The nuclear wastelands and cyberwar

I’m in Toronto, enjoying ‘Through Post-Atomic Eyes‘ enormously: wide-ranging yet focused, creative and critical, and above all wonderfully welcoming.  I’m also relieved – I’ve only been wandering in the nuclear wastelands for a matter of months, and being surrounded by scholars and artists who know so much more about these vexed issues has been truly invigorating.  I’ll post the slides from my presentation shortly – in the meantime, see here and here – but while I was searching for images I re-discovered this cover from The Economist:


Since my own presentation tried to sort out the entangled geographies of nuclear weapons and drones, I would be the very last person to object to the continuity conjured up by The Economist‘s apocalyptic vision: in fact yesterday both Joseph Masco and James Bridle in two sparkling presentations emphasised the intimacy of  the connections between computing, nuclear testing and the security state.

So it seems appropriate that my  e-flânerie should also have led me to a special issue of CyberOrient, edited by Helga Tawil-Souri, is appropriately online now (and open access), devoted to cyberwarfare:

This special issue of CyberOrient engages with the relationships between “cyber” and “real” battlespaces, the mediatization of war, the need to expand our definition of warzones, and the importance of asking who participates in wars, to what ends, using what kinds of technologies, and for what purposes. Taken together, the five essays demonstrate the expansion and blurring of the spaces of war. As importantly, they highlight that even warfare that is “only” fought in the virtual realm is laced with violent intents and real-life repercussions. Not only can we not separate the cyber from the real so neatly, but we must not overlook that no matter how we wish to classify “new” or cyber wars, it is citizens, along with their ways of life and their cultural records, that continue to be by far the largest losers.



Helga Tawil-Souri, Problematizing Cyberwarfare

Donatella Della Ratta, Violence and visibility in contemporary Syria: an ethnography of the “expanded places

Ruth Tsuria, Islamophobia in online Arab media

Emily Fekete, The shifting nature of cyberwarfare in Middle Eastern states

Attila Kovacs, Visual representation, propaganda and cyberspace: the case of the Palestinian Islamist movements

Christoph Günter, Presenting the glossy look of warfare in cyberspace – the Islamic State’s magazine Dabiq

Problematizing Cyber-Wars

Cyber OrientI’ve just received a Call For Papers on Problematizing Cyber-Wars for a special issue of CyberOrient: Online Journal of the Virtual Middle East.  The Guest Editor for the issue is the amazing Helga Tawil-Souri, whose work has done so much to illuminate these issues already and who starts in January as the new Director of NYU’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies [more on Helga’s work, with links to her writing and other projects, here].

According to military analysts, since the 1991 Gulf War and even more so since the Hezbollah-Israel 2006 war, we have entered a new phase of warfare, in which kinetic and traditional military power are losing importance to symbolic and media power. Perhaps unsurprisingly given a still-widely held Orientalist view in military circles, many such perspectives revolve around wars and conflicts in the ‘Middle East’ or against ‘Islam’ more broadly – taking place in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Syria, but also on cyber networks and mobile phones. 

While these claims are of course hyperbole, this special issue of CyberOrient invites articles on questions of how we might define wars in a (new) media-age in the region; whether, why, and how (new) media are increasingly sites of warfare; the relationships between ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ battlespaces. Topics could include the significance of targeting (and bombing) telecommunications and media infrastructures; the use of (new) media as outlets for propaganda during wartime; the mediatization of war and the militarization of media; the role of participatory or social media and mobile communications during and in wars; relationships or differences between official, military, alternative, citizen, and grass-roots (new) media uses during war and conflict; the expanding definition of warzones; commemoration and memorialization of war in a digital age; among others. We welcome submissions from across disciplines and methodological approaches that are empirically and critically grounded.

IDF tweet re Hamas Twitter account

[In relation to the IDF tweet (above), from earlier this year, Twitter hasn’t suspended the all too obviously fake ‘Hamas Global PR’ here…]

CyberOrient is a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Anthropological Association, in collaboration with the Faculty of Arts of Charles University in Prague. The aim of the journal is to provide research and theoretical considerations on the representation of Islam and the Middle East, the very areas that used to be styled as an “Orient”, in cyberspace, as well as the impact of the internet and new media in Muslim and Middle Eastern contexts.


