Virtual safe havens and the war of ideas

Posted: 31st March 2009 by Thomas Hegghammer in Afghanistan, Pakistan, propaganda

Abu Muqawama has a great piece in the New Republic today. Given his very kind words for Will and myself, I am biased, but the article makes an extremely important point about the importance of virtual safe havens. Although I just posted and don’t really have the time to blog, I felt compelled to add a few thoughts.

There are at least two more reasons why there ought to be a virtual dimension to the new AfPak strategy. First, the Pashto and Urdu-language part of the jihadi cyberspace is growing rapidly, and very few people are keeping track of it. Those who do rarely know the Arabic sites and vice-versa. No analyst I know has enough Arabic and Pashto to connect the dots (except Mustafa Abu al-Yazid).

Second, the Internet infrastructure in Afghanistan and Pakistan is relatively poorly developed compared to the Arab world. This is very worrying, because it means that there is a huge untapped propaganda resource which will be exploited as the local infrastructure inevitably develops. This is unlike in much of the Arab world, where the Internet’s potential has been largely taken out by the local jihadi groups. We are seeing the signs of this trend in the spread, on the ground, of semi-virtual propaganda such as DVDs etc – see this brilliant ICG report for details.

Having said this, in the overall “war of ideas” we must realise the limits of the Internet and other media, because at the end of the day they are just that: media. In the debate about Abu Muqawama’s article, “MK” is spot on when he asks: “What exactly are we going to use for the substance of our digital message if we don’t actually try to deal with some of the real-world problems that render the jihadist narrative plausible or appealing?”

I couldn’t agree more. For several years people in Washington have been discussing public diplomacy in the misguided belief that it is somehow enough to tinker with the form and distribution techniques of “our message” to win the war of ideas. The elephant in the room (or in the Beltway) is that the war of ideas has to be waged on substance.

It is very simple: 1) Say and do things on Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir that make Muslims feel less geopolitically deprived and humiliated. 2) Be nice to the locals in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and broadcast your good deeds, 3) Point out where the jihadis are wrong on substance, and 4) Let mainstream Muslim clerics take care of the theology.

In the meantime we can and should do things to limit the Internet’s effectiveness as a propaganda tool, but at the end of the day the Internet is just the messenger.

Update: Tim Stevens has an excellent in-depth post on this topic and Abu Muqawama has added further remarks.

Update 2: Tim reposted an extremely interesting DoD-sponsored study of safe havens relevant to the discussion. I should of course also mention Mike Innes’ book on safe havens – the only one on the subject as far as I know. His take on Abu Muqawama’s article is here (sorry for the delay).

  1. Abu Hamza Al Jafari says:

    What are you supposed to mean with the comment:

    Let mainstream Muslim clerics take care of the theology.

    Are you referring to clerics who do not oppose American policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, but will simply reiterate whatever political agenda is handed to them by their masters (or Rulers…)

  2. Charlie says:

    How do you persuade Putin to change on Chechnya?
    Are you comments on Kashmir mean it has to become part of Pakistan?

    How much of the problem in Pakistan is in effect Pushtun nationalism? Have Pushtun’s become fed up by Pakistan bring controlled by the Punjabi Armed Forces/Civil Service and Sindhi business community?

    Very little government money is spent in Pushtun areas ( Waziristan included). How many Pakistan leaders over the last 40 years been of Pushtun origin; Ayub Khan comes to mind as last one.

  3. Abu Hamza: I mean two things: first, that mainstream clerics do have influence, and that in the long run their refutations of jihadi doctrine will help stem jihadi recruitment. Second, western information strategists should not even bother with the finer points of theology. I say this because there is an influential school of thought which argues that they should.

    Charlie: Where we cannot bring substantial change, we can say things that signal more empathy with the victim population. Contrast the US government and media discourse on Darfur with that on Chechnya over the years. The West stays relatively quiet on Chechnya because there is a political cost associated with criticising Putin. If we really want to undermine global jihadism, we must pay that cost.

    On Kashmir it is more complicated because the Pakistani state is so heavily invested in the conflict. But the US could put more pressure on India to take confidence-building measures (e.g. removing the Indian “consulates” along the Afghan-Pakistani border). The US should also avoid blatant preferential treatment such as the 2005 US-indian nuclear deal. Again there is a political cost involved, but “no pain, no gain”.

    Pusthun nationalism is certainly a factor in the Taliban, but not in other Pakistani groups, many of which are Punjabi. You are absolutely right, FATA is severly underdeveloped and there is much local political capital to be gained from improving the local infrastructure.

  4. Tian Fei says:

    How are you going to get clerics to send a “moderate” message when the Koran is already full of a paranoid group-centric world view, with believers repeatedly warned against the evil schemes of the munaffekhs, hypocrites who merely pretend to believe (presumably to protect their own necks, bless them).
    Talk about the coming reckoning with Islam as a clash of civilisations is being too generous to both sides. A posthumous clash of power dreams might be closer. Mohammed and Hitler both wanted world domination, and both thought murdering Jews would be a way to set the ball rolling. Mohammed only beheaded between 600 and 900, having previously ordered a trench dug to bury them in, and tortured some others to find out where they hid their gold. Others were allowed to sell their treasure, presumably at fire sale prices, before being allowed to emigrate. The difference between Mohammed and Hitler, therefore was largely one of scale. They both liked the idea of struggle (Jihad in Arabic, Kampf in German) to describe their paranoid genocidal efforts, financed with stolen Jewish fortunes. Now while Mohammed’s dream of control went on to become a worldwide movement, it is still too early to tell what will happen to Hitler’s. So far people have basically accepted a sanitised version of his dream of a united Europe, built with all sorts of constitutional safeguards against the Teutonic domination part.
    Which is all neatly summed up in a verse from Surah 72 of the Koran which says: “We do not know if Evil is destined for those who are on Earth, or if the Lord has decided to lead them well”. A millennium and a half later, we still don’t know.