Skip to content

The Deadly War of Ideas

July 5, 2016

Just before 2:20 in morning of April 23, 1999 a B-2A Spirit bomber slipped undetected through the night air at 40,000 feet towards downtown Belgrade.

A B-2A refuels from a tanker on its way back to the United States after a bombing mission over Serbia. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Ken Bergmann)

A B-2A refuels from a tanker on its way back to the United States after a bombing mission over Serbia, April 1999. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Ken Bergmann)

The plane had taken off from Whitman Air Force Base in Missouri more than fourteen hours earlier and crossed the Atlantic while refueling multiple times in midair. As a stealth aircraft the B-2A was one of the few aircraft trusted to fly above the heavily defended Serb capital. From its high perch over the center of the city the bomber dropped a single 2,000-pound GBU-31 GPS-guided bomb. The intended target had been programmed into the bomb before it was dropped.

Below, the staff of the government-operated Radio Television of Serbia were hard a work at their studio headquarters preparing for the next morning’s broadcast. The bomb slammed into the production room, shearing off one side of the building and collapsing several floors. It was a precision strike. A historic church located mere meters away from the studio sustained only a few broken windows. Inside the studio sixteen staff members were killed and sixteen more injured.[1]

That morning the world awoke to find that the war of ideas in the Balkans had now merged with the shooting war.

RTS was only knocked off the airwaves for a couple of hours before broadcasting resumed from a secret location. In terms of civilian casualties it was the single deadliest strike on Belgrade of the 78-day war. In a press conference given by NATO to defend the attack, Colonel Konrad Freytag of the German Air Force argued that the building “housed a large multi-purpose communications satellite antenna dish” and that it was being used as part of the Serb military communications network. Yet the same time NATO spokesman Jamie Shea promised “there will be no sanctuary for those aspects of the regime which are spreading hatred and creating this political environment for repression.”

The gutted RTS studio in Belgrade. (source)

The gutted RTS studio in Belgrade. (source)

The United States had first proposed targeting Slobodon Milosevic’s propaganda arm on April 12, but the French had vetoed the strike due to concerns that bombing civilian targets would only strengthen Milosevic’s political position. But as the war dragged on with little visible progress NATO began to expand its targets to include more and more civilian infrastructure. Strategic bombers flying from bases in the United States were never integrated into the NATO command structure, allowing USAF commanders to bypass French objections and attack whatever targets they desired. A few nights before the RTS bombing another plane had bombed the headquarters of Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia. On that same night two electrical power stations in Belgrade were bombed. Later targets would include businesses owned by Milosevic associates such as cigarette factories and fertilizer plants.[2]

RTS had long played a sordid role in supporting Milosevic’s brutal policies in the former Yugoslavia, broadcasting false reports of massacres and even claiming that Bosnian Muslims besieged in Sarajevo were feeding Serb children to hungry lions at the zoo. British Prime Minister Tony Blair argued the day after the RTS bombing that state-controlled media “is the apparatus that keeps him [Milosevic] in power and we are entirely justified as NATO allies in damaging and taking on those targets.”[3]

Amnesty International’s Balkans expert labeled the attack a war crime and “a deliberate attack on a civilian object.” A report issued by Human Rights Watch concluded that “Even if one could justify legal attacks on civilian radio and television, there does not appear to be any justification for attacking urban studios, as opposed to transmitters.” Stopping propaganda which supported the Serb war effort did not offer “the ‘concrete and direct’ military advantage necessary to make them a legitimate military target.” The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia declined to prosecute, having determined that the station was a legitimate target if it was attacked for its dual purpose for relaying military communications but that if the station was attacked solely because it was broadcasting propaganda this might constitute a war crime.[4]

Yet both reports added another caveat, allowing that a studio might be considered a legitimate target if it broadcast nothing but incitements to genocide. Both reports cited the role of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in promoting the 1994 Rwandan genocide as a situation where targeting a radio station could be justified solely based on the content which was being broadcast.

But who decides when that line has been transgressed?

Fast forward to 2010.

New Mexico native Anwar al-Awlaki, who had relocated to Yemen in 2004, had become increasingly involved with al-Qaida. From various hideouts in rural eastern Yemen he distributed sermons and lectures over the internet calling for Muslims in the West to launch attacks and kill Americans.

Many observers have questioned the amount of operational control exercised by Awlaki. In some respects it did not matter. During the years al-Awlaki was active the terrorist threat receiving the most attention came from ‘lone wolf’ attackers who radicalized themselves by reading jihadist materials on the internet. Speaking fluent English and well versed in Islamic teachings, al-Awlaki’s lectures proved a powerful motivator. After several shooting and bombing attacks in 2009 and 2010 were carried out by persons inspired by al-Awlaki, in April 2010 Barack Obama signed an executive order authorizing his assassination by the CIA. On September 30, 2011 a drone killed al-Awlaki with a Hellfire missile.

An MQ-9 Reaper drone takes off on a mission over Iraq, July 17 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo)

An MQ-9 Reaper drone takes off on a mission over Iraq, July 17 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo)

In more recent years court documents have shown that in some cases al-Awlaki personally trained some recruits in how to make explosives and ordered them to carry out attacks. Yet in others he seems to have been an inspiration only. After his death his lectures and writings have continued to inspire militants around the world. Again, the line blurs.

Fast forward to 2015.

