For the past several years I’ve been a regular reader of blogs like Small Wars Journal, Long War, and MountainRunner, plus the Usual Gang of Media Suspects, then following their links to where it leads. From this reading, I’ll now commit to a generalization that is untrue in many specific instances, but generally true which is why I generalize. Many of the posts I read tend take a negative critical stance against US communication efforts while taking a positive critical stance on Bad Guy communication efforts. We’re culturally insensitive, blundering, confused, and expensive; They are savvy, resourceful, nuanced, and effective.
I disagree. And not just by degree, shade, or tone. Osama’s crew is simply awful at strategic communication or brand marketing or psyops or IO or, for me, persuasion. Don’t misunderstand me. I fear them. I recognize the destruction they create. I want them stopped. But, I don’t want to lose sight of their success and their failure.
For me the failure is most glaring: They want a global Islamic state. You can state this TACT with your preferred Who does What When and Where, but it’s got to include Global Osama and it’s obvious that they are farther away from this TACT today than they were 10 years ago. Think about it more broadly than Osama’s latest YouTube jihad rock video shot on a Flip Mino. Think about the whole thing.
We’re nearly 10 years into bin Laden’s self declared war against the US and other assorted infidels. While some of that war involved direct aggression and killing as in the September 11 attacks, similar ones in Madrid, London, Bali or small unit fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, a large part of his war has been based in a communication campaign. He uses words and images to change the way other people think, feel, and behave. Sometimes his messages are aimed at reassuring the faithful or attracting the interested; sometimes they are aimed at his Crusader enemies, warning them of coming attacks, explaining his rationale for declaring war, and just plain taunting.
Consider, too, his communication machine. By all accounts the man has a large amount of money (probably in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars), sufficient access to communication technology (recording devices, Internet, ready connections with journalists), and many people to assist (delivering messages, gathering information on infidel efforts). Perhaps, most importantly, he can design events to suit his purposes and he is not limited by normal civilized constraints (he can choose when to cut off an infidel head then choose when to release the tape of the beheading). He’s a man of the people with long and wide experience in recruiting warriors and supporters and he’s connected to other men and organizations with similar goals and experiences. While he can create great harm and damage with a well planned and executed attack, a much greater concern is his potential to attract millions of active supporters (the “Arab street”). We’ve seen the devastation he managed with attacks on the USS Cole, African embassies, the 9/11 attacks, and others.
Now, put these resources into the hands of gifted persuaders and you can expect clear, obvious, and countable changes. Guys like Lenin, Hitler, and Mussolini were able to accomplish more with less in a shorter period of time than Osama.
The best observable evidence we’ve got is that bin Laden is doing surprisingly poorly at roiling the Arab street. This is not to saw that he’s not getting recruits. Every honest source that tracks this reports a pipeline is still running. But, the larger point is how small that pipeline is.
Certainly, the military and police operations conducted by the US and it allied infidels plays a major role here, but if millions of Arabs wanted to take up arms against a desert of unbelievers, the rush would make the US immigration problem look like a failed block party by comparison.
Consider it as a diffusion of innovation problem or to cast it in contemporary terms, the tipping point. For more than 10 years bin Laden has been trying to create a mass movement that will actually produce the restored Islamist umma he desires. Thousands of warriors cannot accomplish this goal. He must generate an organized and extremely large population of millions of believers.
If you read the older diffusion literature (how a new idea goes from small to large acceptance) or the current tipping point popularization, in every observed case of a New Thing, there is a process of moving it through a population. At first only a small group of innovators know about it, then a slightly larger group of early adopters accept it, then onto early majority, next the late majority, and finally the laggards. The size of these five groups varies with each New Thing and its particular circumstances (adoption of the iPod in the 2000s versus adoption of the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany), but a key point is that there is almost always an inflection point on the adoption curve where suddenly the rate of adoption dramatically increases (the tipping point in pop parlance) and the New Thing takes off with an irresistible momentum.
Only the most paranoid advocate for the Long War thinks that the larger Arab world is marching as a result of Osama’s communication campaign. A clear eyed review of the evidence indicates that the Bad Guys are failing badly at hitting a tipping point and have been failing since September 12, 2001. Don’t misunderstand. Even a few thousand fanatic militants are incredibly dangerous, but they haven’t hit the Big One, the Main Point, the Primary TACT Osama seeks: the Totalitarian Islamic State.
I’d argue that the Osama persuasion machine is not very good. It reeks with sincerity, authenticity, and deeply felt beliefs meaning that its messages tell you everything about them, but doesn’t really address you. Thus, the persuasion machine is not a persuasion machine – seeking change in others – but rather an attraction machine – seeking to magnetize similar believers. From a Standard Model perspective, Osama seems to think that if he just gets his message out (Reception and Exposure) the world will turn in his direction. This is a classic hallmark of the zealot’s persuasion attempt. They do all those noisy and colorful things to get you looking, but then they don’t have much of a message for you to think about.
Think about this failure another way. What TACTs does Osama target? Who does What When and Where? His ultimate TACT has to have just plain folks marching in the streets demanding a new Islamicist state Osama-style. Sure, he want Believers to give their money or their bodies to the Cause. That’s good for the immediate struggle. What about Believers marching in the streets of Cairo or Istanbul or, better still, Chicago or Bonn or Shanghai?
It’s clearly not happening despite all the money and Osama’s alleged information superiority. The fact is, Osama is just bad at persuasion. Consider the Rule: Power Corrupts Persuasion. Osama uses a gun to get where he’s going and if he cannot persuade you then he will kill you. He gave up on persuasion a long time ago.
Update May 2012. Just a few months after this post, the Arab Street did finally erupt, just not to bin Laden’s planning or liking. It’s called the Arab Spring and is a popular uprising against Arab dictators with little evidence of support for or from bin Laden. You cannot Count this Change in bin Laden’s column. Further, one year ago the US Military raided bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, killed bin Laden, and collected a trove of documents. Declassified, these documents reveal serious persuasion problems for bin Laden up to the time he was killed.
I’ll stand by my original persuasion analysis.