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  • 09 Oct 2016 7:55 PM | Anonymous

    Written By: CENSA Editorial Board


    The Summer Olympic Games are over; and while they were not perfect, they can be viewed as an overall success! Yet now that the party is over, Brazil must more earnestly deal with a host of looming crises largely overlooked and kept from the international eye during the events. The Rio Games experienced funding challenges and were held, for instance, even as the nation faced a growing corruption scandal, experienced a deteriorating economy, and endured widespread political turmoil. The extent of the social upheaval has proven to be impactful enough to also awaken and exacerbate long-dormant political rivalries.

    The Olympic funding shortage was a significant challenge and yet the struggle was recast in a positive light in an effort to personalize and motivate more interest in the Games. This act of recasting called for an invigorated spirit of innovation and improvisation affectionately known as jeitinho Brasileiro, or the Brazilian way of doing things, and it produced positive results.[1] Not only were competition venues ready by the Games’ start, but local officials provided an eleventh-hour pledge to fund the Opening Ceremony. This last-minute cash infusion appears to have broken a promise to avoid public assistance. Despite assurances to the contrary from the head of the International Olympic Committee (on the eve of the closing ceremonies, no less), suspicion about the use of public funding is widespread..[2]

    The Games took place a mere seven years after Brazil outbid several rivals to serve as host, besting even a proposal put forth by an Obama-backed, Chicago-based group.  The Brazilian government, once the toast of investors worldwide, has since experienced a downgrade in its investment rating and continues to be rocked by a serious and ever-growing corruption scandal. Thus far, the scandal has resulted in the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the ouster of the left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT), a political machine that had been in power for 13 years – the longest democratically-elected reign in Brazil’s history. [3]  To make matters worse, the Brazilian economy continues to suffer from its worst recession in three decades, with unemployment and inflation at frighteningly high levels (the former hovers above 11 percent, and the latter above eight).

    In Rio, crime remains a serious problem. During the week ending 18 August, more than 70 shootings occurred, mostly concentrated in Rio’s North Zone. The highest number of incidents took place in the notoriously violent areas of Complexo do Mare and Complexo do Alemao. And additional shootings have taken place on Linha Vermelha, the transit link between the international airport and Rio’s South Zone and the areas of Copacabana and Leme.[4]  Presumably in response to these developments, and in anticipation of additional violence, Defense Minister Raul Jungmann announced that the 23,000-strong military and police force previously engaged in Olympic-related security will remain in the Rio area until the October elections. [5] While additional security is an admirable response, the extent and depth of poverty in Brazil’s poorest neighborhoods and other underlying structural problems (i.e., a lack of access to public services) remain.

    The deep economic recession has negatively affected the entire country and is largely a result of both the global economic slowdown and the decline in commodity-based revenues especially important to Brazil:  oil, iron, and soya. The drop in commodity income has helped to precipitate and sustain a plunge in Brazil’s Gross Domestic Product (a 3.8% decline in 2015 and another 3.2% drop for 2016) as well as increase Brazil’s national unemployment rate (above 10% earlier this year).[6] A rebound in the commodities market is unlikely to occur anytime soon, especially because Beijing’s appetite for both oil and steel continues to wane and Riyadh’s high rate of oil production continues (to maintain its own competitive advantage in the global market).

    As if the negative economic trends are not enough of a challenge to manage, the governing elite of Brazil must also focus on a widening corruption scandal that initially came to light during Operation Lava Jato (“Car Wash”), a fairly straightforward money-laundering investigation. The investigation has since expanded and has not only implicated the major Brazilian construction firms of Oderbrecht and OAS, but has brought to light a number of bribes and kickback-for-contracts schemes at the state-owned oil firm Petrobras and Electronuclear (a subsidiary of the state-owned electricity firm Electrobas). Electronuclear’s president has been removed, convicted for corruption, and sentenced to 43 years.[7]

    The corruption investigation has also implicated several important political figures, including former President Rousseff and her predecessor and mentor, the still widely-popular (and darling of the now out-of-power PT) Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, on suggestions of graft linked to Petrobras; Lula has been officially charged with corruption and obstruction.

    Other PT members have also been implicated, including Antonio Palucci, a finance minister and Chief of Staff during the Lula Administration, leading to counter-claims that the current level of investigations are politically motivated.[8] Lula has in fact filed a petition with the United Nations High Council of Human Rights, alleging persecution and accusing federal prosecutors involved in Operation Lava Jato of abusing their power. Lula’s political allies have joined the chorus of protests, insisting that the charges are primarily designed to prevent him from running for President again in 2018; such an argument, however, is beginning to lose credence as the investigation’s scope expands to implicate an even larger number of PT political opponents.[9] Nevertheless, former President Rousseff continues to maintain her innocence and characterizes her impeachment as little more than a coup d’etat. 

    The recent developments in Brazil and the strategic challenges they present for American policy makers are both vexing and problematic. Until the recent downturn – and especially during the Lula Administration – Brazil had become a significant economic and political force within the region. More than 20 million of its citizens had escaped acute poverty; its economy had transitioned to net-creditor status for the first time in history and had grown into the 8th largest economy in the world; and Brasilia had forged stronger alliances abroad by signing new agreements in trade and military assistance, especially with Beijing. Indeed, Brazil has become China’s most important ally in the region for economic and military cooperation, leaving some to question the strength and influence of Washington in the corridors of Brazil’s capital.[10][11][12]

    Should Brazil’s recent plight and political assertiveness on the world stage be seen by the United States as reason to increase America’s level of engagement in the South American nation, and perhaps as cause to reassert Washington’s political interests in the region? Should Brazil’s economic downturn be viewed as an opportunity for American investors to secure investments on the cheap in anticipation of a rebound in prices? Should Washington attempt to double down on military-to-military cooperative engagements with Brazil – especially in training and education related matters – in the wake of Brasilia’s decision to modernize its Air Force with Saab JAS-39 Gripen aircraft rather than Boeing’s F/A-18 E/F (a decision allegedly made in retaliation for U.S. electronic eavesdropping on Brazilian political leadership)?[13] Should Washington offer to assist with additional economic assistance or anti-corruption initiatives in an effort to repair bilateral relations at the highest levels, or should it remain at a distance out of absolute respect for Brazilian sovereignty? And perhaps the most important question of all: with crime, suspected terrorist activity,[14] and Chinese interest in the region on the rise, can Washington afford not to get more involved?

    [1] Bloomberg; 5 August 2016; Olympic Opening Ceremony Puts Brazil Cash Crunch on Display; http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-08-05/rio-olympic-ceremony-marks-festive-showing-of-brazil-cash-crunch.

    [2] Bloomberg; 20 August 2016; Olympics Head Says no Public Cash Used for Rio after Bailout; http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-08-20/olympics-head-says-no-public-funds-used-for-rio-after-bailout.

