Iraq’s Directorate of Media and Moral Guidance gained skills in countering terrorist propaganda
Daesh adopted misinformation campaigns through its electronic army, which broadcast rumors and twisted facts to sow horror and chaos in the hearts of residents. Its methods of psychological influence inflated its military capabilities by publishing news of victories and fake battles. The Directorate of Media and Moral Guidance in the Iraq Ministry of Defense played a major role in attacking Daesh’s propaganda enterprise and destroying the morale of its fighters. Unipath magazine met with the man who led this unconventional war and helped to achieve major victories against the Daesh media machine: Maj. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim Sadiq, director of Media and Moral Guidance.
Unipath: In 2014, Daesh was running a massive media operation. What role did the Directorate of Media and Moral Guidance play in attacking Daesh in Iraq?
Maj. Gen. Tahseen: After the fall of Mosul and other Iraqi cities and villages, Daesh used rumors and propaganda to confuse the Iraqi public. These rumors spread like wildfire as entire swaths of the country fell into the terrorists’ hands without a fight. Despicable satellite channels amplified Daesh’s lies, which spread chaos among the media and distorted public opinion. We needed to act fast to combat Daesh’s propaganda. With support from coalition forces, we began to develop a strategy to deal with this propaganda machine.
I remember at that time we were working with a team from the U.S. Army to study the effects of Daesh propaganda on the target audience and the role of this propaganda in recruitment and deception of young people. Our first step was to create a center to monitor the media and Daesh social networking pages. The directorate created a special Facebook page through which we contradicted the rumors Daesh was spreading. Within weeks, we had 100,000 followers, and citizens were dispelling Daesh’s rumors from regions the terrorists claimed to control. This was a major turning point on the media front.
Unipath: Was your plan to defeat Daesh on social networking sites?
Maj. Gen. Tahseen: We began the confrontation with Daesh on social media because that was their center of gravity, but our plan also included communication with residents inside Daesh-occupied cities. We conducted an operation to drop leaflets on the city of Mosul. The intent of this operation was to send a message to our people in Mosul that we had not forgotten them and that we would liberate them from the grip of terrorism. We also wanted the leaflets to show Daesh that Mosul is Iraqi, and Iraqi forces would liberate the city from its desecration. This was the primary goal of dropping leaflets. We were sending messages to reassure our people that their Armed Forces were in control and that the contents of some suspicious media channels were nothing but lies to lower public morale.
Unipath: What caused the chaos among the media and fear among the public?
Maj. Gen. Tahseen: Unfortunately, there were conflicting and contradictory statements from some Army officers on the front lines, because they didn’t have a full picture of the battlefield. These statements caused substantial chaos and anxiety. For that reason, leadership decided to limit battlefield statements to the leaders of the combined joint operations command and appointed qualified officers in this field to form a war media cell on June 10, 2015. Our joint work with our partners in the coalition forces developed significantly during that difficult time and involved the participation of all security agencies. In addition, we used the capabilities of our national cell for psychological operations. We implemented a strategy to inoculate residents against Daesh’s attempts at online recruitment. We formed a team to study and analyze Daesh speech, both in the Directorate of Military Intelligence and the Directorate of Media and Moral Guidance and in the National Security Service and Intelligence Service. We followed and analyzed Daesh’s printed and visual releases as we monitored their electronic sites around the clock. From this operation, we learned Daesh’s style of communication among its media teams, its methods of recruitment, and its means of bringing foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria.
Unipath: You mentioned the impact of Daesh’s media. What was an influential hostile media site that hurt Soldiers’ morale after the fall of Mosul? How did you rebuild morale?
Maj. Gen. Tahseen: After the fall of Mosul, the international coalition played a big role in supporting the Iraqi Armed Forces in the implementation of and training for numerous psychological operations. We ran a major campaign to rebuild our forces through training, better weapons, and field visits to find out the needs of Soldiers in training centers or on the front lines. We focused on building the professionalism and morale of our fighters. And we cooperated with coalition forces — mainly the United States — which offered a great deal of advanced, specialized training to teach media teams how to communicate news to the public and analyze hostile media. This gave our media teams great confidence in dealing with civilians with professionalism and credibility. Throughout the liberation battles, we focused on professionalism and Soldiers’ heroism. Iraqi Soldiers fought with one hand and aided civilians with the other, offering humanitarian and medical services to them to help build bridges of trust between civilians and security forces. This could not have been achieved without the training and education our teams gained from lectures about respect for human rights when interacting with the population. It was necessary to have rules of engagement, and determination, will and courage to beat back these terrorist organizations, which are not connected to Islam or humanity in any way.
Unipath: What is the role of the coalition in combating terrorism on social media?
Maj. Gen. Tahseen: International experts held specialized courses for this purpose in which we studied ways to exploit terrorist groups’ social media pages, which they used to recruit and spread propaganda. We worked as one team with these experts in deciding how to combat these sites. This training offered experience from the field in penetrating Daesh’s social media presence to analyze their speeches and thereby helped devise a campaign to expose their lies. As the Directorate of Media and the Ministry of Defense, we desperately needed a team we could trust to work with us to get through that difficult time. We were happy to have an information operations team as we began to hold weekly meetings with coalition partners to discuss challenges, achievements and plans of action. These meetings were useful for everyone. After we stopped Daesh’s propaganda and exposed their lies on media channels and social media pages, we began to plan efforts to communicate with residents in Daesh-occupied areas. Daesh was blocking social media sites and satellite channels from the population and using local radio stations and media outlets to broadcast propaganda about false victories and the supposed achievements of the “caliphate.” Meanwhile, they allowed their fighters to use internet in internet cafes guarded by the Hisba police and subjected to heavy monitoring.
