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SPECIAL ANALYSIS: Cyber Ridicule – A New Weapon in the Global War on Terror?

SPECIAL ANALYSIS: Cyber Ridicule - A New Weapon in the Global War on Terror? Homeland Security TodayThe press coverage of British Prime Minister Theresa May to the White House was always going to be intense. How she and President Donald Trump would get together was in the focus of pundits; it seemed to preoccupy the majority of the mainstream media. But by focusing on what they believe wider audiences in today’s telegenic world are interested in, they missed critical issues.

One of those points was May’s short but nevertheless hugely important reference to cyber warfare. It came, almost as an afterthought, at the end of a section in her statement at the press conference on NATO.

Having made that important statement, she felt she and Trump had “re-affirmed their commitment to NATO” – at which point she looked across the stage to the President looking for confirmation that he agreed — she threw in an extra, almost unscripted statement which clearly was not in her notes. The reference was to the need for NATO to “modernise,” adding, “NATO needs to find ways of fighting cyber warfare as well as preparing for conventional conflicts.”

Given that fighting cyber warfare is an approach many so-called experts worry has the potential for unintended consequences, this is quite a radical thought, and not one that is entirely new; the last US Defence Secretary had “declared cyber war” on the Islamic State in April 2016.

This reference to cyber warfare is interesting. It is doubtful if the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister is an expert in the tactics and techniques of what some commentators have dubbed the fourth dimension of warfare. Her biography does not suggest someone who would immerse herself in such detail.

She is, however, known for being someone who is hungry for a good briefing; another area where the idea of “opposites attract” could be developed given the President, it would seem, does not do details. But May does. And in the case of cyber warfare, she struck on an important and necessary dimension of how to evolve the prosecution of the war on terror.

She alluded to this in her speech in Philadelphia before she met with Trump. Her reference to finding ways to tackle the extremist ideology of Islamic extremists make the point: you can militarily move terrorists around the world. Already there are indications European terrorists who have been in Syria and Iraq are returning home in disturbing numbers.

Others are being dispersed to new theatres of conflict which lack governance, and there are many of them. In terms of movement room, Islamic State fighters have a plethora of choices. From Western Africa, joining up with Boko Haram, through Libya and into the Sinai Desert and south to Somalia and Yemen and eastwards to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaya, the Philippines and Indonesia, they have plenty of room to rest and recuperate and maintain their momentum. In hinting that hard military power alone will not bring this problem to a solution, May showed important insights into how the fight against Islamic extremism can be evolved.

And evolve it must. Using this classic military tactic, we cannot continue to try and “whack molehills” – locations where terrorists have secreted themselves away and tried to blend into the background of society. There are simply too many of them.

Each time one molehill is covered, like Mosul in Iraq will be shortly, jihadists move onto new locations creating new molehills. Hard power has its limitations. Innovative use of soft power is perhaps an angle that needs now to be explored in greater detail. That is what May appeared to suggest.

Over time, Al Qaeda has become good at merging into societal landscapes. From its initial highly religious and failed incursion into Somalia where it failed to grasp the significance of the Salafi-Sufi divides in Islamic practice, the group has become adept at mixing into societal landscapes. Its continued presence in Yemen isa testament to its adaptability as is its impact in Somalia. Al Qaeda is showing longevity.

Given this increasing agility, learning from groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah that put social programs at the heart of their activities, Al Qaeda has become more adaptable and hence resilient. By contrast, the so-called Islamic State is still in that highly dogmatic stage of its ideological development. If it also starts to adapt that approach, it, too, may yet learn to blend into new hostile human terrains.

May seems to recognized this. Her time as the British Home Secretary – where she served for five years before becoming Prime Minister – has given her a good understanding of the evolving nature of terrorism. It has Darwinian qualities. Terrorists do not simply stand by and become extinct. They evolve to survive. And as they do they morph and change, so, too, does the nature of the organization.

Arguably, the so-called Islamic State is not simply a terrorist organisation. It’s a business. So, the question becomes, how do you destroy the reputation of a business? How do you undermine its core support base; prevent people from being radicalized; and, in effect, dry up the swamp from which terrorists emerge and evolve. This is an aspect the President will readily grasp.

Cyber warfare, if indeed that is a suitable term for what May has in mind, offers a new dimension to what has been called the “Global War on Terror.” Love or hate the phrase or argue about the semantics of what a war on terror means, Western Society is nevertheless engaged in a battle of ideas against a pernicious foe. It is a battle we must win in order to keep the citizens of the West safe — something Trump clearly feels deeply about.

