Weaponization of benign activities

Chinese tourists take a ‘selfie’ at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on November 14, 2016, as Sikh devotees mark the 547th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Nanak Dev. Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh religion and the first of ten Sikh gurus. / AFP / NARINDER NANU Getty Images

Late last year, the Marine Corps released MCDP 1-4 ‘Competing.’ It’s a great pamphlet that captures the nature of the global competition we find ourselves in today. I would recommend it as a primer for anyone who wants to know more about what ‘great power competition’ looks like. It’s well-researched and well-written.

Over the summer, I plan on lifting a few things from Competing to explore a little further. The first of these is mentioned on page 4-10 as a part of the ‘common characteristics of our rivals approach to competition.’

‘Weaponization of benign activities.’

While a definition isn’t offered, if you have been paying attention, the concept is almost immediately apparent.

Competing provides a short vignette two pages later which discusses the idea in the context of tourism.

Weaponization of Benign Activities: Tourism in Targeted Countries

Palau is an island nation strategically located east of the Philippines, has only 20,000 citizens, and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan. About 2014, China put Palau on its approved list for overseas tourism.

By 2015, Chinese tourists flooded Palau, created a Chinese- funded hotel construction boom, and bought up buildings and apartments. Chinese-owned restaurants and small businesses also started, displacing local enterprises. Chinese tour groups were typically self-contained, staying in Chinese-owned hotels and bringing their own tour guides, which froze out locally owned tourism businesses. The influx of Chinese tourism created divisions between Paulauans benefiting from the tourism and those threatened by the displaced businesses, increased living costs, and damage to the local environment brought by the tourism flood.

In late 2017, Beijing placed Palau off-limits for package tours, dramatically affecting Palau’s economy. The off-limits order was reportedly an effort to put pressure on Taiwan via their relationship with Palau. China used tourism to create an economic dependency and then manipulated it to help them achieve their aims.

MCDP 1-4 Competing p. 4-12

If you follow the footnotes, you’ll land on a 2019 assessment from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail.’ This is what they have to say about the subject:

Weaponization of benign activities. In conducting their political warfare operations, Russia and China have weaponized many normally benign activities. These include but are not limited to diplomatic discussions; conventional and unconventional media operations; tourism into targeted countries; flows of students; visit diplomacy; the establishment of “friendship societies” and similar front organizations; the purchase of well-located pieces of land, key infrastructure, and strategically important companies; accessing, often by stealing, protected intellectual property; managing trade and investment flows; exploiting education systems, and manipulating immigration arrangements.

Ross Babbage, ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail

The weaponization of benign activities will serve as the constant, slow-burn tactic of great power competition. These are events and processes that unfold over years and will be a nuisnance to military, diplomatic, and political leaders who will feel compelled to “do something” in response.

There is a related tactic that we already see every day – and that’s the weaponization of benign information. If you spend any amount of time on social media, you see this when someone includes a screenshot that provides ‘evidence’ of some transgression, however slight or implied. This is a tactic employed by provacateurs and trolls alike. Irrelevant personal details might be tossed on the fire to smear someone. Those details may not add anything useful, but they work as an accelerant with the target audience, carrying unseen weight.

You also see this tactic when headlines are contorted by different organizations to feed a certain narrative.

And of course, you see this when conspiracy theorists posit that some trite piece of information contains hidden meaning.

Words are already loaded with history and stories behind them. Arranged in the right way, they can convey the meaning you want to the right audience and they won’t even have to read the article. Important here, is that this technique is not likely to shift global opinion or ‘win the war.’ Rather, it might nudge the dial just a little bit over time.

More consequently, the weaponization of benign activities/informtation could result in an overreaction, which is why I argue we all need to be a little more patient and let the dust settle when there are bombastic information flare-ups.

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Our adversaries are paying close attention

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I’m a little late on this one. A couple of weeks ago, the Irregular Warfare Podcast sat down with Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman to discuss future war and their new book 2034.

