British army unit to tackle web-enabled warfare

A new British army brigade comprising military personnel and civilians will use psychological operations (psyops) and social media to engage in "non-lethal warfare".

British army unit to tackle web-enabled warfare
British army unit to tackle web-enabled warfare

The 77th Brigade is to be based in Hermitage, near Newbury in Berkshire, and will be formed of around 1,500 members, including military personnel and civilians, when it launches in April.

Recruitment will start in the spring, with journalism and social media skills particularly in demand. The group will comprise army, navy and RAF representatives although almost half of the regiment (42 percent) will be civilians, operating as reservists.

The group takes its name after ‘Chindits', an influential British guerrilla force that was able to affect Japanese military strategy in Burma during the Second World War by operating behind enemy lines, and will be tasked with trying to influence the opinions of civilians in certain parts of the world, as well as ‘control the narrative' by countering the online claims made by extremist groups.

“77th Brigade is being created to draw together a host of existing and developing capabilities essential to meet the challenges of modern conflict and warfare,” said a spokesman in a statement. “It recognises that the actions of others in a modern battlefield can be affected in ways that are not necessarily violent.”

The move indicates that the British army has not only sought new methods to proactively respond to the online claims of terrorist groups such as the Taliban and ISIS, but that it has also sought to learn from the successes of other nations – such as Israel.

According to The Guardian newspaper, the Israel Defence Forces have had numerous online divisions operating since Operation Cast Lead, its war in Gaza in 2008-09. IDF is now reportedly active across 30 platforms in six languages, with these platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

More recently, the US State Department created the English-language ‘Think Again Turn Away' Twitter account, to combat claims from jihadist organisations, while the French government has launched a similar online platform.

Adrian Culley, a former Scotland Yard cyber-crime detective, said that the move makes sense, with the UK casting an envious eye at the operations in Israel.

“The new 77th Brigade will represent an amalgamation of many existing units, skills and expertise both from within and without the UK armed services,” he told SCMagazineUK.com. “Many observers have, for some years, been watching with interest the online activities of both the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) Hasbara Units and the Hamas Military Wing Al-Qasaam. As tensions also escalate between NATO and Russia, we are likely to witness increasing use of social media in future conflicts.

“It will be interesting to see what, if anything, is made public of the 77th's future operations and successes. They are a vital and necessary component of military operations in a digital world.”

Alan Woodward, an adviser for Europol and visiting professor at the University of Surrey's computing department, told SCMagazineUK.com that psychological operations are not new for a British army, but the use of social media to counter the extremist narrative is.

“To be honest, it's really obvious – psychological operations, or psyops, have been around forever, since the British started doing it in the First World War.” He added that Hitler took note in the Second World War, before such practices fell out of favour during the Cold War.

“It's about winning hearts and minds to counter insurgence, and to get local people on-side. Its part propaganda and part the more shady ‘black ops', such as false flags and disinformation.”

Woodward adds that the army has previously failed to recognise the value of social media, especially during the troubles in Afghanistan.

“I think they've always understood the value of physops but I am not sure if they understood the value the force multiplying effect on social media, and the ability to reach so many people,” said Woodward.

“If you look at ISIS, it has built up an appallingly successful reach with a relatively small force, how would you have reached them except [through using] social media?”

Professor Richard Benham, who co-founded the recently-launched National MBA in Cyber Security with Coventry University Business School, said that it was a good move, but suggested that terrorist groups would still look to carry out ‘economic cyber-terrorism”; the process of creating fear and damaging reputation (governments and businesses), without causing any physical damage. Some of this, he said, would be done via social networking.

“I am surprised it's not been done already,” said Benham of the 77th Brigade, when speaking to SC. “But you need to be media savvy and the biggest risk [to businesses] is social media.”

However, he warned that countering the terrorist narrative would be difficult – not only because responding to claims online can give these groups credibility, but also because units like the 77th Brigade would have to prove they themselves are trustworthy.

“If the new unit can do that and counter the propaganda – providing it is accurate, impartial and correct, people will start to believe it.”

In related news, the US Army has released its cyber-forensic source code on Github. The Army Research Lab quietly posted the source code for Dshell, the tool it uses to spot and understand cyber-attacks against the Department of Defense.