Articles should be submitted directly to Helga Tawil-Souri ( and Vit Sisler ( by 30 September 2014 (Full Papers). Articles should
be between 6,000 and 8,000 words (including references), and follow the AAA style in referencing and citations. Upon acceptance, articles will be published online with free access in spring 2015.

More information can be found here.

UPDATE:  With exquisite timing, Mondoweiss has just published Rebecca Stein‘s analysis of ‘How Israel militarized social media’:

‘What’s been lost in this coverage – in this story of surprise — is the history of the Israel’s army presence on social media. For in fact, the military’s move to social media as a public relations platform has been rife with improvisation and failure, a process that runs counter to IDF narratives about its innovative work in this regard (the IDF lauding itself as a military early adopter). The army’s interest in the wartime potential of social media can be traced to the first few days of the 2008-2009 Gaza incursion….

In the years that followed, the IDF investment in social media would grow exponentially both in budgetary and manpower allocations, building on this ostensible wartime triumph.

But the process was rife with challenges and missteps.’

You can also find more detail in my previous posts here and here.

Black spots and blank spots

Over at Guernica, Trevor Paglen has a short essay on the rise of what he calls ‘the terror state’ that connects the dots between several recent posts:

For more than a decade, we’ve seen the rise of what we might call a “Terror State,” of which the NSA’s surveillance capabilities represent just one part. Its rise occurs at a historical moment when state agencies and programs designed to enable social mobility, provide economic security and enhance civic life have been targeted for significant cuts. The last three decades, in fact, have seen serious and consistent attacks on social security, food assistance programs, unemployment benefits and education and health programs. As the social safety net has shrunk, the prison system has grown. The United States now imprisons its own citizens at a higher rate than any other country in the world.

While civic parts of the state have been in retreat, institutions of the Terror State have grown dramatically. In the name of an amorphous and never-ending “war on terror,” the Department of Homeland Security was created, while institutions such as the CIA, FBI and NSA, and darker parts of the military like the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have expanded considerably in size and political influence. The world has become a battlefield—a stage for extralegal renditions, indefinite detentions without trial, drone assassination programs and cyberwarfare. We have entered an era of secret laws, classified interpretations of laws and the retroactive “legalization” of classified programs that were clearly illegal when they began. Funding for the secret parts of the state comes from a “black budget” hidden from Congress—not to mention the people—that now tops $100 billion annually. Finally, to ensure that only government-approved “leaks” appear in the media, the Terror State has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, leakers and journalists. All of these state programs and capacities would have been considered aberrant only a short time ago. Now, they are the norm.

This ought to be depressingly familiar stuff, though it is important to connect those dots.  I highlight Trevor’s argument here (which radiates far beyond the paragraphs I’ve extracted above) for two reasons.

PAGLEN BLank Spots on the MapFirst, the practices that Trevor disentangles work through distinctively different geographies, at once material and virtual. Trevor’s own work addresses different dimensions of what he’s also called the Blank Spots on the Map – here definitely be dragons! though there’s a delicious irony in the US finding Edward Snowden’s whereabouts (at least this morning) to be one of them. There’s some small comfort to be had in the raging impotence of the state apparatus, which is evidently neither all-seeing nor all-knowing.  As part of his project, Trevor has done much to bring into (sometimes long-distance) focus the prying eyes of the ‘terror state’ – see for example here – but I’m particularly interested in the differential modalities of ‘watching’ and ‘acting’.  The US Air Force has become preoccupied with the predicament of ‘swimming in sensors, drowning in data‘, for example, which makes it exceptionally difficult to convert its enhanced capacity for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance into focused strikes and, as I noted earlier, this is only one version of a wider divergence outlined by Peter Scheer:

The logic of warfare and intelligence have flipped, each becoming the mirror image of the other. Warfare has shifted from the scaling of military operations to the selective targeting of individual enemies. Intelligence gathering has shifted from the selective targeting of known threats to wholesale data mining for the purpose of finding hidden threats.

