To Respond to ISIS and Hybrid Warfare We Need to Invest in POPINT
‘People aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ People are people, and they respond to incentives. They can nearly always be manipulated — for good or ill— if only you find the right levers’.
-Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner in “SuperFreakonomics” (2009)
Interview with Commander (rtd) Steve Tatham, PhD, RN by Octavian Manea
Cdr. (rtd) Steve Tatham is the Director of Operations at IOTA-Global Ltd, a specialist civilian Information Operations company and is the contracted subject matter expert for Strategic Communication and Target Audience Analysis at the NATO Centre of Excellence for Strategic Communication in Latvia. He hold’s a Ph.D in the use of Strategic Communication and Target Audience Analysis in mitigating future conflict and is the author of many books and papers on StratCom and Influence issues. His publications include: ‘Losing Arab Hearts & Minds: The Colaition, Al-Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion Iraq 2003’, ‘Behavioural Conflict: Why Understanding People’s Motivations Will Prove decisive in Future Conflict’ and ‘The Solution To Russian Propaganda is not EU Or NATO Propaganda but Advanced Social Science To Understand And Mitigate Its Effect In Targeted Populations . His most recent paper Using Target Audience Analysis to aid Strategic Level Decision Making” will be published soon by the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S Army War College .
Q. What is the relevance of behavioural conflict for the future of warfare?
I think that understanding behaviour – latent or exhibited – as opposed to obsessing over perceptions or opinions is so important, particularly if western political appetite continues to be for a small military footprint on the ground and increased use of UAVS / drones. Understanding populations, properly, allows you to exert influence; influence may be communications, it may be a show of force, it might something completely counter-intuitive. In the UK and across NATO the word ‘influence’ is used a great deal –The trouble is it always done so in the form of a ‘noun’; yet almost no one has any sensible idea of what that really means and how to achieve it. The ‘how’ to achieve it – the ‘verb’ of influence - is through hard social science, primarily group and behavioural psychology. It's certainly not a few leaflets or a video on YouTube with a clever narrative.
We don't seem very good, institutionally, at learning lessons; we identify them ok but our structures, our bureaucracy and the way we manage our personnel mean that identification is rarely translated into learning and downstream application. We can see that in the campaigns in Syria; the dropping of attitudinal leaflets such as ‘The Meat Grinder’ are exactly the type of campaigns that were waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. They largely didn't work then and in my view they won’t work now. You don't have to take my word for it - read the RAND report about US IO in Afghanistan from 2001-2010; its says it largely failed and I agree with that. Read the comments of innumerable senior officers, of multiple post op tour reports. They all say pretty much the same thing. And I find this really depressing, particularly when you look at the huge amounts of money that have been spent on communication’s campaign.
It should by now be clear to all that just because a nation has the biggest army does not mean it has any guarantee of success in particular types of conflicts; Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza – these all show the limits of conventional military power. We need to find other ways of achieving the effects we seek and influence is in my view an obvious method. But there persists a naive view that somehow you can make adversaries and undecided populations ‘like you’ if you can change their attitudes somehow they will stop fighting. I don’t see that - can you envisage any circumstance when changing an attitude or an opinion is enough? I can’t. In our business there is always a behaviour attached. We need to start understanding behavior far more. For me, its not opinions, its not perceptions, its not attitudes – its behaviours. Period.
Q. Question: You don't seem to have much time for advertising and marketing companies.
I respect what they do in the commercial world but I am unimpressed with most of what I have seen when they work in conflict environments. The nature of advertising is either about informing a large audience about a particular product or service that has become available or is about brand differentiation. It is about saying why ‘this’ brand of toothpaste is better than the other one. Both are attitudinally based. In the end there is a relatively tiny percentage of the people that see that advert on the TV and actually convert that to purchasing. But if you can move your products sales by 1 or 2% that is considered a success. If you use the same brand of toothpaste for years and years you may change to another if, for example, there is a ‘three for one offer’ of another brand or if your supermarket has run out of your current one. But are we really going to be swayed by pictures of ocean breakers and surfers? Maybe I don't know my toothpaste very well but in 47 years of brushing my teeth I have never experienced the sensation that current toothpaste advertising tells me I will! Besides that is not we are about in conflict environments. We have huge groups of people that we need to influence. And it is their behavior that matters. That is the key thing. Understanding that behaviour is hard – but possible. But it takes science; Science to understand it and science to change it – not advertising creativity.
