Maybe it’s Time for a new Comms Policy after Military Raids

By Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, US Army (Ret.)

Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, US Army (Ret) was the Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs from 2008-2009. Prior to that, he was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Affairs from 2006-2008. These positions followed a 30-year career in the military with service as Deputy Director for Strategy and Plans at US Central Command, Deputy Director of Operations for Coalition Forces in Iraq and significant command assignments worldwide. He currently leads a private consulting business for US clients in the Middle East and provides regional security commentary on Arabic, Turkish and English-speaking media channels worldwide.

OPINION — On 3 February, US forces attacked an ISIS leadership site in Syria, targeting its top leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. In characteristic fashion, the ground assault was executed brilliantly at the cost of one helicopter but there were no US casualties. Rather than be taken alive, it was reported by the Administration that Abu Ibrahim set off an explosive device, killing himself and his family. Soon thereafter, unnamed sources began to provide information to the media and, later that day, President Biden made an address to the nation.

As is so often the case since the beginning of the War on Terrorism, this was a one-day story. By Friday, the media was reporting on the Winter Olympics, the Ukraine crisis, and a positive jobs report.

Yet less reported on by Western media, and perhaps far more significant, has been reaction to the raid within the region. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported about, “A photo of a girl  circula(ing) on social media … who appeared to be about five with blood on her face and “a wrecked bedroom (with) a wooden crib and the stuffed rabbit doll, claiming that, “the US launched the operation knowing the ISIS leader might respond by killing innocent people”, clearly working against US efforts to improve its image abroad. The New York Times also quoted experts such as Ardian Shajkovki of the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute, who is concerned that the raid is giving a boost to ISIS recruiting and propaganda efforts.

Even though President Biden’s speech and media reports were relatively absent of the bombast and triumphalism that the comments that followed the attack on Qassim Soleimani had, one wonders whether these operations would be better met with official silence or at least official ambiguity.

Employed by the Israeli government for years, Tel Aviv’s no-comment policy on issues like this, is seen as a means to avoid retaliation, allow foes to save face and smooth cooperation with friendly neighbors.  Several reasons stand out for why this may merit consideration of a similar US policy.

First, the highly telegenic images and detailed accounts which emerge from operations unintentionally benefit similar terrorist organizations and future planning. Repeated helicopter malfunctions in the recent Qurashi raid, the raid against Osama bin Laden and even the 1979 Desert One operations, exposed vulnerabilities in troop insertions. Overhead night vision cameras showed forces assaulting compounds and revealed much about their equipment, unit sizes and movement techniques. Well-known Close Quarter Combat (CQC) techniques may have been one of the reasons that Qurashi chose to kill himself with explosives rather than face the marksmanship skills of a special operator. Unfortunately, the adversary is a learning enemy and over-reporting on operations are teaching moments.

Second, such announcements dictate retribution. According to Jonathan Hessen, TV7 Israel News Editor in Chief and Host of “Jerusalem Studio” and “Europa Stands”, “Mideastern societies adhere to an unwritten cultural code of “Sharaf,” (Honor). When a relative is killed, it demands revenge to ‘reclaim honor in the eyes of society’ or else it risks being depicted as ‘weak’. Following rules of ambiguity (neither confirming nor denying responsibility) provides a way out for those who carry out attacks to seek to avoid escalation.” Moreover, the bombast which often accompanies Presidential announcements (“he died a coward”) is not only an affront to “Karama” (dignity) but is culturally naïve as these deaths are not seen as cowardice but revered as martyrdom.

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Not only do announcements and widespread dissemination of attacks require retribution, but they also serve as a tool for those forced, inspired or humiliated into joining extremist groups.  Experts such as Shajkovki remain concerned that post-raid communications are a propaganda boost for recruitment.   Recruitment is a longstanding problem in Europe and elsewhere,  whether done face-to-face or via hundreds of videos propagated on the internet.  

Experts are divided on the legality and wisdom of targeted strikes. For those who argue that targeted strikes are illegal, announcements by the president are seen as an admission of guilt. Rosa Brooks of the Georgetown School of Law believes that the strikes also flaunt the absence of settled law and works against the efforts of international legal standards. Silence or ambiguity, which can mitigate an individual or organizational response, can also provide legal vagueness, giving sates face-saving ways to avoid conflict, enabling them to, “look the other way”.  It can also reduce pressure on friendly governments that often face significant public criticism for aligning themselves with the US, even if they had no direct role in operations.

Others feel that these strikes and post-strike transparency have a purpose other than for internal US consumption. Andrew Parasiliti, president of Al-Monitor notes that, “By making it known, the terrorists are on notice that the US led ‘Defeat ISIS’ campaign is not letting up. This mission has been an unqualified American success, militarily and diplomatically, with bipartisan support, over three administrations, and a signal to US allies and adversaries of sustained leadership and engagement on this vital interest.  There’s something to be said for making that known.”

The media will assert a right to report and claim because, as the Washington Post masthead reminds, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. A journalist with years in the region notes that, “The default mode now is not saying anything and it’s extremely disturbing. We had access to information when the military needed us to sell their war in Iraq. Now, pretty much all we have are unanswered questions about actions and issues Americans need to know about.” Yet, advocates of ambiguity will point to venues to oversee and scrutinize these operations outside of the public sphere such as congressional committees, judicial proceedings, and Freedom of Information procedures. Many would argue the insufficiency of these processes, although most of those arguments do not go to the question of ambiguity versus full transparency.  

As in most policy analysis, there is no perfect answer and, in this case, there may not even be a good answer. Yet, a policy of post-strike silence and ambiguity could go far in protecting not only our troops and their tactics, but it could also help to mitigate retribution, terrorist recruitment and incitement within vulnerable allied nations. Such a policy would endure criticism from the media, transparency advocates and perhaps even constitutional jurists, but it is a policy worth consideration.   

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