PSYOP During the Counter - Lords Resistance Army Campaign
By Billy Carter, Isaac Odhiambo, and Jonathan Underwood
About this case study:
This case study is part of a larger body of work researched and produced by the students of the Military Information Support Operations (MISO) Program Design and Assessment Course at Ft. Bragg, NC. This body of work examines conflict scenarios with emphasis on determining the Psychological Operations (PSYOP) efforts and activities employed by the various competitive actors in the area of operations. Each case study follows a basic format of presenting the relevant stakeholders, their goals, and the PSYOP or other influence activities they used to achieve their goals. Each case study examines the PSYOP efforts under the framework of U.S. doctrine concluding with a brief statement of comparison between the historical vignette and current doctrine to offer opinion where current U.S. doctrine has either strengths or weaknesses. The comparison, though based primarily on opinion, is opinion offered by U.S. PSYOP Soldiers and Officers with first-hand experience under contemporary doctrine.
In 1981, Joseph Kony started down a path of violent insurgency with an ultimate goal of over-throwing the Ugandan government. Kony formed and led the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), declared himself a prophet, and sanctioned murder, rape, slavery, forced induction of child soldiers, burning of villages, looting, and other acts of terrorism. The LRA operated with impunity in the ungoverned spaces of central-east Africa and threatened regional stability.
Section I. Introduction
Imagine working within an environment the size of Texas, where elephant grass grows over six feet tall, the heat index is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, animals can be threat at any second, and the lack of landing zones for aircraft prohibit quick resupplies. Instead of one state, there is vast ungoverned space with porous borders where governments prohibit the neighboring countries armies to cross over to chase an enemy, an enemy that knows this. Also, instead of an entire battalion of soldiers, you have one Special Forces operational detachment with a subpar partner force looking for a group of armed militia. This describes a portion of the environment in Central Africa and the hunt for Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was formed in the early 1980s in northern Uganda. LRA emerged as the remnants of a Holy Spirit Movement army founded by a distant female priest who was a relative of Joseph Kony. Kony himself was a former catechist who capitalized on a power vacuum formed by the defeat of resistance movements in the north to start the LRA. After Kony took over LRA, they formerly operated as the United Holy Salvation Army before being renamed the Uganda Christian Army Movement and finally the LRA. Kony’s ultimate goal was to overthrow the Ugandan government and establish his own based on his interpretation of the bible’s Ten Commandments. The LRA got a reputation for inhumaneness as it waged an armed insurgence as a mechanism to attain its objectives
Since its inception, the group abducted the youth and used them as child soldiers, sex slaves, and porters. The LRA brutalized communities and is responsible for widespread human rights abuses across central Africa. LRA became a regional problem bordering three African countries namely the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR).
Based on United Nations (UN) statistics, LRA is responsible for at least 100,000 deaths, abductions of over 60,000 children, and the displacements of up to 2.5 million civilians since the groups founding. Because of the perpetrated crimes against humanity, and the threats LRA continues to pose, the UN and the US Department of State included the LRA on the Terrorist Exclusion List and categorized Kony as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist
- Who were the stakeholders?
In central Africa, Joseph Kony sought to instigate an insurgency in Uganda, intent on forming a Christian theocratic government. Other than the band of insurgents that aided in his formation of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Kony received no tangible external support nor did he employ any legitimate mechanism to achieve his insurgent objectives. Kony employed a method of forced child conscription to form the rank and file of the LRA. Children would sometimes be required to execute their parents and then ‘consoled’ with ‘we are your family now’ and coerced with ‘you have no home to return to’. Kony and the LRA relied on violence and coercion. Kony’s claim of legitimacy was through his self-appointed status as a prophet in which he possessed magical powers with no corroborating testimony from witnesses or other credible sources. Kony routinely punished insubordination with physical beatings, maiming, reduction in rank, and execution. Kony did not seek adoration, only respect through fear.
In response to the LRA method of recruiting, Uganda immediately recognized the threat that Kony represented. Kony and the LRA enjoyed considerable freedom of movement through rural Uganda and were able to remain ‘in the bush’ crossing into South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like Uganda, these states lacked capacity to exercise governance in the rural areas or provide border security. Unlike Uganda, Kony and the LRA only represented a nuisance to those other states. This lack of genuine threat resulted in a semi-permissive environment for Kony and the LRA to operate unchecked.