    [3] Bloomberg; 5 August 2016; Olympic Opening Ceremony Puts Brazil Cash Crunch on Display; http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-08-05/rio-olympic-ceremony-marks-festive-showing-of-brazil-cash-crunch.

    [4] U.S. Department of State, Diplomatic Security Service, OSAC; 18 August 2016; Daily Report: 2016 Rio Olympics; www.travel.state.gov.

    [5] Campos 24 Horas; 20 August 2016; TSE Pede Permanencia no Rio de Tropas Destinadas a Olimpiada ate as Eleicoes; http://campos24ho.com.br/portal/tse-pede-permanencia-no-rio-de-tropas-destinadas-olimpiada-ate-as-eleicoes/.

    [6] http://www.focus-economics.com/countries/brazil

    [7] R7 Noticias; 17 August 2016; TCU Bloqueia R$ 2,1 Bilhoes em Bens de Construtoras Investigadas na Lava Jato; http://noticias.r7.com/brasil/tcu-bloqueia-r-21-bilhoes-em-bens-de-construtoras-investigadas-na-lava-jato-17082016.

    [8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/brazil-arrests-silvas-ex-finance-minister-in-graft-probe/2016/09/26/a8172312-8408-11e6-b57d-dd49277af02f_story.html

    [9] Rio Times; 29 July 2016; Former President Lula Seeks U.N. Help Against Investigation; http://riotimesonline.com/brazil-news/rio-politics/former-president-lula-seeks-u-n-help-against-investigation/.

    [10] http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/Collaboration/Interagency/chinese-imperialism.pdf, p.6.

    [11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil–China_relations

    [12] http://www.armyrecognition.com/april_2013_news_defence_army_military_industry_uk/china_and_brazil_to_strengthen_exchanges_and_collaboration_in_defence_and_security_fields_1804132.html

    [13] https://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/brazil-embarking-upon-f-x2-fighter-program-04179/

    [14] U.S. Department of State, Diplomatic Security Service, OSAC; 19 August 2016; Daily Report: 2016 Rio Olympics; www.travel.state.gov.

  • 23 Sep 2016 9:13 AM | Anonymous

    Written By: CENSA Editorial Board


    For many years the greatest artificial intelligence (AI) minds toiled without fanfare in the academic world while commercial breakthroughs and even more basic applications of AI research remained unrealized. Yet with increased investment from the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon[1], with the availability of open source software frameworks such as TensorFlow, and with an upsurge in the number of niche, AI-focused startups,[2] an explosion of AI-related products and services has recently hit the marketplace.  For AI proponents, it is truly an exciting time.

    Grey Markets 

    AI has the potential to completely transform the way work is performed in the world today, especially in highly structured industries. Many startups understand this and have already begun to demonstrate potential capabilities in so-called “grey markets,” or sectors of the business world that are less regulated and ripe for low-profile experimentation.  Designed and executed discreetely in order to avoid an increase in regulatory oversight and action, these efforts offer practical innovators the opportunity to promote and expand the art of the possible in AI.[3] Yet grey markets might prove to be even more important for policy makers to follow and understand because as these products gain more traction and usage they are likely to shape, define, and foreshadow the limits of future policy options.

    Literacy Gaps 

    The development and rise of artificial neural networks (ANNs) is an example of an AI-innovation that is widely used to enable machine learning. Based on what we understand to be the workings of the central nervous systems of animals (with respect to the brain), and coupled with advanced mathematical models, ANNs have been employed by Google and Facebook to sort through and analyze large data sets, a process through which multiple tasks can be executed.[4] In traditional programming, a software engineer will write code containing specific instructions and parameters for a computer to follow. Yet with AI-induced machine-learning the underlying code remains constant and unchanged, even as the computer continues to adapt and find new ways to accomplish specific end states (i.e., as it “learns”). In these circumstances a software engineer has only a broad sense of what might occur and has only a general idea about what might cause a computer to behave in a certain way.[5] This so-called “literacy gap” among computer designers and operators is important to remember, even as the number of fully independent machine-learning systems increases, because it suggests that the workforce must learn to adopt a more flexible mindset (and perhaps new skillsets), and accept a new level of uncertainty with respect to machines.

    Unintended Effects 

    The great potential of AI products actually lies in the ability of the designer and user to anticipate different aspects of their potential, and to manage, leverage, and utilize them to make future tasks even more productive and efficient. Many of these systems, though flawed, possess not only the ability to grow more sophisticated but the ability and potential to produce unexpected and unfortunate outcomes. The Microsoft Tay incident of March 2016 is a case in point, when the chatbot named Tay posted several inflammatory, offensive, and unfortunate statements online.  In accordance with its underlying instructions to adapt to the communications’ environment, Tay simply mimicked and countered and then intensified (and inflated!) the inflammatory slang it encountered. The incident is an excellent reminder that even seemingly harmless AI-based creations can produce unintended side effects and negative results.[6]

    Trends associated with the sudden surge of commercially available AI products and services will continue to develop as the technology advances further and industry attempts to scale and grow various products and services. For policy makers – especially those with an interest in (and a keen eye set on) national security matters – the evolution of grey markets, literacy gaps, and unintended effects will prove to be key. Understanding their development and how industry reacts and responds, must inform and fundamentally influence government action. 

    [1] Jack C. (2016, May 18). Google Shows Off to Keep Up with Facebook, Amazon, Apple [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-18/google-shows-off-ai-to-keep-up-with-facebook-amazon-apple

    [2] Lisa C. (2016, April 12). 15 Game-Changing Artificial Intelligence Startups [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.inc.com/lisa-calhoun/see-13-of-the-artificial-intelligence-companies-checking-you-out-today.html

    [3] Shivon Z. (2015, December 10). The Current State of Machine Intelligence 2.0 [Online Article]. Retrieved from https://www.oreilly.com/ideas/the-current-state-of-machine-intelligence-2-0

    [4] Cade M. (2015, May 6). Building AI is Hard – So Facebook is Building AI That Builds AI [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2016/05/facebook-trying-create-ai-can-create-ai/

    [5] Jason T. (2016, May 17). Soon We Won’t Program Computers. We’ll Train Them Like Dogs [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2016/05/the-end-of-code/

    [6] Cade M. (2016, June 21). Forget Doomsday AI – Google is Worried About Housekeeping Bots Gone Bad [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2016/06/forget-doomsday-ai-google-worried-housekeeping-bots-gone-bad/

  • 20 Aug 2016 9:46 AM | Anonymous

    Written By: CENSA Editorial Board


    Notorious for leaking classified documents and revealing U.S. wire-tapping activities, the controversial not-for-profit media organization known as Wikileaks claims to be a champion of free speech and posts the following statement on its website: “Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public. One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth”[1]. Wikileaks further claims that its actions are in accordance with a fundamental precept of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—that everyone has the right to freedom of expression and opinion. Despite such high-minded allusions, Wikileaks’ actions might not be as noble or as innocent as they appear at first glance. And most important, they may be only a reaction to the designs and actions of yet another – more sinister – behind-the-scenes player.

