• Brigadier John Shanahan speaks with Afghan people in Ghorak, Afghanistan.
    Brigadier John Shanahan speaks with Afghan people in Ghorak, Afghanistan. Defence

When it comes to big powers like the US fighting groups such as Islamic State (ISIS), it should be no contest – but it hasn’t turned out that way because of the mini-actors’ mastery of information operations.

Professor Mervyn Frost from the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, said the information war element of asymmetrical conflict provided the only plausible explanation for the power wielded by such mini-powers in contest with great powers.

He said this would appear to be completely one-sided but that had proved not to be the case.

“We have seen how a mini-power like Al Qaeda has managed to exert sufficient power to get the US and its allies to modify their policies,” he told the UNSW Canberra Defence Leaders’ Breakfast.

“In Israel, the mini-power Hamas (and also Hezbollah in Lebanon) continues to engage with a vastly superior military power in Israel - yet it has sufficient power to stay in the struggle. How is this possible?”

It’s possible because the rise of modern communication technology and social media allows anyone to communicate with like-minded others globally, quickly and cheaply. This involves a couple of techniques.

One is ethical trapping, where the group commits an act so outrageous that the target state responds with a large scale counter-attack, violating the fundamental ethical norms it espouses.

“This then enables the small actor to point to the hypocrisy of the giant which purported to be the defender of fundamental ethical standards,” he said.

“This results in a decrease in legitimacy of the great power(s). If the reaction included action in states not party to the dispute, then this opens the way for claims to be made that the powerful state is acting in an imperial manner.

“Ethical trapping has been done by Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and Hamas.”

Another technique used by the weaker party is disrupting the normal democratic politics of the target state. Examples include the hackers who disrupted and sought to steer the 2016 American presidential election. That’s been blamed on Russia.

Professor Frost said the goal was not to provoke a drastic response but to undermine its stability, erode the democratic processes, pit extremist factions within the society against the establishment, and generally provoke discord.

“This kind of disruption can be undertaken on an ongoing basis. It can be used towards privileging certain actors in the target state in ways that would benefit the attacker,” he said.

“At the limit, these kinds of communications, through websites and blogs, might lead disgruntled groups to take up arms against their own government.”

Professor Frost said democratic states were fundamentally threatened by this kind of cognitive warfare.

“I am not saying that they ‘feel’ threatened, but that they are threatened,” Professor Frost said.

“If the task of the military apparatus in democratic states is to protect the public against dangers that might escalate to war, it stands to reason that military planners ought to consider how to respond to this kind of clandestine attack before any escalation takes place.”

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