The resulting paradigms, in turn, go a long way to account for our collective discomfort with the government’s activities in these areas. Americans are understandably distressed over the targeted killing of suspected terrorists because the very individualized nature of the drone attacks converts acts of war into de facto executions — and that in turn gives rise to demands for high standards of proof and adjudicative due process.

Similarly, intelligence activities that gather data widely, without fact-based suspicions about specific individuals to whom the data pertain, are seen as intrusive and subject to abuse.

TREVOR PAGLEN Keyhole 12-3 Optical reconnaissance satelliteThis is an interesting suggestion, a simple schematic to think with, and at present I’m working through its implications (and complications) for other dimensions of later modern war – specifically the geographies of cyberwarfare that I briefly outlined in my early essay on ‘The everywhere war’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  So for the book I’m splicing  cyberwarfare into the now explosive debate over surveillance in cyberspace, and the transformation of James Gibson‘s Fordist version of ‘Technowar’ into its post-Fordist incarnation.  In a report for Vanity Fair Michael Joseph Gross calls cyberwarfare ‘silent war’ and ‘war you cannot see’, and yet it too (as Trevor’s work implies) is material as well as virtual, not only in its consequences but also in its very architecture: see, for example, here and here (and the wonderful graphic that accompanies the report).  So, with patience, skill and effort, it can indeed be seen.  And, contrary to Thomas Rid‘s Cyber war will not take place (2013), there is a crucial sense – one which my dear friend Allan Pred constantly emphasised – in which these capacities and activities do indeed take place… More soon.

There’s a second reason for noting Trevor’s essay (he was, not incidentally, a student of Allan’s): it originates from Creative Time Reports edited by Marisa Mazria Katz:

Creative Time Reports strives to be a global leader in publishing the unflinching and provocative perspectives of artists on the most challenging issues of our times. We distribute this content to the public and media free of charge.

Asserting that culture and the free exchange of ideas are at the core of a vibrant democracy, Creative Time Reports aims to publish dispatches that speak truth to power and upend traditional takes on current issues. We believe that artists play a crucial role as thought leaders in society, and are uniquely capable of inspiring and encouraging a more engaged and informed public, whether they are addressing elections or climate change, censorship or immigration, protest movements or politically motivated violence.

In an era of unprecedented interconnectedness, Creative Time Reports provides artists with a space to voice analysis and commentary on issues too often overlooked by mainstream media. We believe in the importance of highlighting cultural producers’ distinctive viewpoints on world events and urgent issues of social justice to ensure a livelier, more nuanced and more imaginative public debate.

Given everything I’ve said about the importance of the arts to creative critical research the relevance of this will, I hope, be obvious: art not simply as a means to represent the results of research but rather as a medium through which to conduct research.  Good to think with, as Lévi-Strauss might have said, but also good to act with.  (More on Creative Time here; they are holding a ‘summit’ on Art, Place and Dislocation in the 21st Century City in New York, 25-26 October 2013).

Gaza, stripped: the deconstruction of the battlefield?

Frédéric Mégret has frequently drawn attention to the peculiar social and legal status of the battlefield:

‘[W]hilst war may and will rage, what distinguishes it from random violence is the fact that it unfolds in discreet spaces insulated from the rest of society, confining military violence to a confrontation between specialized forces whose operation should minimally disrupt surrounding life…. In that respect, the laws of war do not merely seek to regulate the battlefield. They are also part of its symbolic maintenance and even construction as a particular space defined by the norms that apply to it. In other words, the battlefield does not predate norms on warfare; rather it has always been subtly coterminous with them. The laws of war are, therefore, a crucial foundation for understanding the evolution of the battlefield and, conversely, the evolution of the battlefield is a key way in which the evolution of the laws of war can be understood.’ 

For Mégret, the deconstruction of the battlefield is now well advanced: starting in the nineteenth century, with transformations in firepower that constantly extended the range over which lethal force could be deployed, dramatically accelerated with the rise of airpower annulling the distinction between the spaces of combatants and civilians, given a further twist by remote operations conducted over vast distances from unmanned aerial systems like the Predator and the Reaper, and aggravated by the renewed significance of insurgency and counter-insurgency struggles (‘war among the people’), the relations between the spatiality of war and its legal armature have been radically transformed.  (For a visual rendering, see Mégret’s Prezi on ‘Where is the battlefield?’).

