When the Enemy is Us: MILDEC and Islamic State

That ‘All warfare is based upon deception’ (Sun Tzu, The Art of War) is well known and accepted. Less well known and, no doubt, hotly disputed is that the same techniques used to deceive an external enemy can be turned upon the civilian population of the armed forces’ host country and ‘allied’ countries. A modern day Sun Tzu might write, ‘All warfare is based upon deception, but not all military deception targets an external enemy.’ For example, it can target domestic public opinion, to legitimate what would otherwise be illegitimate acts of aggression against other countries and to delegitimate resistance to those acts.

The Islamic State beheading videos bear the hallmarks of a campaign of military deception (MILDEC), by parties so far unnamed, in which we, Western public opinion, are the adversary. They ‘work’ by manipulating our emotions into supporting action we would not otherwise support. Military deception is the one type of conspiracy that cannot be denied. All armed forces do it. Of necessity, they do it secretly. To ensure realism and to avoid detection, deception operations are strictly limited to a tight group of people, who conspire to deceive others, to get many unwitting people to do what they otherwise would not do wittingly. This is as much true when the enemy is internal as when it is external.

‘False-flag’ or ‘inside job’ does not do justice to the subtleties of domestic military deception, for these labels infer the result (‘what’) from a motive (‘why’). As Sherlock Holmes might put it, they reason forward from an assumed motive. Without an understanding of the ‘how’ we are asked to accept false-flag charges on faith. To reveal the ‘how’, to detect military deception, one must know what to look for, i.e., we must know what it is and how it works. Military deception has its own terminology, rationale and techniques. Like a disease, military deception is seldom directly observed, but we can infer its existence from its identifying signs, provided we know what to look for.

Here I present a brief account of the basic concepts of Military Deception. What follows draws on Chapter 4 ‘Military Deception’ of the US Army’s Field Manual No. 3-13 Information Operations: Doctrine, Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures. Department of the Army, Washington, DC, 28 November 2003. Manuals of this kind tend to assume that deception hinges on information that misleads. They need updating to take account of deception by manipulating emotions for this is the predominant mode of deception aimed at civilian targets.

While this post describes MILDEC alone, in practice it works in conjunction with psychological operations (PSYOP), Information Operations (IO) and ‘Intelligence.’ MILDEC is planned right into a military operation and integrated with its every aspect.

Deception works only if it is not perceived as such. To ensure the appearance of authenticity and to prevent deception operations being revealed as such, their secrecy or ‘security’ is paramount. So much of ‘security’, it seems is of this kind. For this reason:

(a) The deception is always to be denied; and

(b) Knowledge of each aspect of a MILDEC operation is tightly restricted to only those personnel who meet strictly defined need-to-know criteria (4-8). Typically, each Deception Operation will be run by a Military Deception Group (MDG) or Cell. Outside of this MILDEC operations are carried out by the unwitting. Their authenticity is one reason the deception is undetected.

The audience the MDG wants to deceive is the Deception Target. One might suppose that this target is the enemy, but ‘enemy’ is a flexible term. ‘Not all adversaries are military’ (4-1). They may, for example, be civilians, and not only those of the opposing country. ‘Commanders may … want to deceive others who are not adversary host-nation civilians’(4-1).

The desired result of a deception operation is the Deception Objective: what the adversary is to do or not to do at the critical time and/or location (4-15). At the centre of military deception is a Deception Event, i.e.: ‘a deception means executed at a specific time and location in support of a deception operation’ (4-22). Some examples of Deception Events:

  • Hannibal’s use of the double-envelopment tactic or pincer movement against the Romans, at the Battle of Cannae, in 216 BC, was a deception event.
  • Schwarzkopf’s well publicized prewar amphibious exercises, in 1991, to convince Iraqis that the Americans were planning to mount a major seaborne assault was a deception event.
  • The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident was a Deception Event targeted at Americans, intended to justify US escalation of its war against the Vietnamese.
  • The Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Operation Northwoods, in 1962, which envisaged CIA initiated terrorist attacks on fellow Americans, were also Deception Events. They were to be blamed on Cuba, to justify US military involvement.
  • The August, 1980, Bologna bombing, which killed 85 people and wounded more than 200, was a Deception Event. It was caused by fascist paramilitaries, the Nuclei Armati Revoluzionari (NAR), part of Operation Gladio, but blamed on the left. It’s aim? To drive frightened people into the arms of the State.

It is not the Deception Event, in itself, that deceives, but the explanation of that event, or the Deception Story: ‘a plausible, but false, view of the situation, which will lead the deception target into acting in a manner that will accomplish the commander’s goal.’ (4-18) Although ultimately false, ‘the deception story must be believable, verifiable, and consistent’ (4-21).