Q. Iraq and Afghanistan showed that warfare in 21st century is population-centric. Influencing people as a key audience/audiences and variable of the battlefield was essential. It is an increasing realization that people and the human-domain (as current US doctrine calls it) is a constant feature of the post 9/11 campaigns. What are some of the big lessons we need to take from these specific campaigns that are still valuable for the future of conflict? We have a large group of officers whose formative experience is related to post 9/11 campaigns.
It is very interesting the way you phrased the question. You said there is increasing realization that the human domain is very important. That implies that there is something else more important. There isn’t. It is the single, most important issue that has to be dealt with. Since the root cause of all conflict is people, understanding people better must be the starting point if we are to prevail in war. If there was no human domain, there would be no conflict or an issue for us to be dealing with. There is nothing more important than the human-domain.
Tanks, satellites, intelligence, ships, jet fighters none of that is more important than understanding the human domain. Unfortunately that single fact remains lost in our respective militaries. We’ve seen recently that the US human terrain teams which were an attempt to understand populations –unfortunately they didn’t work that well – have been killed off. It is a tragedy that we lost that capability. The capability should have been improved, developed, invested in. It wasn’t working very well, but it was better than what we had before. We have a whole generation of officers whose war-fighting experience is the failure of the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq (and we should not try to hide from that because I always think you can learn as much, if not more, from failure than success).We have officers who may have done one, two or three tours in Iraq or Afghanistan or in some other places that will look at this and ask-why were we so unsuccessful? We were unsuccessful and will continue to be so, because we are not investing in properly understanding the human-domain.
Q. You once said that “influence is achieved using a combination of kinetic and non-kinetic activity”. That is exactly the language that General Nick Carter is using today when he is advocating an Integrated Approach to warfare where “regardless of the type of conflict, we must seek to have a physical and cognitive effect on the enemy, but also concurrently (and deliberately) to influence other key audiences, such as local political actors, the local population, one’s indigenous partners and broader allies”. Does this mean that influence has finally become mainstream? And is the so-called 77th brigade or the SAG (Security Assistance Group) the right answer?
I know that the ideas we advanced in behavioral conflict have now become embedded within doctrine in the UK. The focus on behavior and human domain is becoming more important in doctrine. For example, take the UK Doctrine note: “Decision Making and Problem Solving: Human and Organizational Factors”. That is an unusual piece of doctrine that 10 years ago we would never seen. I think that is a result of the work Andrew and I, and a number of other influential people, undertook when we were serving.
Q. In Ukraine and on the NATO’s Eastern Flank we see this emphasis on information warfare, psy-ops and the increasing relevance of non-military means in influencing key target audiences. What is the role of influence in Russia’s hybrid warfare?
One issue here is the tyranny of terminology. It’s a huge problem. We have terms like influence, psy-ops, information warfare, information operations, StratComm, public diplomacy. Nobody really knows what on earth is going on. This is very unhelpful and that is why I opted for using the term influence (by which I mean the verb of influence).
What Russia has been able to do through the Gerasimov doctrine is to properly articulate and resource the place of influence in an operational design. We still continue by and large – with some notable exceptions, the 52 brigade deployment to Afghanistan in 2007/8 was the best example recently – to place these ideas on the periphery of the mainstream operations. Russia didn’t. If we look at the presence of the little green men in Crimea that was the epitome of Maskirovka and Reflexive Control. Everyone knew that they were Russians and yet NATO decision making went into paralysis. It was a masterpiece, a master-class in directed, controlled, planned information operations. And we’ve seen them testing this in Georgia and South Ossetia in 2008 but we can actually track back the traces of Maskirovka to at least 1917. The point is they continue to develop these ideas and operationalize them properly in a way that we haven’t. They’ve succeeded in placing influence at the center of military operations, but if you look at the NATO’s efforts they are vested in very traditional Public Diplomacy and reputation management, all of which sits outside of the International Military Staff and operations. Russia has been industrious in embracing new technology, they’ve resourced it with both manpower, with senior officer attention, they have not been frightened to deploy it and they’ve been prepared to take risks.
Q. Who are the relevant audiences for Russian IO? What are the key constituencies of the Russian IOs? What are the vulnerabilities Russian IO are targeting in the West or the NATO’s Eastern Flank? For who is the Russian propaganda believable? I realize how difficult it is for the people living in Russia to make the difference between deception, manufactured propaganda and the facts because of the absence of alternative independent media. But who in the West or the Eastern Flank is buying it?