What would a conflict with China look like? How will irregular warfare fit into a conflict before and during large-scale combat operations? Retired Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman join this episode of the Irregular Warfare Podcast to discuss the theme of escalation to large-scale conflict, which they explore in their New York Times best seller 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. In answering those questions, they emphasize the nature of human behavior in conflict and how escalation can get out of control.

Irregular Warfare in the Next World War – Modern War Institute

I haven’t read the book yet – but it’s on the list.

We’ve reached a place in time where technology is advancing so quickly that standard analysis isn’t enough to prepare for future war – we have to use our imagination.

There’s a short discussion towards the end of the podcast that caught my attention as prescient. The guests are asked to reflect on our current vulnerabilities and how our adversaries are working towards exploiting them.

“It would seem preposterous for us not to imagine that our adversaries are very much aware of our internal political dynamics and at every corner trying to take advantage and exasperate the divisions that exist within American society, and are paying close attention.”

Elliot Ackerman

It really does feel like we are living through an inflection point in American history. There’s a lot going on internally, but our adversaries are watching very closely – and the enemy always gets a vote.

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Jump Commands in Farsi

Credit to SOF News Update for finding this gem.

Night has closed in over the Zagreb Mountains of northern Iran. The sound of a plane is heard. Inside the plane Iranian Special Forces paratroopers prepare to jump into a maneuver area. There is a sense of urgency as last minute commands in Farsi are given by the lone American among them, a United State Army officer. How this officer, Captain Paul Wineman, is trained in the military and language skills needed for his urgent task overseas is the subject of this week’s documentary, “Special Forces Advisor.”

Special Forces Advisor – The Big Picture – YouTube

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The saga of Tom Olsen

A really fascinating thing happened on Twitter over the past month. Long story short, a fan of of Metal Gear created a Twitter account (@TheTomOlsen). “Tom” is just a regular guy who happens to work on “Big Shell,” the ocean platform that is the setting for most of Metal Gear Solid 2.

Over the course of the month, he posted innocuous photos of daily life on the platform.

The official Metal Gear Twitter account retweeted one of these and rumors began to spread rapidly that the “Tom” account might be a guerilla marketing campaign intended to build enthusiasm for an announcement of a new Metal Gear game. Lots of gaming websites picked up on this and spread the same rumor.

In the end, it was all just the work of a dedicated fan.

Metal Gear Solid 2 is credited as being prophetic of our current environment. A key theme is the spread of misinformation, disinformation and how that plays with our expectations. The game itself constantly teased and harrassed the player, breaking the fourth wall over and over again to make the point.

In the video embedded in tweet below, the force behind “Tom” explains this.

In a strange way, it’s been a very fitting way to memorialize MGS2 — by demonstrating how the rapid transmission of information can lead to the suppression of truth.

Lies spread faster than truth. And even when the lie is refuted, there is a percentage of people who will still only remember the lie.

What I find particularly interesting about this saga is the fact that this must have been well planned and thought out in advance. The deluge of posts, photos, and videos that were shared that “chronicled” the attack on Big Shell were done with purpose – it was polished and professional. The screenshots made it look like Tom was walking through Big Shell snapping photos, taking video, and sharing it with the world. These photos needed to be digitally staged. The force behind Tom knew his target audience. He knew what would get people churning.

This all took work and I’d love to know how long it took to get everything prepped.

The account didn’t respond to others, it had its own agenda. But that didn’t stop others from using it to fit their own narratives or desires.

The account hijacked the fans collective desires and weaponized them for fun. People want a new game, so that’s what they believed. “Tom” never said anything about it, but others filled in the gaps.

Just a really fascinating story.

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Two recent podcasts on Fallujah

I haven’t listened to an Urban Warfare Project podcast for awhile – this one was good.

In this episode of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project Podcast, John Spencer is joined by retired Colonel Leonard DeFrancisci. He served thirty-two years in the Marine Corps and in 2004 he was a civil affairs detachment commander for Regimental Combat Team 1 during the Second Battle of Fallujah, Iraq.

