Personal and academic blog. Explores the borderlands between rhetoric, politics and intelligence.


The 9/11 Report cartoon

The speed with which the 9/11 attack is translated into popular culture is high. Here is an interesting example Slate presents The 9/11 Report as a cartoon.

It is done in the best American educational cartoon style: The heroes are all-American, square-jawed, straight-talking menfolk - the villains are buck-tooth, cross-eyed, mean-looking Arabs. Not too objective I guess, but an interesting thing, reminding me of the old educational cartoons on the history of the Second World War that I used to read.

Hezbollah's Rocket Strategy

It might be a little late for that, but as I am slowly getting a grip on how Hezbollah thoroughly has "rhetoricised" their entire strategy, I just fell over a Jamestown Foundation article on the Hezbollah Rocket Strategy.

By using the Katyusha rockets - which are small, "dumb" rockets with no guidance and a limited range - single-wise instead of launching them in an area attacking volley as they were meant to, they have turned a short range rocket from a tactical weapon into a strategic weapon of terror.

The hit-and-run use of rockets did put Israel into a situation where they had to respond in force, yet without being able to hit effectively at the cell structure of Hezbollah and conversely seeming unable to stop the "strategic bombings". As the article predicted, this has put Hezbollah into an advantageous diplomatic situation. An interesting example of how a creative (albeit not new in the Middle East) use of a weapon will enable an entity to send signals that would otherwise have taken an airforce or strategic missile capability.


Hezbollah astroturfing the UN

The Counterterrorism Blog "exposes" Hezbollahs use of a staged demonstration during Kofi Annans visit. They describe how a group of bearded men herd some "head scarfed" women into line and instruct them in how to chant. Furthermore the outfit seems to have very good connections to the Lebanese security people, knowing exactly where and when Annan would make his stop.

Counter-terrorism blog calls it "propaganda", I don't. But if anything, it shows that Hezbollah has a top professional way of doing public relations, reflecting Hassan Nasrallah's oratorical skill and shrewdness.

By the way, "astroturfing" is rolling out fake "grassroots" - in this case, a fake "public demonstration".


OSINT: Stratfor on Al-Qaeda media

The good people at Stratfor has once again come up with an interesting report, based mostly on OSINF. Below I reproduce it in full. Please visit and sign up for their newsletters.

Al Qaeda Recordings: Semantic Noise and Signals
By Fred Burton

Al Qaeda has released a record number of messages this year through its as-Sahab media arm, threatening attacks in a variety of places. In fact, it would appear that al Qaeda leaders have threatened jihadist operations in more places than the organization -- even through its regional affiliates and grassroots sympathizers -- may be capable of hitting.

Viewed in proper perspective, meaning neither ignored by blase analysts nor magnified by the media or public, these messages can convey many important signals about the state of al Qaeda today. The volume trends alone are interesting; in fact, we find them to be at least as significant as the content of the messages from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, if not in some cases more so.

The number of messages issued by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have reached record levels in 2006, and the total number of videos produced by as-Sahab also has increased.

These volumes likely stem at least in part from changes in the way al Qaeda chooses to broadcast its statements to the world. Whereas it once took the considerable risks of smuggling tapes to commercial broadcasters such as Al Jazeera, it now is uploading its own statements directly to the Web. These methods give the organization greater control over when -- and how much of -- its statements reach the public.

Obviously, the content of the messages is important, and is generally broadcast around the world in fairly short order by mainstream news organizations. So far this year, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have threatened the "Crusader-Zionist" alliance many times, and on one occasion added India to the mix by threatening strikes against those perpetrating the "Crusader-Zionist-Hindu" conspiracy against Muslims. The public statements also have touched on a number of different locales -- from bin Laden's Jan. 19 recording that threatened attacks in the United States to calls to "establish jihad" in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan, Kashmir, Chechnya, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan and Egypt. Al Qaeda leaders also have called for the overthrow of several Muslim leaders, including Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

However, despite this flood of rhetoric, the number of attacks carried out by al Qaeda or its affiliates has actually fallen on a year-by-year comparison. By this time in 2005, there had been suicide bombings in Doha, Cairo, Sharm el-Sheikh and London, a second, unsuccessful attack in London and a rocket attack in Aqaba, Jordan. To date in 2006, there has been a strike against the Abqaiq oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia (February), a car bomb attack near the U.S. Consulate General in Karachi (March), and the tourist resort bombings in the Sinai (April). There does not appear to be a solid correlation between the number of statements released and actions -- even when thwarted attacks, such as the recently uncovered airliner plot in London, are accounted for. It also is worth noting that all of these listed strikes and attempts involved al Qaeda's regional affiliates or grassroots sympathizers, rather than "all-star teams" such as the one deployed for the 9/11 attacks.

