There has been a drastic transformation in the dynamics of warfare since the first Gulf War took place in 1990. Viewed in retrospect, the Gulf War was the last time that warfare took place on a conventional battlefield where tanks and fighter jets dominated the landscape.
It was the last time that war resulted in physically damaging the infrastructure and it was human beings that directly controlled the escalation dynamics affecting the very outcome of the war itself. The nature of the battlefield has transformed to such an extent that the Gulf War method of warfare now seems ancient and obsolete when compared to the 21st-century battlefield.
The 21st-century battleground is defined by the emergence of ‘Information Warfare’ which constitutes a multitude of facets that keep further complicating an already saturated battlespace. With the emergence of digital technologies, like the Internet, the World Wide Web, the darknet, digital data, and social media platforms etc; the fifth dimension of warfare has now arrived.
It is important to note that the use of weaponized information has existed for a long time under the ambit of espionage, subversion, propaganda, and counterintelligence. Most of the techniques and technologies that are specifically invented for military use manage to find their way into the public domain.
The information warfare has also managed to penetrate into all areas of public life where it is being used by corporations, political parties and most alarmingly by terrorist groups. This article will analyze both the military and civilian application of information warfare to create a more comprehensive understanding of the subject.
Military-led Information Warfare
For various military establishments across the world as well as in Pakistan, the term ‘Information Warfare’ has come under the umbrella of a very broad definition. The first goal of a military-led Information Warfare campaign is the acquisition of actionable intelligence about its perceived or real adversary.
The acquisition of information includes acquiring detailed information regarding weapon systems, strategies, tactics, morale, and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of an adversary force regardless of whether it is the military force of a country or an insurgent organization.
The 21st-century battleground is defined by the emergence of ‘Information Warfare’ which constitutes a multitude of facets that keep further complicating an already saturated battlespace.
The second objective of a military-led Information Warfare campaign is to ‘validate’ the acquired information and to establish that the information it has collected is actionable. The third aim is to ‘safeguard’ its own information from being stolen or compromised, which explains why militaries across the world are heavily investing in developing new Cyber and Information Security regimes.
Militaries can take strict preventive measures to ensure that their adversary is not given an opportunity to make advances in the Information Warfare domain. These measures usually range from neutralizing the enemy’s ability to televise and broadcast its narrative in order to galvanize public support, all the way, to attacking their communications, logistics and financial assets in an attempt to undermine their ability to generate a cohesive response.
Having mentioned these facets of modern Information Warfare, it is pertinent to explain the most widely known facet of Military Information Warfare is the use of propaganda. If we go back in history and review the US military’s campaigns in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it becomes evident that the US military has relied heavily on the use of subversive propaganda in order to undermine its adversaries.
Tactics included dropping subversive leaflets from aircrafts; propaganda Radio broadcasts, and TV documentaries; that have now transformed into meticulously organized units on Social Media. Blogospheres exist that attempt to shape public opinion in a manner which makes the public less hostile to the US military operations on their soil; a technique that is referred to as ‘Perception Engineering’.
Having realized the importance of perception engineering, the US military has developed specially trained teams of ‘Information Warriors’ who are being deployed to foreign countries like Iraq and Afghanistan where the US military is directly involved in combat.
Due to its illegal presence in these countries, the United States feels the need to alter public perception in their favor by developing and running Pashto, Dari & Arabic language FM Radios, Blogs, Websites and News outlets. The native language speaking ‘activists’ and NGOs on the ground are the ones who aid and abet the US information war.
Information Warfare in Politics
Here I will introduce a few buzz words and if one has been keeping track of the news, it is most likely that the meaning of these terms will already be known. Hillary Clinton ’s emails, Russian Intervention in the US elections to aid the Donald Trump campaign and the subsequent resignations and removals, investigations involving high-level American officials are some of the most famous and quoted incidents in recent politics.
If you have come across these events in the news and social media, you must also know that these occurrences essentially indicate an intense political Information War which took place before the US elections in 2016.
This background would help readers understand how political movements deploy their own version of a sophisticated Information War against their opponents; trying to tarnish their public reputation in an attempt to subvert their manifesto and undermine their leadership, with the hope of attaining an undue advantage from that situation.
