By the late 1960s over four decades had passed since the United Kingdom had given concerted attention to the internal affairs of its overseas legacy colony of “Northern Ireland”. Created from the broken remnants of the British presence on the island of Ireland, the partition-born statelet had effectively functioned as a self-governing territory within the UK from 1921-25 until 1972. During this time the ruling Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) had controlled the “Stormont parliament” just outside of Belfast, establishing a proto-apartheid regime discriminating against the region’s mainly Roman Catholic and Irish nationalist community. This apparatus of ethno-sectarian gerrymandering and segregation would eventually go on to inspire the Whites-Only minority governments of South Africa during the 1940s and ’50s. However, with the formal emergence of a civil rights movement in 1967 and its violent suppression by the Stormont authorities over the following years, Britain was forced to reacquaint itself with its anachronistic appendage across the Irish Sea.
Disastrous attempts by successive United Kingdom governments to manage a crisis of the UK’s own making during the late 1960s and early ’70s exposed the country’s wilful ignorance of its responsibilities in the Six Counties. As officials from London struggled to understand the growing conflict and their historical culpability in it, more often than not they simply defaulted to a pro-unionist position. As thwarted demands for human rights by the nationalist community moved towards armed insurgency, prejudice and misinformation became the predominant characteristics of Britain’s political and military policies. Both of these things energised and deepened the war or so-called Troubles for the next three decades.
This glaring lack of knowledge or care in Downing Street and Westminster can be seen in an official document dated to 1979, uncovered by the Pat Finucane Centre, a civil rights body named after an Irish lawyer assassinated by a British death squad in 1989. In a handwritten note the then United Kingdom prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, urges her officials to make some praiseworthy mention of the “Volunteer Ulster Defence Regiment“. This request is typed up by her assistants and interpreted as meaning that “The Prime Minister would also like to see some reference to the valiant work being carried by the Ulster Volunteer Force“.
Apparently neither Britain’s head of government nor her civil servants were aware that the Ulster Volunteer Force or UVF was the name of a pro-UK or loyalist terror gang responsible for dozens of gun and bomb attacks against the Irish nationalist community across Ireland. What she was probably referring to in her memorandum was the Ulster Defence Regiment – UDR. a British Army counterinsurgency militia, which, ironically, shared a considerable cross-over in membership with the UVF. So, perhaps, not too far out after all.
In any case, I was reminded of the above history when reading this description of a current and very costly counter-propaganda initiative by the United States, one aimed at online supporters of violent Islamist belief. Unfortunately it has been somewhat hampered by the inability of the anti-propagandists to speak fluent Arabic! From a report by CBS:
“A counter-propaganda program aimed at thwarting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’s recruiting over social media is plagued by incompetence, cronyism and skewed data, an AP investigation has found.
Known as “WebOps,” the program was launched several years ago by a small group of civilian contractors and military officers assigned to the information operations division at U.S. Central Command’s headquarters in Tampa.
But internal documents and interviews with more than a dozen people knowledgeable about WebOps suggest a program that appears aimed more at enriching contractors than thwarting terrorism.
WebOps relies on dozens of Arabic-speaking analysts who scour Twitter and other social media platforms for people whose postings suggest they are vulnerable to the ISIS’s siren call. Using fictitious identities, the civilian analysts then reach out to these potential recruits and urge them not to join the extremists.
But current and former WebOps employees cite examples of analysts who had scant experience in counter-propaganda, couldn’t speak Arabic fluently and had so little understanding of Islam that they were no match for the ISIS’ online recruiters.
It’s hard to establish rapport with a potential terror recruit when – as one former worker told the AP – translators repeatedly mix up the Arabic words for “salad” and “authority.” That’s led to open ridicule on social media about references to the “Palestinian salad.””