These are important ideas, but there are other dimensions that need to be taken into account when considering Israel’s latest attack on Gaza.  This is a conflict that is fully coterminous with what Helga Tawil-Souri calls Israel’s ‘digital occupation’ of Gaza.  As she writes in a superb essay in the Journal of Palestine Studies 41 (2) (2012) 27-43:

‘Disengagement has not meant the end of Israeli occupation. Rather, Israel’s balancing act “of maximum control and minimum responsibility” has meant that the occupation of Gaza has become increasingly technologized. Unmanned aerial reconnaissance and attack drones, remote-controlled machine guns, closed-circuit television, sonic imagery, gamma-radiation detectors, remote- controlled bulldozers and boats, electrified fences, among many other examples, are increasingly used for control and surveillance One way to conceptualize disengagement, then, is to recognize it as a moment marking Israel’s move from a traditional military occupation toward a high-tech one.

Rooted in Israel’s increasingly globalized security-military-high-tech industry, the technological sealing of Gaza is part of the transformation of the mechanics of Israeli occupation toward “frictionless” control that began with the first intifada and the ensuing “peace process,” which marked the shift toward the segregation of Gaza. “Frictionless” is, of course, metaphoric and purposefully ambiguous, evoking a sense of abstraction and lack of responsibility…

While high technology has become one of the means through which Israeli occupation continues, the high-tech infrastructure in the Gaza Strip — that which is used by Palestinians as opposed to the Israeli regime— is also a space of control. Technology infrastructures form part of the appa- ratus of Israeli control over Gazans. A telephone call made on a land-line, even between Gaza City and Khan Yunis, is physically routed through Israel. Internet traffic is routed through switches located outside the Gaza Strip. Even on the ubiquitous cellular phones, calls must touch the Israeli backbone at some point. Like much else about the Gaza Strip, telecommunication infrastructures are limited by Israeli policies. Geographic mobility, economic growth, political mobilization, and territory are contained, but so are digital flows: Gazans live under a regime of digital occupation.’ 

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Israel also fights in digital space.  This takes many forms, and at the limit extends into the domain of cyberwarfare (where, as the joint US/Israeli cyber-attack on Iran’s nuclear program showed, Israel possesses advanced capabilities), but in its more mundane version it can be no less effective.

One of the characteristic features of late modern war is its mediatization, and the Israeli Defense Forces have used (even ‘weaponized‘) an array of social media platforms to shape the public construction of the battlespace.  This is a far cry from its faltering efforts during the previous assault on Gaza in 2008-9, Operation Cast Lead.  Soon after the IDF assassination that sparked the renewed air campaign this month, the IDF tweeted a headshot of the dead man, Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari, with “eliminated” stamped across it, and immediately followed up with a video uploaded to its YouTube channel showing the drone strike (I’m not going to do the IDF’s job for it, but if you want to see stills and screenshots you can find them here).  The IDF continued to tweet, announcing its airstrikes in 140-character containers, and also turned to Facebook, Pinterest and Tumblr to post images and infographics (or, more accurately, propagandagraphics).

The object of the exercise has been three-fold.

First, the IDF has been seeking direct – which is not to say unmediated: the clips, tweets and the rest follow an artfully pre-arranged script – and real-time access to domestic, regional and international publics.  The officer commanding the IDF’s 30-strong New Media desk (which is shown in the image on the left), Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, explained that she wanted ‘to convey our message without the touch of an editor’ and to reach those who don’t turn to print media or TV for their news.

Second, the IDF has been aggressively mobilising its supporters, inside and outside Israel, encouraging them to retweet and to post their support on Facebook: using social media to puncture what Israel routinely describes as its ‘isolation’. Time reported that the IDF had activated additional ‘gamification’ features on its blog that allowed visitors ‘to rack up “points” for repeat visits or numerous tweets’: see the image on the right; more here.