Almost every major political party in Pakistan now has a well-funded Social Media team which is specifically deployed to spread the party’s agenda and undermine others even if it means using ethically indefensible means.
However, this trend is not just limited to the United States, it has now also become an integral part of Pakistan ’s political landscape. It is understandable that a political party would have a natural desire to use various tools of propaganda to consolidate its own base of supporters along with any potential swing voters to their own side of the political spectrum.
To achieve this particular aim, political parties in Pakistan have started to increasingly develop and deploy various Information Warfare strategies against their opponents. Almost every major political party in Pakistan now has a well-funded Social Media team which is specifically deployed to spread the party’s agenda and undermine others even if it means using ethically indefensible means.
These teams are properly indoctrinated with the political ideology of the party. They are provided with technical training and financial resources so that they can engineer trends in favor of their political agendas. A recent example from Pakistan is the coordinated Social Media campaign against the country’s Judiciary and Military in the wake of the Panama Papers investigation which saw the political demise of the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
It led many observers to allege that the ruling PML-N party was behind the campaign designed to tarnish the image and reputation of the two institutions. It is believed that the PML-N social media cell employs over 38 people and has a monthly salary bill upwards of Rs 40 million. One of the largest Social Media networks operated by any political party in South Asia is run by the Modi led BJP in India.
It has found itself a unique blend of an immensely large number of indoctrinated right-wing Hindu youth and the widespread availability of digital technologies that they increasingly use. They are deployed in large numbers to attack political opponents, journalists, religious minorities and everyone who stands in the way of their brand of Hindu fascism.
The Congress party has acknowledged BJP’s social media force and in 2014, Senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel stated that his party had decided to create a “cyber army” to take on Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) “onslaught” on social media.
It is reported that the BJP’s social media cell had also instructed its vast online support base to put pressure on e-commerce company, Snapdeal to drop actor Amir Khan as its brand ambassador after the latter made strong comments criticizing the government in 2015.
Revolutions Through Social Media Platforms?
The 2011 Arab Spring which started in Tunisia, followed by Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, Euromaidan in Ukraine, and protests in Syria clearly show the key role played by Social Media platforms in mobilizing huge crowds of people. To a casual observer, it may seem like a normal and perfectly logical way to organize, conduct and expand protests using Social Media.
However, these events of civil unrest are also an ideal opportunity for forces that aim to swing the debate and dictate the direction of legitimate protest movements in a way which may result in further instability of a country, a technique which is known as ‘engineered chaos’.
Information Warfare experts are deployed in certain countries when the country is at a critical juncture with a specific task to conduct ‘Influence Operations’. Operations are conducted using Social Media and online blogs to disseminate inaccurate information which is strategically designed to alter the perception of the masses in an attempt to influence the outcome of that particular protest movement.
As stated earlier, there are numerous countries in possession of highly sophisticated Information Warfare capabilities, deployed in service of specified foreign policy goals of the country involved.
Such operations are often conducted in coordination with local ‘activists’ or ‘influencers’ who rally the public debate, spread panic, stoke public fears and uncertainty through Social Media trends, tweets, blogs, posts, videos and fake news. Such influence operations have also been used during the recent public protests in Iran, Catalonia and during the Turkish coup attempt.
In short, the public protests & revolutionary movements that used to be a genuine method for the public to express their discontent have now become a soft target for countries, interest groups and politicians who possess sophisticated Information Warfare capabilities and are motivated to deploy these capabilities to leverage public discontent by engineering dissent, chaos and anarchy in order to meet their own ends.
Read more: Is Pakistan ready to fight a Hybrid war?
Engineering Geopolitical Crises
This proliferation of Information Warfare capabilities has made it very easy for nation-states to develop and deploy these capabilities against their adversaries to undermine their interests or to exert pressure on them. These capabilities are used to divide societies and tarnish the image of the adversary by presenting a bleak image of their stability/instability paradigm.
These notable trends have now become commonplace in the digital battlespace, however, a unique event took place recently, when the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council decided to boycott Qatar because its official news agency issued a Press Release on its website, praising Iran and condemning GCC states with sharp criticism.
Such operations are often conducted in coordination with local ‘activists’ or ‘influencers’ who rally the public debate, spread panic, stoke public fears and uncertainty through Social Media trends, tweets, blogs, posts, videos and fake news.
