Jul 14, 2007

Cyber-Herding Black Sheep

[M]ilitary academics are mulling new ways to challenge [Islamic extremists] in cyberspace.

Web sites aimed at attracting new generations of Islamic militants have multiplied steadily in recent years, and their number is now estimated to be in the thousands. Although tech-savvy extremists are known to attack Western computer networks through hacking and other means, many experts consider the silent spread of easy-to-set-up anti-American propaganda Web sites more dangerous because they are difficult for the military to counteract.

Incoming Army Chief Information Officer Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson
said this week that the battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide is raging in full force on the Web — a fact, he added, that the military has to contend with.

Information about concerted efforts by the Pentagon or other government agencies to fight the spread of Islamic anti-Western propaganda sites is difficult to obtain because most activities fall into the realm of secret intelligence operations.

Naval Postgraduate School Professor John Arquilla, an expert and adviser to the Pentagon on information operations and electronic warfare, would speak only in general terms about the military’s approach to the issue. According to the school’s Web site, Arquilla is working on a classified study of deception operations against terrorist networks for Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England.

Arquilla said his goals are finding ways to exploit the widespread Internet use among militant Islamists and to deter extremists from using the Web if their activities in cyberspace cannot be exploited.

Experts say Islamic militants are drawn to the Web because it offers a cheap and quick way of mass communication. Most important, it allows them to act anonymously, the experts say.

Air Force Capt. David Moon, who studies information operations under Arquilla, has proposed a way of using the Web’s culture of anonymity to the military’s advantage. [Moon's paper: Cyber-Herding - Exploiting Islamic Extremists Use of the Internet. pdf. Beware, reading it might make you blush of AOE (acute onset embarassment). -M1]

Moon's work garnered some attention from military leaders at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual conference on special operations and low-intensity conflict earlier this year. His paper on what he and Arquilla have dubbed cyber herding won first prize in the conference essay competition.

Cyber-herding seeks to gradually drive Islamic extremists to Web sites covertly controlled by the U.S. government. To achieve this, the author envisions a sequence of several phases.

First, officials would scour the Internet for extremist Web sites and chat rooms. Next, they would participate in the conversations there posing as militant sympathizers, with the goal of developing a detailed understanding of the site’s clientèle. Then, officials would duplicate the entire body of information from each site and place it on new, U.S.-owned Web sites that bear loose resemblance to the originals.

In what Moon calls the demolition phase, officials would try to remove the original extremist Web sites — either through legal protests with the Web site host or by hacking them — in the hope that extremists will flock to the newly created American-controlled sites, where U.S. officials could discreetly shape the type and tone of the conversations.

Applied to Iraq, for example, cyber-herding could help counteract the widespread perception of American troops there as occupiers, Moon said in a brief interview this week. [Sales pitches are per definition (DSM-V) notoriously delusional in tone and claim so young Moon need not be immediately subjected to a vigorous regimen of psychotropic salvation. -M1]

Questions remain about whether cyber-herding is merely an academic exercise or if the military has taken an interest in putting the idea into practice. Moon and Arquilla declined to comment on that.

Lawmakers also are interested in the issue of Islamic extremist Web sites. Next week, the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute [MEMRI] will host a presentation on the issue on Capitol Hill. The event is sponsored by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Middle East and South Asia subcommittee, and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the panel’s ranking member.
-FCW Excerpt


steve said...

"Applied to Iraq, for example, cyber-herding could help counteract the widespread perception of American troops there as occupiers, Moon said in a brief interview this week."

...and then perhaps they can move on to demolish that nasty idea that Iraq in the summer is warm.

Anonymous said...


When asked how cyber-herding could be used in Iraq, I replied, “My paper is based on open source information on how Islamic extremist are using the internet. I tried to stay generic and open source so I do not have any specific information on the use of the internet in the Iraqi theater. However, cyber-herding could assist in creating and bolstering hostilities and differences between insurgent factions in Iraq. Using cyber-herding, we could try to refocus the message away from the American “occupation” to the infighting and violence between the various groups. This may have the benefit of reducing recruits that have no problem fighting Americans, but may hesitate joining a group that is killing fellow Muslims.” This was translated into the reducing the widespread perceptions that American troops are occupiers comment that you read.

