The Twitter Brigade

The UK’s lack of Information Operations capability and the dead hand of the MoD’s social media engagement policy has been a recurring subject of discussion on Think Defence.

Over a number of posts I have looked at the effectiveness of both ISIS and the Peshmerga’s online presence. The Peshmerga, although arguably less coordinated have what I think is a much more nuanced online presence that actively targets the ISIS fighters with grisly before and after shots. A recent example focused on one of the ISIS celebrity beheaders. Over a series of Tweets they showed the ISIS photographs, the same person doing the finger raised machete in the other hand pose just before cutting the head off a prisoner. The series continued with images of his passport and other details. It concluded with a number of images his shattered bloody corpse.

The message was clear, the intent obvious and the effect, chilling.

It was personal, visceral and absolutely targeted at the morale of the ISIS fighters.

But that wasn’t it, the real master stroke was a follow up series that showed ISIS prisoners being treated with humanity, being fed and cared for.

A powerful stab at the morale at ISIS personnel and a reminder to those in the West that the Peshmerga are the ‘good guys’

Now I don’t know if it was or is effective, I am not a Chechen fighting in Syria for ISIS, but that is not my point here.

Hamas and the IDF also have a very effective information operations presence on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook etc.

Back in November last year I published a short post about the establishment of the Security Assistance Group.

The Security Assistance Group pulls together the  soft effect capabilities of the Military Stabilisation Support Group, 15 Psychological Operations Group and potentially Media Operations Group.

The important thing to note here is that SAG contained the Military Stabilisation Support Group, combined with regional pairing and a general concentration of resource on ‘upstream engagement’ the intent is to prevent conflict through the combined action of effective media and communications, assistance and mentoring, training and early intervention where necessary.

The table below showed the strength at the end of last October.

Unit/Sub Unit Strength as at 22 October 2014
Headquarters Security Assistance Group 50
15 Psychological Operations Group 50
Media Operations Group 70
Security Capacity Building Team 10
Military Stabilisation Support Group 120

This is all relevant of course because of the recent news of the establishment of the 77th Brigade which will apparently replace the SAG.

I honestly though this was a joke, it just seemed so ‘out there’ but no, it is absolutely true and has exploded all over social media channels (which is interesting in itself). What made it seem so impossible (apart from the Chindits/77th Indian Infantry Brigade thing) was the proposed size of the force, 1,500 to 2,000 full time and reserve personnel from all three services with less than half being reservists.

This is a big unit, make no mistake.

They will develop means of shaping behaviour through the use of dynamic narratives

Wow, straight out of the Ladybird book of defence management language

I guess the first challenge will be to get DII to allow access and get some computers that don’t run Internet Explorer 6.

Once that’s done, untangling the complex relationships between various intelligence branches of the services, special forces (especially reserve SAS), GCHQ, MI5, MI6 and the FCO will be the next challenge.

If they address the first challenge though, pretty sure everything else will be a piece of cake.

Where will they recruit from, will vacant posts be back filled and the obvious question is, what units will suffer as a result of the formation of the 77th?

This is a serious subject that needs a heavyweight and long term commitment, short postings and glittery flim flam are not going to achieve anything but I think it is positive that despite being well behind the curve there is at least a recognition of a) the value and b) the current capability deficit.

There are doubts though, can the Army’s decision making arrangements be reconciled with the speed and agility of the medium, can it use the kind of, frankly unpleasant, imagery and targeted messages the Peshmerga use (for example), will the new Brigade be able to cope with a targeted counter attack, what about current UK legislation on the use of social media, language and libel (no, I am not joking), what happens when a human rights lawyer points the finger at the Army’s media operations and above all, how will this fit within our vague and generally incoherent strategy on pretty much any overseas conflict these days?

What characterises the most effective media operations is they are one component of whole, a whole that also includes engaged and deployed ground combat forces.

I also wonder if this is wholly a role for a ‘soldier’

The group needs direction, it needs to understand the fundamentals of intelligence gathering and conflict in general but these skills are needed at the command and direction levels, not necessarily at all layers.

Some of the best examples of effective media operations have been by people operating in loose groupings, certainly without the overbearing command environment of a disciplined military force.

Can the Army master the cultural change needed or would this type of function be better delivered by civilian organisation?

If we look back to only last week with the post on the lack of British Military Bloggers. the suggestion is the ability of the MoD to engage with the world of social media is hampered by deeply ingrained cultural issues.

Personnel numbers are finite, can the Army afford to swap fighting strength for this kind of capability.

I saw a joke somewhere a while ago about computer chess, it went along the lines of;

My computer beat me at chess the other day, but it was no match for me at kick boxing

There is an argument that the Army should stick to its knitting, yes, conflict is changing, yes, social media and information operations are vitally important, but swapping combat power for a capability that can be delivered by civilian organisations (in the main) is actually a very poor use of finite resource.

Instead of trying to evolve with the times, the Army might be better simply recognising that there are some things better done by others?

Good luck to this new group but I think there are still questions in the why column.