The result would have been a normal turn of events only if the Press Release was genuine; however, soon after, the Qatari Government declared that the statement attributed to the King of Qatar was false and that hackers had planted it on Qatar’s official news agency website. By that time the damage was done; resulting in the GCC states taking a strong stand against the tiny but rich Kingdom, implementing a boycott of Qatar as well as issuing military threats to the country.
Consequently, Qatar still remains blockaded by the rest of the GCC member states. Now, let us allow that scenario to sink in for a while; a geopolitical crisis was engineered by unidentified hackers using cyber tools and a carefully crafted Press Release which was designed specifically to bring these countries face to face, and it actually worked. This is a classic example of Information Warfare in the digital battlespace and the unprecedented consequences that it can cause.
Another such example is the ‘Free Balochistan’ adverts that were seen on European and American buses and billboards. Although it is a rather obvious Information Warfare technique; deployed by the Indian Government against Pakistan to serve its geopolitical desires, the fact that it is still used is undisputable.
Read more: India’s hybrid warfare in Pakistan
The campaign first started in New Delhi where it was financed by Tajindra Pal Singh Bagga, who is a close aide to Modi- who himself has a vested interest in creating unrest in Pakistan.
In September 2017, political analyst Agha Iqrar Haroon asserted that India had spent INR 7 billion rupees to run an anti-Pakistan campaign in Geneva, Switzerland. The impact sought by this campaign was to mobilize the self-exiled elements (World Baloch Organization) who felt sympathetic towards India’s approach towards Balochistan by giving them a sense of importance and cause.
Use of Information Warfare for Terrorism
Perhaps the most visible application of Information Warfare that has been adopted by the various terrorist organizations that are operating in different parts of the world. It is efficient for terrorist organizations to use information warfare as it is a cost-effective method for getting their message across to their potential recruits and supporters around the world.
Although it is not new for terrorist and insurgent organizations to deploy various techniques of propaganda to further their cause, the terrorist group which brands itself as ISIS has mastered the art of digital Information Warfare to an extent that is truly astonishing.
After having carefully studied the Information Warfare techniques used by various terrorist organizations across the region it is clear that they have a keen interest in developing integrated Information Warfare capabilities so that they can carry out influence operations in order to appeal to their potential financiers, to recruit their potential members and to propagate their battlefield performance.
The terrorist organizations make full use of the Internet-based information dissemination platforms ranging from social media, websites, blogs, dark web, and video streaming services to spread and propagate their ideologies. The Information War waged by various terrorist and insurgent organizations is becoming very sophisticated thus presenting a challenging situation for nation-states.
It has been noted by experts that the radicalization process for potential terrorism recruits stems from the internet and therefore it has become absolutely critical for nation-states to develop their own counter Information Warfare capabilities in order to mitigate this threat.
It is clear that information warfare not only poses a great threat but also presents innumerable opportunities through the employment of a paradigm shift in the war of narratives. The implications of this type of warfare resonate deeply with the security of a country as social cohesion, economic well-being, and its political stability are all at risk.
It is very important to understand that social media and internet platforms are an excellent source for information but they have an immense capability to be exploited for negative purposes. This fact should be kept in mind when attaining information from social media, especially during politically sensitive times such as during protest movements, elections, or times of great political upheaval and instability.
Read more: Hybrid wars against Pakistan
It is of utmost importance for governments and state institutions to carefully study these dynamics and strategically develop countermeasures against external forces that would use these tools to engineer chaos and instability in the country. Military institutions need to pay special attention to the new type of warfare which has evolved under the umbrella of hybrid warfare which in itself seeks to subvert the national fabric, political system, economy, culture and national security.
There is an urgent need for New Information Warfare capabilities to be understood and developed not only to safeguard national interests and ensure state stability but also to remain globally competitive and politically relevant in this new battlespace of a perpetual information war.
Shahid Raza is the Assistant Editor Strategic Affairs at GVS News; He serves as the Director of Geopolitical Research at Command Eleven. He is also a Policy Consultant who conducts independent research and analysis for Katehon Think Tank, Sputnik Radio International, & Geopolitica Russia. He focuses on the geopolitical and security dynamics of Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.