Russian propaganda doesn’t work on it’s own. Effective propaganda has to have something to work upon. It also has to resonate with its audience. It has to feed on something that is real. In Eastern Ukraine there were a lot of issues. Unemployment, poor-life prospects, corruption, lack of public services, poor education, fear of the EU, historical legacies, all these issues provide the raw material with which a clever information campaign can work with. On its own, Russian propaganda is not going to succeed. It has to have something to work with to be credible. Russian influence campaigns may use lies and fabrications but they also target specific known vulnerabilities in societies and we forget that, or dismiss it, at our peril.
Much of Russia’s propaganda is crass and clumsy; heavily doctored images, fake CIA operatives; the recurring use of the same actors in different scenarios and armies of trolls. I think most of this is largely ineffective although the western media seems utterly fixated upon it. However, what is not covered in the media is that Russia deploys much more sophisticated and subtle propaganda in place such as the Baltic States, propaganda which targets very real vulnerabilities. Understanding the population groups that are being targeted and understanding why is key to mitigating the effects of propaganda.
We also need to remember that Russian propaganda is as much directed at the internal Russians audience as it is to external ones. Russia has succeeded in insulating its boarders against alternative narratives and using domestic media to support and bolster the cult of President Putin. Indeed it is probably in the domestic space that Russian propaganda has been most successful.
Q. It is said that subversion & clandestine networks are the first line of the offensive in the hybrid warfare. What role should POPINT play in the internal front of the non-linear warfare? How does POPINT differ from HUMINT? Who should be involved in POPINT?
POPINT – Population Intelligence – or Advanced Population Analytics. – are the terms we use to describe what we do in IOTA-Global and SCL, our parent company It is very different to HUMINT. When we think of HUMINT we think of agent handlers and individuals in very small groups of people. When we think of the HUMINT campaign that was conducted in, for example, Northern Ireland it was all about British agents running individual IRA members and informers who were for whatever reason sympathetic to the British side, or who would take money, and who helped us subvert the IRA operations. We were learning in detail who the particular individuals were and in the end we knew every IRA Commander, almost every member, we knew where they lived, what their jobs were. We knew a lot and yet for the massive amount of the HUMINT that we had the campaign still continued for 40 years. In the last few days of the Vietnam War the US were producing vast amounts of intelligence paperwork every week. They knew everything about the enemy with one obvious exception: how to win.
HUMINT works with individuals in small groups, it is about individuals and what they are seeking to do. In Afghanistan we exploited HUMINT through the use of DNA, through the use of fingerprints.
But POPINT is much more sophisticated. It is about understanding much larger groups, how people coalesce into groups, what their drivers are, the de-motivators and motivators of the group existence, in short it is about understanding the group behavior. Critically it is a diagnostic methodology – not just a descriptive one. It is also not focused solely on the enemy – the population are a vital component of POPINT. The thing about POPINT and groups is that people self-define the groups. POPINT is all about understanding the groups that people define themselves within – not which we wish to place them in. Are the groups defined by language, by level of violence, by education, are they only motivated by ideology, or motivated by money or social media? The point is that we have to understand all these linkages in order to understand what motivates the group and groups in order to mitigate or promote certain behaviors.
Take ISIS as an example. The West’s collective response is currently mass social media campaigns and leaflet drops alongside more conventional kinetic responses. But what do we really know about ISIS? For example, do we know the answers to the following questions: what language do ISIS fighters speak – Arabic? English?, Urdu?; Are ISIS fighters literate – if so, what language; Do ISIS fighters self select themselves into different groups? Are some groups more willing to engage in extreme violence than others?; Are there any rivalries between groups? Is money a motivator? What pulls do family and friendship networks have on ISIS fighters, if any? What don't ISIS fighters like about being in Syria and Iraq? What do they miss, if anything, from their homelands? Without this type of knowledge any communication campaign rely on guess work and creativity and I don't believe that is enough surety in today’s conflicts – but I do think it is why our communication campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone so badly in the past.
Q. How should military organizations, including NATO, adapt to influence the perception of non-military audiences? What do we need to create a proper POPINT capability?
There are a number of components to that.
First of all, you need intelligent customers. This requires senior officers to be prepared to understand what influence is and to take risks – General Andrew Mackay was prepared to take risks in 2007 by making it an influence based deployment. You need senior officers that think out of the box. That is an over-used phrase and I have never met some who has not professed a willingness to do so – I just don't see that much evidence of it happening!
Secondly, we need a strategic environment that places influence not at the periphery of military operations, but potentially at the center of the operational design just like the Russians did in Crimea.