    Wikileaks founder and CEO Julian Assange claimed on July 12th that his organization had acquired information damaging to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and cited specific correspondence proving that the DNC had favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders from the earliest stages of the presidential primaries. Consequently (and admittedly consistent with its self-defined freedom of information doctrine), Wikileaks noted a desire to expose corruption within the Democratic Party, and, according to one online report, to shed light on “…[the] thuggish infighting, a push by a top DNC official to use Bernie Sanders’ religious convictions against him in the [American] South, and attempts to strong arm media outlets”[2]. But rather than debate the email leak as an example of free speech, perhaps more attention should be paid to how Wikileaks obtained such information in the first place. The evidence appears to be overwhelming: Russian-sponsored cyber-hackers fed the correspondence to Wikileaks.

    According to at least one report, Crowdstrike (a cybersecurity team hired by the DNC) has identified two Russian cyber-operatives known as Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear as being behind the hacks—“in one case leaving behind a Russian name in Cyrillic as a signature—and Kremlin attribution has been confirmed by independent analysis by a second cybersecurity firm.”[3] If true, then we should wonder why? Or perhaps we should consider a more important question: why might Russian authorities seek to interfere with the U.S. presidential election in a way to undermine the eventual Democratic nominee? It should come as no surprise to any American that Russia (read: President Putin) might want to defame Secretary Clinton as much as possible – and to great effect. Clinton and Putin do not have a warm relationship – a frostiness that can be traced to her days as Secretary of State but perhaps stems from her ties to her husband’s administration and his efforts to expand NATO membership eastward. In contrast, President Putin and Mr. Trump appear to share more affinity for one another (despite having never met), and such affinity might explain why the Republican National Committee and the Republican National Convention, respectively, were each spared a similar intrusion and interruption.

    And yet, the interference in DNC business might be the result of an even more acute and deliberate calculation by a Kremlin suspecting that a Trump presidency would be more favorable to Russian interests.  While Clinton has increased her “tough talk” on Russia since leaving office, Trump, conversely, has been “chummy,” calling for closer US-Russia cooperation against the Islamic State for example. And in June Trump campaign adviser Carter Page not only praised Putin but also referred to him as a stronger and more reliable leader than President Obama.[4]

    “When a foreign policy issue becomes a political issue, it becomes…much harder to do foreign policy,” states Russian expert Sam Charap.[5] And this statement appears to be self-evident. But foreign interference in America’s electoral process is also cause to question the basic foundations of American self-government, as such interference must be seen as a design to advance foreign vice American interests.

    In the end, who might be the patsy in this dynamic situation? Is it Wikileaks? Is it Trump? Is it the DNC or the Democratic Party writ large? Or might it be the American citizenry? And most important, in this digital era, at what point do online efforts in the name of “free speech” actually undermine the voice of the people?

    [1] Wikileaks. (2011, May 7). About, What is Wikileaks? Retrieved from https://wikileaks.org/About.html

    [2] Defenseone. (2016, July 24). How Putin Weaponized Wikileaks to Influence the Election of an American President. [Online News] Retrieved from http://www.defenseone.com/technology/2016/07/how-putin-weaponized-wikileaks-influence-election-american-president/130163/

    [3] Observer. (2016, July 25). Wikileaks Dismantling of DNC Is Clear Attack by Putin on Clinton. [Online News] Retrieved from http://observer.com/2016/07/wikileaks-dismantling-of-dnc-is-clear-attack-by-putin-on-clinton/

    [4] http://www.stltoday.com/news/national/govt-and-politics/trump-s-embrace-of-russia-is-very-unusual--/article_8cd0d185-76dd-5241-980c-69f24b582f05.html

    [5] Ibid.

  • 12 Aug 2016 7:48 PM | Anonymous

    Written By: CENSA Editorial Board


    With the resignation of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Chairwoman in the rear view mirror and talk of the Russian hand behind the hack of the DNC for the purpose of political warfare seemingly old news, it would appear that many within the decision making circles are ready to move on.[1] With US intelligence agencies reporting a “high confidence” that the Russian government operatives are behind the theft of 20,000 emails and documents, discussion of the DNC hack has been largely relegated to security reporting and cyber blogs and buried under the caustic environment of the US election season.[2] There are some obvious reasons that the injured party might want the news cycle to move on or to focus rather on the role the opposition candidate may have played. However, there are some very compelling reasons why more focus should be brought to bear on the larger pattern of Russian engagement in information warfare and on Moscow’s inherent capacity and capability in this area, rather than dismissing such behavior as normal intel gathering or “dirty tricks.”

    A former U.S. national intelligence officer said the Russian cyber-penetration of the DNC fits into a longstanding pattern of how Moscow has pursued its objectives - “It’s a pretty diversified toolkit of espionage, information operations, disinformation, bribery, hacking, and financial manipulation.”[3] Indeed, within intelligence circles it is accepted that Russia presents a serious cyber threat and that under Putin’s leadership, Russia has returned to many of the Soviet Cold War – era techniques.[4] But the conversation has not moved much beyond this passive, academic-leaning characterization and far too often ignores what is truly new in Russian political warfare and how Russia has begun to marshal and channel all available tools of political warfare within the context of the digital age. Since the 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russian techniques – based on Soviet era Maskirovka, Agitprop and “Active Measures” tradecraft – are remarkable for both their level of sophistication and sheer volume. To be sure, the totality of Russian actions can be accurately termed “total infowar for the digital age,” given the pervasive nature of resources dedicated to what many perceive to be insignificant issues.

    With the employment of vast resources from its Intelligence community, Russia has developed what one researcher has termed a “firehose of falsehoods” with operations in every form of social media, using rapid, continuous and repetitive, high-volume, multichannel communication that makes no attempt to conform to any standard of objective reality but counter-intuitively enjoys rather high levels of success (at least in achieving immediate efforts to influence perceptions).[5] Fake accounts are often employed through the use of the “Troll Army” and “Web Brigades” and seen as prepping the environment (or often, “operational preparation of the environment,” or OPE).