Tellingly, it is not only the quantity of messages being produced by as-Sahab that is rising, but the quality as well. As-Sahab is using professional-grade gear and studio-quality lighting for its productions. Even in-the-field footage captured in places like Afghanistan and Egypt displays a professional level of post-production editing, crisp graphics and, quite often, added subtitles in a second language. As any comparison to popular clips at sites like YouTube or MySpace will show, as-Sahab videos are not being produced by an amateur at home using a personal computer and a cheap camcorder.

Reading the Numbers

Both the numbers and the quality of the recordings being issued by al Qaeda's apex leadership this year can be read as an indication of a growing comfort level. The atmosphere is very different now than, for example, in 2002, when the organization's sanctuary in Afghanistan had been newly disrupted and key figures were scattered, seeking new places of safety. At this point, al Qaeda's leaders appear to feel safe and believe that issuing greater volumes of recordings will not compromise their hiding places.

The comfort level seems most apparent with al-Zawahiri, who issues more statements than does bin Laden and usually appears on video. Bin Laden has not been seen on video since late October 2004 (though as-Sahab often places his audio recordings into a video format, usually alongside a still photo of the speaker). Many have speculated that his reluctance to appear on film could be related to declining health; however, it also is possible that he is in a more remote location than al-Zawahiri, where the appearance of a camera or video crew might bring unwanted attention. Or perhaps both factors are at work. Either way, there have been numerous indications over time that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are in separate locations -- something that would be dictated by prudent operational security, if nothing else.

There are other notable differences between the messages of bin Laden and those of al-Zawahiri, including time lags between dates of recording and release. Three weeks generally appear to elapse between the recording and distribution of bin Laden's audio tapes, whereas al-Zawahiri's videos take only two. This too indicates that bin Laden is further removed from society than is al-Zawahiri, or that the path taken from bin Laden to as-Sahab is more convoluted for security reasons. Or, again, perhaps a combination of both.

Extending this line of thinking, common-sense security measures would dictate not only separation between bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, but also between the two men and as-Sahab's production facility. Al-Zawahiri seems to be able to link up with the as-Sahab video crews more readily than bin Laden -- and as-Sahab appears to be based in a location where technicians have access to a professional video studio. Even if it is hidden in a large home or warehouse, it still would require a reliable power supply and supplies of other staples -- such as replacement bulbs for studio lights, modern materials for the stylish sets featured in videos and access to a photo studio capable of producing the very large, professional-looking images like those in the backdrop of al-Zawahiri's July 27 video.

The quality of the video messages speaks to something else as well. When posted to the Internet, the files are very large -- so clearly, whoever is doing so has a high-speed Internet connection. The general principle is that the longer an upload takes, the greater the exposure of, and risk to, the person doing the uploading. Also, because these files often are encoded in a number of formats, with varying file sizes and quality, as-Sahab technicians clearly are uploading numerous files with each video release. The risks incurred increase every time they do so.

The obvious conclusion is that al Qaeda not only has high-speed Internet connections, but competent, clandestine IT support as well. Given the large number of statements released this year, it is clear that as-Sahab personnel are confident in the security of their channels -- and, indeed, there has been no major breach of their distribution system since the possible compromise in January at Damadola.

Finding the Balance

When al Qaeda first began publicly declaring its intentions of waging war against the United States, most Americans were unaware of the statements -- and those who were tended to snicker at the hubris. Very few expected any actual attempts by bin Laden or his companions to fulfill the threat. That logic began to reverse as major operations -- such as the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, the millennium bomb plot and the USS Cole strike -- were enacted, and the 9/11 attacks cemented al Qaeda's image as a serious adversary. Now, most people assume that when al Qaeda makes a threat, there will be sincere attempts to carry it out.

