A Iraqi special forces fighter walks with his rifle during flighting with Islamic State militants in eastern Mosul, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016.

A Iraqi special forces fighter walks with his rifle during flighting with Islamic State militants in eastern Mosul, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016. AP / FELIPE DANA

How Special Operators Trained for Psychological Warfare Before the Mosul Fight

At a two-day exercise in April, U.S. troops practiced waging warfare on an invisible yet vital battlefield.

There are two battles occurring in Mosul today. One is in the streets, where  coalition forces are exchanging fire with ISIS remnants entrenched around Iraq’s second-largest city. The second is taking place on screens, on Twitter, and in the minds of residents and of fighters on both sides. Mosul is an information battlespace as much as it is physical location, and you can’t achieve victory on one battlefield without achieving it on the other.

So in the months leading up to the Mosul offensive, the Joint Staff hosted a highly unusual war game. The goal: train special operators to disrupt ISIS’s ability to command and control forces and “neutralize its ability to increase morale,” according to a Defense Department official.

Defense One obtained a writeup of the exercise, which provides a rare glimpse into psychological operations, or PSYOPS.

“Focusing on PSYOP as the main activity of a wargame, rather than as part of a full spectrum of Diplomatic Information Military and Economic, DIME, activities, is quite rare within the professional defense community,” the writeup notes.

“This was a training opportunity for guys doing information operation stuff. They don’t usually have an opportunity to practice that in an environment where lives aren’t lost,” said Devin Hayes Ellis, who works on the University of Maryland’s ICONS project, which provided the framework and digital platform for the exercise. Importantly the official noted that the Pentagon does not think of the exercise as training SOF to fight ISIS computer systems. The Defense official described the purpose of the exercise as "enhancing Military Information Support Operations (MISO) training and effectiveness and pre-test narrative space options for degrading the effectiveness of ISIL propaganda to key population constituencies in a controlled environment."

Building on an earlier, similar exercise in December, the two-day April game brought together more than 100 participants, divided into a blue group representing the good guys, a red team representing ISIS, and a white team representing other elements of the Mosul population. This was the control group, the group that was up for grabs. It included Salafists, Kurds, Neo-Baathists, Sunni neutrals, and tribalists, in proportions that mirrored reality. (There were two separate, simultaneous games for Anbar and North Africa.) 

“We try to be close to the real thing,” Ellis said. “We had a variety of subject matter experts who were either Sunni Arabs or scholars studying intersecretarial messaging by ISIL, Sunni groups, and Shia groups. All the scholars were either a native or deep subject matter expert.” While the exercise was not specifically intended to train information operators for the Mosul fight, Mosul was one of the key settings in the game and the exercise and training it provided has become newly relevant in light of the Mosul operation. 

The blue team was tasked with developing a high-level strategy that aligned with operational objectives, as well as developing messages and media to sway the population. They had to execute that strategy while responding to ISIS messages with the help of “cultural and technical experts to take advantage of multidisciplinary insights from the fields of neuroscience, political science, modeling, marketing,” according to the defense official.

The live transcript of the exercise shows a fast past but organized back-and-forth, with the blue team pushing out well-produced posters and other materials and identifying control group members to target with specific appeals or responses. Tribal leaders and imams, for instance, were highly valuable both as message bearers and as the subjects of messages.

“Making decisions are costly mentally, even under the best of situations,” read one message. “The best way to help people make decisions under such circumstances is through someone they consider an authority/knowledgeable figure (Tribal Leader), so messaging coming from this person/group should be very specific in what exactly do — thus minimizing the need of the pop to use limited cognitive resources to think through a decision.”

It’s all an example of cognitive maneuvering, defined by U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, “as the tactics of a campaign to shape the conditions of the global environment and influence actors' decision-making behaviors. We shape and influence to continually maintain positions of advantage, adapting to the changing nature and character of conflict in an ambiguous, murky ‘Gray Zone.’”

The exercises were part of a four-year effort by the Joint Staff J-39 Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment (SMA) program, which seeks to deploy cutting-edge communications strategies, including social network analysis, behavior modeling and even the neuroscience of persuasion, to execute more persuasive information campaigns. The Defense Department is working with several U.S. and foreign universities to “evaluate academic theories in ‘Cognitive Space’ to conduct Information Operations to disrupt Da’esh’s ability to command and control forces, neutralize its ability to maintain or increase moral, political, and financial support as well as recruit foreign fighters. This SMA effort continues to identify methods that could have operational application against an adversary,” said the defense official.

In a Nov. 9 meeting at the Pentagon, a recording of which was obtained by Defense One, Ian McCulloh of Johns Hopkins University described a recent experiment that he undertook with UCLA researcher in Amman, Jordan. Using funds from  the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, they examined whether subjects responded differently, at a neural level, to messages that have been tailored to them as a target audience.

“It's kind of a proof of concept for product testing, using neuroscience as a means to do it,” McCulloh said.

ISIS and Disinformation

The need for persuasive, highly targeted information operations in Iraq is evident to anyone watching the news coming out of Mosul. The ISIS forces left in the city are waging a scorched-earth information campaign, which includes dressing like Iraqi Security Forces and then committing atrocities (to later create anti-ISF propaganda) as they did in Fallujah.

Since the battle for Mosul began in October, pro-government information outlets, such as Mosul Eye and Iraqi Popular Mobilization, have been producing a consistent stream of media and messages portraying coalition forces on a steady march toward victory, and meeting grateful inhabitants along the way. Behind those public signs of progress, there’s strategic communication and “cognitive maneuvering” going on behind the scenes, the result of the April exercise, which officials say went very well.

“This was a simulated environment, but preliminary results suggested lessons not only for MISO training but also for increasing the impact of the power of information in forward operations,” according to the writeup. “The pre-simulation preparation and consequent volume of messages that the Blue, Department of Defense, team was able to deploy during the April 2016 simulation appeared to confound Red, ISIL simulated) team efforts to deliver its own messages and forced it into a reactive position vis-à-vis interacting with the White (population) teams. What emerged from this simulation was the realization that an increased operational tempo within the narrative space, combined with embedded, virtual expertise from a cadre of multidisciplinary experts, appeared to increase the effectiveness of Blue messaging in the simulated narrative space.”

Soon, we will know how well it prepared them for the real thing.