ISIS had begun its campaign of destroying ancient sites for propaganda purposes. The videos made a powerful case for the group’s power and the West’s inability to stop it. Government officials in Iraq called for airstrikes on ISIS fighters as they were destroying ancient sites. Videos of antiquities destruction are just one small part in a vast array of online propaganda which has brought tens of thousands of foreign recruits to ISIS-controlled territory.

The Washington Post had this to say about ISIS’ propaganda arm:

Overmatched online, the United States has turned to lethal force. Recent U.S. airstrikes have killed several high-level operatives in the Islamic State’s media division, including Junaid Hussain, a British computer expert. FBI Director James B. Comey recently described the propaganda units of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, as military targets.

“I am optimistic that the actions of our colleagues in the military to reduce the supply of ISIL tweeters will have an impact,” Comey said at an event last month in Washington. “But we’ll have to watch that space and see.”

Each case here shows a progressive blurring of the lines between issuing propaganda and issuing orders, between media and command, and between bombing media targets and bombing military targets. In a world where wars are fought not between states but between movements, where the combatants on all sides are ideologically motivated volunteers rather than conscripts, and where wars end when everyone on one side no longer believes in the cause they are fighting for rather than by the formal surrender of a government, information is now part of a spectrum of political actions undertaken as part of a conflict.

The Expansion of War

This summer ISIS ordered Muslims everywhere to carry out attacks during Ramadan. In Orlando and Paris, persons with no prior affiliations with ISIS responded with shooting and stabbing attacks. They were not in communication with the organization, had no history of militant activity, and were therefore undetectable by the usual intelligence-gathering methods.

“The lone wolf terrorist is a fiction. He doesn’t exist,” writes John Robb in a blog post. “People don’t engage in terrorism as individuals.  They do it as part of a social group.  They need the social meaning a group provides to justify the personal risk and the act of violence.” The attack itself provides ritual initiation into the group.

As a result, definitions of the “battlespace” in which current conflicts are being fought are steadily expanding. Battles are not just fought in the space between combatants where guns are firing at each other, they are fought in the space inside each combatant’s head. The ideology that motivates the combatants, and the media apparatuses which communicate that ideology, are now beginning to be seen as part of the spectrum of conflict. It is now commonly said that to defeat ISIS one must defeat their ideology.

At the same time, new technology such as drones, precision-guided weapons, robotic weapons systems and pervasive electronic surveillance give governments more power than ever before to identify and eliminate the purveyors of ideology away from the battlefield.

The advent of fully robotic warfare has the potential to take this in an even more terrifying direction. The NSA and CIA already select targets for drone strikes based on machine learning algorithms which identify patterns in cell phone metadata. The strikes are then executed by a remote weapons system controlled from the other side of the world.

Merging these two capabilities into a single autonomous system is not far beyond the reach of current technology.

Add the possibility of Deep Maneuver capabilities – weapons systems which can position themselves years in advance and strike when activated – paired with mass data collection on the internet and it may soon be possible to decapitate the ideological wing of a group in a sudden strike.

The Implications?

I used American examples for this post because they are well documented and the United States is currently the world leader in the development of robot warfare capabilities. But the nature of military innovation is that if this technology and these tactics are successful they will spread everywhere.

I have argued before on this blog that archaeology and cultural heritage will be increasingly used to support various political ideologies. If academics are perceived as contributing ideological support to a cause, this will make us targets for those opposed to that cause.

This already happened in the tragic case of Khaled al-Asaad, who ISIS beheaded and attached a sign to his body declaring he was executed not only for being “director of idolatry” in Palmyra but for attempting to contact government officials and being a supporter of the regime of Bashar al-Assad (which has used Palmyra to further its own political goals).

Killing the people who support your enemies is nothing new. Trying to stamp out an ideology by killing its thinkers and promoters is nothing new.

What is new are the ways in which technology can enable attackers to find and target the thinkers and promoters with speed and precision never before seen.


[1] Human Rights Watch, “Civilian Deaths and the NATO Air Campaign,” 317-336 in The Kosovo Conflict and International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2001), 327, 330; Benjamin S. Lambeth, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, 2001), 89-94.

[2] NATO press conference, April 23, 1999 (archived at, accessed Nov. 24, 2015); Human Rights Watch, “Civilian Deaths and the NATO Air Campaign,” 327; Ivo H. Daalder, Winning Ugly: NATO’s War to Save Kosovo (Washington, DC: Brookings Institute Press, 2000), 123-124, 201.

[3] Jane Perlez, “Serbian Media is a One-Man Show,” New York Times, August 10, 1997; “Serbian State TV Apologizes for Milosevic-Era Propaganda,” The Guardian, May 24, 2011; Renaud de la Brosse, Political Propaganda and the Plan to Create a “State for All Serbs”: Consequences of Using the Media for Ultra-Nationalist Ends, [Report compiled for the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia], 6-9; “ICTY Final Report to the Prosecutor by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign Against the FRY, 13 June 2000,” 340-351 in The Kosovo Conflict and International Law, 350.

[4] Amnesty International, “No Justice for the Victims of NATO Bombings,” April 23, 2009; Human Rights Watch, “Civilian Deaths and the NATO Air Campaign,” 327, 330; “ICTY Final Report,” 346, 350-351.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2016 8:09 AM

    As usual, the one who has more guns!!!!!!!!!!!


  1. What We’re Reading: July 2nd-8th | JHIBlog
  2. The Deadly War of Ideas | Aelag's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: