: Confronting Global Jihad on the Internet,” p. 5.

[52] Hammes, “Insurgency: Modern Warfare Evolves into a Fourth Generation.”

[53] Hoffman, “The Use of the Internet By Islamic Extremists.”

[54] Mark Baker, “World: Tracing, Closing Terrorist Websites Not As Simple As It Sounds,” Radio Free Europe, July 1, 2004,

[55] Baker, “World: Tracing, Closing Terrorist Websites Not As Simple As It Sounds.”

[56] Tina Rosenberg interview on the Diane Rehm Show.

[57] Rosenberg, “Revolution U.”

[58] Kirkpatrick and Sanger, “A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History.”

[59] Adhami, “The strategic importance of the Internet for armed insurgent groups in modern warfare,” p. 859.

[60] Bockstette, “Jihadist Terrorist Use of Strategic Communication Management Techniques,” p. 19.

[61] Ibid., p. 8.

[62] Watson, “Wael Ghonim: Negotiation days with Mubarak are over.”

[63] Evan Hill, “Egypt’s youth leaders vow continued protests,” Al-Jazeera, April 7, 2011,

[64] Lela Fadel, “Egypt unprepared for September elections,” The Washington Post, June 29, 2011,

[65] O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, p. 125.

[66] Hill, “Egypt’s youth leaders vow continued protests.”

[67] Kareem Fahim, “Rebel Insider Concedes Weaknesses in Libya,” The New York Times, March 23, 2011,

[68] O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, pp. 127-128.

[69] O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, pp. 122-123.

[70] Charles Levinson, “Libya Rebels Build Parallel State,” The Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2011,

[71] Ben Hubbard and Hadeel al-Shalchi, “Libyan rebel leader says NATO isn’t doing enough,” Associated Press, April 5, 2011,

[72] O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, p. 127.

[73] Ibid., pp. 150-151.

[74] Jeffrey Bartholet, “You Have to Rethink War,”, March 3, 2008,

[75] Lev Grossman, “Iran Protests: Twitter, the Medium of the Movement,”, June 17, 2009,,8599,1905125,00.html.

[76] Ellen Nakashima, “Dismantling of Saudi-CIA web site illustrates need for clearer cyberwar policies,” The Washington Post, March 19, 2010,

[77] John D. Sutter, “When the internet actually helps dictators,”, February 22, 2001,

[78] Ibid.

[79] Jennifer Preston, “Seeking to Disrupt Protesters, Syria Cracks Down on Social Media,” The New York Times, May 22, 2011,

[80] Preston, “Seeking to Disrupt Protesters, Syria Cracks Down on Social Media.”

[81] Nick Bilton, “Facebook Changes Privacy Settings to Enable Facial Recognition,” The New York Times, June 7, 2011,

[82] Jennifer Preston, “Syria Restores Access to Facebook and YouTube,” The New York Times, February 9, 2011,

[83] O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, p. 155.

[84] Bockstette, “Jihadist Terrorist Use of Strategic Communication Management Techniques,” p. 21.

[85] Hoffman, “The Use of the Internet By Islamic Extremists.”

[86] Taipale, “Seeking Symmetry on the Information Front: Confronting Global Jihad on the Internet,” p. 3.

About the Author(s)

Sean Kennedy is a Master's student at American University and will receive his degree in International Affairs-U.S. Foreign Policy in December 2011.


1. "It is believed ... by who?" "There is no evidence to support that there is a broad strategy to transform..."

Here would seem to be an initial/early articulation (1993) of this broad strategy and the reasons why it was being adopted. Specifically note the suggestion, in one of the first paragraphs, as to how the number of Americans killed by terrorists in the future would be determined by how well this strategy had been implemented and faithfully carried out.

2. "Nobody gives a rats ass about ..."

I think that today the belief is that our failing to adequately extend our "transformation and incorporation" initiative into such outlier states and societies as Afghanistan then, and Somolia presently, was/is a serious mistake. (The consequences of which were foretold by the 1993 document provided above?)

3. "We go to places like Afghanistan because a recent security threat ...

I think in 1993 -- and again today -- the thinking was/is: That we have no choice but to "go into" these places (one way or another) to do this transformation/incorporation work. (Reasons why noted in the 1993 "From Containment to Enlargement" document provided above.) Accordingly, we can do this either:

a. Much too late and reactively -- after something really bad has happened -- and spend untold amounts of blood and treasure on attempting to do -- the very hard and the very expensive way -- something that already should have been done in a much more intelligent and much more economical fashion. Or

b. Early on and proactively and, thereby, hopefully avoid all -- or many -- of the these devastating and expensive problems.

This, I believe, is the concensus -- then as now. Failing to adequately act on this understanding, however, would still seem to be the overall problem. This problem (failing to adequately act on this understanding) now made much more difficult by our present financial difficulties.

"It is believed'... by who?

Nobody gave a rat's ass about transforming Afghanistan until 9/11. Nobody gives a rat's ass about trying to transform Somalia today, even with piracy creating some headaches. Nobody's interested in trying to transform the DRC, even with substantial mineral wealth... the costs are still greater than any expected benefit. There's no effort at all going into transforming most failed states, and no evidence to support the idea that there's a broad strategy of transformation.

