Jesús Pérez Triana: “A warlord no longer needs to go to the black market to get the gear he needs – he just goes to AliExpress”
The conflict analyst Jesús Pérez Triana talks about postmodern warfare, passionate nerds, and how Russia still wants to win the Cold War.
In a black turtleneck and a camo hoodie, Jesús Pérez Triana looks younger than forty-two. But he becomes immediately authoritative as he starts talking, in his soft Canary Islands lilt, about the subject that is his ruling passion and in which he is a leading expert in the Spanish-speaking world: contemporary warfare.
While taking a master’s degree in international development, Pérez Triana was deeply shaken by the Madrid bombings of 11 March 2004, and became interested in how warfare had changed. He started his blog, Guerras Posmodernas – Postmodern Wars – to think and write about conflict analysis and open-source intelligence. He has kept the blog going for 14 years now, eventually turning it into a successful book with the same title.
Warfare has undergone a radical transformation. Wars used to be fought by nation states with professional armies. These days, however, postmodern wars involve a plethora of supranational, transnational, and subnational entities (such as the United Nations, local factions, global terrorist organisations, and drug cartels).
The democratisation of technology has played a key role in this shift. “If you look at what an elite soldier wore in operation Desert Storm in 1991, you can now buy all that gear on Amazon.” Technologies like GPS and Kevlar are now commonplace, and shields that will stop a Kalashnikov bullet can be purchased for $150 on Chinese websites. “A warlord no longer needs to go to the black market to get the gear he needs – he just goes to AliExpress.”
Technology also means that anyone can capture a terrorist attack on their mobile phone and upload it to YouTube. Or fake it. The challenge for conflict analysts like Pérez Triana is how to distinguish what is real from what is not in the flood of information.
Pérez Triana is an OSINT analyst – OSINT standing for open-source intelligence, that is, data freely available to the public. His colleagues are students, exiles, former intelligence agents, ex-military – “passionate nerds”, as he puts it. These are people who will spend hours and hours poring over Google Earth, looking for the landmarks shown in a blurry picture, until they identify the specific location.
He explains: “The OSINT community is a tribe of hunter-gatherers. It’s a very open-source software mindset: everyone shares what they know, to gain prestige. When you need help, you send your question to the community. It’s a form of crowdsourcing, really.”
After specialising in North Africa and the Middle East, Pérez Triana became interested in Russia as he grew increasingly aware of the influence of Russian propaganda on conflict reporting.
He was struck by how Russian propaganda adapts to each specific country. In Germany, it supports the extreme right-wing party Alternativ für Deutschland, spreading xenophobic stories about sexually violent immigrants invading the country. Whereas in Spain it takes the form of anti-USA imperialism – a traditional warhorse of the Spanish left.
Russia, he claims, is on the attack, seeking to belatedly win the Cold War.
“The Kremlin has a vindictive mentality. Crowds stormed the Stasi and the Securitate headquarters [in East Germany and in Romania], and their archives were opened to the public. But nobody ever stormed the KGB headquarters. There was no building a new political order on the ashes of the previous system. Russia has not reneged on the Soviet Union or on Stalin.”
This time, he says, “the war is not against capitalism, but against liberal democracy, which Russia depicts as a neoliberal, pro-globalisation, Washington-led farce, where oligarchies sell their countries. The alternative it offers is what it calls sovereign democracy, with a strong leader fighting for the People, and a state-controlled economy – as seen in Russia, Venezuela, and Iran.”
And Facebook has played a huge role in this war, providing Russia with a segmented audience that made it extremely easy to find targets for propaganda. “Facebook don’t want to shut up shop, or for the EU to impose sanctions, or to lose value. So it will be interesting to see what measures will be taken now.” And, once investigations have progressed, to see how money flows: how Russian-paid ad campaigns have influenced global politics and movements.
He smiles impishly. “Personally, I’d really like to know how much money has flowed from Russia to Spain. You would need another Wikileaks for that. But then, there’s never any Wikileaks about Russia.”