1st Lt James Klein of the US Air Force flies surveillance and attack missions across the Middle East. But he never has to leave his Las Vegas bunker. He pilots a Predator drone from thousands of miles away using a computer-game console1.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, stand-off weapons are also being deployed from bunkers in St Petersburg, Russia, but not against Middle East terrorists. The target is the United States of America. And – unlike the ballistic missiles that have long threatened American cities – this new class of weapons has actually been used.
Duelling Demonstrations in Texas
On 11 May 2016, journalist Craig Malisow of the Houston Press reported on an armed protest to be staged outside the new Islamic Center in downtown Houston2. “Heart of Texas,” a pro-Texas-independence group with hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers, was on the march.
“Imagine Texas turning in a muslim ghetto full of mosques and ‘Islamic Knowledge’ centers,” read the event’s Facebook page. It continued:
“What would founding fathers say if they knew we’re gonna put up with people who wish to kill us?”
And then, as Craig Malisow puts it, the kicker: “Feel free to bring along your firearms, concealed or not!”
Meanwhile, the group “United Muslims of America” were preparing to defend the centre.
They had made some startling claims on social media: that Hillary Clinton admitted the US had set up both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and that Osama bin Laden was a CIA agent. The United Muslims would respond to the Heart of Texas threat with a counter-demo3.
And on May 21, 2016, the two groups duly faced off outside the Houston Islamic Centre.
Puppets on a string
But things are not quite what they seem. We’ve just discovered that, like US Predator attacks in Syria, the operation to pit these groups against each other was run from a basement – in Russia. The whole thing as in both sides.
“Heart of Texas,” despite its hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers, is a fictitious organisation dreamed up by the Kremlin. And “United Muslims” is made-up, too. Both groups, and both demos, were run from St Petersburg under orders from the Kremlin.
It’s hard to get your head around it. Agents of the Kremlin went far beyond merely posting messages and buying ads on Facebook. They fabricated a whole Muslim group and a gun-toting anti-Muslim, pro-Texas-independence group – and recruited hundreds of thousands of members. Then Kremlin agents decided to pitch their two puppets against each other. All the while, the citizens of Texas who signed up to these Russian fictions were duped into believing they were real.
The sheer chutzpah of this undertaking, and the skill involved in carrying it through, is breathtaking. We’re light years from the Cold War stereotypes of Russian espionage – thick-set men with thick accents in raincoats. The level of sophistication is high, and it’s plain that this whole fresh approach to undermining the West is in its infancy. The open society’s embrace of social media has opened us to this new threat.
In the UK, an inquiry is afoot into the Brexit vote4.
In France, into the Macron election5.
And in Germany, too, where there is some surprise that the Russians have not actually caused more trouble6.
ISIS terror and now this
The Air Force’s Klein goes home for dinner secure in the knowledge that the US utterly dominates the world in both conventional and nuclear weaponry7.
Yet the challenge faced by those with such dominance in traditional power is to cope with non-traditional assaults.
ISIS uses terror to fight back. It costs little, and the effect is huge, and hard to combat in an open society.
And now Russia has awakened to the asymmetric opportunities presented by social media to sow discord among Americans and undermine their confidence in democracy. If the Kremlin can organise hundreds of thousands of right-wing Texans and at the same time catalyse Muslims in defence of the Houston Islamic Centre, what might they try next?
On the Russian hacking efforts mounted side-by-side with Facebook and other deceptions: Ralph Satter, for the Associated Press, November 21, 2017.
Tal Kopan, October 5, 2017: “FBI chief on Russian hacking: We ‘should have seen this coming.’”
Patrick Marley and Jason Stein, September 22, 2017, USA Today: “Russians tried to hack election systems of 21 states in 2016, officials say.”