Psychological Warfare Goes Online
(Source: Deutsche Welle German radio; issued May 13, 2004)
Using the Internet is not a new mode of operation for terrorist
organizations. Many groups, including al Qaeda, have long used it as a
way to recruit followers, raise money, plan attacks and communicate with
A few weeks ago, a terror group calling itself the Green Brigade offered
video footage of the murder of an Italian hostage to Arab TV station
al-Jazeera. The editors chose not to air it because of its graphic
Now the terrorists cut out the middleman to get their message to the
public: They published the video of the beheading of 26-year-old Nick
Berg online, making it available to anyone with a computer and an
Similar videos, including footage of Chechen terrorists playing soccer
with the severed heads of Russian soldiers, have been published online
before. But the West has largely ignored them until now, says Udo
Ulfkotte, a German terrorism expert.
"It's not a new strategy, it's always been part of psychological
warfare," he says, adding that a video of the 2002 murder of American
journalist Daniel Pearl was the first time Westerners began paying more
attention to such images on the Internet.
Ulfkotte suggests the footage of Berg's killing mainly served to satisfy
the Arab world's hunger for revenge after seeing pictures of U.S.
soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners.
Others agree that the video was intended to provoke cheers and recruit
sympathizers in the Arab world while shocking the U.S. and its allies.
"In the Arab world, this is seen as taking an eye for an eye," says Kai
Hirschmann, the deputy director of the Institute for Terrorism Research
in Essen in western Germany. He describes the video as a skillful
response that served a specific purpose. "These people aren't stupid,"
he told DW-WORLD. "They wanted to make a point that's noticed in the
West. It's a response to the [torture] pictures that cannot be repeated
"It's a piece of the mosaic that worked in the current situation," he
says. "A bomb attack would not have worked as a response to the
But Col. Nick Pratt (Ret.), the director of the Marshall Center Program
on Terrorism and Security Studies in southern Germany, says he doesn't
interpret the video as a direct response to the torture pictures.
"This has nothing to do with the prison atrocities," Pratt says. "This
is a great example of psychological warfare. They can spread this
information and show the world how helpless we are."
As a result, self-regulation of the media is the only way to deal with
this "war of pictures" as it is technically impossible to police the
Web, explains Rainer Kuhlen, a computer science professor and expert on
ethics and the Internet at Constance University in southern Germany.
"We'll have to live with this," he says, adding that the proliferation
of pornography over the Internet raised similar questions in the past.
"Without a doubt, these pictures are weapons of the most gruesome kind
and they are meant to function as weapons. But that doesn't make
'normal' war weapons and cultural humiliation any more ethically
Pratt believes that the West has so far focused too much on future
threats of cyber terrorism, such as breaking up airline schedules and
attacking bank systems and failed to recognize the significance of
psychological warfare via the Web.
While there is little that could be done to prevent the spread of
similar videos in the future, U.S. officials could do more to counter
them. "We have to use the Internet better ourselves," he says, citing
as an example pictures of Iraqis demonstrating in front of Baghdad's Abu
Ghraib prison, where the alleged torture by U.S. soldiers took place.
"You have to show that it's now safe for them to demonstrate, which is
something they couldn't do under Saddam Hussein," Pratt says. "You have
to show how democracy is starting to grow."
Similarly, U.S. officials should make public the trials of military
personnel accused of the torturing: "You have to put that out there and
show how the military cleans out a mess."
While Hirschmann doesn't expect such isolated killings to become more
frequent in the future, Pratt says this depended on the media reaction
to the Berg video. "If there were no reaction, you probably wouldn't
see it again," he says.
Analysts agree, however, that unlike the image of a dead U.S. soldier
getting dragged through the streets of the Somalian capital Mogadishu in
1993 that ultimately led to an American pull-out, the video of Berg's
beheading was unlikely to provoke the same in Iraq.
"The stakes in Iraq are much greater than in Somalia," Pratt maintains.
"What we have to do is make this country a democracy. If we can't do
that, this problem is going to be there."
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