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Influencing the mind of an adversary

Executive summary

This article considers how UK Defence might influence the mind of an adversary, learning from and using techniques employed in the past. Examples include the targeting of ‘hearts and minds’, the use of mind-altering drugs and personal sabotage. This article deliberately ignores the moral argument, focusing instead on developing an influence strategy against a non-specific adversary.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

John Milton – Paradise Lost, Book 1

Learning from the past to shape the future

From ancient times, military forces have understood the importance of the mind. In his treatise The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote that to win leaders must fix the mind of the adversary. In the 18th century, Clausewitz wrote that victory lies in destroying the enemy’s will and motivation to fight, and in the 21st century such concepts are taught in military academies worldwide.

This article will assume that UK Defence intends to influence the mind of an adversary. It will look at the broad use of methods to influence hearts and minds, before considering techniques of operational psychology, mind-control and personal sabotage. Many of the techniques discussed will have obvious moral arguments against them, this article will not discuss these but instead identify lessons to develop an influence strategy.

Hearts and minds

In Defence we are familiar with the term hearts and minds. It’s use in recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has popularised the term, which refers to understanding the aspirations and emotions of a people. Even at the interpersonal level, we know that in understanding someone we are able to influence them. Knowledge is power after all. Adoption of this approach in complex and enduring operations is therefore logical and understandable.

In the Malayan Emergency, where pro-independence fighters sought to break from British rule, the Empire knew that Malayan support was essential.1 It was also important to understand the perception of the conflict, in that, whilst the British called it an ‘emergency’, their adversaries called it the Anti-British National Liberation War.2 As such, practices including the distribution of medical supplies and food to indigenous tribes were key to Operations. This approach attacked anti-British sentiment, whilst making it problematic for communities to oppose those who were providing aid. Fundamentally, helping people builds trust. However, whilst people may be influenced through positive conditioning, when there is more than one influencer the challenge becomes greater.

UK Defence already employs this approach, notably as part of the UK Government’s comprehensive approach, which combines many tools of Government to achieve an aim. These may include the FCO, DfID, or others. Such organisations are often better placed to gain the trust of people than Defence. Often a significant military response may not be required at all. So, in the context of hearts and minds UK Defence must continue to adapt the roles it has, as part of the broader Government framework. However, there are other means of influence that have greater relevance to Defence.


In WWII, examples of operational psychology include Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally. The former was the name given by Allied troops to a series of English-speaking broadcasters as part of the ‘Zero Hour’ program.3 This program was a Japanese psychological warfare initiative designed to attack U.S morale, broadcast in the South Pacific and North America. The broadcasters emphasised recent hardships and losses of Allied troops. A similar initiative was the ‘Home Sweet Home Hour’, broadcasted by an individual dubbed Axis Sally, that attempted to create a feeling of homesickness amongst U.S forces in Europe. The main effort of these broadcasts was to damage motivation in Allied troops.4

These broadcasters tried to understand their audience, assuming an interest in the progress of the war. By feeding this interest they could gain a captive audience, then they could begin attacking their motivation. In principle, this makes sense. When planning for an influence campaign, UK Defence should first understand the target audience. The next step should be to maintain their attention long enough to exert influence. Finally, it is a matter of attacking their weak spots. The method for these broadcasts in WWII was radio, but there are other technologies that may be used.

An evolving and expanding media landscape

With the internet, television and handheld technology becoming increasingly advanced, there are numerous ways to circulate information in the 21st century. Individuals can access information with greater ease than at any other point in history. However, it is not simply a matter of an upward curve of information accessibility. The difference now is that anyone can have a voice. A video or post can go viral, spreading around the world in minutes. The Arab Spring was a prime example of individual actions influencing a movement. UK Defence must expect to operate within a complex information space and be one of many voices. To exert any kind of meaningful influence, we must utilise as many platforms as possible, whilst delivering credible and consistent messaging. This takes time and resources, however, if it could destroy an adversary’s will to fight, it must be considered.