This is illustrated by one of his latest Executive Orders where he gave the Pentagon 30 days to come up with a strategy for defeating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. President Obama’s long war approach is being ditched. Trump wants answers now. Coming in the wake of his phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it appears a process of an atrophying Islamic State defined by a hesitant Obama is about to change.

What is, therefore, to be done? First and foremost, a strategy needs to be developed. Using soft power is not, as the Russians teach us every-day, is something that can be done in an uncoordinated way. Piecemeal approaches will not work. What has to be done must be carried out systematically. The era of “whack a mole,” while still carrying some relevance in the application of physical power, must be relegated to a second tier. The primary tier, as May suggested, now needs to be a concerted effort to take on the ideology of extremist Islam.

Why has this not been done before? Arguably, the West considered this to be a difficult task. Taking Western viewpoints on subtle arguments regarding 14 centuries of Islamic jurisprudence was never likely to work out very well. Any Western point of view is far too easily damned as being “tainted by Greek civilization and democracy” — the ultimate heresy as far as many radical Islamists is concerned.

The problem of tackling such an extreme ideology is not easy. People who are respected individuals who have made it their life’s work to understand such teachings have to be a part of the solution. But, once again, this is not easy. Just look at the failed attempt by the British government under Prime Minister Gordon Brown to enlist the support of a key Pakistani Iman in confronting the core ideology at the heart of the global Islamic extremist movement.
In March 2010, the Pakistani-born Islamic cleric Sheikh Dr. Tahir Ul Qadri, a widely-respected academic who focuses on Islamic jurisprudence, visited London to give a press conference where he incorporated the conclusions of his work into the religious justifications for suicide bombings.

This was a highly significant event. Citing a 600 -page publication he had written, importantly in Arabic, he noted he was clear that suicide bombing wasforbidden (haram) in Islamic theology. Labelled “the most comprehensive theological refutation of Islamist terrorism,” hopes were high that his intervention would be a turning point in the on-going confrontation with Islamic radicals. Sadly, those hopes were quickly dashed as Al Qaeda systematically set out to undermine the teachings written by Sheikh Ul Qadri.

This attempt to use the teachings of a single scholar to undermine the warped ideology of Islamic extremism failed. Subsequent efforts to try and gain a consensus among other leading scholars have also failed. Even the Egyptian government tried — to no avail — to call for greater focus on the matter from the leading Islamic research center at Al Azhar University in Cairo.

Given that such a direct approach attempting to undermine extremist Islamist ideology through theological arguments appears to have failed, perhaps a more-subtle and directed approach is required, one that takes as its theme the idea of how to destroy the reputation of a business and to engage in a new battle of the narratives. An approach which seeks to ridicule the actions of Islamic extremists and cast doubt in the minds of those who appear to be influenced by its thinking.

Ridicule, and to some extent satire, are the weapons in what might call the hard-end of soft power. While the cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo arguably took that too far, there is a balance that can be struck. But it requires a strategy. Not a miss-match of ideas. One aspect of this is making a number of core arguments again and again. While one hates to cite Nazi approaches to developing and implementing a narrative, but simply repeats the same message umpteen times is a tactic that marketing companies understand, they earn lots of revenue from such approaches.

This is where May’s ideas of using cyber warfare come in. It is an instrument of war which can be turned toward a number of things. Distributed Denial of Services attacks can be directed against Islamic State websites, for instance. Given the last US defence secretary’s claim in March 2016 that “Pentagon hackers are waging America’s first cyber war,” it seems likely that some of this has already began. Other more-subtle approaches might also work, such as phishing attacks. Disrupting the Islamic State’s information technology infrastructure must be part of the attack.

Still, a purely technological approach to this battle will not be sufficient. What is needed is for the narrative to be attacked — again and again. For jihadist recruiting materials published by preachers such as Anwar Al Awalki to be challenged, they must be refuted, ridiculed and made the subject of satire. This requires a comprehensive strategy, one that finds all the sanctuaries on the Internet where Islamist extremists hide in plain sight.

That way, what May suggested in her apparent off the cuff remarks might become an important tool in helping disrupt and eventually defeat Islamic extremism. Failure to heed such an approach dams us to more years of violence, and a higher death toll. Humanity, across the world, deserves better.

Dr. Dave Sloggett is a contributing writer and an authority on international terrorism with over 42 years of experience in the military and law enforcement sectors working in a variety of roles, specializing in intelligence analysis and human behavior in the context of hybrid and asymmetric warfare. He is an authority on counterterrorism and his work has taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, West Africa and Northern Ireland where he has studied the problems of insurgencies, terrorism and criminality on the ground, often working closely with NATO. His research work at Oxford University in the United Kingdom focuses on the prevention of acts of terror.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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