The United Nations and United States identified the LRA as a terrorist organization and as an agent of destabilization through central Africa. In response to the abductions of youth to form Kony’s militia, President Obama issued a policy and signed into law the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009. This set the stage for future deployments of US SOF personnel to partner with regional stakeholders, particularly Uganda, to reduce the LRA threat.
Sudan was the one exception regarding Kony operating in isolation. Sudan provided weaponry and funding while the LRA posed a threat to Sudanese opposition groups. This was a matching made of ‘an enemy of my enemy is my friend’, as Kony held no ambitions to align directly with Sudan and its Islamic heritage.
- What were their objectives
Kony’s objectives: According to Kony’s own statements, his objectives were to establish a Christian-based Theocracy in Uganda. Kony is from a clan or ethnic tribe called Acholi who suffered serious abuses at the hands of Ugandan governments in the 1970s and 1980s. He sought to fight against consistent government oppression and intended to "purify" the Acholi people and turn Uganda into a theocracy. As a self-proclaimed spokesperson of God driven by a spirit, Kony wanted to change Uganda to a theocratic state based on his understanding of the Ten Commandments and local Acholi tradition.
He attempted to achieve this goal by conducting an insurgency. Kony’s campaign against the government of Uganda, and in his quest to fulfill the prophecies, ordered the LRA to attack villages, conduct murders, rape, and mutilation in a campaign of intimidation. Many Ugandans, especially children from the villages were abducted and brainwashed into becoming child soldiers and slaves, and up to two million people, were displaced. Kony convinced everyone he captured that holy water would make them bulletproof. However, anyone resisting or trying to escape would have their bodies mutilated or beaten to death by their peers. Kony himself took as many as fifty of his female captives as his wives. The extreme methodology and execution of this insurgency gained international ire and response by the United Nations, the United States, and the African Union, especially for the use of child-soldiers. The insurgency posed a threat to regional stability as the LRA exploited the porous borders in Northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR), Uganda and South Sudan. Kony established the “Lord’s Resistance Army” to accomplish his insurgent goals.
LRA’s objectives: The LRA rapidly transitioned to ‘survival’ mode. Freedom of movement, poaching, illicit trafficking, and maintaining a transient presence remain critical to the LRA’s survival. Centralized command is severely degraded. The splintered nature of the LRA, with a central command figure but lack of command presence resulted in various splinter groups resorting to ‘cooperative violence’. They would extort good and services but the level of violence decreased, with the exception of when ‘examples’ were needed. The persistent nature of the LRA became part of the daily harsh life in central-east Africa. Rapport was established, sufficient that abductees would live and be set free after whatever service was deemed complete, often porting goods. Rape and beatings remained a threat but the people accepted this knowing that they would likely live through the ordeal.
The U.S. government’s (USG) objectives were centered on eliminating the threat to regional stability posed by the Joseph Kony and the LRA. This policy is found in comments delivered in 2011 by the U.S. President Obama, "I have authorized a small number of combat-equipped U.S. forces to deploy to central Africa to provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield”. Since 2008, the USG maintained a policy of eliminating the LRA and its effects, but not until 2011 did the policy gain teeth with the deployment of US SOF. “In 2010, President Barack Obama made it U.S. policy to support in the hunt for Kony.” (Maurer, 2016). “While the only measure of ultimate success is Kony’s capture, the steady uptick in defections over the last five years is one indicator that the American military backed leaflet and radio programs is taking a toll.” (Maurer, 2016). The USG strategy outlines four key objectives: (1) the increased protection of civilians, (2) the apprehension or removal of Joseph Kony and senior LRA commanders from the battlefield, (3) the promotion of defections from the LRA and support of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of remaining LRA fighters, and (4) the provision of continued humanitarian relief to affected communities. The resultant MISO objectives would support these strategic objectives through defection/surrender appeals and building resilience through the rural and remote populations in ‘the bush’.
- What was their operational environment
This exploitation of the environment are what have allowed the LRA and Joseph Kony to endure despite various defeats. The nations affected by the LRA are relatively stable with governance ending in the population centers. ‘The Bush’ is an unpopulated or sparsely populated and an ungoverned space roughly the size of Texas that the LRA, in addition to bandits, gangs, poachers, and other criminal elements could easily disappear into. The ungoverned space in the region was and remains a critical element in the survival of the LRA. Of the states affected, as long as the LRA did not pose a threat to urban areas or critical national resources, South Sudan, DRC, and CAR allowed the LRA to act with impunity. The abductions and looting by the LRA across the region did not impose significant costs on those states for them to do little more than acknowledge the nuisance. The costs were not enough for them to commit resources besides small amounts of undertrained and underequipped older men toward security or counter-LRA activities.