Thank you for your comment,

Meatball One said...

Significant diff, DM. Thanks for the clarification. Appreciated.

Still, cyer-herding is standard trade craft at online dating communities.

In the end, the herded wise up and the shepherds are flushed out - and that's when just love is at stake.

When money and power underlie the conflict and it is being played for keeps then the decoys and dummies have a habit of getting weeded out real fast. The shepherds even get taken for a ride themselves.

Again, you gotta be one helluva an I.O. operator to get a mugged man to side with his mugger.

steve said...

DM - I understand the concepts. I appreciate your attempt at clarification, but I think you made your point well already. My comment was more about the difficulty (I'd be tempted to say impossibility) of the task than the strategy you proposed.

I am puzzled by your use of the term "occupation." In what sense is our occupation of Iraq an "occupation" and not an occupation?

I understand that words are tools to be used strategically. It bothers me when they lose contact with reality. Or maybe I'm missing something. Thank you for taking the time to enlighten me.

theBhc said...

Unless information that has come out that the US military is woefully under-staffed in Arab speakers and that non-native speakers of almost any language can be detected fairly quickly, I suspect M1 is right: this effort will fall down fast.

Considering how the US military listens to their own counter-insurgency guidelines, i.e. they don't, this seems to be more of an academic exercise.

Anonymous said...

Meatball one - Thank you for your comments. When I get a chance, I will do some research on online dating services use of cyber-herding. Perhaps, I can use it for my thesis.

Point taken on the shepherds being flushed out. I addressed this in the paper and overall, I do not think this is a bad thing. Going public could have some side benefits.

Steve – I think your comment about this being difficult or impossible is very true. However, depending on the scale of the operation, I think that some elements of cyber-herding could be used. Please note that this is an academic paper. I laid out a very broad strategy on exploiting Islamic extremist use of the internet. I did not address all of the issues that could be involved in cyber-herding such as fiscal, legal, ethical, etc… I plan to address some of these issues in my thesis.

Quotation marks for occupation – In the news, people from different political parties debate whether our forces in Iraqi are occupiers or not. Being in the military, I do not want to get involved with a political debate. Therefore, I chose to put quotation marks and left it to the reader.


Meatball One said...


Just a point of clarification myself.

Pertaining to online dating community cyber-herding antics - yes, some operators of sites have engaged in this activity and it's lead on occasion to significant stinks (legal & PR) when revealed - but who of sound mind really cares.

However the cyber-herders I intended to refer to are many of the consumers of these sites.

All sorts of wonderful and clever strategms are employed by hunters and narcissists to bring home the bacon - in one way or another.

Shannon Rossmiller's online activities mirror quite nicely the daily gambits played out in the cyber-dating community. Interesting ly enough, weren't here catches confined to fellow, albeit corrupt, anglophones?

But cyber-herding is labor intensive. Very very labor intensive. To set a mouse trap - perhaps not unreasonably so. To sway a psyche? - oj oj oj.


P.S. Have you just cyber-herded us? (or vice versa?)

Dave said...


Thank you for your comments. Since I wrote this paper a few months ago, I have received nothing but praise from my friends, family, and colleagues. It is refreshing and enlightening to get a different perspective. For my thesis, I plan on revisiting cyber-herding, but narrowing its scope and scale using Gladwell’s theory on small things can have big differences.


Meatball One – I believe only time will tell (perhaps a little of both or none at all).

Meatball One said...

thebhc..you tooketh the words right outta my meatball when ye referred to the scarcity of Arab speaking personnel in key U.S.slots in Iraq.

I mean c'mon, can one seriously imagine somebody having enough juice to shaketh loose 600, or even just 60, trusted Arabists and earmark them for cyber-herding?

Meatball One said...

Dave, family and friends don't count in such matters after grade 10. Colleagues? Well that depends on who they are and above all, over what location they embarked on their latest HaLo.