ICT 4 War

“We can never prevent war or speak sensibly of peace and disarmament unless we enter this love of war.” (A Terrible Love of WarJames Hillman)

To make peace, first understand war. A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture by Alex DeWaal at Khartoum University. DeWaal was speaking about rebel groups and armed movements in the Sahel, describing how the dynamics that determine the ability of these groups to control large areas is crucially linked to the revenues they are able to command through smuggling cigarettes, cocaine and people. (I am vastly simplifying his discussion for expedience, and ignoring for example his explanation of the ability of a Government to retain legitimacy through the provision of services, and thus also through the collection of taxes or extraction of natural resources to fund such services. For more details on his research, check out this blog.) As he was explaining this smuggling trade, DeWaal mentioned that the ability of local armed leaders to make deals had vastly improved since satellite phones and mobile phones had become widely available. The point stuck in my mind because it opens the door to thinking of how ICT is changing war at the grassroots.

ICT for peace, ICT for war. There are a number of excellent development programs that help African farmers negotiate better deals to market by giving them access to information on prices via SMS. It’s about empowerment at the community level. ICT can change dynamics of power by giving access to information and a voice to many more people. Is it such a stretch to think that similar dynamics are at play when it comes to the organization of war? What individual acts enabled by technology can shape how we experience war?

When first approaching this topic, it’s tempting to think about how ICT is changing the dynamics of intelligence gathering. This paper, also criticized here, argues that NATO planners could have used the Libya Crisis Map as tactical military intelligence. More broadly, the paper suggests that crisismaps can be used as effectively by armies and armed groups as by peaceful protesters and relief workers. This paper, also summarized here, explains how terrorists during the 2008 Mumbai attacks used twitter, live TV and internet searches to improve their situational awareness and help make tactical decisions. The paper explains that remote handlers in Pakistan with access to the internet and live TV were in contact with terrorist commandos in Mumbai via satellite phone to deliver such information.

This may sound alarming at first, and put you off ever tweeting or crisismapping again. That would be an over-reaction – as Patrick Meier explains, censoring crisismaps because they may help the ‘wrong’ people would be akin to banning travel guides for the situational awareness they provide. That is not to say that a careful consideration of conflict sensitivity in crisismapping or social media use is not important. The groups I have worked with in Sudan, Iraq and Libya are acutely aware of these dynamics, and make do no harm calculations continuously. I have written about conflict sensitive crisismapping before, and consider it an important subject, but intelligence gathering is only one part of the story.


To stop at the conflict sensitive considerations of intelligence gathering is to miss the more complex dynamics that are at play in ICT for war. Technology has changed and continues to change the way we communicate, and that in turn is changing the way we wage wars. War propaganda is an old art that has used spoken and written rhetoric, posters and songs, TV and cinema. Social media is being adopted by war propagandists too: most armies in developed countries have a strong social media presence. In the 2011 Gaza War, the Israeli Defence Forces used their official twitter feed to declare war and send intimidatory messages to Hamas. Again, it’s easy to go down an alarmist route: what can be done by an army can be done by a rebel armed group. Could Twitter, Facebook and Ushahidi be used to intimidate and spread rumours by tech-savvy armies and militias? It’s very possible, and not dissimilar to how newspapers, radio and TV have been coopted in the past by non-state armed groups. So is this new technology really going to change war?

The critical difference with previous communications technologies is that new ICTs make it much easier for users to generate, organize and propagate their own content. It is this grassroots access, which DeWaal’s talk hinted at, that may change war dynamics. I would like to better understand not so much how armies use new ICTs, but how soldiers, rebels and war-affected civilians use them. During the 2011 Gaza War, IDF soldiers Instagramed pictures of themselves ready to go to war. Speaking to a Burmese friend recently, she explained that rebels in Northern Myanmar will often use anonymous Facebook profiles to post information or messages supportive of their cause. In Mumbai after the 2008 terrorist attacks, false rumours about blood banks spread across Twitter. Soldiers in the DRC and Syria can’t stop checking their phones. I have no evidence to back it up, but surely the advent of mobile and satellite phones has changed not only smuggling patterns across the Sahel, but more broadly power dynamics between armed leaders, affecting hierarchies and personal incentives.


If we are serious about finding ways for ICT to promote peace, then we must get better acquainted with this new ICT of war at the individual level. To understand war, we must understand the individual’s role in war. Tolstoy in the postscript to War and Peace writes: “Why did millions of people begin to kill one another? Who told them to do it? It would seem that it was clear to each of them that this could not benefit any of them, but would be worse for them all. Why did they do it?” And so, to get to the heart of ICT for war we should look not at how organizations can leverage new technologies, but at how individuals use them.

Hillman again, unwittingly echoing John Paul Lederach’s theory of conflict transformation through moral imagination: “No syndrome can be truly dislodged from its cursed condition unless we first move imagination into its heart.” Are we able to imagine how ICT is used in war by individuals? And if we can, can we turn these same tactics to the advantage of peace? Another theorist of war, Barbara Ehrenreich, offers an interesting perspective: we have to understand how it is that war takes on a life of its own, becomes a self-replicating pattern of behavior. Borrowing from Richard Dawkins, Ehrenreich suggests war may be a “meme”, a cultural entity whose interests (like a gene’s) are only its own perpetuation. Meme is also what we call the catchy messages that spread over internet and mobile phone social networks.

I have more questions than I have answers, but that’s always a start. If we can unpack ICT-enabled memes of war, can we counter-act with ICT-enabled memes of peace? That is a peacebuilding tactic I would like to delve deeper into, articulate and discuss with other peace activists and peacebuilding practitoners.


2 thoughts on “ICT 4 War

  1. De todo lo que has escrito es lo que más me ha gustado. Por varias razones. La primera porque creo que pones de manifiesto lo que yo llamaría “una segunda alfabetización”, es decir, que el uso de las tecnologías por parte de la gente corriente es un acceso a la información sólo comparable con lo que supuso la “primera alfabetización”: un salto cualitativo y cultural formidable. Se puede emplear la escritura para dominar a la gente, pero en líneas generales ha sido más liberador que otra cosa. Por lo que cabe esperar que suceda lo mismo con las tecnologías.
    En segundo lugar, porque permite hablar del uso individual y eso permite poner las cosas del revés, de abajo a arriba.
    Finalmente, porque abre todo un programa de investigación táctica muy interesante. Y ese creo que es tu trabajo.

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