As the LRA grew, it became necessary to adapt their methods to attain a level of tolerable misbehavior. (Not to understate their conduct – the methods of the LRA included abductions, rape, murder, looting, destroying entire village, raiding). In many places, the abductions were short term and the abductees were gathered to perform a specific task, such as porting looted goods.
Initially, Kony did not have any sources of external support. And unlike a Maoist type insurgency, Kony did not have sources of internal, rural support. To bolster his forces, he would abduct children, have them murder their parents, and begin a trauma-based indoctrination and reinforce loyalty through coercion. “Our research interviews with recently returned LRA members suggests that Kony’s leadership is becoming more erratic and harsh, disillusioning even his most loyal followers. But Kony’s false warnings that the ICC will target all LRA defectors have reinforced their fears of prosecution.” (Ronan, 2016). This methodology presented the greatest vulnerability in the environment for Uganda, backed by the US, to exploit. Problems persisted in the environment for the friendly side. The LRA is very mobile so it was necessary to gain placement of MISO products across the breadth of the region – which meant gaining cooperative agreements with all the states in the region. Also, upon capture, Uganda was sending senior LRA members to face human rights charges in the International Criminal Court (ICC), which placed a deterrent to defection and surrender appeals. This did not hold true as more senior leaders of the LRA defected, Uganda offered them jobs within the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) or to be reintegrated back with the Acholi people of Northern Uganda.
Section II. Program Summary
In accordance with U.S. doctrine, a program consists of ten fundamental elements. The counter-LRA execution order is a classified document, but using available unclassified resources and application of deductive analysis and process tracing, the C-LRA program roughly eschewed these components:
- Influence Objectives – defect, surrender, report
- Target Audience(s) – LRA rank and file, LRA leadership, rural populations affected by the LRA
- Dissemination methods – leaflet, radio, loud speaker (primary) , face-to-face, community engagement (secondary)
- Themes – appeal of home, amnesty, repatriate, reconcile, and ‘familiar voice’. “Fresh content and attention to cultural nuance in these messages helps build trust and convince LRA fighters that leaving the ranks is their best option. This approach utilizes the expertise of civil society leaders and former LRA combatants in northern Uganda.” (Ronan, 2016). Pathways to Peace, a Northern Ugandan NGO, played a key role in ancestral tracing and recording messages from high ranking LRA family members begging for them to return home to their Acholi roots. Leaflets were also created with past defectors and remaining LRA member’s family.
- Attribution – US and partner nation. US attribution was determined to be a preferable approach due to the concerns that the government of Uganda would seek to incarcerate LRA personnel. The US ‘stamp’ provided a notion of fair treatment and legitimacy of the appeals.
- Force/assets – In addition to SOF advisors, MIST Uganda
- Risk Mitigation – CLRA risk management was nested in the EXORD, DEPROD, and other source documents. Specific risk to mission, risk to USG, and risk of collateral exposure was not a deliberate planning component in the MISO program. The cost-benefit analysis present in risk management, with regard to amnesty for defectors may have resulted in message the theme tweaking, conceivably may have resulted in public policy by Uganda, U.N., and U.S. policy regarding amnesty-based messaging.
- Assessments were primarily determined through defector interviews and the participation level in community outreach activities. Defector statements clearly indicated they were exposed to and understood the messaging. Defectors stated that at one time, Joseph Kony, threatened beatings or death for picking up leaflets. Kony also told the LRA that the leaflets were poisonous to deter the members from picking up the leaflets. RMT-Uganda also discovered that only high ranking members of the LRA were allowed to listen to the radio. This helped RMT-Uganda realize that when making announcements on the radio to use messaging specifically targeting upper levels of the LRA. The kinetic side of the mission would use defector interviews to get a clearer picture of specific areas in which the LRA would operate by asking what products they saw or heard. RMT-Uganda could then tell the ODA where these products were disseminated in the region. For example, Surveys in communities and providing information to the DoD Small Rewards programs were two key indicators communities received and understood their role and their gain by participating. “This is the most successful [information operation] I’ve ever seen,” said a soldier involved in the campaign said. They requested anonymity because they are part of the ongoing mission. “You get to see a measure of your effectiveness.” (Maurer, 2016).