Civil Affairs and the Second Battle of Fallujah – Modern War Institute

I don’t usually get too excited about Civil Affairs, especially USMC Civil Affairs. In the episode, we learn about civil affairs contracts as military deception, the effective use of PSYOP and loudspeakers to clear an area of civilians, and whisper campaigns.

Incidentally, I recently listened to another podcast on Fallujah, titled “Toxic Legacy of War in Iraq,” which discusses the lingering effects of warfare on the health of the people of Fallujah.

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We’re going to need a slower plane

I’m not an airpower guy, but I enjoyed this episode on airpower in irregular warfare.

“…the effort is going to go towards training and developing partners in order to compete with Chinese influence in places like Africa and South America. That’s going to be role for SOF – the biggest role – in Great Power Competition for special operations.

Armed Overwatch: Airpower in Irregular Warfare—Past, Present and Future – Modern War Institute

During the episode, the guests talk about the fact that sometimes you don’t need the most technically-able aircraft. In fact, depending on the conflict, you might need something old and slow.

This reminds me of a conference I attended years ago discussing outfitting the Afghan air force. Really, what they needed was legacy aircraft from last century. Slow flying so you can actually see what’s on the ground. This makes sense to anyone who has played an air combat video game and tried to do a strafing run going mach 1.

As the guests indicate, there is a bias – especially in air communities – towards fast, more advanced, and newer.

I like the idea of pilots flying an F-35 one day, an F-16 the next, and then an F-4 the last, based on the need.

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A sideshow of a sideshow: Fever Dreams and Diathetics

Center: Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, and T.E. Lawrence in Cairo, 1921

Great book review over at the Modern War Institute.

The iconic figure of T.E. Lawrence remains draped in myth. He appears to modern observers as the pensive Englishman photographed in flowing white Arab robes, or the hero portrayed by Peter O’Toole in the Academy Award–winning 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. His writings on guerrilla war and on advising indigenous forces, meanwhile, are perhaps best known today for their brief appearances to buttress American and British counterinsurgency theory and doctrine.

Seven Pillars Revisited: The Myths and Misreadings of T.E. Lawrence – Modern War Institute

Outside of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, I’m not sure there is a figure that is mined for knowledge more than T.E. Lawrence.

He is an endlessly fascinating figure, whose popular image has surpassed the actual man. This makes understanding the “real” Lawrence difficult.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s account of his role in the Arab Revolt, is an amazing read. The flowery prose can be frustrating, and you get the sense that Lawrence enjoyed flaunting his intellect.

The book, written some years after World War I, is his attempt to categorize the Arab Revolt as a new form of warfare while atoning for the failure of the Arabs to achieve self-determination (and his role in that). He meanders, at times seemingly remorseful for the way the Arabs are treated in the end.

He also clearly understood that the Arab Revolt was just a tiny piece in a much greater game – a “sideshow of a sideshow.”

There are many ways to read Lawrence. In the linked piece, Wilkins writes:

…he [Lawrence] sought to downplay British support for the Arab revolt and emphasize Arab contributions. In doing so, Lawrence sought to highlight what he perceived as the betrayal inflicted on the Arabs in the postwar settlement—in which the Western powers carved former Ottoman territories into French and British mandates, frustrating Arab dreams of self-determination—and to assuage his own ever-present guilt over this outcome.

Lawrence reveled in his role as advisor to the Arabs. But he also knew that his true role – the reason he was there in the first place – was to serve as a shaping operation to General Allenby’s main strike.

The truth was, he cared nothing for our fighting power, and did not reckon us part of his tactical strength. Our purpose, to him, was moral, psychological, diathetic; to keep the enemy command intent upon the trans-Jordan front. In my English capacity I shared this view, but on my Arab side both agitation and battle seemed equally important, the one to serve the joint success, the other to establish Arab self-respect, without which victory would not be wholesome.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Here, Lawrence discusses his “English capacity” and his “Arab side.” Out there in the desert, Lawrence is a warrior with his warriors. They have power and tactical strength, but Allenby doesn’t care for it. You can read this passage and come away thinking Lawrence felt sidelined by Allenby.

