Center for Strategic Communication

by Scott W. Ruston

Recent headlines revealed that video feeds from the Predator, the US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used for surveillance and targeting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, have been intercepted by insurgents in Iraq.  Early follow up analysis focuses on whether the intercept of Predator video feeds qualifies as a “hack” or whether that term has over-sensationalized the situation.  This attention to semantics strikes me as a repeat of the “how are men in caves out-smarting us” debate with much hand-wringing about whether Islamic militants really have sophisticated skill and technology or not, and whether Iran must be involved supporting the militants with advanced technology.

The logic of this debate breaks down like this:  If it’s a “hack” then the insurgents have significant cyberwarfare skills and technology and are thus increasing their capability (and in a related version, they must be receiving Iranian support).  If it’s not a “hack” then they remain primitive fighters in caves, opening up criticism of the US military for allowing such an exploitable vulnerability to remain.

This attention to whether “hack” accurately describes the militants’ actions, loses sight of some important strategic communication ramifications of this intelligence breach.  Whereas I’m fully aware of the power of language to shape thoughts and perspectives, in this case the debate over terminology is just not an important issue.  Nor, really, is how the militants accomplished the intercept.  According to news report linked above, the Pentagon has indicated they’ve operated the Predator drone with unencrypted video feeds since the 1990s, assuming that unsophisticated opponents would not know about the vulnerability nor have the access to the technology (apparently a $29.95 box and some patience) to exploit it.  The same report indicates the DOD is already at work encrypting the video feeds, but I’ll address the apparent hubris evident here below.

While I think the “hack” or “not hack” debate is unimportant, I don’t mean to diminish the tactical importance of these intercepts.  Obviously, it is a huge intelligence coup for the insurgents (and reports indicate that it is not an isolated incident but rather an on-going activity of unknown scale).  But there is more here.  Beyond the ability for insurgent leaders to see what US and allied commanders were seeing, beyond the possibility of knowing where US attention was focused at any particular time, and beyond representing a minor cyberwarfare victory  for the insurgents, this situation points to two strategic communication victories for them as well.

First, it is well known that the insurgent and extremist spin machines, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but across the world where Islamic extremists seek to discredit the US, are adept at transforming news reports, images and videos of US actions into anti-US propaganda (or, for that matter non-US actions: here,  an Indonesia-based jihadist blames an Al-Qaeda bombing in Pakistan on Blackwater).  What better way to document the violent, brutish ways of the imperialist, crusading aggressor than to show the US military’s own tactical video?  Even seemingly innocuous surveillance video could easily feed the insurgent media machine.  Simple surveillance video of a village becomes  “Look how the Crusader targets civilians, women and children!”  Targeting video becomes proof of US violence.

Intercut some actual intercepted Predator surveillance video with some generic grainy footage of missile strikes easily obtained on YouTube or a thousand other sites, and an insurgent information operator has powerful, damning “evidence” of US violence killing righteous and/or innocent Muslims.  In a strategic communications environment where the US and its allies are struggling to close the say-do gap (for more see here and also here), having access to first hand video of US actions only fuels the insurgents’ abilities to exploit and perpetuate that gap.

Second, this intercept of Predator video is an act that fits into a broader narrative system.  It becomes a story as it circulates in the media and is retold by Western news media and insurgent mouthpieces.  In a recent post I discussed how  narrative works and what it does:

A narrative is a system of stories that hang together and provide a coherent view of the world.  People use narratives to understand how their world works.  Narratives contain patterns that fit the data of everyday life (events, people, actions, sequences of actions, messages, and so on), explaining how events unfold over time and how one thing causes another.

Osama Bin Laden has been telling stories of US imperialism and invasion, but also of US over-confidence and lack of resolve.  The stories of weakness include the 1993 defeat in Somalia, the bombing of the USS Cole, and 9/11, of course.  These stories all revolve around the central figure of the US as an over-confident monolithic force that is weaker in actuality than its image portrays.  I mentioned “hubris” above.  Here’s a quote from the Wall Street Journal report linked above:

The potential drone vulnerability lies in an unencrypted downlink between the unmanned craft and ground control. The U.S. government has known about the flaw since the U.S. campaign in Bosnia in the 1990s, current and former officials said. But the Pentagon assumed local adversaries wouldn’t know how to exploit it, the officials said.

This assumption belies a degree of US hubris, and even if the assumption was based on fairly solid intelligence it would play in the insurgents’ narrative system as a story of American over-confidence, arrogance and under-estimation of the skills of the militants.

Another key component of these stories is the clever and righteous mujahid warrior:

  • In Somalia a combination of Al-Qaeda fighters and Somali militiamen defeated US Rangers and Special Operations forces.
  • In the case of the USS Cole, clever fighters used an innocuous looking boat to approach the complacent warship.
  • In the 9/11 story, the Al-Qaeda team crafted a creative plan to bring down a symbol of US decadence and excess.

With the number of these stories in circulation, a pattern develops creating the expectation in the intended audience that the US is weak and that clever mujahideen can, will and do defeat the Americans.  With the Predator drone representing as feared an asset as the Russian Hind attack helicopter was in the Soviet-Afghan war, this hack story fits the same pattern as the mujahideen defeating the Soviets with resolve, piety and righteousness (oh, and some Stingers).

Complementing these contemporary stories of clever Muslim soldiers defeating the American forces are older stories from Islamic traditions wherein a seemingly overmatched righteous warrior defeats a seemingly invincible power.  The David and Goliath story is one recognizable to Christians and Jews, but is also revered by Muslims.  The clever David eschews bulky armor and close-in weaponry, using speed, agility and an easily available supply of rock ammunition for his sling to defeat the over-confident and fear-inducing imperialist Goliath. The David and Goliath story establishes a pattern repeated with IEDs:  Clever warriors use unsophisticated and easily obtained weapons to defeat heavily armored warriors of a conquering government.

Another clever victory story by Muslims comes in the form of the Battle of the Trench.  Salman al-Farsi advises Muhammad to dig a trench around Medina to defend it against a massive Meccan confederacy of some 10,000 warriors.  The force of 3000 Muslims thwarts the Meccan assault and effectively ends the Meccan threat against the developing Islamic ummah.

Thus, these Predator video hack events contribute to a robust narrative system.  This system is made up of coherent and similar stories, across a range of time periods from the ancient to the contemporary.  In this consistent system there is a Crusading force, oppressing and/or invading the land of the innocent and righteous and pious.  Through a combination of righteousness, piety and cleverness, the oppressed (and after the Battle of the Trench this narrative system narrows its protagonists to Muslims) warriors defeat the overbearing, overconfident and seemingly all-powerful invaders.

So while we’re all paying attention to whether the video intercepts constitute a “hack” or not, we should be spending equal time, at least, in thinking through the strategic communication ramifications of this intelligence breech.  Commanders in the field should be screaming bloody murder about this counter-intelligence vulnerability, but so too should those charged with maintaining an effective strategic communication campaign.