U.S. Psyops Blasted ISIS With Recordings Of Crying, Troops Retreating, And Other Confusing Audio

Psychological operations messaging in Iraq and Syria implored terrorists to abandon their cause and also just tried to freak them out.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Iraq photo


The U.S. military has made no secret of using psychological warfare against ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria and the civilian populations they operate within. From what we’ve seen in the past, the leaflets and radio messaging have focused primarily on urging fighters to abandon a futile cause and calling on civilians to support U.S.-backed authorities. Thanks for a Freedom of Information Act Request, we now know that it has also included darker audio broadcasts, including simple recordings of crying, to confuse, unsettle, and maybe even try to convince militants they’re going crazy.

In October 2016, U.S. cultural advisors assigned to Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), or the Combined Joint Operations Center-Jordan (CJOC-J) approved 25 separate audio messages that American forces wanted to blare out at ISIS. CJTF-OIR is main U.S.-led coalition fighting the terrorists in Iraq and Syria. The CJOC-J is a smaller forward command specifically coordinating activities in neighboring Syria.

To help expedite the FOIA request process, which began in December 2016, the author limited his request to only items CJTF-OIR and CJOC-J had approved during October 2016. Among other events in Iraq and Syria, this month marked the beginning of the U.S.-supported push to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS control.

The internal control codes for the 25 audio messages that month begin with “OIR” and “SY” prefixes, but it is unclear exactly where they got sent out. In response to the FOIA request, U.S. Central Command provided translated transcripts, but U.S. forces would have broadcast the actual recordings in local languages, most likely Arabic or Kurdish.

Iraqi Special Operations Forces fight along a street in Mosul in late 2016., AP

For the most part, the transcribed audio is relatively mundane and play on psychological operations – or psyops – tropes that modern militaries have employed for decades, such as the uselessness of fighting and a longing for the safety and comfort of home. One, coded OIR16A024vaTC0005, reads as follows:

“Do you regret choosing this life with Da’esh [another name for ISIS]? You probably miss your family at home… Or, perhaps you long for some of the comforts of your life before Da’esh… Electricity that works all day… Or being able to watch television, or freely use the internet…join your comrades now that have already saved their lives by leaving Da’esh.”

Another one, SY16A02aaTC2000, seeks to spur mistrust between ISIS’ local recruits and foreign fighters, saying:

“I don’t know whether to laugh at you or pity you, Brother. You joined Da’esh to fight and be part of something. But look! The foreign fighters get paid more than you; they get better food, better places to live, and the spoils of war. What do you get? Honestly, my friend, you have been cheated! Da’esh would be nothing without you, and look, you are barely treated better than they would treat a nonbeliever, and enemy prisoner. Is this what you signed up for?”

Others, such as OIR15A02aaRD4010, are simply insulting and threatening:

“To Da’esh rats: Dig as many tunnels and trenches as you wish, and hide as many containers [caches] as you wish. I swear by Allah, we know all of these things, where they are located, and what’s in them. We even know what type of clothing you change into in your homes. God willing, we are coming! And we shall stomp on your heads.”

But the last two messages on this list, OIR15A02aTC0008 and OIR16A02vaTC0008, are wholly unlike the rest.

The latter sounds as it if it meant to evoke intercepted radio chatter from an ISIS mid-level commander, with the transcript reading:

"Fall back!  They are everywhere! (Pause w/ static) Why is no one answering me? You need to move back! We cannot hold our position if you do not fall back you will be overrun! (Pause w/ static) If you can hear me fall back, I cannot hear you. You must fall back now or you will be killed! Is there anyone there? (Static that fades out)"

The transcript describes OIR15A02aTC0008 even more sinisterly simply as “crying.” We have no way of telling how long this particular recording lasts.

There is nothing in the FOIA release to indicate how U.S. forces disseminated these messages. At present, the U.S. military has a mix of fixed radio broadcasting systems, vehicle-mounted speakers and so-called "acoustic hailing devices," and a small number of specially configured psyops EC-130J aircraft assigned to the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 193rd Special Operations Wing.

The 193rd’s main aircraft are six EC-130J Commando Solos, which are unique platforms that can function as flying radio or television stations as required. The Wing also now has a number of additional EC-130Js with far less intensive modifications and slightly different capabilities, including the ability to send out SMS text messages.

Coalition forces have, on occasion, dropped leaflets with the frequencies of numerous “approved” radio stations, which could include Commando Solo broadcasts. One of the EC-130Js was seen at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait in June 2017.

