Academic journal article Military Review

The Truth Is out There: Responding to Insurgent Disinformation and Deception Operations

Academic journal article Military Review

The Truth Is out There: Responding to Insurgent Disinformation and Deception Operations

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

OPERATION VALHALLA was a completely ordinary engagement, typical of the type of operation U.S. Special Forces units have participated in throughout the Iraq war. Yet, it was, if not a turning point in the war, a perfect example of the challenges fighting in Iraq--and very possibly any future conflicts against Islamist insurgencies--has presented that are new and almost impossible to answer effectively.

Valhalla was an engagement between a battalion of U.S. Special Forces Soldiers with the Iraqi Special Forces unit it was training on one side, and a Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) death squad (better known as Mahdi Army) on the other. The engagement was entirely ordinary: the U.S. forces tracked down the JAM fighters responsible for the especially brutal murders of a number of civilians and several Iraqi troops. When U.S. and Iraqi government forces reached the JAM compound, a brief firefight ensued. However, as the JAM forces engaged well-trained, well-armed Soldiers instead of unarmed civilians, their fortunes took an abrupt turn.

It was what happened after the firefight was over--in fact, after U.S. and Iraqi government forces left the area--that made this particular engagement so worth studying in detail.

Neither the battalion of the U.S. Army's 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) under the command of then Lieutenant Colonel Sean Swindell (at the time a part of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, Arabian Peninsula [CJSOTF-AP]) nor the Iraqi government forces took any casualties during the fighting on 26 March 2006, beyond one Iraqi Soldier with a non-life-threatening injury. Sixteen or 17 JAM were killed, a weapons cache found and destroyed, a badly beaten hostage found and rescued, and approximately 16 other JAM members detained, at which point U.S. and Iraqi government forces left the site.

Based on his encounters with Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and other Sunni insurgent groups, Colonel Kenneth Tovo, the commanding officer of both the 10th Group and the CJSOTF-AP at the time, reports that a 24- to 48-hour cycle between an event and the appearance on the Internet of propaganda regarding that event had become routine to Special Forces operating in Iraq during that period. However, on 26 March 2006, by the time the SF and Iraqi forces returned to their compound, roughly an hour after leaving the site of the firefight, someone had moved the bodies and removed the guns of the JAM fighters back at their compound so that it no longer looked as if they had fallen while firing weapons. They now looked as if they had fallen while at prayer. Someone had photographed the bodies in these new poses and the images had been uploaded to the web, along with a press release explaining that American Soldiers had entered a mosque and killed men peacefully at prayer. All this had taken approximately 45 minutes. As Colonel Tovo said, "Literally they had their story, their propaganda, out on the wires before the assault force was back at the compound, so [in] under an hour, they had their counter-story already on the wires. That's how brilliant [this was. It] really surprised us that first time, because we were kind of used to the Al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgent model, which was 24 to 48 hours ... to get their story out...." (1)

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Needless to say, both the American and Arab media picked up the story almost immediately. Also, needless to say, the result was an investigation that took roughly a month, during which the unit was, to put it bluntly, benched. Thus, a unit that could never have been bested in actual combat by JAM forces was essentially neutralized for a month by those same forces using a cell phone camera.

Fortunately, U.S. forces had been accompanied by members of the "combat camera" units, and had themselves been wearing "helmet cams" in several cases. Thus "before" pictures were available to contrast with the "after" pictures the militia members posted to the web. …

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