The internet opened substantial possibilities for organisations, individuals and terrorist groups. One of the first terrorist groups to exploit the internet was Al Qaeda, with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) becoming a significant recent example of how wide-reaching the platform can be. Indeed, ISIS reportedly used more than one hundred different internet sites to spread their ideology.5 The backbone of information operations is a narrative, and in this case the organisation’s name is part of that. Western media tended to describe ISIS as the ‘so-called’ Islamic State, to reduce its credibility. However, ISIS saw themselves as legitimate, and their media reflected that. UK Defence must ensure that not only do they have a strong narrative for a particular campaign, but that their identity is clear.

Mind control

From 1953 to 1973, a program focussing on the use of mind control was conducted by the CIA. Known as MKUltra, these experiments intended to develop drugs to enhance interrogations, through influencing subjects’ mental state.6 The program selected test subjects without their knowledge7, using methods including the administration of LSD, electroshocks, sensory deprivation and hypnosis.8

These methods were designed to degrade the will of a subject, through influencing their feelings and awareness. Such degradation could provide confessions, if the subject was suspected of defecting to the Russians, or allow them to be manipulated in certain ways against their will. Whilst there was public outrage and criticism of the U.S Government for this program, there is no doubt that much was learned about the human mind. From the perspective of UK Defence, the ability to influence an adversary in such an absolute way has value. The risk with killing or imprisoning an opponent is that they become a martyr to their cause. An ability to covertly affect the mind of an adversary could enable us to turn them against their own cause without our own narrative being affected. 


The final method discussed here is the concept known as Zersetzung. This was a technique used by the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) to influence hostile individuals9 in the eyes of East Germany. Ultimately to create fragmentation and isolation. This technique relied on a network of informants and operational psychology to attack the mental health of subjects seen as threats. In practice, individuals would be subjected to personal sabotage, with employment and relationships undermined by the state. The idea was to stifle any anti-establishment sentiment by manufacturing personal crises.

Zersetzung required a dedicated intelligence infrastructure, bolstered by a complicit population. This is hard to achieve in a location where it does not already exist but it was effective because people were scared, their minds already under the influence of the state. By attacking the mental space in which revolutionary or adversarial ideas are developed, the Stasi protected the state from threats before they fully materialised. For UK Defence, the systematic degradation of opponents could only be achieved where there was existing control, however, where conditions allow, it offers a powerful tool and a significant deterrence.

The mind as a battlefield

When planning an influence strategy against an adversary, UK Defence have a number of approaches to employ. From the familiar focus on hearts and minds to the specific and morally ambiguous techniques used by the Stasi and the CIA. There are also many technologies through which influence can be maximised. We must understand and employ these means wherever appropriate. The mind of an adversary must be considered vital ground, as it has been for centuries of warfare.

Tom H

Tom commissioned into the Royal Military Police and was fortunate enough to command soldiers on close protection tours to the Sudan and Tunisia. He is continuing his military service in the Education and Training Services.





  1. Hembry, B. (2011). Malayan Spymaster: Memoirs of a Rubber Planter, Bandit Fighter and Spy. Singapore: Monsoon Books. p. 414.
  2. Amin, M. (1977). The Making of a Neo Colony. Spokesman Books, UK.
  3. Federal Bureau of Investigation, (2020). Iva Toguri d’Aquino and “Tokyo Rose” | Federal Bureau of Investigation. [online] Available at: https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/iva-toguri-daquino-and-tokyo-rose
  4. Andrews, E. (2013). 6 World War II Propaganda Broadcasters. [online] Available at: https://www.history.com/news/6-world-war-ii-propaganda-broadcasters
  5. Wainwright, R. (2018). “Fighting Crime and Terrorism in the Age of Technology”, The Brown Journal of World Affairs.
  6. Valentine, D. (2016). The CIA as Organized Crime: How Illegal Operations Corrupt America and the World. Clarity Press.
  7. Richelson, J. (2001). “Science, Technology and the CIA: A National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book”. George Washington University
  8. Otterman, M. (2007). American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond. Melbourne University Publishing
  9. Ministry for Security of State. (1985), Dictionary of political and operational work, entry Zersetzung: Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Hrsg.): Wörterbuch zur politisch-operativen Arbeit, 2. Auflage Stichwort: “Zersetzung“, GVS JHS 001-400/81, p. 464.

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