Totalitarian regimes in the Middle East have targeted the United States with a well-financed influence campaign that is being rooted in American politics. Veteran watchers of the "active-measures" programs of the former Soviet Union say this Islamist propaganda offensive bears an uncanny resemblance to the old Soviet international front operations and the broad parade of fellow travelers who used themes of peace, tolerance and civil liberties to advance Soviet strategic goals by weakening the United States at home and abroad.
"Active measures" is a translation of aktivniye meropriyatya, a term of KGB tradecraft that spans the covert-action spectrum from disinformation and propaganda to assassination and sponsorship of terrorism.
Numerous parallels are visible between the totalitarianism of Soviet communism and that of Wahhabism, a Saudi-funded movement to seize control of global Islam, notes Stephen Schwartz, a former leftist, prolific chronicler of communist strategy and tactics and author of the forthcoming book Two Faces of Islam. "Aside from their ideological similarities and the common elements in the struggle of each power," says Schwartz, "there is a striking matter of their identical tactics in penetration of the United States."
In a column for FrontPageMag.com, Schwartz writes, "The Communist Party U.S.A. claimed to lead and, in effect, represent the entire labor and left movement when its constituency was restricted to a narrow band of fanatics and agents of a foreign regime." The same is true, he says, of campaigns that promote the Saudi brand of Islam, including U.S.-based Muslim political pressure groups he calls the "Wahhabi lobby."
For example, he says, "the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the American Muslim Council (AMC) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) claim to lead and, in effect, represent the entire community of American Muslims. In fact, its constituency is restricted to a narrow band of fanatics and agents of a foreign regime, the Saudi kingdom."
The U.S. government had a means of predicting, identifying and countering Soviet active measures both at home and abroad. But it is poorly equipped to deal with Saudi-sponsored (and smaller, noncentralized) political-influence operations of militant Islamists against U.S. interests overseas and against the public and decisionmakers domestically. Cold War concerns at least led U.S. officials to focus on Soviet fronts and covert operations, but little notice was taken of the Islamist propaganda development that began in the early 1960s.
Now, with the Soviet Union long gone and the information revolution having empowered small, decentralized groups to battle the United States with methods short of all-out military warfare, researchers at the Rand Corporation's National Security Research Division have taken the lead in defining a new phenomenon they call "netwar." Rand's John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, who coined the term "cyberwar" to discuss the military implications of the information revolution on warfare, also have coined the word "netwar" to define conflicts short of war involving actors who might or might not be military or even government.
Netwar's distinguishing element, they write in their new book, Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy, takes advantage of the information revolution to empower small, networked organizations to battle hierarchical governments. Netwar, according to Arquilla and Ronfeldt, is "an emerging mode of conflict (and crime) at societal levels, short of traditional military warfare, in which the protagonists use network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies and technologies attuned to the information age.
"These protagonists are likely to consist of dispersed organizations, small groups and individuals who communicate, coordinate and conduct their campaigns in an Internetted matter, often without a precise central command. …