T.E. Lawrence once said, ‘The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armoury of the modern commander.’ American military historian Max Boot commented on the famous quote, writing, ‘A present-day rebel might substitute the internet for the printing press…’
It was the 19th century that saw militant manuals become common with the printed word advancing their cause of appealing to the masses. Previously, militants were usually illiterate and too uneducated as to produce written propaganda, nor did public opinion have the weight it came to hold for propaganda to be of importance to the militant cause.
Today, more modern means of communication have eased the militants’ job of seeking popular support and of recruitment. This is most clearly demonstrated through the admittedly impressive propaganda efforts of the Islamic State (IS), for example, whose well-produced videos, consistent news-reporting and ideological indoctrination, all of which is posted on and subsequently shared through the internet (which provides militants direct access to international audiences), succeeded in exploiting Muslim grievances, recruitment, creating an exaggerated fear among the civilian populations of perceived enemy nations and, of course, maintaining a degree of relevance with news outlets.
Similar was the case of Fidel Castro who accompanied small-scale attacks with large-scale publicity efforts and, like Bin Laden, he too proved adept at transforming military failures into propaganda victories.
IS propaganda efforts serve as a relevant example of how the internet, and especially social media, was utilized with some degree of success in appealing to Muslims globally. However, IS was certainly not the only militant organization of recent times to skilfully employ propaganda to aid its insurgency. Among the following examples of successful use of propaganda by nonstate actors include Fatah. Although Fatah’s early operations were mostly failures, they were nonetheless accompanied by dramatic press releases claiming historic achievements. Before developing his propaganda machine, Arafat himself would go around Beirut distributing his communiques in a Volkswagen Beetle – he understood the significance of reaching the minds of the masses to succeed in modern warfare.
In mid-1980s with the ‘Afghan Jihad’ in full flare, to aid Arab Mujahideen fight the Soviet forces, Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden formed the Mektab al Khidmat (Human Services Office) which also published a magazine called Jihad. Bin Laden too, like Arafat, was well able at forming propaganda victories out of battlefield failures.
Similar was the case of Fidel Castro who accompanied small-scale attacks with large-scale publicity efforts and, like Bin Laden, he too proved adept at transforming military failures into propaganda victories. In 1957, with his Rebel Army beset by difficulty and numbering fewer than 40 men, Castro, in an attempt at deceiving New York Times correspondent Herbert L. Matthews falsely claimed that his forces operated in groups of 10 to 40 and also had an aide deliver a fake message from a non-existent second column. A gullible Matthews then plastered this information onto the New York Times’ front page. He described Castro as the ‘hero of Cuban youth’ and as ‘alive and fighting hard and successfully.’ The stories stirred excitement in Cuba and to a great degree, made possible the resurgence of Castro’s rebels. Note, however, that there are doubts as to the authenticity of duping Matthews because Castro was the sole source of the claimed disinformation.
Mao Zedong placed great emphasis on the role of propaganda in guerrilla warfare, writing, ‘Propaganda materials are very important. Every large guerrilla unit should have a printing press…They must also have paper on which to print propaganda leaflets and notices…In guerrilla areas, there should be a printing press…’ At 26, he founded a radical bookstore and newspaper, thereby honing his skills at conducting propaganda. Later, as leader of the Communist Party of China, he employed the use of a young American reporter Edgar Snow, as part of his propaganda war against the Nationalist regime. In 1937, Snow’s book Red Star Over China was published and played a significant role in shaping Western opinions on China. Mao was described as ‘a gaunt, rather Lincolnesque figure…with a head of thick black hair grown very long…an intellectual face of great shrewdness…[and] a lively sense of humour.’ Due partly to the book’s publication, the Communist headquarters in Yan’an became the destination of more recruits.
Propaganda became all the more important with the development of the radio. ‘…the inspiring, burning word increases this fever and communicates it to every one of the future combatants. It explains, teaches, fires, and fixes the future positions of both friends and enemies’, wrote Che Guevara. He considered propaganda through the radio most effective because of its ability to spread freely across the entire national area for reaching the minds of the people. Lenin, meanwhile, described it as ‘a newspaper without paper…and without boundaries.’
Just as the 20th century saw airlines, the internet and cell phones came to militant use, so did the television. It was openly embraced by Bin Laden for example, who gave interviews to Al Jazeera, CNN and ABC. He assessed that the ratio of media war ‘may reach 90 percent of the total preparation for the battles.’
Hezbollah also employed the use of the television with its Al-Manar television station, launched in 1991. Television proved useful for Hezbollah on July 30t, 2006 too for example, when the Israelis carried out an airstrike in Qana, Lebanon on what were supposed to be Hezbollah positions. The resulting deaths of 17 children and 11 adults accompanied by footage of crushed bodies pressured Israel to suspend airstrikes.
In present times, the Jihad magazine of the 1980s is replaced by the Urdu-language Shariat and Arabic-language AlSomood magazines of the Afghan Taliban, Dabiq magazine of IS, Inspire magazine of Al Qaeda, etc., all of which are or were, disseminated via the internet.
Then in relation to Indian Airlines flight IC-814 which was hijacked in 1999 with the hijackers demanding the release of Mushtaq Zargar, Omar Sheikh and Maulana Masood Azhar, the television played its role. Former Research and Analysis Wing Chief A.S. Dulat recounts in his book Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, as if lamenting, the ‘great pressure exerted by the media, which kept showing visuals of the protesting families of the hostages…’, thereby serving the hijackers’ aims. Eventually, an embarrassed India yielded to their demands.
With the progression of time, the aforementioned usefulness of the radio was but intensified with the coming of the internet and particularly the expansion of social media with its global reach and largely unregulated platforms facilitating the promotion of a variety of propaganda, much of which is mere disinformation. Unlike television, anyone may utilize the internet for purposes of propaganda dissemination. Today, videos, communiques and such things need merely be posted on a Telegram channel or Facebook page to be propagated worldwide.
In present times, the Jihad magazine of the 1980s is replaced by the Urdu-language Shariat and Arabic-language AlSomood magazines of the Afghan Taliban, Dabiq magazine of IS, Inspire magazine of Al Qaeda, etc., all of which are or were, disseminated via the internet. Today Mao Zedong’s advice, ‘In guerrilla areas, there should be a printing press’ is implemented by present-day militants with the slight amendment of substituting the ‘printing press’ with ‘internet presence’ and Che Guevara’s high opinion of the radio for purposes of propaganda dissemination too is seen shared by these militants, except in place of the radio today, it is the internet that enables a wider reach combined with the liberty to disseminate information as one wills.
In today’s conflicts, therefore, the internet serves as an important battlefield in which the hearts and minds of target audiences are fought aggressively for and as a planting field for seeds of confusion and deception. The above text focuses on propaganda as employed by nonstate actors against their foes, but needless to say it is just as applicable to state actors too.
Amina Aziz is currently pursuing her Bachelors degree in International Relations from the University of London.