Waging propaganda war against terrorists

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 13, 2013

Emerging from a darkened cinema hall, security expert Kumar Ramakrishna's eyes were gently adjusting to the light outdoors when his mind began decoding an embedded message in a war movie he had just seen, Lions For Lambs.

In the 2007 movie directed by Hollywood icon Robert Redford, interwoven narratives run through a complicated plot that centres on America's foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two patriotic Americans enlist for action but are killed in the war.

Their heroic deeds are recounted by a university don in order to shake up an apathetic American student.

The professor chides the student: ''When thousands of American troops are dead and more dying every day, you tell me, how can you enjoy the good life? Rome is burning, son!''

''A darn good movie,'' says Associate Professor Kumar, 49.

''That is the power of good propaganda. It is so subtle, you don't even realise it's propaganda.Explaining the ''decoded'' message over a cup of cafe latte at a Holland Village cafe, he says that the movie was made by Hollywood elements peddling the government line on the need for war to an unsuspecting public. In other words, it was propaganda masquerading as a movie.

''In fact, the art of propaganda, as the British used to say in World War II, is to conceal that you are engaging in it,'' says Prof Kumar, who heads the Centre of Excellence for National Security (Cens). Cens is a research institute in the think-tank S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

But the constant use of the word ''propaganda'' during the interview makes the military historian uncomfortable.

With eyebrows furrowed, he advises: ''Don't use the word propaganda as the Nazis gave the term a bad reputation during World War II. Nowadays it's called 'strategic communication'.''

Group tent

SET up in 2006, Cens has been studying the power of effective strategic communication.

A multinational pool of researchers also study the causes of violent radicalisation and how globalised societies can emerge as winners during security crises.

''The arrival of new immigrants in Singapore thickens the plot,'' he says, adding that identity issues are linked to ethnic conflicts.

''We belong to a group tent and it's our identity. If one group tent feels that it is going to be swallowed by another group, it will defend itself,'' he says. If the issue is not addressed and the situation deteriorates, violence will break out.

Prof Kumar's researchers also look at the social media's impact on social resilience and why civil society must take the lead and deal with malcontents who threaten social cohesion.

Tell no lies

THE Cens chief brings to the table his expertise in propaganda theory, counter-terrorism and strategic analysis.

A student in military history, one of his research interests is the successful use of propaganda by the British during World War II in the 1940s and the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s.

He is a firm believer in the work of Richard H.S. Crossman, a renowned British propagandist during World War II.

Describing Crossman's work as ''an art form'', Prof Kumar says the officer built his propaganda theories around three principles.

The first was to be subtle.

If the plan was to spread panic among German troops about an outbreak of typhus in their camps, never splash this news on Page 1 of a newspaper as this will make readers sceptical. Better to tuck the news as a small item on Page 2 or 3, and run it frequently.

His next rule was on truth. If people are told the truth every day for seven years and then for operational reasons are told a lie on the first day of the eighth year, people will believe it. The people's trust would have been built by then, explains the researcher.

And finally, be creative and use entertainment to sugar-coat anti- war messages, said Crossman.

''Entertainment is a valuable narcotic for dulling the sensibilities of a propaganda-conscious mind,'' he preached.

During World War II and the Malayan Emergency, the British used carefully constructed phrases in radio broadcasts, along with bullets and shells, to destroy the enemy's will to win.

In Malaya, where Crossman's methods were used, short news flashes on the Emergency were sandwiched between long music segments and talks on gardening, cooking and other lessons.

Through these methods, villagers who were fence-sitters were wooed away from the insurgents.

The airing of anti-insurgent messages written by former communist insurgents broke down communist morale and drove a wedge between leaders and soldiers, discloses Prof Kumar.

The equivalent in today's fight against terrorism would be to get ex-terrorists to write material using terrorist terminology. This matter should then be disseminated to terrorists, he suggests.

Another idea is to ask ex-Jemaah Islamiah (JI) detainees in Singapore to do counter-ideological work, similar to the way the Indonesian police have used captured JI militants, such as Nasir Abbas, to undercut the network's recruitment efforts, he says.

But this approach does not always work as the Indonesian experience has shown. As a safeguard, the main role in counter-ideological efforts must be played by qualified religious scholars. A group of carefully selected former militants can play a supporting role.

Human nature

THREE years after graduating with a first-class honours degree in political science from the National University of Singapore in 1989, Prof Kumar obtained his Master of Defence Studies degree from the University of New South Wales in Australia. In 1999, he received his PhD from the University of London.

The father of three is now working on his sixth book on terrorism, its complexity and its links with human nature. He reckons that it will be a thought-provoking book because he will argue that there is a need to integrate old social science methods with newer insights from other disciplines.

He is convinced that the real problem in dealing with terrorism or violent extremism is not violent ideology but human nature.

Human nature, argues Prof Kumar, has not changed since the first group of Homo sapiens appeared on the east African savannah 200,000 years ago.

Human beings either died at the hands of predators or as a result of altercations with other groups of humans who banded together for survival. Members of each group viewed themselves as the centre of the universe and all other groups as morally inferior and of a lower status.

''Terrorists view themselves as a morally superior race of saviours crossing swords with an unenlightened group of people standing in their way,'' he says.

Research informs practice

TO EFFECTIVELY counter security threats, Prof Kumar stresses the need for a multi-disciplinary and transnational approach, involving experts in politics, history, psychology, sociology and even technology.

In September this year, Cens and a leading British institution, Warwick University, brought together security analysts who had done multi-disciplinary work that was transnational. Many stressed that researchers' work must be relevant to policymakers.

''Research informs practice and researchers must ensure that somebody out there is reading their work and reacting to it,'' notes Prof Kumar.

He cautions that the roles played by the researcher and the practitioner need to be clear.

Researchers must think, write and speak without fear, he says. To those who ask him if the Government tells him what and how to write, he replies, ''No''.

''Even within government circles, they know that if they do that, then our credibility in counter- terrorism work will take a hit.''

This is a weekly series on people involved in the war against terror.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 13, 2013.

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to