In fact, the psychological impact of the 9/11 attacks led to another problem, exactly the opposite of the first: system overload. Shortly after 9/11, there were floods of erroneous reports that messages from bin Laden and other leaders contained secret symbols and attack signals, or even hidden steganographic files -- data that can be inserted into jpeg images or video files. Such clandestine communication methods -- using hidden signals in mass media -- were useful during the World War and Cold War eras, but in the age of the Internet and the "clone phone," these techniques not only are unnecessary, but carry far more risk than prudence on al Qaeda's part would allow.

What, then, is to be made of all these messages from al Qaeda leaders? As usual, the truth lies somewhere between the extremes: The messages are neither empty rhetoric nor secret attack instructions. Al Qaeda's recordings genuinely convey the group's general intent and frequently serve as a window into the leadership's mindset and philosophy. It is possible to determine what the leaders believe is important and where they are focusing their attention. However, the messages rarely contain precise threats against specific targets. They are generalities, crafted with two audiences -- al Qaeda's chosen enemies and potential allies -- in mind.

Through this lens, and with the aid of hindsight, it is easy to see a correlation between al-Zawahiri's July 27 video and the thwarted London plot. The general message that al Qaeda wanted to stage an attack to eclipse 9/11 -- even twice as large -- is not difficult to decipher. The more subtle message that al Qaeda remains fixated on aircraft was also there. However, there was nothing in the al-Zawahiri message that would have led to the identification or compromise of the U.K. planes operation. It was a general message, not a specific one.

Given the volume of messages this year, it is clear that al Qaeda generally remains interested in operating through regional affiliates and grassroots sympathizers, and in encouraging strikes in the regions it has named. However, with a few exceptions (such as oil infrastructure in the Middle East), the leadership has not named specific targets. Therefore, we must assume that within these geographic areas, al Qaeda will continue to adhere to its well-established target set: planes, trains and hotels.

From al Qaeda's perspective, this is a tremendously effective strategy. Recognizing that governments cannot protect everything -- or even the limited target set that the leadership has named publicly -- there always will be soft targets available. And if governments or the private sector were to attempt to protect all imaginable targets within their spheres, the principle of economic warfare still applies. Al Qaeda long has aspired to cripple Western powers -- particularly the United States -- economically, since it is from financial wealth that so many other forms of strength are derived.

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Embedding by proxy

The Danish daily Politiken are publishing a number of blogs, written by soldiers doing their tour in Iraq on the 8th Danish contingent there.

This is an interesting kind of war-reporting. The style is mostly reminicent of postcards, with the young Danes getting impressed by the heat, the infrastructure etc. It is a description with warts and all - bad grammar and spelling, erratic focus and sometimes naïve surprises. It doesn't have the air of the OPSEC-breaching ranting exposées that any Army staff would fear.

But maybe because of that it is also a very honest and sympathetic description. Of special note is "Ronni D."'s blog.

The 24 year old language-officer of the reserve is working as a translator and intelligence officer. His writing is straightforward and has a good flow to it, making for some interesting reading.

He describes a situation where an Iraqi "associate" (intelligence source, one would think) is calling because his son is seriously ill. Because he is a good contact, normal procedures are suspended and he is allowed in on the Shaiba Log base (after consultation with the person normally cooperating with the contact, of course). It turns out that the boy (12 years old and delerious with pain biting his mother in the arm) is suffering from a liver-infection and that he has already been to the hospital in Basra. There seems to be a genetic disorder in the familiy, as they have already lost four children to liver-diseases. The doctors last words to the family is "May God be with your son".


Iran, China and Hezbollah: At sea

I think one of the most spectacular military turns in the recent conflict between Hezbollah and Israel was when Hezbollah fired a Anti-ship cruse missile (ASCM) and damaged an Israeli corvette.

That episode reeked of old-style naval combat like nothing seen since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 (where a few ASCMs were fired at ports in Kuwait).

Now the blog "Eaglespeak" reports a bit on the circumstances. China has had a strategic cooperation with Iran for quite some time (as reported by the Jamestown Foundation), and this resulted in bringing C-802 ASCMs into Hezbollah's hands - probably the most powerful weapon utilised for a while by a guerilla movement. Read about it here.


