Cambridge Analytica Parent Co. Used Yemen as Test Site for Global Manipulation Tactics
Leaked documents show that Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), the parent company of the notorious Cambridge Analytica, carried out a surveillance operation embedded among local Yemeni populations in 2009. The research and psychological tactics of deception were likely later used against populations around the world including Libya, Syria, and Iran where SCL Group carried out various operations to influence social climates on behalf of their clients.
SLC Group has a dubious history of stirring up trouble with “psychological warfare” in places like Nigeria, Ukraine, Latvia and many Western countries.
The leaked documents, obtained by the Grayzone Project, detail a program called “Project Titania” carried out in Yemen which SCL Group appears to have used for honing their psychological manipulation skills. Grayzone spoke with a media professional who SCL attempted to recruit for an operation in Iran in 2009.
According to SCL Group, they launched Project Titania on behalf of an entity called Archimedes — a U.S.-based military contractor. This highlights the dangers of private companies like Facebook and Google merging with the military-industrial complex.
Since launching Project Titania, the United States and United Arab Emirates have opened 18 black site prisons in Yemen for arbitrarily detaining, torturing, and sexually abusing victims.
Strategic Communication Laboratories (SLC) launched Project Titania in 2009 between June and July in very specific areas of Yemen’s Marib province and al-Mukalla city in Hadramaut province. Working on behalf of their client (a U.S.-based military contractor), SCL Group chose these locations after careful consideration and research about al-Qaeda’s (AQAP) growing presence.
Project Titania included four main phases: motivation and segmentation, research plan, field phase, analysis, and reporting. The experience SCL Group gained and the tactics they used were later employed throughout the rest of the world for other clients.
In Yemen, SCL’s goal with Project Titania was to reduce what they called “non-desired behaviors” or NDB by using something called “communication campaigns.” In Project Titania’s case, “the non-desired behavior” involved young men joining terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. Research leading up to the communication campaign included recorded interviews and questionnaires with local Yemenis while deceiving respondents about the interview’s or questionnaire’s purpose.
The victims’ responses were later used to determine if NDBs (joining terrorist groups) could be reduced through deceptive intervention techniques.
A large portion of Project Titania took place before the foreign agents even began conducting interviews. Researchers at SCL Group used open-source information from NGOs, local publications, census data, “earlier studies,” and other entities deemed relevant or accurate.This draws into question the role non-governmental organizations play supporting the military-industrial complex.
The public doesn’t hear about this scenario too often, but it’s really not uncommon for U.S. military contractors or other individuals with ulterior motives to seek employment at NGOs. In 2015, the Yemeni resistance group Ansarullah (aka. the Houthis) apprehended a U.S. military contractor working undercover for the Red Cross in Yemen. The contractor, Scott Darden, was tasked with setting up sleeper cells and safe houses for U.S. commando units inside Ansarullah-held territory.
SCL Group employed what they called “Researchers” to conduct recorded interviews with local Yemenis to gather psychosocial information about relevant issues, historic context, language, literacy, channel exposure, channel credibility, noise, values, attitudes and beliefs, current behavior, common enemies, binary opposition, decision paths, power structures, message appeals, skills, intent, motivations, and everything else that makes a person tick.
SCL Group’s “Researchers” told the victims that the questionnaires and interviews were for seemingly benign purposes like market research. “Prior to completing the interview or the questionnaire, all participants will be given a rationale for the study (i.e., that the study is part of a university research programme or a market research programme),” the document reads.
Each questionnaire contained 35 questions and took about 30 minutes to complete. SCL Group carried out 30 in-depth interviews and a staggering 300 guided interviews during a mere month-long period in the two target locations. The respondents were also asked to provide their gender, education level, income level, religious affiliation, and other demographic data in addition to the psychosocial questions.
Understanding and Using the Data
Groups of eight Researchers were lead by a team leader known as a Research Leader. Their goals were to answer the following questions about al-Qaeda in Marib and al-Mukalla but it’s easy to see how the same strategy was later applied elsewhere among different populations with different goals.
Accessibility: how easy is it to gain access into the group or contact people in the group?
Salience of Impact: how likely is the communication campaign to change NDB?
Problem Relevance: how relevant is a factor to the client’s goals and objectives?
Measurability: any instance of applying numbers to the behavior
Influenceability: how likely is the campaign to influence the target audience behavior?
The research described here was part of a larger campaign to influence behavior in Marib and al-Mukalla. The entire project included three steps: identify campaign target groups (CTG), understand campaign target groups to develop an influencing plan, and understanding a target audience to create an influence path to the CTG.
A Few Things…
In Project Titania’s case, the “campaign target group” included young men at risk for joining al-Qaeda but, again, it’s very easy to see how this same strategy could be applied in numerous situations to produce a desirable social climate for any client.
It’s possible that these tactics were used by one entity or another for several purposes since 2009 including in now-current war zones like Syria or Libya as well as elections in various countries throughout the entire world.
The detailed assessment and analysis SCL Group conducted of Marib and al-Mukalla shows that similar or affiliated entities like Cambridge Analytica run into no trouble gathering publicly available or user-provided information from social media, NGOs, censuses, and other sources before even lifting a finger to conduct their own questionnaires or interviews.
However, SCL Group’s detailed assessment of Yemen’s 2009 current and future political situation were not at all accurate as they described the overall political security as “country collapse currently slim.” We all know how that’s worked out.
The report mainly appeared concerned with AQAP and, to a lesser extent, Yemen’s southern separatist movement al-Hirak. Unsurprisingly, SCL Group highly underestimated Ansarullah’s potential for gaining enough public support to control the capital city and most of the northern provinces. Their report knocks the Houthis for “draining precious military resources” (the then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh was receiving military support from the United States to keep al-Qaeda at bay).
The report also counters Saudi Arabia’s line that Ansarullah (the Houthis) are a terrorist group. The document mentions that hostilities might occur, but it mentions nothing about violent terror attacks on civilians akin to al-Qaeda. If SCL Group (or the U.S. military contractor they were conducting Project Titania on behalf of) believed that the Houthi group was apt to launch similar attacks or behave like al-Qaeda, SCL probably would have lumped them into the project’s research.
It’s also worth mentioning that since Project Titania, the United States and United Arab Emirates have set up a series of 18 black site detention centers throughout areas of Yemen under their control. The victims are swept up under the guise of fighting al-Qaeda, but locals say the men were arbitrarily detained and forced into confessions with physical and sexual torture.
These documents were released by the Grayzone Project as the first in a two-part series.
Featured photo: a woman walks near the Marib ruins by Will De Freitas on Flickr.