    In addition to prepping the environment for, and support to, political and military operations in Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine, the Russian political warfare machine has employed the firehose approach to undermine support for NATO and to disrupt support for its expansion.[6] Finland is one example where Russian influence is evident, as Russia has supported various political leaders and both challenged and smeared the reputations of journalists, politicians and researchers.[7] Additionally, Russia has allocated significant financial resources to boost the popularity of at least 15 fringe parties across Europe known to share Putin’s interest in preventing the enlargement of the EU and the larger project of European integration.[8]

    Russia’s behavior would seem innocuous if not for the fact that a plethora of falsehoods has accompanied so many (if not all) of Russian actions on the world stage. Examples include: the fabricated story of a rape of a Russian teen by Syrian refugees;[9] the harassment of Zvezda “reporter” Viktoria Schmidt (who was actually actress Natalia Weiss) in a propaganda piece entitled “Europe – Paradox of Tolerance;”[10] the explanations of the Malaysia Airline flight 17 disaster; and the Channel One report that Ukrainian soldiers had crucified a three-year-old boy.[11] What’s perhaps most disturbing is that many of these stories experience traction with and gain support from both Russian viewers and interested westerners, giving life to the dictum that sometimes quantity has a quality all its own. Complicating this phenomenon even more, US policy makers appear to lack any strategic understanding, and instead tend to engage each incident in isolation and apart from the total Russian pattern. Furthermore, little meaningful discussion has taken place publicly about effective countermeasures to engage the aims of the resurgent Russian Bear – especially when the claws of the bear are by no means trivial. Perhaps, then, and as one researcher has expressed, “the first step is to recognize that this is a non-trivial challenge.”[12]

    [1] Gearan, A. (2016, July 24) DNC chairwoman will resign in aftermath of committee email controversy [Online News]. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/hacked-emails-cast-doubt-on-hopes-for-party-unity-at-democratic-convention/2016/07/24/a446c260-51a9-11e6-b7de-dfe509430c39_story.html

    [2] Sanger, D. (2016, July 26) Spy Agency Consensus Grows That Russia Hacked D.N.C. [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/27/us/politics/spy-agency-consensus-grows-that-russia-hacked-dnc.html?_r=0

    [3] Groll, E., et. al. (2016, July 26) Moscow Brings Its Propaganda War to the United States [Online News]. Retrieved from http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/25/moscow-brings-its-propaganda-war-to-the-united-states/

    [4] CBS News (2015, February 26) Russia tops list of nation-state cyber threats against US [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/russia-tops-list-of-nation-state-cyber-threats-against-u-s/

    [5] Paul, C. (2016) The Russian "Firehose of Falsehood" Propaganda Model. Rand. Retrieved from http://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE198.html

    [6] Chen, A. (2015, June 2) The Agency [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html?_r=0

    [7] Higgins, A. (2016, May 30) Effort to Expose Russia’s ‘Troll Army’ Draws Vicious Retaliation [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/31/world/europe/russia-finland-nato-trolls.html?_r=0

    [8] Groll, E., et. al.

    [9] Goncharenko, R. (2016, January 19)  Russia uses the refugee crisis for propaganda [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.dw.com/en/russia-uses-the-refugee-crisis-for-propaganda/a-18989796

    [10] Russian voices for sale in media war on Germany http://www.dw.com/en/russian-voices-for-sale-in-media-war-on-germany/a-19027605

    [11] Danilova, M. (2014, July 22) Truth and the Russian media [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/truth_and_russian_media.php

    [12] Paul, C.

  • 07 Aug 2016 1:56 PM | Anonymous

    Written By: CENSA Editorial Board


    In an earlier post, Publicly Available information: The Digital Battlefield, the CENSA Editorial Board referenced critical House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and House Permanent Select Committee for Intelligence (HPSCI) report language attached to Fiscal Year 2017 authorization bills that encouraged the Department of Defense (DoD) to improve its thinking, training, and operational capacity for digital support to military objectives and missions. Given the evolution of digital warfare over the past decade, this is a significant step in the right direction. The digitally-focused OPE mission remains too often ignored, shortchanged, and under-resourced.

    In addition to urging greater capacity for focusing on the military’s operational matters, the recent HPSCI language also resurrected a long-standing committee concern “that many intelligence and intelligence-related activities continue to be characterized as ‘battlespace awareness’, [or] ‘situational awareness,’ and – especially – ‘operational preparation of the environment’”,[1] thereby further blurring the distinction between the intelligence and non-intelligence requirements of U.S. combatant commanders.  The HPSCI understandably prefers more clarity and precision in these characterizations by the DoD, with perhaps too strong of a bias toward re-classifying many (or most) of these activities as intelligence-related.

    The current threat environment and related online activity is evolving at an unprecedented rate and in ways unseen little more than a decade or so ago. And because of the explosion in digitally-based PAI, the intersection between non-intelligence and intelligence activities is less distinct and more intermingled than ever before. Terrorists and insurgents have embraced numerous online methods to not only recruit but to communicate and direct near-term operations. As such, forward deployed U.S. military commanders are faced with making difficult real-time decisions with limited – and often inadequate – resources; the enemy’s digitally-enabled acceleration of operations has extremely challenged military personnel and renders useless even the most compressed intelligence assessment cycle. To be sure, time is an increasingly rare commodity on a modern digital battlefield with unclear boundaries and indiscernible adversaries. The need for improvements in digitally-focused OPE, force protection, and situational awareness capabilities is therefore real. Simply put, combatant command (COCOM) staffs need more training and tools to be minimally proficient and to initiate both offensive operations and effective countermeasures online.

    While a more clear and consistent standard is needed to characterize and justify the online requirements, initiatives, and actions of the U.S. COCOM community, an accommodation also must be made for the operational realities of today’s digital environment. In short, the intelligence-centric perspective that has traditionally driven such policy and resourcing decisions produces little more than a passive ability to monitor and track the actions of our adversaries and too often produces a report long after situations and geopolitical conditions have inalterably shifted to a new reality. This approach is adequate no more. To advance our national goals and achieve ultimate success, we must update our means of operations (and train for it) to effect change on the new battlefield.

    [1] https://www.congress.gov/114/crpt/hrpt573/CRPT-114hrpt573.pdf

  • 27 Jul 2016 8:37 AM | Anonymous

    Written By: CENSA Editorial Board


    In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, in-print and online conversations are abuzz with questions regarding Omar Mateen’s true motives and his possible connection with the Islamic State terrorist group known as ISIS. One of the primary questions, “Did he have direct links to ISIS?” draws comments from a diverse population—some of whom seem to believe that if the answer is “no,” then the meaning of the attack is less significant, or perhaps it poses less of a strategic threat to U.S. national security. Yet this logic fails to consider the purpose behind ISIS’s propaganda and recruitment campaigns. Intricately designed, these campaigns currently have global influence, in over six main languages, and can be accessed by anyone with access to the internet. One single post to justpaste.it, for instance, produces more than 20 different links to different types of media sites containing messages in multiple sizes and suitable for any bandwidth.

    In the immediate aftermath of the Orlando attacks, ISIS capitalized on the event by engaging social media sites even as the news was initially breaking. Initial messages included support for the shooter, the sponsorship and use of various hashtags associated with the event (sometimes known as “hashtag hijacking”), and the encouragement of similar attacks in other locations. The messages contained very purposeful, targeted posts calling all “believers” to attack “non-believers” by any and all means. The messages have been consistent, methodical and emotional, as can be seen in a weekly publication of an online newsletter posted to multiple social media platforms each Tuesday.  Similar messages were seen after the attacks in Paris[1] and Brussels.[2] Additionally, an associate of Mateen’s[3] has since come forward and relayed that Mateen had been watching and listening to Anwar al-Awlaki’s messages prior to the shooting (see archive.org).