We go into places like Afghanistan because of a perceived security threat, not because we want to transform them. We stay because our self-image and domestic political imperatives require that if we remove a government, we must replace it with something our people will recognize as "a democracy". This is generally a bad idea IMO, but we do it anyway.

Bill C.

Thu, 09/15/2011 - 10:03am

Addendum to my comment immediately below:

Thus, in the future, when we hear such terms as "failed and failing states" -- and the threat that they might pose -- we might consider these within the context I have offered below, and consider how we hope to address these problems and opportunities by:

a. Using "whole of government"

b. To "build partner capacity" (a strong central government)

c. Which (if done correctly) could be used to plan, implement, compel, enforce and sustain the fundamental state and societal changes (toward market-democracy and, thereby, better integration into global economy) that we require.

Dayuhan essentially asks:

"Re: outlier states and societies generally (included herein are not just Afghanistan but also such outlier states/societies as North Korea, Iran and certain of the states and societies in places like Africa),

What would such fundamental state and societal changes (away from their present way-of-life and governing dynamics and toward market-democracy/better integration into the global economy) do for us?

Answer: It is believed that such outlier state and societal transformation/incorporation efforts would -- much as in the recent cases of Russia and China -- and much as with the earlier cases of Japan and Germany -- allow that such outlier states and societies might (via transformation and incorporation) become (1) less of a problem for/burden on the modern world and, instead become (2) more of an asset of/partner in the modern world.

Accordingly, a fairly big deal and, thus, STILL considered to be THE proper focus of our strategy, grand strategy, foreign policy, etc.

What has changed? Now we are no longer going after outlier great-power states and societies to transform and incorporate (major progress, as outlined above, already made in this area).

Today we are retooling our "instruments of power" -- and their tactics, techniques and methods -- to deal with our contemporary problems (those relating to the transformation and incorporation of "lesser" outlying states and societies); which presents challenges unique to this environment.

For example: The (sometimes) lack of a strong central government (which we considered essential to our transformation/incorporation initiative -- for the reasons I explained in my comments below).

Thus, the present "push" to use our "whole of government" capabilities -- to "build partner capacity" (to wit: a strong central government) -- which will be utilized to plan, implement, compel, enforce and sustain the state and societal changes that we desire.

Straying from the whole "new media" issue again, but it seems to be the flow...

From Bill C:

<i> plan, institute, compel and sustain the fundamental state and societal changes that we/they desire.</i>

From Lawrence:

<i>I do not believe that a strong central government is essential to our objectives in Afghanistan. I believe the empowerment I have continued to emphasize can be encouraged organically</i>

These I think highlight the fundamental confusion that is at the heart of our Afghan problem: uncertain, vague, and impractical goals, and confusion and uncertainty between what we want and what we need.

I don't see that we need "fundamental state and societal changes" in Afghanistan. What would such changes do for us? There's no potential economic gain involved, certainly.

Similarly, we really don't need to see Afghans empowered or to promote grassroots political change.

We want to see these things. The missionary impulse that saturates our culture would love to see Afghans living in a stable democratic capitalist prosperous free society, with equality of the sexes, tolerance for gay people, acceptance of all religions, and all the other good stuff. We don't NEED any of this, though. All we really need is to assure that Afghans will not attack us or harbor those who do. Transformation of Afghan society might achieve this goal, but given the difficulty and expense of efforts to transform other societies - especially those that have no visible desire to be remodeled in our image - one has to wonder if it's really the only or the best way to achieve what we need.

If private NGOs want to raise private funds and go out to transform others... well, good luck to them. I do not see social or economic transformation of other nations as a necessary, feasible, or desirable goal for American policy.


One might also see our use of "whole of government" -- to "building partner capacity" -- in much this same light.

To wit: To provide the strong central government(s) -- that we/they will require -- to plan, institute, compel and sustain the fundamental state and societal changes that we/they desire.

Lawrence Chickering

Wed, 09/14/2011 - 3:59pm

Bill C.,

This lengthy, shaggy dog story exchange of comments has been useful because, at least for me, it has narrowed the differences between us almost completely. I agree that the larger narrative commitment to a strong central government is a serious impediment to winning “the war of ideas” in Afghanistan. It is a weakness in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual that comes straight out of mechanistic, Western thinking about social policy and change; and it is profoundly mistaken, I believe, for promoting change not only in tribal societies, but even in the U.S. Widespread alienation in the U.S. toward governments is a direct result of this mistake and is especially manifest in the continuing crisis in public education.

Where things are working—it is true, again, even in the U.S.—is where grass roots, personal engagement is the principal driver of change. This is a central message in my coauthored 2008 book, Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life (coauthored with James S. Turner), which was widely praised on both left and right.

I do not believe that a strong central government is essential to our objectives in Afghanistan. I believe the empowerment I have continued to emphasize can be encouraged organically, from the grass roots. If it is, fear of centralized power will radically decrease, and people will come together in relationships of increasing social trust. That is the picture I have of “victory” in Afghanistan. It has been redeemed in a great many local communities. There is no reason why this vision could not be implemented over a whole country if the vision is there, and policy leaders commit to it.