But the totality of Lawrence’s thoughts and writings points to his acceptance of this fact. His role (and that of the Arabs) was not to fight but to serve a “diathetic” purpose (more on that later).

It’s difficult to determine exactly what Lawrence was “feeling” out in the desert, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that at the time, he felt that he could do more with his irregular forces, and he may have felt frustrated with being out there on the edge. This was World War I and heroes were being made in Europe. The war in the Middle East was led by Allenby while Lawrence was getting sick in tents. Lawrence was ready to strike, but had to follow orders from the boss:

Weather and strengths might be matters of opinion: but Allenby meant to attack on September the nineteenth, and wanted us to lead off not more than four nor less than two days before he did. His words to me were that three men and a boy with pistols in front of Deraa on September the sixteenth would fill his conception; would he better than thousands a week before or a week after.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

While you may sense some frustration here, it seems that Lawrence understood his purpose. He enjoyed the opportunity to experiment with irregular warfare in the desert but lamented that there wasn’t more time to go further.

By careful persistence, kept strictly within our strength and following the spirit of our theories, we were able eventually to reduce the Turks to helplessness, and complete victory seemed to be almost within our sight when General Allenby by his immense stroke in Palestine threw the enemy’s main forces into hopeless confusion and put an immediate end to the Turkish war. We were very happy to have done with all our pains, but sometimes since I have felt a private regret that his too-greatness deprived me of the opportunity of following to the end the dictum of Saxe that a war might be won without fighting battles.

T.E. Lawrence, The Evolution of a Revolt

It is here where I think there is still room left to mine a little bit more out of Lawrence. Wilkins mentions it in his review:

These irregular raids also played on the “diathetics,” or psychology, of the opponent, leading soldiers to desert, cower in fixed positions, or conduct counterproductive reprisals against the local population. 

For the past year I’ve been working on a much larger research project focused on what Lawrence meant by “diathetics” or “diathetical.” It’s related to psychological warfare, but it’s not quite the same. As quoted above, Lawrence writes “Our purpose, to him, was moral, psychological, diathetic; to keep the enemy command intent upon the trans-Jordan front.” Lawrence here is making a distinction between moral, psychological, and diathetic.

What did he mean there? Is it just him showing off his Greek or was he actually on to something?

I think he was. And I think that’s why he laments the end of the war.

That said, it’s important to remember that these writings are Lawrence’s attempt to categorize his activity after the fact. He’s reflecting and doing his part in his own myth-making.

And while there may be something here, it may all be the imaginings of just another kindergarden soldier.

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“It is happening right now”

Another good episode from the Cogntivie Crucible. And the second podcast I’ve heard featuring LtGen Lori Reynolds (first here, from the Irregular Warfare Initiative).

LtGen Lori Reynolds leads the Marine Corps’ modernization efforts related to operations in the information environment. During this episode, our wide ranging discussion covers competition, professional military education, authorities, technology, and partnerships.

The Cognitive Crucible Episode #38 Reynolds on Operations in the Information Environment

LtGen Reynolds does a great job wrapping up the totality of the world we live in today, especially as it relates to media literacy and the fact that we’re all “in the game” when we have a smartphone in our pocket.

The nightmare quote:

“This whole idea of algorithmic warfare, it can be benign, or it can be malign, but it is happening right now. And it’s happening on your personal device.”

Following up.

“If we think that our adversaries are not going to come after the United States military and impact our will to fight, we’re wrong.”

It’s refreshing to know we’re taking this seriously. The tough part is building the education, infrastructure, and systems to be ready before the “Pearl Harbor” of this style of warfare occurs.

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Taking care of our own

I said everything I need to say about this in the below tweet.

In this episode, COL Eric Kreitz, the 1st SFC(A) Director of Information Warfare sits down with the 1st SFC Chaplain COL Chris Dickey. They discuss COL Kreitz’s very personal story – one of fear, addiction, and hitting rock bottom…but also one of resilience, support, and overcoming adversity. 

The Indigenous Approach – Caring for Our Most Important Resource

The audio is a little off, but it’s worth it.

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