MILDEC planners must have fertile imaginations, ‘because the ability to create and execute an effective MILDEC often depends upon the creativity used to develop and maintain a story’. Deception Stories are consciously crafted, tailored to their audience’s beliefs about reality, for people tend to accept information conforming to their preconceptions. Such information must be disproved to become ineffective (4-10). ‘The influence of biases is very strong. In many instances, the target may believe a well-crafted deception story until it is too late to act effectively, even in the face of mounting contradictory evidence’ (4-44).

The Deception Story is dynamic, fed and developed in response to feed-back events, intelligence collection and analysis (4-109). This is done by means of Deception Indicators, items of information, some true, some false, designed to the Deception Target’s intention or capability to adopt or reject a course of action (4-20). The most effective way to convince the deception target of the deception story’s truth is to provide indicators in several different ways, each supported by different elements of truth. Wherever the target turns, there must be information that confirms his preconceptions, that makes any questionable parts of the deception story seem believable (4-8).

One way of developing the Deception Story is by allowing Indicators to ‘fall’ into adversary hands. For example: via Operation Fortitude, Allied forces deceived Nazi-occupied France into believing that the impending invasion would be at Pas de Calais, rather than the actual Normandy. The deception means included controlled leaks of misinformation through diplomatic channels, simulated wireless traffic, and British controlled German double-agents. Operation Rockingham, set up in 1991 and run by military and intelligence officers and civilian Ministry of Defence personnel, fed information in support of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Operation Mass Appeal later played a similar role. If Deception Indicators are well-crafted, the Deception Target develops the narrative of the Deception Story all by itself. A snippet of information is picked up by news media and woven into a plausible story.

Note that much of what we know about al-Qaeda came via fortuitously found laptops, letter, email, and audio-visual material. Remember the incriminating video in which Osama bin Laden ‘admitted guilt’ for 9/11, a video that was ‘found’ by U.S. forces in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in late November, 2001. Then there was the bizarre series of bin Laden audio and video tapes which always eluded the Intelligence we pay for. Lucky for us that the very private IntelCenter and SITE were there to discover them, no questions asked. The so-called al-Qaeda-in-Iraq, the precursor to Islamic State, were forever leaving laptops and letters around to be discovered by U.S. troops. Perhaps fortune favours aggressors. A book could be written on what we know about terrorism from misplaced laptops.

We should not be surprised that the narrative about Islamic State started to grow ‘legs’ in the August 28, 2014, issue of Foreign Policy: Found: The Islamic State’s Terror Laptop of Doom. Great title. Non-existent investigative journalism. Apparently this Dell laptop was found by the commander of a ‘moderate’ Syrian rebel group in northern Syria. They attacked an ISIS hideout. ISIS ‘all fled before he and his men attacked the building’. And there was the ‘terror laptop of doom’, with power cord, just waiting for them. Then there was the ISIS document ‘supposedly obtained in March [2014] by an Iraqi special forces unit during a raid on the home of an ISIS commander.’ This document—’which has been examined by western security officials – who believe it to be authentic’—tells of plans to get hold of nuclear weapons with the help of Russia in exchange for access to gas fields in Anbar province and the Kremlin giving up support for Iran and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. [Report: ISIS plots to seize Iran’s nuclear secrets] For an outfit supposedly bent of world domination, Islamic State is remarkably careless with its documents. In fact, that they feel the need to have ‘planning documents’ at all should alert our skepticism. Like al-Qaeda before it, Islamic State is organized on Western lines. Isn’t that odd?

Now I come to think of it, much of the narrative about Islamic State comes from the very same organization said to have discovered the beheading videos: Search for International Terrorist Entities (now the SITE Intelligence Group). Its INSITE blog on ‘Terrorism & Extremism’ is a veritable font of knowledge, not only about what Islamic State does, but also about what Islamic State does means. And then there is Islamic State’s in-house glossy propaganda magazine Dabiq. Very much like Inspire, of ‘al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’. (I wonder where these magazines are produced.) You can get into a lot of trouble by simply linking to the Inspire site, so I’m not going to. Strangely, Dabiq is readily available. See ‘Does Anyone Take These Al-Qaeda Magazines Seriously?’ The answer, unfortunately, is yes. This is true of Dabiq too. Not everyone can distinguish between authenticity and deception. The narrative carried in these magazines lures them to their doom.

It is easy to deny the existence of military conspiracies for the very nature of military deception makes them difficult to detect. It is, however, not impossible: what can be invented, can also be discovered. Discerning the deception and discovering how it is sustained, by whom and to what end, takes dogged detective work.