As with virtually everything else (for example: questions relating to the use and importance of the "new media"), questions relating to such things as a "strong central government" must also, I would contend, be dealt with within the context of our overall goals and objectives, which are: to transform (towards market-democracies) and better incorporate (into the global economy) outlier states and societies.

In this regard, let us, for example, ask ourselves how important the role of a strong central government was in bringing about/helping to facilitate the recent transformation/incorporation "gains" that have been made in such great/rising powers as Russia and China?

I would suggest that the role of a strong central government -- in these "modernization" success stories -- were, in fact, indispensible. By virtue of a strong central government, reforms could be implemented and obsticals to/opponents of these wrenching changes could be dealt with and overcome.

In stark contrast, states and societies that lack a strong central government (and, specifically, its robust intelligence, military and police forces) do not have a similar capacity or capability (to plan, implement and compel fundamental state and societal change); this helping to explain why the installation of a strong central government is often considered "Job Number One" re: our transformation/incorporation initatives.

Thus, it is within the context I have offered above (our goal to transform and incorporate outlier states and societies) that, I would contend, we must come to understand the pros and cons of such things as the "new media" and understand:

a. Why a strong central government is essential to our goals (needed to plan, implement and compel "modernization") and

b. Why opponents to our "modernization" efforts rightfully feel so threatened by and so determined to overcome both (1) this imposition of this institution (a strong central government) and (2) the unwanted way-of-life changes that it brings.

Lawrence Chickering

Wed, 09/14/2011 - 2:11pm


I agree with almost everything you have written here up to the last graf. I do not think supporting an insurgency is necessarily empowerment. I think much of it comes from the disempowered “apathy” of the preconscious self. When empowered—it is our experience and it is widely reported from many countries—people resist insurgencies. When I use the phrase “empower communities”, my observation of what they do with their power is inward-looking: they build schools or wells; they work together and help each other. They see girls not just as a role of people that don’t go to school, but of people who want to go to school and therefore should.

Bill C,

We have spent $19 billion for programs promoting nation-building in Afghanistan. We spent that money for transformation. Many people now believe we have mostly wasted the money, but our INTENTION was transformation. It is hard to argue that we make commitments at that large scale where we see security threats. Where there are no threats, we tend to ignore.

Cell phones are in very wide use in all parts of Afghanistan—something like 10 million with a population of 33 million. Every single person doesn’t have to have a phone in a remote village for the medium to make a significant difference. You way underestimate the impact they are having. I believe they could make a significantly greater difference if we ever developed a positive narrative about empowerment about how people are changing their own lives.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 09/14/2011 - 8:56am

It is interesting that this comment seems to come at the end of the developmental cycle of the jihadi use of the internet and new media. For a long number of years a number of Commenters to this blog have/had pointed out this use starting in 2006---even AQI drove a number of Blog articles on how to setup decentralized media teams, what equipment was needed and how to post comments and articles.

They initially did not care who was monitoring as the conversation was internal---now that they understand OSINT they have moved into a new area of encrpyted Chats using US/UK produced security software available over the counter.

They still understand the effective use of their media as a recruitment tool with a number of recently slick produced E-Magazines---there was an US article from 2008 which indicated that the jihadi web use was actually winning the first ever insurgency being fought in cyperspace-again many who Blog here did not like that in the 2007/2008 period.

While a well written article-it comes at the end of the cycle and does not add to what has been gathered,researched on and or written about from 2006 through early 2009. That was the period that should have been analyzed.

If one had access to the Unv. of Azorna's Dark Web project database one will see/could see the trends quiet clearly---which by the way has never been fully ultilized by the military or IC in order to understand this jihadi conversation that has been occuring since late 2005.


The comment on the proposed American desire to integrate "outlier States" into the capitalist order was a reply to Bill C. I should have made that clear; hit the "reply" link but the format is a little ambiguous.

The point remains that if the US is involved in COIN/FID because we are trying to promote centralized government in an environment where much of the populace is violently averse to centralized government, projects aimed at development, empowerment, or whatever the buzzword of the day is will not have much impact on insurgency, because they don't address the primary conflict: we want central government, the people backing the insurgency don't want it. If local efforts at development/empowerment are locally perceived as intrusion by central government or its backers, they could actually exacerbate insurgency.

We have nothing to fear from empowered communities unless our goals are incompatible with theirs. Our efforts to promote strong central government in Afghanistan have put us in that position, especially with communities who see the current government as a threat. I don't think we can address that by trying to empower communities: joining or supporting an insurgency is, after all, already an act of empowerment. The insurgent has the power to resist. It requires reassessment of our goals in Afghanistan and the methods by which we pursue those goals. If people prefer to be left alone, the option of leaving them alone should always be considered.

Bill C:

Are you assuming that "our overall goals and objectives; which are: to transform outlier states and societies"? I see no evidence to support that assumption. In most cases our policy toward so-called "outlier states" is not to transform, but to deter, contain, and ignore. There's no motive for transformation in most cases: it's expensive and there's often little or nothing to gain, as in Afghanistan. Efforts at "transformation" have taken place only in the rare cases where "outlier states" are perceived as a significant security threat.

Social media may be a useful tool for insurgents in states that are already, if imperfectly, integrated, such as Egypt or Tunisia. They are less useful in true outlier states: how many Twitter or Facebook subscribers are there in rural Afghanistan, Somalia, or the DRC?

