DOD seeks ways to fight online propaganda war

Naval Postgraduate School student's paper on "Cyber Herding"

As violent Islamic extremists take their message to the Internet with remarkable skill, military academics are mulling new ways to challenge them in cyberspace.

Web sites aimed at attracting new generations of Islamic militants have multiplied steadily in recent years, and their number is now estimated to be in the thousands. Although tech-savvy extremists are known to attack Western computer networks through hacking and other means, many experts consider the silent spread of easy-to-set-up anti-American propaganda Web sites more dangerous because they are difficult for the military to counteract.

Incoming Army Chief Information Officer Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson said this week that the battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide is raging in full force on the Web — a fact, he added, that the military has to contend with.

Information about concerted efforts by the Pentagon or other government agencies to fight the spread of Islamic anti-Western propaganda sites is difficult to obtain because most activities fall into the realm of secret intelligence operations.

Naval Postgraduate School Professor John Arquilla, an expert and adviser to the Pentagon on information operations and electronic warfare, would speak only in general terms about the military’s approach to the issue. According to the school’s Web site, Arquilla is working on a classified study of deception operations against terrorist networks for Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England.

Arquilla said his goals are finding ways to exploit the widespread Internet use among militant Islamists and to deter extremists from using the Web if their activities in cyberspace cannot be exploited.

Experts say Islamic militants are drawn to the Web because it offers a cheap and quick way of mass communication. Most important, it allows them to act anonymously, the experts say.

Air Force Capt. David Moon, who studies information operations under Arquilla, has proposed a way of using the Web’s culture of anonymity to the military’s advantage.

Moon's work garnered some attention from military leaders at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual conference on special operations and low-intensity conflict earlier this year. His paper on what he and Arquilla have dubbed cyber herding won first prize in the conference essay competition.

Cyber herding seeks to gradually drive Islamic extremists to Web sites covertly controlled by the U.S. government. To achieve this, the author envisions a sequence of several phases.

First, officials would scour the Internet for extremist Web sites and chat rooms. Next, they would participate in the conversations there posing as militant sympathizers, with the goal of developing a detailed understanding of the site’s clientele. Then, officials would duplicate the entire body of information from each site and place it on new, U.S.-owned Web sites that bear loose resemblance to the originals.

In what Moon calls the demolition phase, officials would try to remove the original extremist Web sites — either through legal protests with the Web site host or by hacking them — in the hope that extremists will flock to the newly created American-controlled sites, where U.S. officials could discreetly shape the type and tone of the conversations.

Applied to Iraq, for example, cyber herding could help counteract the widespread perception of American troops there as occupiers, Moon said in a brief interview this week.

Questions remain about whether cyber herding is merely an academic exercise or if the military has taken an interest in putting the idea into practice. Moon and Arquilla declined to comment on that.

Lawmakers also are interested in the issue of Islamic extremist Web sites. Next week, the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute will host a presentation on the issue on Capitol Hill. The event is sponsored by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Middle East and South Asia subcommittee, and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the panel’s ranking member.


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