A leaflet that US forces dropped over Iraq during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 with various "approved" radio stations where civilians could get news and other information. , DOD

Early in the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the EC-130s flew over the country and quickly provided a popular service since “they broadcast music and for almost everyone,” Weapon of Choice: U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan, an official U.S. Army monograph, explains. As with ISIS, the Taliban government had banned music and other forms of entertainment that it saw as subverting the values of its Islamic Republic.

ISIS fighters would still need to tune into any radio broadcasts from stations on the ground or aircraft up above, though. The lack of context in the “Fall back!” message suggests the intent might have been to confuse the enemy rather than simply demoralize them. This could point to a more complex operation in which electronic warfare assets identify enemy communication nodes and then other elements seek to insert the false message into those nets.

An EC-130J Commando Solo, at rear left, an EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft, in front, at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait in June 2017., USAF

Of course, the lack of context may have simply been meant to be confusing or disorienting and that the message was blared out via radio or an audible speaker to unsettle terrorists. There is a possibility, albeit remote, that It may have been actual repurposed audio from intercepted communications or captured video footage, with the hope that it might resonate more, especially among any remaining fighters who knew the individual behind the voice personally. U.S.-backed forces often release captured footage from ISIS fighters showing their final moments for the obvious propaganda value.

Trying to just unsettle and disturb the terrorists was almost certainly the aim of the other “crying” audio. That message fits in with a different kind of long-running tactic that American forces, as well as law enforcement agencies, have employed, involving blasted out loud, obnoxious, or disturbing sounds toward opponents. The goal is to make it difficult for them to operate and sleep, driving them crazy to the point of giving up or disorienting them ahead of an attack. The United States and other countries have also employed these methods as controversial interrogation techniques.

One of the most notable examples was when the U.S. military employed this type of psychological warfare to help drive Manuel Noriega, then the de facto leader of Panama, out of the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican’s embassy, in Panama City in December 1989. The United States had intervened in the country, an operation nicknamed Just Cause, to depose the autocratic Noriega and he finally emerged from the diplomatic refuge in January 1990 after 10 days of audio harassment and negotiations.

The U.S. military, in cooperation with federal law enforcement agencies, infamously used similar tactics during the still-controversial siege of the Branch Davian cult compound in Waco, Texas in 1993. That incident ended with a raid that led to the deaths of 76 individuals inside, including a number of children. Four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and six other Branch Davidians had died in an earlier raid.

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We don’t know where and when U.S. forces employed the “crying” broadcast, but it is easy to imagine American personnel in Mosul, or their Iraqi and other coalition partners, playing it from huge speakers on trucks on a loop for hours on end. In a dense urban environment, this type of psychological warfare might have been useful in trying to get ISIS fighters to finally surrender or otherwise drive them out of particular buildings or neighborhoods. They could also have transmitted this audio out on various radio frequencies with the hope that it might flood terrorist radio nets with unsettling sounds, along with simple interference.

None of this is to say that his kind of darker and more bizarre psychological warfare, which dates back centuries, is new or necessarily out of the ordinary, either. For example, the U.S. military has also dropped especially gory propaganda leaflets in Iraq and Syria urging ISIS fighters to leave the group or die. Don't forget that the Central Intelligence Agency once commissioned prototype dolls of Osama Bin Laden, with a removable head that made him look like a demon, reportedly to discourage children from supporting Al Qaeda, too.

A US Marine trains an Iraqi soldier to operate a long-range acoustic hailing device mounted on top of Humvee in 2018 specifically as part of efforts to improve the Iraqi Security Forces' "Inform, Influence, and Persuade capabilities.", US Army

But it’s still fascinating to see the breadth and scope of messaging U.S. forces have and are likely still employing against ISIS and other groups. As time goes on, especially with the rise of social media, we’ll very likely see similar messaging appear on other media beyond audio recordings and paper leaflets, too. 

The U.S. and its coalition partners are already engaged in a separate cyberwarfare campaign against ISIS. With the increasing ability to target individuals and their personal electronic devices, such as smartphones, there could easily be a psychological warfare component to these activities, if there isn't already. Specialists might be able to overtly or covertly insert confusing or disturbing messages, as well as more conventional propaganda, onto various devices with the same basic impact as a leaflet or unsetting audio recording. 

Whatever the case, we here at The War Zone intend to keep our eyes out for more examples of how the U.S. military has been trying to demoralize and freak out terrorists and militants and we’ll be sure to with you.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com