It's absurd to say that Twitter, Facebook, or the Internet "fueled" a resistance or an insurgency, as if they acted of their own will. These are tools; the people using them did the fueling. Those people use the tools at their disposal. If those tools are taken away they will use other tools. In some ways social media are a tool that is more open to monitoring and data mining than their predecessors: the counterinsurgent can watch what's going on online more easily than they can monitor the old style bush telegraph or urban grapevine.

The use of social media are an interesting factor that deserves study, but I don't see social media as a causative factor or a true game-changer.

Focusing now entirely on this article by Mr. Kennedy and not responding to any of the excellent thoughts of my co-commenters:

With regard to the design and purpose of our foreign policy and related campaigns (to transform and incorporate outlier states and societies; so that such states and societies might present the modern world fewer problems and, instead, offer the modern world greater utility/usefulness),

Herein, the "new media" would seem to "naturally" favor and accommodate an insurgency -- or a counterinsurgency -- based on the established views of the population (in our case: as being "for" or "against" modernization). For example:

a. Should the general population approve of and support a modernization process (a transition toward market-democracy; better integration into the global economy), then the new media might be more easily used to support and accommodate such an insurgency; whose purpose is to overcome a government opposed to such a popular cause.

b. Likewise, should the general population be opposed to and be determined to resist such an modernization initiative, then the new media might be expected to more-naturally support and accomodate an insurgency whose purpose is to defeat any government (foreign and/or domestic) bent on attempting such an, in this instance, unwanted change.

In both of these instances, should the government need to overcome the will of the people -- and compel or resist change -- it is likely to need tools with more capability and potency than the new media; for example: a strong central government and robust foreign and domestic military and police forces.

Lawrence Chickering

Tue, 09/13/2011 - 12:07pm


I do not “overrate the importance . . . of integrating ‘outlier states’ into the capitalist order”. I don’t rate it at all; I don’t think it has anything to do either with current policy or with my sense of what policy should be. I think the aim should be to empower people, focusing on local communities. After your first graf, I agree with almost every other word you write in your comment. I hope it is clear from what I have written why this is so.

Bill C.,

My focus is all local. If the effect of working locally and using social media to communicate to much larger audiences, that is all to the good. I agree we should not focus the attention we are now focusing on reforming the larger society. We have nothing to fear from empowered, independent local communities. Increasing social trust will reduce internal conflict, reduct corruption, and increase confidence in the central government. It is true that societies that join the larger capitalist order become “dependent” on it. You seem to think this is a big deal, but it is no more important than that anyone who enters into a relationship of any kind with another enters into an implicit agreement that depends RECIPROCITY – giving and taking. In all relationships, people in relationship become “dependent” on the terms of reciprocity, including market exchanges.

Your final graf asks questions about finding our own insurgents. An “insurgent” is someone who is defined by OPPOSITION to something. I am much less interested in people who define themselves by opposition than I am in people seeking empowerment, empowered to follow their own dreams. I hope that is where your interest is as well.


Tue, 09/13/2011 - 12:17am

In reply to by Bill C.

I think you overrate the importance to the US or "the West" of integrating "outlier states" into the capitalist order, and the extent to which resistance to such integration fuels insurgency. As a general rule, there has been very little effort to integrate these states: the policy is typically to contain, deter, and ignore. Most of these states (Afghanistan an excellent example) have zero economic significance and there is little or no benefit to be gained by integrating them... certainly not enough benefit to even begin to justify the cost.

The preferred policy of contain/deter/ignore, practiced toward Afghanistan until 9/11, is only escalated when an actual or perceived direct security threat is present - e.g. AQ and their relationship with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The American solution to these situations is typically to try and introduce a strong central government that will do what we say... though the governments we produce rarely do anything we want. That puts us directly at odds with tribal and traditional societies that have a strong aversion (generally for excellent reasons) to being centrally governed.

This is a huge deficiency in the assumption that more development and better services will blunt insurgency. People don't fight the government because it isn't delivering services, they fight the government because they're afraid of it and they want it to stay the %$#@ out of their lives. We need to be a little less quick to assume that strong central govern,ent is the answer to everyone else's problems, and a little more sensitive to people's often legitimate distrust of and dislike for the idea of being centrally governed.

Bill C.

Mon, 09/12/2011 - 11:17am

First, I believe that we must understand that insurgencies will be deemed as "good" or as "bad" within the context of our overall goals and objectives; which are: to transform outlier states and societies (cause them to transition away from their outdated way of life and toward our modern/market-democracy/global-economy way of life instead).

Herein, insurgencies that have the potential to transition such states and societies in the right direction (toward market democracies/better utilization by the global economy); we will label these insurgencies as "good" and we are likely (at least initially) to support them (Egypt et al ?).

In stark contrast, insurgencies -- or potential insurgenices -- whose purpose runs/seems to run counter to our goals and objectives (those noted above); these insurgencies we will label as "bad" and will work to defeat (Afghanistan et al).

Thus, as COL Jones, I believe, has noted, our concern re: "killing one's own people" and our "responsibility to protect;" this really depends on whether the insurgency that is occuring is considered as "good" or "bad" as per our interests (noted above).