Section III. Analysis
- Defection appeals were effective, with some considerations. The inhibiting factor was the counter-propaganda effort of Kony. The threat of reprisal and the threat of being punished by the ICC degraded the defection effectiveness. The foot soldiers and junior commanders wanted to defect but were not willing to submit themselves to DROC or CAR authority. “All four of the former bodyguards were reluctant to speak in detail about their actions while in the LRA as we sat in camp chairs near the base’s gym, but did acknowledge how a successful propaganda campaign waged by the U.S. Army helped them defect, and why they are still working with the American military hunting Kony.” (Maurer, 2016). Several formed splinter groups that continued to arm themselves against both government and Kony loyalists. The operational objectives that culminated in the LRA being diminished were met, with more than half of the LRA fighting force defected. However, the original strategic objectives of eliminating the LRA threat were not met, as competing interests resulted in U.S. drawing back considerable funding and resources to Uganda. Joseph Kony remains at large.
- The counter-LRA mission, being a contemporary mission, employed very similar doctrine. The minimal requirements of DoDI were met. A more robust and deliberate assessment method, one which could account for shifts in the local population’s perception of the LRA and correlate that information with the shift in support by the African Union as well as adversarial support by the Sudanese may have offered insight to emerging vulnerabilities faster. Greater attention to potential risks may have (and still may) yield indicators that a reduction in US and AU efforts towards the apprehension of Kony may result in a return to earlier levels of violence. There remains the risk that ‘the wounded tiger’ remains quite dangers (Ronan, 2016).
- The U.S. government still lacks a true consistency and commitment to long term policy which results in inconsistency to strategic and operational objectives. That the counter-LRA effort may be viewed as a success (in its current state) in truth, the best estimates are that the LRA is quieter and that Kony’s age and health relegate him to the status of a nuisance. The original objective of ‘eliminate’ the Kony threat was not achieved (Baddorf and Schmitt, 2017). As Joseph Kony remains at large and his organization still has between 200 and 400 disparate bands through the bush, the threat persists. While the LRA lacks the capacity to conduct major actions, some insist the Kony is preparing to resume his activities. Sudan, and a few isolated tribes in South Sudan have started to provide material support to Kony. Sudan views Kony as a ‘friend of convenience’ while he poses a threat to enemies of Sudan.
Ronan, Paul et al. 2016. “LRA Crisis Tracker. The State of the LRA in 2016” https://www.lracrisistracker.com/ (Accessed March 14, 2017).
Maurer, Kevin. 2016. “Joseph Kony’s Former Bodyguards are now Helping U.S. Troops Hunt Him” http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/05/14/joseph-kony-s-former-bodyguards-are-now-helping-u-s-troops-hunt-him.html (Accessed March 14, 2017).
Cakaj, Ledio and Ronan, Paul. 2016. “The Lord’s Resistance Army is Finally Weakening in Central Africa” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/12/06/uganda-is-about-to-give-up-looking-for-joseph-kony-but-defection-messaging-could-bring-his-army-to-a-halt/?utm_term=.4ad43f7fc408 (Accessed March 14, 2017).
Dougan, Lisa and Ronan, Paul. 2016. “Joseph Kony’s LRA is Still Abducting Children, Even After CAR Votes for Peace” Newsweek. http://www.newsweek.com/joseph-kony-lords-resistance-army-child-soldiers-433360 (accessed on March 14, 2017)
Office of the Press Secretary, The White House. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2012/04/23/fact-sheet... (accessed March 21, 2017)
Baddorf, Zack and Schmitt, Eric. March 2017. “Hunt for Joseph Kony, No Longer Seen as a Threat, May Schrink” The New York Times. https://nyti.ms/2mQRGBW
Billy Carter is a retired PSYOPer, currently employed as the lead instructor for the MISO Program Design and Assessment Course. Billy Carter, at the time of this publication, has 28 years of experience in PSYOP.
Isaac Odhiambo is a senior active duty PSYOP Sergeant with multiple deployments in the AFROCIM AOR including counter-VEO mission sets.
Jonathan Underwood is an active duty PSYOP Sergeant with two deployments in the AFRICOM AOR. He is currently lead cadre for the Psychological Operations Assessment and Selection course.
Editing provided by:
John A. Berta, Ph.D. Nathan Todd
GMI Analyst MSG, USA
Cultural Intelligence Cell Former MIST-U NCOIC