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Multinational Military Group: Democracies Must Challenge Terrorists’ Exploitation of Media

An international group of retired military officers and diplomats published a report outlining the challenges democratic nations face when fighting against irregular combatants, including terrorist organizations, who often exploit social and mainstream media to amplify their propaganda. The High Level Military Group (HLMG) presented their study at the Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday.

Titled “Our Military Forces’ Struggle Against Lawless, Media Savvy Terrorist Adversaries,” the report examined eight separate conflicts since 2000, including an ongoing French counter-terrorism operation against Islamist groups in Mali and the Sahel region of Africa; a Colombian operation against the terrorist group FARC in 2013 and 2014; Israel’s war against Hezbollah in 2006; and an operation carried out by American, British, and Afghani forces against the Taliban in 2010.

According to the study, all of the democracies that engaged in these conflicts adhered to and often exceeded the demands of the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC), even at the cost of “[paying] a grave tactical price on the battlefield for them.” Their adversaries, on the other hand, “[abused] these rules purposefully for battlefield gains.”

“Advances in communications technology have had a major impact on the fight against irregular and terrorist adversaries,” the HLMG noted, “who remain relatively weak militarily but often display an extraordinarily well developed ability to exploit communications technology and the media in order to influence the battle over political narratives to real strategic effect.”

This propaganda was often aided by “receptive amplifiers” in social and traditional media, and given traction by “misguided or ill-informed political actors and institutions.” Much of the terrorists’ ability to shape the narrative of the conflict stemmed from the public’s lack of understanding of LOAC, the HLMG wrote.

The group emphasized that the ability of destabilizing non-state actors to escape scrutiny in the political sphere, in contrast to the armies of democracies who “are placed in ever greater dangers while having to worry ever more about their legitimate military actions,” is a reflection of “a growing crisis of leadership in our democracies that we must urgently address in order to secure them for the 21st Century.”

The HLMG’s roster boasts former senior military officials from Germany, Italy, the U.S., Spain, Australia, India, France, the U.K., and Colombia. These include Gen. Klaus Naumann, the former German armed forces chief of staff who later served as chairman of NATO’s Military Committee; Lt.-Gen. David A. Deptula, the former director of the Combined Air Operations Center in Afghanistan; Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan; Major General Giora Eiland (ret.), who served as chair of the National Security Council of Israel; and Rafael L. Bardají, who served as Spain’s National Security Adviser and assumed leadership positions in its Ministry of Defence.

The group’s report, the second in a series of three, is “another contribution towards the goal of informing our publics about the true scale of the challenge and equipping our leaders with the analysis to make the case,” Bardaji wrote.

The first HLMG report released in December examined Israel’s conduct during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and concluded that the IDF “met and in some respects exceeded the highest standards we set for our own nations’ militaries.” Davis Lewin, coordinator for HLMG, told The Tower at the time, “The HLMG has recognized that these politically motivated slanders directed against Israel could eventually compromise, perhaps fatally, the efforts of other democracies to combat terrorism.” Lewin added, “Too many NGOs who claim to be defending human rights don’t have the expertise to make credible judgments on either the conduct of military operations or the laws of war.”

[Photo: Courtesy High Level Military Group ]