Herein, I would also agree with COL Jones' contention that this is not about ideology (I do not believe that I suggested that it was) but about control. Like COL Jones states, it would seem that ideology is a tool -- a method -- used to gain desired control.

Explanation in the vain of our overall goals and objectives:

a. Outlier states and societies (those not organized, oriented and configured as we are [market-democracies/integrated into the global economy]); such states and societies often remain outside our significant control and that of our system. Herein, such states and societies might be viewed as being dangerously unique and "independent"/"less dependent."

b. Countries, however, who we have convinced -- or who have convinced themselves -- to bet their future and the welfare of their states, societies and citizenry on markets, democracy and the global economy; these folks are now quite "common" and significantly "dependent," in that they are all bound by the same principles, the same rules, the same dynamics (and, until recently, were all heavily lead and influenced by the same leadership).

Back to the focus of this article:

How does one craft a message (possibly the way that Dr. Chickering suggests?) that will help to bring about the transition that we desire re: outlier states and societies; and counter the message being offered by the "bad" insurgents? Or must we wait to learn if the possibly "good" insurgents are really "good" and then use them as our most potent counter- message?


Sun, 09/11/2011 - 5:22pm

In reply to by Lawrence Chickering

I have seen many tribal people embrace change. The changes that last and are empowering are invariably those that are initiated, from the start, from within the community, not those promoted by outsiders pursuing their own agendas. I've also seen many outside attempts at "empowerment" cause serious trouble within a community, and in every case the outsider involved went away blissfully unaware and thoroughly convinced that they'd done wonderful things for the poor ignorant tribal folks.

I do not have experience with "thousands of communities"... such experience must by definition be very shallow and involve very little real understanding of the individual communities involved, unless of course one has been at it for many thousands of years, not an option for most of us. My perspective comes from many years of exposure to a very small sample of communities, and is thus different.

I think you miss the point re insurgency. Insurgencies happen when people fight their government. If you want to understand them, ask why the people are fighting their government. In Afghanistan, that looks to boil down to two basic things. First, people think their government sucks. They're right. By any objective measure, their government does suck. Second, they think their government was installed and is sustained by a foreign invader. They're right about that too. Add that to a place where an awful lot of people aren't too keen on being governed by Kabul in any event, and you get an environment that heavily favors insurgency.

I don't see schools and wells changing that equation.

RCJ thinks we can solve the problem by making a government that doesn't suck. I think that's something we can't do, and trying will just be wading deeper into the muck that put is in this mess in the first place. We're known to disagree.

Lawrence Chickering

Sun, 09/11/2011 - 9:56am


Wide experience and observation shows that when people who are empowered because they “own” a school or a well will protect it against insurgent threats. The security they provide for their own assets can have little or nothing to do with supporting a government’s COIN efforts. When insurgents threaten to destroy a school or well, they are the threat.

Your point about condescension is an abstraction and the mantra. My claim about tribal people choosing empowerment is based on experiences in thousands of communities—real experiences. If you have counter-examples, tell me about them—give details. You stay with your mantra because you have never seen how people, when they are empowered, choose to change. What is sad here is your indifference to what people really care about. You think I am being condescending? Forgive me, but this indifferences suggests some pretty unpleasant things about why you have chosen yourself to live in a traditional culture.


Sun, 09/11/2011 - 7:52am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

This contention remains unsupported. AQ has not succeeded in leveraging popular discontent with domestic government. That doesn't mean that there is no such discontent, but it suggests that populaces do not see AQ as a viable alternative for their own governance.

AQ has been very successful at leveraging a widespread anger at "the West" generically and at the US as the most visible symbol of the old order, and a very strong resentment toward foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Muslim countries, particularly military intervention. The foreign fighters who go to Afghanistan or Iraq aren't going to try and drive out their own governments, they are going to expel the infidel from the land of the faithful. The people who cheer AQ's attacks on the west aren't cheering the imminent demise of their own governments, they are cheering because some of them finally stuck it to the detested foreigner.

If what AQ thrives on is foreign intervention in Muslim lands, we are not going to disempower them by more intervention, even if we think we're intervening as champion of the populace... a proposition that nobody anywhere is likely to believe.

I remain unconvinced on the supposed impact of "new media". Revolutions against despised governments and foreign invaders happened in the days of old media as well: people find ways of getting and spreading information, and they find creative ways of using whatever tools they have at their disposal. The Ayatollah Khomeini used cassette tapes as effectively as anyone today uses Twitter... probably more effectively, as the tapes would reach a wider audience. The bush telegraph and urban grapevine don't necessarily spread accurate information, but neither does facebook. Either way, the word gets

We can "encourage governments to evolve" all we want, but it's not likely that anyone will listen... or that government or populace will see our "encouragement" as anything but self-interested meddling.

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 09/11/2011 - 6:04am

In reply to by Dayuhan

AQ is not an insurgency, very true. But AQ is nothing but noise without target audiances who live in high conditions of insurgency across a wide range of nations that they target in their influence and recruiting campaigns. New media IS significant. Just as new media informed and empowered the populaces of Europe to rise up and challenge Roman Catholic dominion in the Reformation; just as new media informed and empowered the populaces of Eastern Europe to rise up and challenge the Soviet dominion of the USSR; just as now new media is informing and empowering populaces across the greater Middle East to rise up and challenge governmnets that they appreciate more fully every day do not exist to serve the needs of those populaces and that things do not have to be that way.

