Saif Al-Islam’s non-arrest – the importance of hoaxes in war (inspired by Guardian)

So, now the world knows that Saif did not really get arrested, or maybe that if he had been arrested, he somehow escaped. The initial response was despair, and a feeling of distrust of the NTC leadership and communications team. (see Guardian article of 23 Aug for a sample)

The thing is, as a professional in the world of spread and contagion, the tactic used was based on a well-timed and targeted hoax, one that absolutely succeeded in its objective.

A hoax? A success? Let me explain.

1)    There was planning behind the uprising – the uprising of Tripoli did not happen by chance. Yes, it was an emergent phenomenon, something that was widely unexpected by the media, military and intelligence analysts alike. But that lack of expectation merely highlights that the nature of planning in complex, emergent environments is different to the linear thinking most people indulge in. Planning for an emergent uprising of the people encompasses communication plans, defections, and all kinds of psych ops type of activity, many of whose components will actually not work or not be implemented on the day, but still, with a bit of luck, the plan still manages to work.

  1. Incidentally the Telegraph in the UK has written a story on one possible set of explanations for the uprising – have a look here.

2)    When a complex system is ‘rolling’, give it a push to ‘tip’ it – once a complex system has destabilized (the pattern of behavior has been stopped, and it is trying to find a new pattern), there is a lot of confusion. Most people in the system will latch on to any news that seems credible and indicates a direction of movement in line with the movement they are personally experiencing. So, a story that Saif and his brothers have been arrested ‘fits’ the narrative people are hearing and feeding themselves.

3)    Every system has a core structure – in this case, the real intended target for communication was the senior officers and critical army and security units. The goal for the uprising was to tip these people away from Gaddafi loyalism. The well-timed hoax – “not one, but three brothers arrested!” – meant that the free Libyan ‘forces’, rag-tag though they were, could have rapid, plausible conversations with these officers and army groups that the end had arrived. According to reports on Twitter, around 30 officers defected as a result of hearing about Saif’s arrest. Sure, they felt pretty sheepish the day after when Saif appears, high on adrenaline, in the middle of an armed convoy. But, it was too late to do anything about it.

So, just to re-iterate my view. In war, hoaxes are an acceptable part of the game. They can happen in a prepared way, or by accident along the way. A useful hoax is intended to address a core group who you want to target, with the goal of destabilizing the system structure you wish to replace. The hoax will be found out quite quickly but, if timed right, will have the intended impact. And those in the masses who learn about the story – and the subsequent story about the hoax – should not be too upset at being hoodwinked. It’s just part of the ‘game’ of war.


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