Jacob's Opinion


Is the West Losing the Information War in Libya

Posted by Jacob Jacob on March 28, 2011 at 11:55 AM

I recently presented a paper on the new outsourcing of UN strategic communications at a forum organised by Political Communications Research Group at the ICS, University of Leeds. Somehow, discussions shifted from Somalia and the DRC where my lecture was largely drawn to the ongoing international intervention in Libya. One of my guests Professor Gary Rawnsley made a very interesting comment. He spoke about the need for the allies to deploy a strong Information component in Libya. He said the US should consider using Commando Solo to broadcast into Libya and help counter some of the anti-Western and pro-Gaddafi propaganda currently swirling the Libyan media space. I couldn't agree more. At the moment, Commando Solo is among the air assets deployed by the US over Libya however its messages are targeted only at the Libyan military using Libyan military frequencies. The messages call on Libyan soldiers to quit fighting and return home. Bryan Herbert, a self described amateur radio operator in Newhall, California, apparently intercepted some broadcast transmissions on Sunday March 27. Here is a transcript of some of the intercepted transmission:

"The Gaddafi regime forces are violating a United Nations resolution ordering the end of hostilities in your country. Do not take part in any further hostilities. Refuse any orders to harm your fellow countrymen or Libyan facilities." The male voice breaks intermittently for another male voice to speak in Arabic, and then continues, “Return to your homes and families. Your family needs you. Return home safely. Lay down your arms and refuse orders from your current illegitimate government. ... Stop fighting. Abandon your equipment and weapons and return home safely. Libyan ships or vessels remain anchored. Do not leave port. ... If you attempt to leave port you will be attacked and destroyed immediately."

It is still too early to say how effective the messages are - in terms of the number of pro-Gaddafi fighters that have actually quit fighting as a result of these messages. And we may never know. But I think the real psyops challenge is not necessarily with pro-Gaddafi troops because they do not need much reminding that they do not stand a chance under coalition air power. The real challenge I believe, is convincing Gaddafi supporters in Tripoli that it is in their own interest for Gaddafi and his sons to leave power. The mistake would be to presume that it is unnecessary to target psyops at the Libyan population, because a sit-tight dictator as Gaddafi is unlikely to have many supporters. The exact opposite seems to be the case in Tripoli. Indeed, Tripoli residents are becoming more assertive if not vociferous in their public support for Gaddafi and in some cases voluntarily standing at potential targets as 'human shields'. One can never tell how much of these are derived from actual support for Gaddafi’s policies and how much are drawn from their belief that Benghazi rebels are linked to Al Qaeda and that Britain, France and America are desperate to turn Libya into Iraq so they can “steal” the country’s oil.

Currently, Col Muammar Gaddafi rigidly controls the media space in Libya particularly in Tripoli. It is unsurprising that mainstream media in Tripoli is filled with pro-Gaddafi rhetoric and invectives against the West. Indeed, only recently a newscaster on a pro-Gaddafi television station brandished an automatic weapon during a newscast and pledged to fight until his last breath to defend Gaddafi. As curious as it sounds, the Libyan media frames rebels as Al-Qaeda terrorists and the West as their backers. He has repeatedly claimed that coalition bombs have hit nothing but civilians and that the “crusader” is carrying out war against the Muslim people. The power of these narratives, when repeated and reinforced even with the most basic verbal and visual intensifiers should not be underestimated.

So far the allies have failed to properly inform Libyans why their country is being bombed. This is a basic first step that should have preceded the Libyan operation. During crises, Information becomes a humanitarian need - as important as food and water. What people want most times is plain, simple information about what is going on and what to expect so that they can understand their vulnerabilities and negotiate their resilience. When objective information is missing, any available information including rumours becomes the lifeline. In an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty people hold on to the available information as if their life depends on it – sometimes it actually does. Gaddafi seems to understand this and is doing everything to fill up that Information gap with narratives that push his strategic and operational objectives. It is needful for the coalition or the UN itself to quickly deploy an Information Operations capability to counter Gaddafi's narratives and explain the rationale for the no-fly zone, what it seeks to achieve and why it is important for Gaddafi to desist from using armed mercenaries to attack civilians in the east.


Categories: Strategic Communications, Information Operations, Propaganda, Psyops, Public Diplomacy, Military-Media Relations

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