As a footnote, there seems to be an enormous amount of misinformed commentary about the Chindits connection on social media, that the Old Comrades Association was not consulted and that it had nothing to do with the Chindits but the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade. Whatever the truth, whatever the reality, the simple fact is it is this issue that is getting most attention which to my way of thinking is rather a poor start for an organisation that is supposedly media savvy.

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February 1, 2015 8:29 am

‘this is a serious subject that needs a heavyweight and long term commitment, short postings and glittery flim flam are not going to achieve anything’

That in a nutshell is the problem, maybe it should be headed by civilian’s with the military being subordinate to the decisions made.

February 1, 2015 11:22 am

Does this sound a bit like a big version of the RM’s 30X?

John Hartley
John Hartley
February 1, 2015 11:33 am

One of my many rants, was that HMG ought to be scouring the Muslim world for liberal writings, then redistributing those writings to the hardline trouble zones we find ourselves in. UK propaganda will just be dismissed as “Crusader”. It needs to be Muslim voices, quoting from the Koran & showing a modern liberal tolerant interpretation. In the old days, bombers would drop leaflets, now you can do it on the internet, or perhaps a MI6 sting operation, where jihadist cassettes & DVDs get swapped at the supplier for liberal versions. If I was in charge of the 77th, its part of what I would do.

February 1, 2015 11:53 am

This doesn’t convince me.
The idea of conveying moderate Islam is not going to do anything about the already radicalised men. It’s addressing the unproblematic ones instead. That’s like trying to influence hundreds of millions in a fight against thousands of others. Wrong target. We don’t even understand how radicalisation happens, so we won’t succeed to prevent it.

I’d rather aim to discredit / expose the jihadist celebrities. I’m sure they don’t live up to what they preach, and even if they did you could still doctor videos or phone tapes – and make them credible with supporting acts and care about details.
You could also spread disunity by suggesting to jihadists that someone of their own is actually a traitor. Let them kill each other and fragment them into marginal effectiveness.

John Hartley
John Hartley
February 1, 2015 12:01 pm

SO Do both. What works on one jihadist, may not work on another. Sure spread terror & insecurity, but also spread an alternative message. There was a recent book on a liberal interpretation of Islam by a Muslim scholar. I have stupidly lost the title & author. We should be buying up loads of those & distributing them for free (or subsidised).


[…] 77th is reportedly going to be made up of up to 2,000 full-time and reserve troops. Think Defence report that the combined strength of all the existing relevant groups that will be incorporated is just […]

February 1, 2015 7:03 pm



This is a job for GCHQ.

February 1, 2015 11:23 pm

@ S O

Sounds very Mission Impossible. And probably is.

February 2, 2015 4:19 am

Completely agree with Sven’s take on how to deal with the radical Jihadist. Why we in the west have been unable to win the information war is beyond me. Maybe it comes down to the access to the information and many of countries/communities limit the access that would make IO successful.


Slightly Agricultural
Slightly Agricultural
February 2, 2015 9:48 am

@TD Actually boss, Dii moved to IE8 last year. Such modernity! Twitter etc. Is still blocked, so hopefully someone gave the 77th some civvy laptops…

Also explains why i’ve been seeing some “Cyber Specialist” rank slides lately.

John Hartley
John Hartley
February 2, 2015 9:52 pm

The Turkish columnist I was on about is Mustafa Akyol who in 2013 published the book “Islam without extremes; a Muslim call for Liberty”. You can get it on Amazon.

February 3, 2015 5:07 pm

Hmmmm, very interesting especially being ex-Psyops. So 120 now up to 2,000 ?

1. 1500 minimum, less than half to be reservists – so lets say 800 regs, 700 reserves ?
2. Will it only be Info Ops ? Even if fully tri-service, will the majority of the 800 / 700 be Army ?
3. Will it be a new home for Cyber, if so the already existing Joint Cyber Unit, currently hosted by the RAF might make up a considerable amount of those numbers ?

So lets say it never meets it’s alleged establishment (no, really ?) will it really be a drain on fighty end resources ?

Ref: “but swapping combat power for a capability that can be delivered by civilian organisations (in the main) is actually a very poor use of finite resource” – Can it, and should it be delivered by civilian organizations ? How is military information operations going to be handled by GCHQ or MI6 ? If you integrate offensive Cyber then there are those who suggest it should be done openly by uniformed personnel to provide clear differention between “unclaimed” ops by spooks running rings of black hats, as opposed to a clear “strike”. There are even groups suggesting that a “cyber first” targetting strategy is a good thing – as in if you want to go into a city, you disable its power, telecoms, and utilities through hacking, not via the use of 2000LB LGB’s , simply because it will be easier to restore the facilities afterwards.

Anyway, looking forward to more info on the new brigade as it becomes available.

February 4, 2015 12:52 pm


I see the ancient art of pilfering is alive and well. I must strongly protest Perfidious Albion stealing the identity and history of an Indian formation. I think we ought to retaliate by stealing the Desert Rats.

Mock outrage aside, the original 77 Indian Infantry Brigade still exists in the form of the 77 Mountain Brigade. It has had an interesting history having also been a parachute brigade for a short while.