Among the unique capabilities that special operations forces provide to the nation is the ability to project psychological operations (PSYOP) in support of other parallel operations. One example of this effort surfaced in October 2017, at the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.
Speaking on a panel of special operations representatives, Col. Bethany Aragon, commander of the U.S. Army’s 4th Military Information Support Group (Airborne), presented an overview of psychological operations conducted from 2011 to 2017 in support of Special Operations Command-Forward in Central Africa.
According to Aragon, the operations, which “employed understanding and influence, an indigenous approach, and also precision PSYOP targeting,” served to “render Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army irrelevant and return a generation of stolen Ugandan children.”
By way of background, Aragon offered that, over two decades, Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army had “abducted over 60,000 children, massacred tens of thousands of civilians, displaced 2 million people, and destabilized a region the size of California that covered four different countries: Uganda, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic.”
“At this time, we were in the midst of withdrawing out of Iraq,” she said. “There was the memory of Rwanda and the perception that the West had not responded to the genocide there effectively. We were on the verge of another presidential election and there was a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization [NGO] called Invisible Children that started a campaign, which went viral, called #kony2012. So with that pressure, the administration, looking for a low-cost/high-impact solution, established an Army Special Operations Command SOC-Forward in Central Africa to advise, assist, and accompany [local forces], and counter the Lord’s Resistance Army across the region.”
The initial PSYOP element in support of that effort was a regional Military Information Support Operations (MISO) team that comprised four soldiers.
Aragon said that the PSYOP effort began with “a defection series.”
She explained, “In the beginning, we had broad target audiences. And, knowing that most of the Lord’s Resistance Army combatants have been the child soldiers who were abducted, assessed that they were more susceptible to defection.”
Because of the dense jungle covering much of the operational area, it was determined that the best means to access the “target audience” was through somewhat traditional radio, leaflet, and aerial loudspeaker operations.
“The administration, looking for a low-cost/high-impact solution, established an Army Special Operations Command SOC-Forward in Central Africa to advise, assist, and accompany [local forces], and counter the Lord’s Resistance Army across the region.”
“Another thing that happened in that time was the Ugandan government decided to offer amnesty to Lord’s Resistance Army combatants who did defect,” Aragon said. “So, for the defection to be successful, we had to make sure that when combatants defected, that they were treated fairly and that the amnesty was actually honored. So our regional MISO team worked closely with the partners in the indigenous approach, working with African Union’s regional task force and then also the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces. And there is something called DDR3, which is the disarm, demobilize, repatriate, re-integrate, and resettle process. And we worked with them specifically to make sure that our messaging conveyed that any defectors would be treated well and that it was safe for them to defect. And that was directly countering Joseph Kony’s counter-information or misinformation campaign [that] they would be not treated well.”
Aragon said that the “indigenous approach” developed “a community of interests that included the Bureau of Conflict [and] Stabilization [Operations] in the State Department; there was a local NGO that we worked with – Pathways to Peace – that was led by actually a former child soldier who had been abducted in 2006 and was able to effectively defect on his own. And then we also partnered with a group called Invisible Children. And there were also local and cultural leaders that were part of this community of interest.”
The community and processes eventually allowed the identification of key leaders within the Lord’s Resistance Army who might be prone to defection and who would then be able to inspire multiple defections.
Aragon said that the first mass defection occurred in 2013, and consisted of 19 Lord’s Resistance Army combatants.
“Then we would debrief them, learn more information, and use them to help us create new products to continue to communicate to the rest of the combatants,” she added.
She highlighted the notable defection of Michael Omono.
“Michael Omono was actually Joseph Kony’s personal RTO [radio telephone operator],” she began. “And we found him through a connection and process that Pathways to Peace was able to use through family tracing. We located his uncle, his daughter, and his mother. And we were able to get messages from the three of them. We had a voice recording of his mother begging him to come home. We had pictures of his daughter and his uncle that we put on leaflets. Then we went back and figured out where he would be located and we targeted him.”
“Our regional MISO team worked closely with the partners in the indigenous approach, working with African Union’s regional task force and then also the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces.”
She continued, “Envision yourself walking through dense jungle. You yourself – if you’re Michael Omono – were abducted. You’re working for a leader who absolutely at this point is clearly unhinged and also not inspired by the original motivations that many people joined the Lord’s Resistance Army for. So he’s susceptible. And then as he’s walking through the jungle he hears over an aerial loudspeaker his mother’s voice and her message begging him to come home. Then he sees leaflets that have his daughter’s picture begging him to come home, along with his uncle, who really raised him and was like a father to him. So in January of this year, he walked for two weeks to defect to the Central African Republic and turned himself in to the African Union Regional Task Force.”
Because of his key role as a radio telephone operator, he also provided what Aragon characterized as “valuable intelligence” related to “exactly when their communication windows were and that they had special code language that they would use. So he gave us the key to that. And so it was monumental, really, in rapidly ending the Lord’s Resistance Army effectiveness in the area.”
She said that the mission was closed out early in the summer of 2017, summarizing the results of the successful effort as: a 24 percent increase in Lord’s Resistance Army defections just within the year after the start of the process with the community of interest and precision targeting on the key leaders that were able to influence additional defections; five of six Lord’s Resistance Army leaders either killed in action or being tried by the international criminal courts; and a 95 percent reduction in civilians killed.
“And then also, the Lord’s Resistance Army was rendered ineffective and taken down from a force of roughly 2,000 to less than 100,” she added.
“So it was the most effective PSYOP campaign on the continent,” she said, offering, “As I consider the PSYOPS role in the future, in a multi-domain battle, against a near peer, what does readiness mean for us? We cannot wait until the deployments to find the Michael Omonos of the social network; find who their network is and who can influence them. We have to be doing that persistently if we are going to be ready and relevant in a multi-domain battle against a near peer going forward.”
This article was originally published in the 2018-2019 edition of Special Operations Outlook.