“How can a man in a cave out-communicate the world’s leading communications society?” wondered Richard Holbrooke, the dean of the American Diplomatic Corps, in the aftermath of 9/11. What startled Holbrooke, and presumably many of the readers of his Washington Posteditorial, wasn’t Osama bin Laden’s terror attacks themselves but rather the Al Qaeda chief’s ability to control the framing of those attacks without a state or a television station of his own. To answer this new threat, Holbrooke called for a centralised authority run by the White House that would combine the powers of the State Department, the Pentagon, the Justice Department, the CIA and other government agencies in order to impose America’s preferred interpretation of reality upon the world.

Over two decades later, the flaws in Holbrooke’s grandiose plan for a global propaganda war directed from Washington are glaringly obvious. At the heart of Holbrooke’s conception of what became known as the Global War on Terror (GWOT) was the idea that the crucial post-9/11 battles would be won or lost not in physical locations in Afghanistan and Iraq but rather inside the heads of ordinary Muslims. The truth was that bin Laden and his terrorists understood their target audience far better than the White House, the CIA and the FBI ever could or did. Yet bizarrely, the dream of controlling reality through semiotic and technical means remains current in Washington and other Western capitals, even as the battlefields of the Middle East have gone silent. What started out as a way to fight a far-away foe has quietly metastasised into a totalitarian fantasy of endless warfare against the erroneous thoughts and feelings of ordinary citizens closer to home.

The idea of “information warfare” was born in the Seventies, when Pentagon war colleges began to take notice of the role played by so-called information operations in Soviet military planning, particularly in promoting third-world insurgencies. In 1991, American military planners included a heavy “information operations” (IO) component in the first Gulf War, which, despite featuring large set-piece tank battles in the desert, was widely labelled “the first information war”. In American military doctrine, IO was defined as a toolbox of capabilities consisting of computer network operations, electronic warfare, operational security, psychological operations, and deception. It was these capabilities, merged with high-flown Cold War rhetoric about freedom and democracy, that Holbrooke, President George W. Bush and others imagined would ultimately win the war against Al Qaeda.

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