New media is significant, and it favors the populace. It elevates the cost of "control." Governments must eithet meet that cost, or evolve in their governnace. The current US apporach is to attempt to help governments meet the cost. Historically that ultimately fails. It is time to shift to encouraging governments to evolve. Not to make us happy, but to make their own people happy.


I have to take issue with the assumption that an "empowered" populace will seek security by supporting a government's COIN efforts. That would only be the case if the populace in question sees the insurgents as the primary threat or the primary source of insecurity. If the populace in question sees the government - or the foreign occupying army that installed the government and maintains it in power - as the primary threat to its security, an empowered populace is likely to use its empowered status to support the insurgents. Communities that support the insurgents are not less empowered, they're just using their power in a way we don't like.

As always, I think the assumption that traditional societies are "pre-conscious" or are more "role-driven" than modern ones is unsupported and condescending. Possibly I should just say "insert mantra here".


I think we may be overplaying the importance of insurgency here. AQ is of course not an insurgency at all. The only places where the US has had to "do COIN" or where insurgency is a major issue for us are those where we've allowed AQ to bait us into removing governments and installing new ones, thus providing the extended military interventions that allow AQ and its functioning narrative to survive and prosper.

We should not forget that AQ's "Caliphate" narrative is dead in the water, and their attempts to raise jihad against the governments they call "apostate" have gone nowhere. The only narrative that has ever worked for them is the jihad against the foreign invader/occupier, and we don't have to counter that narrative, because we can deprive them of that narrative by not invading and occupying.

AQ attacked us because they had to provoke a foreign occupation of Muslim lands, without which they could not survive. Our initial response in Afghanistan was not what the lumbering Soviet-style intervention they wanted and expected; it took them by surprise and set them back. Then we had to turn around and give them exactly what they wanted: occupation and governments perceived as puppets, an opportunity to use the war of attrition and the "expel the infidel from the land of the faithful" narrative that has worked so well for them... as opposed to the other failed narratives.

To get back to the neglected subject of the article being responded to... "new media" are not insignificant, but I think their role is overstated. They are a tool, not a cause. People will use the tools available to them; they are not as revolutionary as we are sometimes led to believe.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 09/10/2011 - 6:06pm

In reply to by Lawrence Chickering

"this is not about changing societies, this is about societies seeking change. We may package our actions in a cloak of bringing modernity, democracy, etc, but that is not what is going on. AQ may package their actions in conservative, radical islamist concepts, but that is not what is going on either. What is going on, and going on to a high degree in a large number of government-populace relationships, are efforts to gain control of despotics governance systmes that have exercised control over populaces who have come to believe that they no longer have to submit to such treatment.

This is not rocket science, it is human science.

Ideologies are the sizzle that that is marketed to bring the customers in the door, it is not the steak they came in to eat. So, Lawarence and Bill, I think you two are debating what the wrapper means, rather than what the contents are all about.

Back to the article, new tools of info tech are bring speed, scope, scale to this dynamic of poor governance that is putting long static situations into motion. Unable to control information, government is unable to control populaces (other than through amped up security force capacity...). No longer requiring face to face contact, populaces no longer need the slow, high-risk methods of classic Maoist insurgency organization and can communicate clandestinely and broadly, and organize on the fly. Those who seek to exploit can, like all challenging politicians, make bold promises they either cannot, or intend not, to actually do, but it does not matter. The incumbent must actually perform, the challenger need only promise what the people want to hear.

This is politics. This is illegal politics. The new tools favor the challenger, and the incumbent can no longer get back inside the challenger's OODA loop.

Lawrence Chickering

Sat, 09/10/2011 - 2:41pm

To Bill C (9/10/11):

Our interest in these tribal societies is to contain the threat that comes from them as launching sites for terrorist attacks on the U.S. and our allies and to export radical insurgencies, destabilizing the region. The latter problem is especially acute for states that have nuclear weapons. However, these insurgency threats are not limited to other states; they are also acutely felt by the great majority of people in these countries. You know this perfectly well, and to avoid any mention of it -- well, let’s just say it betrays a point of view that sheds very little light on this subject.

Since I have agreed with an important part of your position, I wonder if I could ask you to respond to me rather than to the general intellectual and operational manifestations of COIN. I am going to imagine you wrote this to counter what I just wrote.

Your statement that these societies have shown no desire to change and that we are imposing an alien value system on them reveals only one thing: that you have yourself never seen what empowered people do when presented with the opportunity to move beyond the preconscious, role-driven nature of traditional and tribal life. Presenting this opportunity has nothing whatever to do with crafting a message that will somehow nudge them out of their torpor. It has nothing whatever to do with proclaiming the superiority of our vision over theirs; it has, rather, to do with telling stories about how traditional and tribal people themselves make this choice whenever they have an opportunity to do so.

This process has nothing to do with any abstract message; it has to do with personal engagement in every single community. The latter point is crucial, in contrast both to your broad generalizations uninformed by how actual people respond to empowerment and to the hopes of some U.S. policymakers that broad generalizations about the benefits of liberal democracy will “convince [in your words] these states, societies and populations” to change.