    ISIS’s aggressive engagement of social media sites and its pervasive online presence is cause for considerable concern for any national security professional. The group is effectively competing in the “war of ideas” and recruiting untold numbers of future armed radicals. Its online campaign extends the reach of the organization to an infinite number of potential allies, including the socially disgruntled, disturbed, or disenfranchised in all parts of the world. Given this, a person could conduct an attack in the name of ISIS without ever having to talk to another person (might this be exactly the case in the July 14 truck attack in Nice, France?). The real question might be, therefore, does one need to have direct connections to a group to be considered a member of it? Does this really matter?

    [1] http://theconversation.com/how-social-media-was-key-to-islamic-states-attacks-on-paris-50743

    [2] http://www.businessinsider.de/isis-telegram-twitter-brussels-attacks-2016-3?r=US&IR=T

    [3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/06/20/i-reported-omar-mateen-to-the-fbi-trump-is-wrong-that-muslims-dont-do-our-part/

  • 13 Jul 2016 11:52 AM | Anonymous

    Written By: CENSA Editorial Board


    Over the past year, Europe has seen an increasing number of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers attempting to escape terror, violence or persecution. In 2015, there were a total of 1,321,560 asylum claims alone in the European Union. And the International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 1,011,700 migrants actually reached Europe by sea, and almost 34,900 by land.[1]

    The challenges associated with the sudden influx of people have resulted in political tension and debate across Europe over how to deal with the crisis; social media has played a particularly large role in shaping discussions about possible remedies. For refugees, the use of social media has been more about survival than activism, with many using phone apps to navigate their way to safety [2] – a stark contrast from how social media has been utilized by others to comment about the migration. A simple Twitter search for #refugees yields a wide range of results, including NGOs promoting activism, journalists covering the crisis, and various citizens voicing personal opinions from various nations.[3] 

    Expressing support for a cause via social media has been made easy with convenient posting and the use of hashtags...maybe too easy. Many posts reference real issues facing the refugees, but can be superficial and lacking in depth and context. While such posts are successful in bringing to light the plight of the migrants, they can also shift focus away from significant and meaningful action. In April, for example, the British House of Commons rejected the Dubs Amendment – a proposal to grant 3,000 refugee children asylum in the United Kingdom [4] – because online conversations shifted focus away from child safety to debates about how the government handles important decisions. This obfuscated the real issue, and the main message was lost in the shuffle.

    In contrast with the challenges social media presents in the European refugee crisis, many users highlight the performance of other meaningful work that has had an impact in the field; however, these positive messages are also often lost in the noise. One example is a group of German entrepreneurs teaching refugees how to develop software code. Another involves two refugees who have returned to Iraq to fight against ISIS. 

    This area of communications clearly has room to grow, but in a world of 24-hour news cycles and constant online access, further attempts to spread positive messaging can have real impact – especially if combined with more promising field efforts to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.

    [1] BBC News. (2016, March 4). Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911

    [2] Julian S. (2016, April 16). Refugees are more connected than ever. Rescuers must be too. [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2016/04/humanitarian-aid-startups/

    [3] #refugees, Twitter Search, June 24, 2016, 11:10 a.m., https://twitter.com/search?q=%23refugees&src=typd

    [4] BBC News. (2016, April 28). Government defeated again in Lords over child refugees [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-36146116

  • 06 Jul 2016 9:09 AM | Anonymous

    Written By: CENSA Editorial Board


    As our world becomes more technologically advanced and connected, the relevance of broadcasted digital content – 140 characters-at-a-time – continues to grow ever more influential in all aspects of human affairs. From the way that consumers buy things (both products and services), to the way that national security organizations are undertaking their professional duties, basic digital content – most often in the form of social media, but more appropriately and accurately defined as “publicly available information,” or PAI – is fast becoming the information source for decision making around the world.  This evolution is (as it should be) critically important to ongoing conversations inside and throughout the United States Government –  especially within the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Intelligence Community (IC). 

    Unfortunately, the digital world evolves at a pace much faster than the deliberate (some say plodding) evolutionary tempo of decision making inherent in the large bureaucratic community responsible for developing and executing national security policies. To be sure, these policies and attending regulations and laws are outdated and largely irrelevant in the digital age; and yet they continue to govern the management and use of information from publicly available sources. It’s as if decision makers are stuck in a constant nonresolvable cycle, the result of a system that, according to at least one industry observer, “isn’t flexible enough to keep up with the rapidly changing social media landscape.”[1] 

    While the impact of and resulting fallout from the infamous Snowden leaks has further stalled an already-slow decision making process, debates by senior policy makers pitting privacy concerns and civil liberty protections against overall security requirements continue; and these debates, unfortunately, continue to end in indecision.  The balance between privacy and security is – clearly – a critically important issues to a democracy and cannot (and should not) be easily dismissed; but it is also reasonable for citizens to expect resolutions in these matters, and to expect the issuance of policy guidance and – most importantly – actions. Choices and decisions must be made. The nature of the digital world demands it. The sourcing of information and how it flows has grown too dynamic to ignore.

    Amid these debates, a controversy has emerged about whether or not to treat PAI in the same manner as Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). But while OSINT and PAI are similar, they can be in fact distinct, and the difference is important.  According to 17 CFR 160.3, PAI is defined as “any information that you reasonably believe is lawfully made available to the general public from:

    1. Federal, state or local government records;
    2. Widely distributed media; or
    3. Disclosures to the general public that are required to be made by federal, state or local law.”[2]

    In contrast, OSINT is defined by how the information is processed and by the intent of its usage – a critical distinction. Whereas PAI can serve the important function of informing contextual understanding of locations, people, and events, and could be an initial component of what eventually becomes OSINT, it is not the same – just by definition; OSINT is more specific, purposeful, and aimed at supporting a perceived action. Indeed, both the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the DOD have defined OSINT as that which has been “produced from publicly available information [and] collected, exploited, and disseminated in a timely manner to an appropriate audience for the purpose of addressing a specific intelligence requirement.”[3]

    The DOD further differentiates OSINT from research (i.e., PAI activities or PAI research) by emphasizing the “intelligence process” as a distinguishing feature – the creation of tailored knowledge to support a specific decision by a specific individual or group.[4] Thus, the same 140 characters, literally, can be researched, utilized, analyzed, and triaged for a myriad of reasons that are similar – but if its end use is for supporting an intelligence requirement, then more specificity and purpose, and more formal processing, exploitation, and dissemination is necessary. This distinction is not insignificant, as the governance of OSINT is (rightfully) more stringent.

