In my recently published book Image Warfare in the War on Terror (Palgrave Macmillan) (which examines the Bush years of the War on Terror and the start of the Obama years), I discuss how, since September 11th 2001, image warfare has replaced techno-war as the dominant warfighting model. I argue that image warfare has been embraced by Al Qaeda while the West is still playing catch-up.
I believe that throughout the Bush years both America and Britain were repeatedly drawn into a dangerous game of mimetic one-upmanship which benefitted Al Qaeda's image warfare. For example, Tony Blair's appearance on al Jazeera in response to bin Laden's first video message after the 9/11 attacks; the Pentagon's publication of death images of Uday and Qusay Hussein and the Iraqi governments turning of Saddam Hussein's execution into a media spectacle. However, the operation which resulted in the killing of bin Laden on May 2nd 2011 does - in my opinion - represent something of a quantum leap forward in terms of the West's understanding of image warfare. This is because the Pentagon succeeded in breaking the dangerous cycle of mimetic one-upmanship which it had fallen into with Al Qaeda. It did this by not publishing death images of bin Laden. Instead, images showing bin Laden's hideout immediately after the security operation had been concluded were released to the world's media along with an image showing a shocked looking President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and other senior members of the Obama administration as they viewed the security operation live - via a video link - in a White House incident room. These images have since become the defining 'image munitions' of the event. After DNA samples had been taken from the body, the body was then quickly prepared for burial in accordance with Islamic tradition, the identity of the body was then confirmed to be that of bin Laden and he was then buried anonymously at sea.
This is evidence that the counterinsurgency strategy, devised by Hank Crumpton, David Kilcullen and other Pentagon officials and mapped out in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, is beginning to be integrated into the Pentagon's image warfare strategy. In Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency Kilcullen writes: 'One of the biggest differences between the counterinsurgencies our fathers fought and those we face today is the omnipresence of globalized media.' (Kilcullen, 2006: 6) He also provides the following warning: 'Beware the "scripted enemy", who plays to a global audience and seeks to defeat you in the court of global public opinion. (ibid.: 6)
The 'scripted enemy' has become even more deadly in the age of camera/video phones as they are no longer solely reliant on journalists and news crews reporting from the scenes of terrorist incidents to get their messages out to the watching world. The proliferation of camera/video phones means that today anyone can potentially record graphic scenes from terrorist incidents and then immediately upload them onto the internet to be watched by a global audience. The July 7th 2005 London Bombings are a powerful example of this as London Underground passengers who were caught up in the attacks recorded what they witnessed on their camera/video phones and so captured and deployed some of the most powerful 'image munitions' of 7/7.
Fast forward to May 22nd 2013 and the brutal murder of Drummer Lee Rigby (2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers) by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale - near the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich (London); the first successful terrorist attack to take place in Britain since the 7/7 London Bombings. Here the 'scripted enemy' (Adebolajo and Adebowale) succeeded in opening a new chapter in the evolution of image warfare, where the image and the media event have seemingly completely consumed the event itself.
Adebolajo and Adebowale singled out Drummer Rigby to be attacked and killed because he was a British soldier (he was also wearing a 'Help for Heroes' top). They subjected him to an horrendous, brutal and depraved attack and then instead of fleeing the scene they remained behind and Adebolajo (with blood-soaked hands and a meat cleaver in his left hand) called upon the gathered crowd of shocked onlookers to take out their camera/video phones and record what they saw. Adebolajo then delivered a chilling message to onlookers recording video-phones where he attempted to justify his actions: 'The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers. And this British soldier is one. It is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. By Allah, we swear by the almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone.' (Telegraph, 2013: unpaginated) Armed police then arrived at the scene, Adebolajo and Adebowale then charged at the police, the police responded by shooting them in the legs and arresting them. 'Image munitions' of the attack have since circulated globally, causing intense international debate and resulting in a series of anti-Muslim reprisal attacks.
Kilcullen, D. (2006) Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency. Small Wars Journal, pp. 1-11. [Accessed on 2nd June 2013]
Telegraph (2013) Woolwich Attack: The Terrorist's Rant. [Accessed on 2nd June 2013]
Department of Defense (2006) Quadrennial Defense Review Report. [Accessed on 2nd June 2013]