You are right to criticize U.S. policy when it places hope in broad, impersonal, unengaged messages that touch almost nobody in these societies. You are speaking, however, from complete ignorance when you imply that we can play no role in presenting opportunities for empowerment to people and that the only path for us is passivity and fatalism that (ironically) may be taken to imitate these societies which elect change everywhere they are given the opportunity to choose it.

Bill C.

Sat, 09/10/2011 - 11:45am

In additional to our overall goal:

To transform and assimilate outlier states, societies and populations -- so that they might better provide for the wants, needs and desires of OUR state and society, today and going forward --

We must also focus on and factor in our complementary belief, which is:

That the political, economic and social orders of these outlier states and societies have become so obsolete and so outdated as to no longer be able to adequately provide for the wants, needs and desires of these outlier states, societies and populations THEMSELVES; even if these states, societies and populations, THEMSELVES, have yet to be able to come to this critical understanding and conclusion.

This is the crux of the problem, to wit: How to get these governments and these populations to understand and agree with our contention - that their present political, economic and social orders are so outdated and so obsolete as to have become disfunctional.

Herein, lies our and the local government's challenge: To craft a message that will convince these states, societies and populations to agree that (1) their "old order" must be abandoned and that (2) our (not AQ's) "new order" must be adopted in its place; this, so that these states and societies might adequately (a) fit in (rather than stand out from and obstruct) the modern world and, thereby, (b) provide for (rather than further endanger and compromise) themselves and their future.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 09/10/2011 - 9:16am

In reply to by Lawrence Chickering

Narratives are not "irrelevant", they are very important for framing perceptions and guiding action. But narratives, ideology, or whatever one wants to call it do not cause insurgency. Nor do they generate broad support to organizations such as AQ that have no populace of their own to recruit from.

My point is that "Toyota Sucks" is not an ad campaign that will sell a lot of Hondas. "Islamism sucks" will not sell a lot of democracy either. As Arab Spring is clearly demonstrating, as the persistent growing insurgency despite our best efforts in Afghanistan is clearly showing, there are high-level conditions of insurgency among these many distinct national governmental-populace relationships. It is these conditions that is being targeted and leveraged by various insurgent and non-state actors for a wide range of reasons and agendas (that often have very little to do with actually bringing good governance to these same troubled populaces.).

Governments historically play the victim. "There I was minding my own business when this 'malign actor' came along with his evil ideology and turned my populace against me." That is total crap. Yet it happens almost every time. These opportunists can smell opportunity like a shark can smell blood, and it brings them in from all corners to compete for influence to leverage such populaces for their own agendas.

Governments function best when they stop being a victim and start taking responsibility for the effects of their actions. (That includes the US and our foreing policy, btw) When they listen to what the insurgent or 'terrorist' is saying and seek to understand why it is resonating. To look past the sizzle and focus on the steak. Often there are small, relatively low-cost changes in how government is implemented that can address the underlying problem. This must be accompanied by effective narrative. An effective competing, not countering, narrative. Picking out the best parts of one's opponent's argument and making them part of one's own narrative is very powerful, but governments, more accurately, politicians, fear doing that out of concerns that it will make them politically vulnerable. News flash, insurgency is merely illegal politics, and they have already made themselves vulnerable through their history of actions.

BL, the message is not the enemy or the cure, but that does not mean it is not important. Just don't make it the fall guy for one's own shortcomings.


Lawrence Chickering

Sat, 09/10/2011 - 8:26am

To Bill C.,

Your statement that the U.S.’s “principal and paramount goal” is “to cause certain other populations . . . to fundamentally change, so that they might . . . become . . . more useful in providing for the wants, needs, and desires of our state . . . today and going forward” highlights two quite different understandings of insurgents’ narratives. Robert C. Jones focuses on “real” (my quotes, not his) issues. He focuses on narratives as comments on specific issues. In this conception, narratives are irrelevant: when governments do bad things, they need to reform, and insurgent narratives will go away.

Bill C., you implicitly raise another concept of insurgent narratives, which are more difficult to address; and, if addressed, I believe, would largely take care of the problem Jones raises. Your concept of insurgent narratives, which is more aligned with my own understanding of them, is not that they are about concrete issues, but about a more general radical narrative. This more general narrative has two parts: first, that Muslims are victimized and humiliated by non-Muslims, by the United States, and by the West; and second, that Muslims are heroically fighting back. This more general narrative may be more relevant than advocacy about specific grievances against the government especially in tribal societies, which, by their nature, are highly decentralized and often have little contact with the government (a subject, itself, perhaps, for protest).

Your statement of our goals, of course, captures an important part of the AQ narrative: we are using them; we are in there not for them, but for us. You are saying here that the AQ narrative is largely true.

You are raising here two issues. The first has to do with perceptions, the second with “reality”. In perception, it is undeniable that the AQ narrative is compelling for many people, e.g., in Afghanistan, because, partly in their antagonism toward outsiders, many tribal people do think we are using them for our own purposes. Since perceptions dominate a war of ideas, this is a very serious problem for our need to develop a counternarrative.

The second point, on “reality”, is that important elements on both the left and right do want to convert tribal people to be good modernists; and this aspiration overlaps considerably your characterization of our goals as entirely self-interested. In this sense, we are playing a role precisely identified by the AQ narrative. (We think, of course, that the objective is worthy, and they [and you] do not.)