Unipath: How were your media teams prepared and trained?
Maj. Gen. Tahseen: We coordinated with our partners in the coalition forces to train and include media teams in the units that prepared to liberate the cities. We provided them with the most advanced media technology, from cameras to loudspeakers, mobile radio broadcasts, and devices to send photos and videos via satellite. Our media and psychological operations specialists used loudspeakers to send messages to our people in occupied areas. We broadcast those messages to destroy Daesh’s morale and spread chaos and fear among their ranks. Coalition forces supplied us with mobile radio stations and trained our teams to use them, which directly influenced the course of our battles by allowing us to communicate with inhabitants about safe routes out of the city or ways to confuse the enemy. Through cooperation with coalition forces, we located sites from which Daesh published propaganda, conducted recruitment operations and ran internal communications. We monitored these sites and investigated their contents. These operations stopped recruitment and silenced Daesh calls to action that had dominated Twitter, Facebook and other chatting mediums. We paralyzed Daesh’s channels of communication with sympathizers and supporters, which in turn lowered their fighters’ morale. The partnership with our friends in the coalition forces didn’t stop here, but continued to develop. They invited us to international conferences to speak about our success in defeating the Daesh media machine. We went to London and Washington and attended a U.S. Central Command subject matter exchange in Tampa, Florida, where we exchanged our experiences and began to build close and strategic relationships to develop our capabilities and share our expertise with friendly countries. We also hosted international conferences in Baghdad to counter the ideology and media of Daesh; these were attended by most brotherly and friendly countries. The conference produced positive results for impeding terrorist organizations’ attempts to use cyberspace to spread their ideology, rumors, and exploitation of youth.
Unipath: How did you send psychological messages to destroy Daesh’s morale?
Maj. Gen. Tahseen: We used these techniques in the Battle of Al-Anbar, when we used moving vehicles to broadcast the sounds of the battles, bombing, airstrikes, and tank attacks to confuse the terrorist gangs. We entered those villages without firing one bullet. We successfully sowed fear and confusion among the terrorists, thinned their ranks and exposed their lies that enabled them to recruit hundreds of foreign and local fighters. When we later caught some of the terrorists in the area, they said that during those battles, they and their comrades fled upon hearing these sounds.
Unipath: You mentioned dropping leaflets on Mosul. What was the impact of those leaflets on the population?
Maj. Gen. Tahseen: This topic is very important. When we dropped the leaflets, the people were overwhelmingly happy to read them; at the same time, the leaflets caused chaos and confusion among the terrorists. We saw this confusion from reconnaissance planes — they ran like crazy to gather all the leaflets and prohibit residents from reading them. But they were outnumbered by our leaflets, so we managed to drain their energy by fomenting hysteria. We included on the leaflets our radio frequencies and tip lines, which received an increased number of calls in the moments after we dropped the leaflets. Here, I’d like to thank the coalition forces, who provided us with ink and paper to create these leaflets. I specifically remember a team from U.S. Central Command that worked with us every day during this time.
Before the beginning of the battle of Mosul, we launched the biggest psychological and media operation in history. We dropped more than 40 million leaflets on Ninevah province and West Anbar. This was an intense campaign to tell residents that the time of liberation was near, provide them with safety information, and urge them to stay away from Daesh groups. We produced separate leaflets to target foreign and local fighters. These campaigns sowed suspicion among the terrorists and led them to fight among themselves, thereby creating psychological battlespace for liberating forces. Civilians fleeing the city carried copies of the leaflets with them and told us that they had been a source of happiness and hope.
Unipath: How did military media tactics change after Mosul?
Maj. Gen. Tahseen: Before Mosul, media was limited to focusing on news from leadership and field visits by commanders, and there was no special training for media officers. This was the role of our friends in the coalition: They helped us open a training program for media officers in the security forces after Mosul. In cooperation with our partners, we built the capabilities of the Directorate of Media and Moral Guidance, which offers the truth, whether in combating terrorist hostile propaganda or in raising the morale of our troops, who now have confidence and experience in managing crises by combating rumors, observation, analysis, and winning over a target audience. This development gave us great resilience in interacting with the public and helped us protect our secret information. Military intelligence played a big role in foiling many attacks by monitoring and analyzing Daesh’s communications on social media sites. This added to the intelligence support offered by coalition forces in information exchanges after targeting Daesh leadership and command and control sites as we implemented psychological campaigns to break their will. Indeed, we caused local fighters to flee or surrender to our forces.
Unipath: What is the role of the Directorate of Moral Guidance in winning residents’ hearts and minds and preventing Daesh’s return to liberated areas?
Maj. Gen. Tahseen: Our role is in communicating with residents and conveying their suffering and concerns to the media. We gave the leadership situational awareness of the population’s concerns so it could provide what they needed. We also educated Soldiers who manned checkpoints in their area on how to deal respectfully with the population. We documented the Army’s mission to open roads, deliver services, protect government institutions and facilities, and treat the ill and wounded. We also covered the engineering efforts to open schools, which helped build trust between the Army and the citizens and motivated citizens to give intelligence about terrorist hideouts and activities. We have made great strides in the role of military media and have become among the world’s most advanced armies in this field.