Centre For Disinformation Studies Thomas Turmel

Disinformation in Warfare: American PsyOps and the Lord’s Resistance Army

Today, disinformation is most often considered and studied as the manipulation of information aimed at the public (or a certain portion of it) for nefarious purposes. Certain definitions even construe it as being specifically targeted toward “public opinion.” However, disinformation was first a military tool for generals to bring victory in battle or war. In fact, there is mention of its use in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Clausewitzian treatises. Even though the concept was articulated by classic military strategists many centuries ago, disinformation is still employed by modern armies. Nowadays, military information operations (whether deceptive or not) are usually developed and conceptualized under the umbrella of Psychological Operations (PsyOps), which  are generally defined as influence campaigns targeting the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behaviours of a specific audience aimed at supporting a given mission.

The United States military has been at the forefront of this type of warfare since the Second World War. For instance, they dropped approximately 33 million leaflets (PDF) on Iraqi positions during the Second Gulf War to encourage desertion and surrenders, in a similar fashion to what they had done during the Second World War with Japanese and German soldiers. Although these operations were first conducted in an ad hoc fashion, with mixed results due to a generalized lack of cultural awareness, they rapidly evolved and were codified in formal doctrine. For instance, the U.S. Army Department now publishes a Field Manual (a “how-to” guide, if you will) on Psychological Operations (PDF). In addition, the U.S. is one of the only Western nations to possess dedicated PsyOps units. Organizationally speaking, they are part of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and have access to broadcasting planes, material to overpower hostile radio stations, and the infrastructure to produce leaflets. These units are considered the U.S. military’s experts at influencing civilians or enemy combatants. They were extensively used in Afghanistan and Iraq, most often supporting Special Forces (PDF). PsyOp units were also used with great success in a little-known operation against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, a staunch reminder that, in certain situations, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.

Information Warfare in Uganda

The LRA is a criminal transnational armed group that has been operating in central Africa since 1987. It is most infamous for its raids on villages to kidnap children and conscript them as child soldiers. In 2005, the International Criminal Court in La Hague issued a warrant for  the arrest of the LRA’s infamous leader, Joseph Kony, for crimes against humanity relating to murder, kidnapping, and enslavement. The story of the LRA will be familiar to some readers from the controversial #Kony2012 campaign that went viral almost a decade ago.

In 2011, then President Barack Obama sent 100 soldiers to the region to support and train local forces who could in turn neutralize the militant group. But it was to little avail, as the group routinely hides in deep tropical jungle and comes out only to conduct rapid attacks on villages to extort supplies. Since kinetic means were proving inefficient, a team of PsyOp operators were brought into the region where they commenced a different kind of offensive that would prove significantly more effective. They would assault the group psychologically by convincing members to desert. Menacing tactics were not used; instead, the promise of a return to their families and the exoneration of their actions committed under duress were to be the primary motivator.

The PsyOps team first established a radio station that would broadcast music and safety notices in addition to the messages destined to LRA members. Leaflets destined for the group’s members were also produced in the region’s local languages and distributed by soldiers and air dropped onto the group’s last known location. At the end of the PsyOp group’s first six-month rotation, they had compelled 25 out of the 500 LRA members to defect. A humble success, but a success nonetheless. Since then, PsyOp methods have been refined and have proven even more effective. Indeed, LRA members’ familiarity with former comrades who have already deserted is leveraged to dampen fears of prosecution if they leave the group. Teams also started utilizing loudspeakers mounted on helicopters to target the highly mobile group with greater precision. Still, the greatest innovation has perhaps been the targeting of specific members with tailored PsyOp material. For instance, a member of Kony’s inner circle, communications chief Michael Omona, was targeted with his own mother’s voice “… [a]s he’s walking through the jungle, he hears his mother’s voice begging him to come home.” Not long after, he defected and reintegrated into civil society, dealing the LRA another severe blow.

Today, the LRA numbers 100 members at most and is under mounting military pressure, although it still commits exactions to survive. This drastic decrease in fighting capability can largely be attributed to Psychological Operations, cementing the role of information as a weapon that, in certain situations, can prove more effective than brute kinetic force.

Featured image: American serviceman training Ugandan forces for the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia and the hunt for Joseph Kony and the Lord’s resistance army. (2012), by the USMC via Wikimedia Commons

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Thomas Turmel
Thomas Turmel is a student at the Royal Military College of Canada where he is pursuing an Honours B.A. in military-strategic studies with a minor in economics. He is also studying Arabic and culture at Université Laval in Quebec City. Thomas has been active with the International Society of Military Science (ISMS) and with the Model United Nations Association at Laval. Additionally, he is a research assistant at the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, at Queen's University at Kingston. His research focuses on hostile foreign influence on western social media and on the Canadian defence economy. He is fluent in French and English and has a growing knowledge of Arabic. Upon graduation, he will be commissioned in the Canadian Armed Forces as a Second Lieutenant.