Ethiopia invades Somalia

The Danish paper Politiken reports that Ethiopian troops have moved into Somalia, in a bid to counter the Union of Islamic Courts.

A few months ago BBC reported the same.

This might be another example of religion becoming a strategic consideration. No doubt the Ethiopians will be able to get some good financial support from someone across the Atlantic, whereas the UIC will get its share from the other side of the Red Sea. A good ol' war of proxies?


Rebuilding: Right now, Hezbollah is winning the next war

The New York Times writes on how the Hezbollah leads the reconstruction work in Lebanon. With heavy financial backing from Iran, they offer a years rent and other substantial aids to those whose houses were destroyed.

One of the arguments from the Israel Defence Forces have been that the civilian houses destroyed were used as weapon caches. They just lost a rhetorical battle there, as rebuilding a house is always a more positive thing than destroying it.

This piece of news brings to my mind the faithful days just after Saddam Hussein's regime had crumbled. The pictures of American soldiers standing guard outside important ministries, while dirt-poor people looted the rest. Watch Hezbollah and see a guerilla army that knows the importance of public support and the fact that it grows from small things such as an intact house or a hot meal of falaffals, rather than beautiful ideals for the future to come.

Arms and influence: Death by PowerPoint

The interesting blog Arms and influence has a story on how the US military has used PowerPoint slides instead of ordinary orders. This is, of course, a choice with far-reaching rhetorical as well as military implications.

The writer over at Arms and Influence points out that PowerPoint slides are way more ambigious than ordinary, military orders.

"In contrast to the loose, mutable medium of PowerPoint, the US military normally uses rigorous, well-established ways of drafting, reviewing, and communicating decisions. For example, a battalion commander might ask his staff to draft two or three options for a particular operation. Each option must have enough substance to delineate the assumptions it makes, the means through which it will achieve the operational objective, its pros and cons, the risk the battalion assumes in following it, and the fall-back plan. Not only do these options require a lot of words, but they also need a lot of diagrams, including the position of each unit at different points in the operation. "

When you see one of the slides that alledgedly should guide Joint Task Force IV in how "Phase IV" (the occupation) would work, you can't help but getting a bit critical of business-ways marching into military realms.


Foræring: Retoriske klassikere

De gode folk hos Rhetor tilbyder en hel række klassiske retoriske tekster som tidligere har været bragt i Rhetorica Scandinavica. De er ganske gratis og kan downloades fra Rhetor Forlags hjemmeside.


The symbolic roots of war

The Washington Times writes a little blurp today about how the present conflict between Hizbollah and Israel might have been touched off by Hassan Nasrallah's vow to bring back the lebanese Hizbollah militant Samir Kuntar who was captured while raiding Nahariya in 1979.

This would be a plausible reason for the initial kidnapping by Hizbollah. Samir Kuntar indeed seems to be a living martyr, "the longest held lebanese detainee in Israeli prisons" and one of the symbolic foci for Hezbollah's fight against Israel (together with the Shaba farms). It would be a great victory for them to be the liberators of Kuntar.

But Hizbollah's gamble has failed so far. The Washington Post article pens out Kuntar's crimes in graphic details, hinting that the Israelis have just as strong feelings about Kuntar and giving clues to where the reporter, Abraham Rabinovich, have done his research. In other words, the object of negotiation seems to be too strong and Hizbollah has set its appetite for more than it could eat. Instead we get a conflict, fueled by all the usual slogans, grievances and hatred that will keep the pot boiling throughout my lifetime.

But it wouldn't be a surprise to me if the great wheels of war were set rolling by a little symbolic bump like Samir Kuntar.

(Thanks to Hans for the story)


Old ways in the new war

Israeli commandoes raided a hospital in Baalbek and took Hezbollah hostages. The story is illustrative of how the conflict in Lebanon is still reminiscent of an "old" war, despite that the IDF is fightning an irregular force.

Hostages are still needed, especially those of intelligence importance (alledgedly the commandoes were going after a senior Hezbollah figure), self-imposed ceasefires needs to be broken to gain surprise, large forces are needed to support even small operations and the public needs news-stories of heroes and their polished, valiant deeds where civilians don't count in the official reports.