Thirdly we need to have an environment where it is safe to fail, where you can take risks, where you will be supported and where people recognize that this is a detailed methodical process. It is not like blowing stuff up.
Fourth, we need to take a long and not a short view. It cannot be in the way that it was in Afghanistan, where we had a commander for 6 months – focused on having success in his term - who after the period will move on and somebody else will take over. It has to be people who prepare to set the building blocks in place for campaign that may take many months possible years to come to fruition, but they have the ability and the wisdom to see that they have value. We didn’t have that in Afghanistan.
Fifth, we need people that know what they are talking about. I recall a conversation with my military career manager just before I resigned and he asked what posting he could give me to retain me in the service. I told him I wanted to fly helicopters. He said: “But you cant fly”. That's right but for the last ten years I have worked alongside engineers, gunners, pilots, logisticians and infantry who within days of taking up the IO position are apparently ‘experts’. Well if works for them I am sure I can fly a helicopter. The subject was quickly dropped and I am now a civilian! The point is we have to get professional and start posting people to appointments who have experience and knowledge not just enthusiasm – particularly senior officers
But above all else the single most important thing we should do is to employ real science in understanding audiences long before we try to communicate or influence them.
Q. In your latest paper you talk about Competitive Interference and old style diplomacy. Does the same apply also to warfare, in the sense that we still have a classic/traditional/kinetic representation of warfare?
Let me give you an example. I recall that the American Army marched a division through Eastern Europe. I am wondering if anybody conducted any research with the populations of those areas, in advance, to determine if that was a really good idea or not? Superficially it looks like a good idea – a good political and diplomatic initiative to show determination, commitment and resolve. It is saying to Russia that NATO is serious. But what about that segment of the population that is actually causing the trouble in those respective countries, that doesn’t relate to NATO and is actually susceptible to Russian propaganda, that is deeply uncomfortable with European integration? Arguably all we’ve done with conventional diplomacy is to reinforces the Russian propaganda amongst the key target audiences. In my view policy makers and strategists need to have a greater degree of inquisitiveness.
Q. Talk a bit about the social science behind POPINT. What are some of the theories that should guide us in understanding and ideally changing the behavior of groups/audiences?
In the book we recorded that prior to our Afghan deployment, General Andrew and I looked at the doctrine and went around the UK MOD and we found nothing that would tell us how to run an influence based campaign/deployment. So we had to revert to business and scientific literature and to decide if any of that would be helpful in the military context: Homo Economicus-rational choice theory, nudge, prospect theory, the framing of choices – we spent time trying to understand all of these ideas and then see if they could map across to our environment. We found many that did and some that did not. We also found that to use them successfully we had to reconfigure our C2 structure.
After the Afghanistan deployment, which has become characterized by the use of influence techniques to successfully retake the town of Musa Qala, we realized that all of these were helpful because they were all based on proper science, although in many instances repackaged for broader market appeal. So we realized that we need to understand the underpinning science much more.
So, as we looked at the science we found really important concepts; for example, locus of control (an individual’s perception of where control over events of their life resides and how much they can change their future); the propensity for change, a parameter that indicates the extent to which that audience is predisposed to seek change for its own sake; normative affiliation, a parameter which measures how individuals conform and identify to groups. Slowly we were starting to understand that there are a whole series of parameters that can be measured (and in my company we use the Behavioural Dynamics Institute methodology which has 45 measurable parameters) and used to understand what motivates group behaviour.
What astounds me is people’s unwillingness to use science but they are willing to jump in with randomly created solutions on the basis that they must work because they come from advertising companies.
I often liken this to the story of Sir Frank Whittle who first presented his design for a jet engine to the British Government in 1929. It was turned down for funding on the grounds of impracticality (displaying the same long-term strategic vision that the British Admiralty showed in 1901, when they turned down a design for submarines, proclaiming them "underwater, underhand and damned un-English"). Thankfully, Whittle persevered, and in 1930, he patented the design himself, having sunk all his personal funds into research. In 1934, with the patent up for renewal, he again applied for the British government sponsorship, and again he was declined. Luckily, he managed to raise £2,000 in private finance and continued his research. In 1937, after eight years of further research and development, he again offered the project to the British Government, which again declined to assist him. It was only in 1939 that a single government official, at personal risk to his career and reputation, backed Whittle's invention and lobbied in the corridors of Whitehall for its funding. The result of all of this procrastination was that the British jet aircraft only finally entered operational service at the end of the Second World War but rather scarily, and very nearly, did not enter at all.