    Although significantly lagging, recent meaningful (if incremental) progress has been made toward the goal of providing the greater national security work force improved training and equipment for developing digital battlespace operational capabilities, and especially with respect to utilizing PAI. One example is the DNI’s authorization of government investigators to include the research of social media and online digital information for background investigations and the granting of federal security clearances.[5]  Additionally, the Secretary of Defense recently released an approved DOD Strategy for Operations in the Information Environment (IE), “to serve as a cornerstone document to align Departmental actions and ensure effective integration of DOD efforts in dynamic IE.”[6] Both steps reflect an improved awareness at the senior ranks of the U.S. Government (USG) about the nature and far-reaching influence of the digital domain.

    Less than two weeks after the DNI’s expansion of background investigation criteria, a social media post on the Telegram reported and publicized that the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is targeting American citizens – providing yet more evidence that the world we currently reside in moves at a quick pace.[7]  The juxtaposition of these two developments provides an opportunity for an interesting observation: on the one hand, the senior level of the USG is just now – in 2016! – realizing the value of looking at the digital arena to verify the trustworthiness of a potential employee, while on the other hand, current adversaries of the United States have already leveraged (for years, literally) this domain for a wide range of functions, to include the incitement of violence.

    The national security threat landscape continues to change (and seemingly every week), but the prevalent nature of the digital domain remains a constant in all possible threat scenarios. The digital domain contains an abundance of relevant information from and about America’s current and potential adversaries and possible contingencies, such as: ISIS in the Middle East; Boko Haram and the Niger Delta Liberation Front in Africa; Unit 61398 in China; and the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe. Each group and crisis has a ubiquitous online presence and specifically in the PAI medium.

    The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is on record urging the DOD to invest in and get better at managing PAI, noting in its Report accompanying H.R. 4909 (the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017), the “unique operational uses and requirements for PAI that support force protection, operational security, and other missions.”[8]  The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) is also on the record, with language echoing the HASC provision concerning operational utilization of PAI, and urging the IC in its Report accompanying H.R. 5077 to more “effectively monitor and utilize social media [a critical subset of PAI] analytical tools.” [9]

    The HASC and HPSCI have it right. They are attuned with the operational realities of the digital battlefield; and they should be applauded for their initiative. For their part, senior DOD and IC leaders should respond favorably to this leadership example, “double down” on existing PAI-related activities, and enable and empower operational commanders to develop more organic training programs and capabilities. The way of the future demands it. And the future is now.

    [1] https://fcw.com/articles/2012/08/15/feat-inside-dod-social-media-policy.aspx

    [2] http://definitions.uslegal.com/p/publicly-available-information

    [3] NATIONAL DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION ACT FOR FISCAL YEAR 2006, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-109publ163/html/PLAW-109publ163.htm

    [4] “Spy Agencies Turn to Newspapers, NPR, and Wikipedia for Information”; http://www.usnews.com/news/national/articles/2008/09/12/spy-agencies-turn-to-newspapers-npr-and-wikipedia-for-information

    [5] https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/press-releases/215-press-releases-2016/1374-dni-clapper-signs-new-policy-on-social-media-for-federal-background-investigations-for-security-clearances-1

    [6] http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/DoD-Strategy-for-Operations-in-the-IE-Signed-20160613.pdf

    [7] http://www.vocativ.com/326931/new-isis-kill-list-claims-to-target-thousands-of-americans/

    [8] https://www.congress.gov/114/crpt/hrpt537/CRPT-114hrpt537.pdf

    [9] https://www.congress.gov/114/crpt/hrpt573/CRPT-114hrpt573.pdf

  • 13 Jun 2016 7:30 PM | Anonymous

    Written By: CENSA Editorial Board


    In the last few years, news of the Islamic State (ISIS) has spread aggressively throughout the world. While glimpses of similar entities appear on newscasts and in social media, ISIS holds particular attention of viewers. Why? Because it innovates and produces its own form of sophisticated media instead of settling for poorly developed video statements or waiting passively to be mentioned by other news sources. Its members execute the dissemination of news through modern, accessible and easily viewable content.[1]

    The West African-based terrorist group called Wilayat Gharb Ifriqquyah, or Boko Haram, (as it is more widely known), has also displayed a growing sophistication and presence in social media. This growing maturity is in large part because of its pledged allegiance to and virtual alliance with ISIS. And it continues to march and make strategic gains in West Africa even as ISIS has lost a considerable amount of previously acquired territory in Syria,[2] As such, Boko Haram’s ever-increasing presence in social media and throughout publicly available information also serves as a strategic benefit to ISIS; the relationship appears to be a worthwhile return on investment for the larger group in terms of time, effort, and the issuance of online statements of moral support and allegiance. This strategic alliance is, in turn, mutually beneficial: by improving its digital profile, Boko Haram appears strong, healthy, and intimidating no matter how many military setbacks it might experience on the field of battle; and for ISIS, the alliance represents an ability to influence perceptions regarding not only its in-the-field success but also its territorial reach and impact.

    Boko Haram has an interesting history. In 2002, local Salafi leader Mohammed Yusuf established Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, or the “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad,” and advised followers to accept the teachings of Osama bin Laden, Wayyid Qutb, and Ibn Taymiya. Yusuf also preached against the secular nature of Nigeria, referring to the central government’s failure to follow and adhere to the teachings of Islamic law as cause for and legitimizing his opposition. His preaching began to cultivate considerable support and sparked tensions in 2009 with Nigerian security forces, resulting in Yusuf’s arrest and execution, as well as the deaths of more than a thousand of his followers.[3]

    Abubakr Shekau filled the leadership void created by Yusuf’s death and violence continued and significantly increased after July 2010 when the group officially declared jihad against both Nigeria and the United States. The frequency and sophistication of coordinated attacks increased, with the first vehicle-borne suicide bombing in Nigeria’s history occurring the following year (August, 2011). Several major operations were carried out after the extremist group’s official declaration of jihad, to include: the Bauchi prison break of September 2010; the October 2010 assassination of the Muslim cleric and Boko Haram opponent Bashir Kashara; numerous attacks on schools and places of worship not aligned with Boko Haram; and the high-profile April 2014 kidnapping of 276 girls from a school in the Nigerian town of Chibok. In the aggregate, estimates suggest that Boko Haram has killed as many as 20,000 people and displaced more than two million.[4]

    Yusuf’s successor, Abubakr Shekau, made a pivotal move in March 2015 when he declared allegiance to Abubakr Al Baghdadi, ISIS, and the idea of the Islamic Caliphate.[5] Members of ISIS responded quickly in social media with acceptance[6] and celebration.[7] The group’s name officially changed to Wilayat Gharb Iffriqiyah, or, literally: Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP).[8]

    The statement of loyalty was not only verbally recognized but also confirmed in practice, as the production quality of ISWAP’s on-line video messaging dramatically improved.[9] Earlier pre-alliance products can be identified by the display of an ISWAP logo at the upper corner of the screen, the absence of subtitles, and the poor quality of visual and audio definition.[10] Post-ISIS alliance video images are sharper, more detailed, and include both subtitles and a more stylized logo. The ISIS influence and assistance is clear and consistent with the same characteristics appearing on videos produced elsewhere (as in Libya).[11]