Third, the IDF apparently believes that social media can send ‘a message of deterrence’ – though its tweets have surely been as likely to provoke as to intimidate.  The campaign sparked a series of responses and counter-measures – in Gaza, Hamas and its supporters, and in particular the Al-Qassam Brigades led by al-Jabari, took to social media platforms too, though Israel’s digital occupation plainly made that a vulnerable strategy, and the cyberactivist group Anonymous claimed to have defaced or disrupted nearly 700 Israeli political, military and commercial websites – so that al Jazeera described this as a ‘mass cyber-war‘ (I think that’s wrong: it’s been a social media war, but not one that has directly produced destruction – though, as I’ll suggest in a moment, it has certainly invited it).

More on the IDF’s New Media desk from Fast Company here and from the VJ Movement below:

It’s hard to know how effective this social media blitz has been: certainly, many people have been repulsed by the way the IDF ‘cheerily live-tweets infanticide’ and ‘the apparent glee with which the IDF carries out its job.’  As John Mitchell complained, ‘Innocent people are dying on all sides, and the IDF wants to reward people for tweeting about it.’  In doing so, the contemporary rendering of war as spectacle and entertainment has been turned into something at once banal and grotesque.  Alex Kantrowitz put this well:

When a military at war asks its Twitter followers to “Please Retweet,” or check out its Tumblr, or posts an image of a rocket hooking a Prime Minister’s undergarments, it is hard not to sense a disconnect between that messaging and the bombing taking place in real life. As The Verge’s Joseph L. Flatley put it, “One liveblogs award shows or CES keynotes, not armed conflict.”

When Matt Buchanan calls this live-tweeting of military and paramilitary violence ‘the most meaningful change in our consumption of war in over 20 years’ – my emphasis – then this is war reduced to consumerism: how long before military commanders start worrying that if their ratings aren’t high enough, their audience penetration too low, their war will be cancelled?  (Not such a bad idea, you might think, until they are driven to find ways to increase their market share….) Buchanan may think this is ‘How to Wage War on the Internet’, but Michael Koplow is nearer the mark: it’s precisely How Not to Wage War on the Internet.

In fact, several commentators worry that the trash-talking between the two sides, the verbal violence of response and counter-response on Twitter, was an open invitation to extend the war beyond the words:

‘This is a new reality of war,’ Heather Hurlburt noted, ‘and I worry that it’s going to make it harder to stand down.’  The digital exchanges were immediate – not the language of reflection or diplomacy – and, whatever else they were about, were clearly intended to taunt the other side: Hamas and the IDF were both targeting audiences in Gaza (and the West Bank) and in Israel, by turns rallying their supporters and goading the enemy.  In short, here as elsewhere, there are crucial connections between the physical and virtual worlds that, in this case, may work to inflame the violence.

Yet for all this the digital battlespace can work to reinstate the traditional battlefield – at least virtually and rhetorically.   This is one of the maps circulated through the IDF’s social media platforms:

And here is the equivalent map published online by the New York Times, updated yesterday:

Here the map speaks power to truth: the ‘battlefield’ has been radically extended so that, as always, the terms of an an intensely asymmetric struggle are radically reversed.  The disproportionate concentration of Israeli firepower on Gaza is erased, while virtually all of Israel – including, as we have been endlessly reminded, for the very first time Jerusalem – is threatened by Hamas.

The Times did at least include this, separate map of Gaza:

The map plots (in red) the sites of IDF leaflet drops (really).  So we have one map showing Hamas rocket ranges and ‘cities taking enemy fire’, and the other showing paper dropped on a captive population…

UPDATE: More on this from Craig Jones here.

If you want to find more meaningful maps that take in both Israel and Gaza, including air strikes and rocket attacks, deaths and casualties on both sides, you can find them at al Jazeera here.  I’ve pasted an extract from the plot of air strikes below.

Seen like this, I’ll leave the last words to Helga Tawil-Souri:

“The underlying reasons of Israel’s propaganda are to silence the enemy, gain international support and justify wars… Their goal has not fundamentally changed over the years, only the platforms on which these are disseminated.”