Page last updated at 04:15 GMT, Friday, 20 June 2008 05:15 UK

The secret world of 'psy-ops'

By Jon Kelly
BBC News

US leaflet dropped in Afghanistan
A leaflet suggests Taleban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is in US sights

The first British servicewoman to die in the Afghanistan conflict was a member of the UK armed forces' psychological operations unit, it has been revealed. But what do "psy-ops" really involve?

The name suggests a mysterious netherworld of misinformation and mind control.

But military chiefs say that psy-ops - psychological operations - are a routine feature of modern conflict, as old as warfare itself.

The term replaced a phrase that had even murkier connotations - propaganda.

However, the Ministry of Defence defines psy-ops simply as a way of getting "the enemy, or other target audience, to think and act in a way which will be to our advantage".

Leaflets dropped from aircraft, radio broadcasts, loudspeaker vans and face-to-face conversations with civilians are all devices used by armed forces to win hearts and minds or damage opponents' morale.

'Devious stuff'

Col Bob Stewart, who commanded the British peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, made use of psy-ops techniques when he served as an intelligence officer in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Somebody in psy-ops will have determined that Barney the Dinosaur is an effective instrument of torture
Jon Ronson
"There are two types of propaganda - white and black," he says.

"White is when you tell things as they are, while black is putting more devious stuff about.

"The value of psy-ops can be immense - but whatever you say must be believable, and preferably the truth."

Cpl Sarah Bryant, the first British servicewoman to be killed in the Afghanistan conflict, belonged to 15 (United Kingdom) Psychological Operations Group, a 70-strong unit based in Chicksands, Bedfordshire.

She spoke Pashtu, and it is thought she was involved in forging links with Afghan communities and monitoring Taleban radio traffic.

One former army officer who served in Iraq and the Balkans says she would have faced a tougher task than her predecessors in previous conflicts.

"In the Balkans we were able to hand out magazines and broadcast radio programmes," he recalls.

"But in much of Afghanistan you are dealing with people who have no access to TV, the internet, radio - they might not be able to read, either.

US leaflet distributed in Afghanistan
A US leaflet aims to show American soldiers are the Afghans' friends

"So with civilians, you have to go and see them door-to-door. With the enemy, you are dealing with fighters who may well come from abroad, so everything you know about local culture might be no good."

Military historians date psy-ops back to the days of Alexander the Great and Ghenghis Khan, who would both deliberately spread rumours and misinformation ahead of battles to help subdue their enemies.

During the World War I, the British army air-dropped leaflets urging German troops to surrender.

In the 1940s, the Nazis tried to use broadcasts by the British traitor William Joyce - Lord Haw Haw - to undermine morale in the UK, while the Allies used radio broadcasts to get their message across to occupied Europe.

Some 29 million leaflets were dropped by coalition forces during the 1991 Gulf War, with some estimates suggesting that 40% of all surrenders and desertions were due to psy-ops tactics.

But after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, psychological warfare truly came into its own.

American Pte Lynndie England, jailed after she was photographed alongside Abu Ghraib prisoners in humiliating and stressful positions, claimed the images had been set up by a psy-ops unit to spread fear among inmates - a charge strenuously denied by the United States military.

But early in the conflict, the US Psychological Operations Company acknowledged that they had pioneered bizarre methods of interrogation such as exposing unco-operative prisoners for extended periods of time to full-blast music from rock group Metallica or children's TV programmes like Barney the Dinosaur.

'Sounds crazy'

Writer Jon Ronson revealed the often darkly comic nature of American psy-ops in his book The Men Who Stare At Goats.

But he warns that such techniques are no joke.

"The've had scientists working on a hologram of Allah, which they could project over a city," he says. "And then Allah says, 'America isn't bad.'

"It sounds crazy, but somebody in psy-ops will have determined that Barney the Dinosaur is an effective instrument of torture."

There is no suggestion that the British military have tried to develop anything quite so outlandish.

But as long as warfare persists, it appears that psy-ops will always be key components.

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