    The ISIS influence on ISWAP has been widely noted and recognized, and even more so when the influence disappeared. On March 24, 2016, for example, after being isolated from both ISWAP and ISIS for more than a year, Shekau returned to public view to officially relinquish his ISWAP leadership position, an act that caused a marked reaction in social media.[12] Observers noted that the poor quality of the audio and visual production (so much so that Shekau’s face is nearly unrecognizable!). He also appears in the video alone behind a solid backdrop, unlike other more recent videos produced again with ISIS assistance and projecting strength through the display of weapons and military vehicles in the background.[13]

    In contrast, an ISWAP video posted less than nine days later with clearly identifiable ISIS trademarks and displays subtitles and is of better quality. It has comparable backgrounds of military force in the footage as well.[14] It denied any sign of defeat or surrender and reconfirmed Shekau as the present leader of ISWAP while he remains hidden from the public eye, similar to other leaders of ISIS. The video is noteworthy in that it displays a capacity for rapid responses to shape online messaging and counter criticism or speculation, and indicates a desire to promote and protect their interests in the region.

    In light of Boko’s media growth, it is essential for the West to increase its analysis of online traffic and to engage in social media-based counter messaging. It helps isolate propaganda and distinguish between truth and fiction. Messaging campaigns such as the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls in response to the Chibok kidnapping[15] and the dissection of the Shekau video[16] from culturally local sources are excellent examples of fighting ISWAP digitally. At a minimum, these messages show that public opposition to ISWAP/Boko Haram (I/BH) remains active. It would be more encouraging if the volume of messaging about I/BH turned from pleas into requests for more foreign assistance,[17] and to more active condemnation and rebuttals to the extremists’ propaganda.

    Middle Eastern and Western powers have stepped up their efforts in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and to tremendous effect. The coalition has succeeded in pushing back ISIS’ ownership of territory by supplying local forces and augmenting their efforts with airstrikes.[18] However, the battle on the ground is also being fought online. To mount a comprehensive counter-campaign, Western strategists must recognize the alliance and important linkage that exists between ISIS and I/BH; pushing back in this space is just as essential, as failing to do so would continue to yield an important medium in the battle of ideas and influence.

    [1] Koerner, B. (2016, March). Why ISIS is Winning the Social Media War [Online Magazine]. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2016/03/isis-winning-social-media-war-heres-beat/

    [2] Johnson, H. (2016, March 16). Mapped: The Uslamic State is Losing It’s Territory – and Fast [News Online]. Retrieved from http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/16/mapped-the-islamic-state-is-losing-its-territory-and-fast/

    [3] Zenn, J. (2015, March 19). A Biography of Boko Haram and the Bay’a to Al-Baghdadi [Online Article]. Retrieved from https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/a-biography-of-boko-haram-and-the-baya-to-al-baghdadi

    [4] Al Jazeera.com (2016, February 1). Boko Haram attack: Children burned alive in Nigeria [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/01/boko-haram-blast-kills-scores-nigeria-maiduguri-160131140615844.html

    [5] Joscelyn, T. (2015, March 8). Boko Haram leader pledges allegiance to the Islamic State [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/03/boko-haram-leader-pledges-allegiance-to-the-islamic-state.php.

    [6] GistOnItNow (2015, March 14). ISIS Accepts Boko Haram’s Plea of Allegiance [YouTube]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lkbzi-leoOk

    [7] ansarukhilafah (2015, April 1). The Bay’ah from West Africa [Blog]. Retrieved from https://ansarukhilafah.wordpress.com/2015/04/01/the-bayah-from-west-africa/

    [8] Withnall, A. (2015, April 26). Boko Haram renames itself Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) as militants launch new offensive against government forces [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/boko-haram-renames-itself-islamic-states-west-africa-province-iswap-as-militants-launch-new-10204918.html

    [9] BBC Monitoring (2015, March 4). Is Islamic State shaping Boko Haram Media? [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-31522469

    [10] Zelin, A. (2016, March 31). New video message from The Islamic State: “Investigate – Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyyah [Online News]. Retrieved from http://jihadology.net/category/the-islamic-state/wilayat-gharb-ifriqiyyah/

    [11] Prince, S. (2016, January 12). WATCH: New ISIS Video from Libya calls for Somalia to Join Islamic State [Online News]. Retrieved from http://heavy.com/news/2016/01/watch-new-isis-video-from-libya-calls-for-somalia-to-join-islamic-state/

    [12] NewsRescue (2016, March 24). Boko Haram “Shekau” Releases New Video [Online News]. Retrieved from http://newsrescue.com/boko-haram-shekau-releases-new-video/#axzz46ZGru9Wl

    [13] DailyNation (2016, March 25). Boko Haram’s Shekau reappears ‘looking dejected’ in new video [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.nation.co.ke/news/africa/Shekau-reappears-looking-dejected-in-new-video/-/1066/3132864/-/t47c4hz/-/index.html

    [14] Aminu A. (2016, April 1). Boko Haram releases new video denying surrender [Online News]. Retrieved from http://reliefweb.int/report/nigeria/boko-haram-releases-new-video-denying-surrender

    [15] Shearlaw, M. (2015, April 14). Did the #bringbackourgirls campaign make a difference in Nigeria? [Online News]. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/14/nigeria-bringbackourgirls-campaign-one-year-on

    [16] GENTLE-WISDOM, Twitter Post, March 31, 2016, 10:50 p.m., http://twitter.com/paul_ihechi

    [17] Ekemini Uwan, Twitter Post, February 5, 2016, 3:05 a.m., http://twitter.com/sista-theology

    [18] Johnson, H.

  • 02 May 2016 8:12 PM | Anonymous

    Written By: CENSA Editorial Board


    On March 15, 2016, Vladimir Putin announced a troop withdrawal from Syria just as peace talks were initiated in Geneva to discuss the tumultuous state’s political future. The news of the withdrawal arrived almost six months after Russia began providing military support to Bashar al-Assad and after Moscow had initiated airstrikes in support of his regime.[1] Strategically and tactically, Russia’s armed support and augmentation to the Syrian military has resulted in an increase in Assad’s grasp on the security situation and has allowed his government to maintain its authoritative position in the country. It has also produced additional important gains for the Damascus-based government, resulting in the return of territory previously seized by pro-opposition and local terrorist organizations.[2] Meanwhile, in the two weeks immediately following the withdrawal announcement, social media emerged as a central component of and a potent political force. The Web has been saturated with a wide array of reactions, ranging from a general disbelief about the withdrawal communication itself, to joy from pro-opposition groups commenting on Russia’s apparent failure to execute a successful intervention, to cynicism of Putin’s sincerity in truly making such a claim.[3] Amidst the wide variety of this online content and additional commentary in print, the formation of a consensus nevertheless remains elusive, save for the persistent speculation about Russia’s true motives.