I want to give yours and AQ’s point their due here because they do have important elements of truth in them. They are true both in the aspirations of many people in the U.S. and also in many of our actions there -- actions that, I agree, are misguided.

This aspect of our aspirations and behavior betrays and violates what I believe is our true objective. Our true objective should be to empower other people to make choices not for us, but for them. We cannot “manage” their transition to economic and political progress. Neither can we manage the path of social development that will provide the social and cultural foundation of modern values. We can create spaces for their empowerment to take control of their own lives, and in their empowered resistance to security problems, they will resist insurgencies -- as is reported by empowered people everywhere. They will provide for their own security *independently of us*. This is the quantum action that is crucial to success in COIN.

Bill C.

Fri, 09/09/2011 - 11:24am

All ideas and recommendations, I would contend, must be measured and evaluated against the United States' principal and paramount goal, which is: to cause certain other populations, certain other states and certain other societies to fundamentally change, so that they might -- instead of being obstacles -- become more open, more accessable, and otherwise more useful in providing for the wants, needs and desires of our state, our society and our population -- today and going forward.

Herein, do the ideas and concepts of Mr. Kennedy -- and those of we commenters -- have merit re: meeting this paramount goal and requirement?

(Such things as insurgencies [as "good" or "bad"] to be viewed within the context I have offered above.)

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 09/09/2011 - 6:42am

In reply to by Lawrence Chickering

Actually, I believe a major problem has been the belief that this is some sort of debate and that we need to "counter" AQ's narrative.

The best way to defuse a narrative is to agree with and resolve the aspects of it that are true:

1. Too much US presence in the Middle East: True, we have vital interests to be sure, but we have grown insenitive to the perceptions of the populaces there over the years and grown used to doing what we want to do,when and where we want to do it. We rolled back Cold War measures in Western Europe and NE Asia, we need to re-assess and do the same in the Middle East.

2. Removal of Apostate Governments: Another excellent point. Not that they need to be "removed," but if you are indicating that many have come to act with growing impunity toward their own populaces over the years, due to combinations of culture, tremendous personal wealth, powerful outside influences, etc, then yes certainly the "Apostate" (i.e., growing illegitimacy) of these govenrments is indeed something they should all address to resolve with their respective populaces. The US should promote such evolutions and encourage open discussions and the creation and enforcement of legal venues for these people to express and exercise their political will in ways that are consistent with their respective cultures. The reality is, that those to do not opt to take such actions will indeed ultimately be removed, and there is little AQ or the US can do to either create or avert that fact.

3. Creation of a Caliphate. Another great idea. Clearly some sort of extreme Islamist multi-state country is nothing wanted by the vast majority of the people or governments of that region, but just as the EU has allowed Western European states to leverage the benefits (and risks) of shared influence, so too could such an alliance be benficial to the Greater Middle East. The US should encourage and would certainly embrace as an ally such a coalition.

Take away the reasonable aspects of an insurgent or UW actor's message and all they are left with is "crazy" and "violence." That is how governments prevail in such contests.

Lawrence Chickering

Fri, 09/09/2011 - 2:59am

The most important sentence in this article is one critical of the U.S.: “the U.S. has yet to develop an effective counter-narrative [to al-Qaeda] on the Internet.” The next sentence, however, implicitly contradicts this one when it says: “Focusing on older versions of media—such as . . . TV . . . and . . . radio . . . —may do little to counteract the presence of extremist groups online.”

The first sentence says a counter-narrative is the key—the *messaging*, which is substantive. The second implicitly suggests that the *media* used are key—media being not substantive, but instrumental.

I am focusing on this sequence of sentences in the conclusion because they highlight, I think, the real challenge of communication in COIN. The first sentence, focusing on our failure to develop a counter-narrative, is the most important because if you don’t have a compelling narrative, it doesn’t matter what media you use to communicate it.

A “U.S.” counter-narrative could be most effective not coming from the U.S. at all, but from empowered communities working for their own economic and social progress and resisting insurgents. Although this narrative would not come from the U.S., U.S. support for empowering local communities could produce such narratives independently of what we are doing. I have referred to this as “quantum COIN”—empowering people to work for their own progress, which will include security because that is one of the values that are most important to people. Such independent action would provide powerful material and stories for use in a new narrative and communication strategy.

Most people agree that COIN is a war of ideas. In a war of ideas it is hard to exaggerate the importance of communication. Social media could play a crucial role in the U.S. strategy for COIN, but without a compelling narrative we are not *beginning* to accomplish what we could with communication.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 09/08/2011 - 7:02am

Historically, and currently, breakthroughs in information technology favor the populace. Where systems of governance are in place that have come to rely upon controlling the populace through controlling the message (or even access to knowledge), such breakthroughs are typically exploited by the populace to create change faster than they are by the government to sustain the status quo.

What we see today has played out before, it is just that the speed, scope and scale keep accelerating with each iteration. No state can even dream of keeping in front of the current rate of information inovation to sustain systems of control.

Governments will have to increasingly learn to actually answer to the people. All of the people. That is a change that many govenrments are still resisting. They will not win that fight.