    The most prevalent theme voiced via social media and through other online forums is the belief that Putin has no intention of withdrawing completely and instead suspects him of encouraging the internal instability of Syria for strategic advantage. Proponents of this view refer to the significant Russian military presence that remains, despite the immediate reduction of equipment following Putin’s announcement (a reduction that may have amounted to half of what was in the country previously). A significant number of strike aircraft, bombers and attack helicopters were indeed removed.  However, a subsequent influx of tactical vehicles, some more advanced than their predecessors, also occurred.[4] This additional in-flow has complicated conditions on the battlefield as well as any effort to establish a realistic inventory of Russian resources and capability.

    “Advisors and artillery, the decisive factors on the ground, are still there watching over the Syrian battlefield prepared for what comes next,” one observer has noted. “The remaining Russian contingent is not only capable of sustaining the war, but [also of] reconstituting its campaign upon presidential order.”[5] Moreover, the recent recapture of Palmyra by Syrian forces, orchestrated in part with the aid of Russian airstrikes, underscores the residual potency of Russian military might.[6],[7]

    Attempts to glorify Putin and promote him as an effective strategic opponent of President Obama can also be found online. Obama’s reluctance to intervene with a significant military force is characterized as indecisive, and Washington’s “long-standing intention” to overthrow the Assad regime ridiculed as both ineffective and soft.[8] By contrast, pro-Assad supporters have applauded Russia’s manner of participation in the conflict and have not only characterized it as appropriate but have highlighted its lack of “paternalistic neo-colonial” behavior historically attributed to Western power involvement in the region.[9]

    Twitter has become an important means of communication for all sides, specifically for the issuance of propaganda. When Russia first announced its troop withdrawal, the Syrian government noted its appreciation of Russian contributions via Twitter, praising the Damascus-Moscow alliance. Opposition groups, too, have used this medium and have sent tweets of joy, of ridicule (directed at Putin), and of cautious optimism – this last group specifically noting the potential for a ceasefire brokered by Moscow that might lead to a cessation of hostilities.[10] Tweets have revealed an air of hope as well as skepticism and distrust among both pro- and anti-government forces. 

    Social media has also hosted debates about potential political endgames, specifically the prospect of a form of federalism in Syria should the ceasefire and peace talks fail. Fashioned along the lines of a Bosnian Solution, a Syrian federation might involve the division of Syria along sectarian lines and thus implement a form of balkanization. Such an outcome would effectively decentralize power in the country, lessen the impact of the nation-state construct imposed after World War I, and reestablish the concept of self-rule along traditional and tribal lands. Incidentally, the Syrian Kurdish group PYD has already attempted to promote this idea with its declaration of autonomy in the North.[11]

    Voices in opposition to federalism can also be found on social media sites. Fears about a power vacuum in Syria causing chaos and uncertainty similar to that found in Libya and Yemen, are widely seen and heard. Additionally, misgivings about the creation of any new boundary lines, especially those advocated by outside powers, are present:  such lines might serve as an additional source of tension. One online source includes the following: “‘Federalism’ in the context of this region is another word for division and partition. It is a curse word and a curse concept for countries in this region where sectarian and ethnic communities have been planted for centuries in the bodies of states, like raisins in a Christmas fruitcake.”[12]

    In the end, social media has served as host to a wide-ranging debate on Syria, with many participants focused on both the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the viability of various political end-state solutions. Yet, many questions abound. For example: is Putin motivated to eradicate the scourge of terrorist activity in the area? Or is he more interested in shoring up President Assad’s authority, in return for promises to enable and facilitate Russian regional influence and power-projection goals through additional leasing rights at the Tartus naval port and the Latakia air base? Is the Russian military troop reduction a meaningful retreat or just simply a strategic pause before a new offensive is directed as local conditions change? Was Putin’s abrupt withdrawal intended to compel Assad’s departure and replacement by a form of government more acceptable to all stakeholders? If so, then the intransigent Syrian leader surprised him by doubling down on his unwillingness to step down. Given present circumstances, would Moscow now support a post-Assad political outcome in Syria involving some form of partition, partial autonomy, or perhaps federalism? And perhaps most important, what type of political solution might tribal leaders and the warring factions accept?

    The questions are many, the answers are elusive, and the online debate is a swirl of Web-enabled warring opinions. It remains only to wait and see what will emerge from this “social storm.”

    [1] Worland, A. (2015, September 30). Russia Begins Airstrikes In Syria [Online News].     Retrieved from http://time.com/4055405/russia-airstrikes-syria/

    [2] ARA News. (2015, October 20). Backed by Russia, Iran, battle-weary regime forces strive to regain territory from Syrian revels [Online News]. Retrieved from       http://aranews.net/2015/10/backed-by-russia-iran-battle-weary-regime-forces-strive-to-regain-territory-from-syrian-rebels/

    [3] ARK. (2016, March 18). Conflicting Voices: 9-17 March 2016. Retrieved from       http://arkgroupdmcc.com/conflicting-voices-9-17-march-2016/

    [4] Gorenburg, D. & Kofman M. (2016, March 18). There is No Russian Withdrawal from Syria. Retrieved from http://warontherocks.com/2016/03/there-is-no-russian-withdrawal-from-syria/

    [5] Campbell, G. (2016, March 27). The Ulterior motive behind Russia’s partial Syria Withdrawal. Retrieved from http://en.delfi.lt/central-eastern-europe/the-ulterior-motive-behind-russias-partial-syria-withdrawal.d?id=70817346

    [6] Bacon, J. & Solis, S. (2016, March 28). Syrian Forces drive Islamic State from ancient Palmyra. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/03/27/syria-troops-seize-palmyra/82316874/

    [7] NewsJS (n.d.). Top Stories – ISIS driven from Palmyra Headlines. Retrieved from http://www.newsjs.com/us/syrian-military-source-dismisses-media-reports-russia-struck-palmyra/

    [8] Thetruthdamit. (2015, September 27). Vladimir Putin B**ch Slaps Barack Obama On Syria [YouTube Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Yrn2E7a_kM

    [9] Zonca, R. (2016, March 16). The Russian withdrawal: a message for Syria and the multipolar word. Retrieved from http://www.therussophile.org/the-russian-withdrawal-a-message-for-syria-and-the-multipolar-world.html/

    [10] ARK

    [11] Baroud, R. (2016, March 22). Federalism is a Pandora’s Box; if Syria Succumbs to It, Others Will Follow. Retrieved from http://www.ramzybaroud.net/federalism-is-a-pandoras-box-if-syria-succumbs-to-it-others-will-follow/

    [12] Jansen, M. (2016, March 23). Another word for division and partition. Retrieved from http://www.jordantimes.com/opinion/michael-jansen/another-word-division-and-partition

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