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Stratfor Monitors and Studies Social Movements

The Corporate and Security State Recognizes Movements Are a Threat to the Power Structure so they Study Our Efforts

Stratfor is a private intelligence agency that works for business interests and government.  It tracks and analyzes a lot of issues – the economy, military conflict, politics, energy and security.  Recently it has also been monitoring, analyzing and reporting on social movements. Their interests in movements show their concern that revolts have been growing and are having an impact around the world.

Stratfor Leaks Show How They Work To Undermine Movements

The involvement of Stratfor in undermining social movements became more evident thanks to important leaks by Jerry Hammond that were published by Wikileaks as The Global Intelligence Files.  In the press release announcing these leaks Wikileaks writes:

“The Global Intelligence Files – more than five million emails from the Texas-headquartered ‘global intelligence’ company Stratfor. The emails date from between July 2004 and late December 2011. They reveal the inner workings of a company that fronts as an intelligence publisher, but provides confidential intelligence services to large corporations, such as Bhopal’s Dow Chemical Co., Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and government agencies, including the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Marines and the US Defense Intelligence Agency. The emails show Stratfor’s web of informers, pay-off structure, payment-laundering techniques and psychological methods.”

From these leaks we learned how corporations and the government were attacking Julian Assange and Wikileaks, as well as their infiltration, monitoring and surveillance of protesters on behalf of corporations and the government, especially those involved in the Occupy movement.  The documents showed how terrorism laws were being used to criminalize protest and dissent; and were significant enough to be used by Chris Hedges, Alexa O’Brien and others in their lawsuit against the NDAA’s provisions allowing the U.S. military to target, arrest and incarcerate Americans.

Stratfor, among other tactics, relies on informants to gather information.  Recently we learned how a leading activist in the resistance movements around the world was working with StratFor wittingly or unwittingly providing information about how resistance movements operate.  As investigative journalists Steve Horn and Carl Gibson wrote:

“Serbia’s Srdja Popovic is known by many as a leading architect of regime changes in Eastern Europe and elsewhere since the late-1990s, and as one of the co-founders of Otpor!, the U.S.-funded Serbian activist group which overthrew Slobodan Milošević in 2000. Lesser known, an exclusive investigation reveals that Popovic and the Otpor! offshoot CANVAS (Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies) have also maintained close ties with a Goldman Sachs executive and the private intelligence firm Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting, Inc.), as well as the U.S. government. Popovic’s wife also worked at Stratfor for a year.”

They report that Popovic began working with Stratfor in 2007, opening many doors for Stratfor with activists around the world, providing information about on-the-ground protest movements and received talking points from Stratfor when he appeared on the media to discuss revolts. In an email Stratfor described Popovic’s role with the firm writing that his “main utility in this contact is his ability to connect us to the troublemakers around the world that he is in touch with.”

The Wikileaks documents also showed us how corporations and government attack movements in a divide and conquer strategy that isolates those seeking transformational change (who they define as “radicals”).  Here’s how we summarized the strategy introducing the article:

“Divide activists into four groups: Radicals, Idealists, Realists and Opportunists. The Opportunists are in it for themselves and can be pulled away for their own self-interest. The Realists can be convinced that transformative change is not possible and we must settle for what is possible.  Idealists can be convinced they have the facts wrong and pulled to the Realist camp.  Radicals, who see the system as corrupt and needing transformation, need to be isolated and discredited, using false charges to assassinate their character is a common tactic.”

Knowing that this is their strategy should help social movements combat it.  Stratfor does the same – it looks at the strategies and tactics described in books, webinars and trainings to determine how movements operate, how strong they are and what to expect from them.

Stratfor Writes About Evaluating Movements by Understanding Their Strategies

Two recent reports by Stratfor about movements show that their approach analyzing movements and evaluating our strength.  Here are some excerpts from those reports.

In “Protest Movements as Political Strategy” published on July 5, 2012, Stratfor analyst Ben West concludes “By understanding how a protest movement works and how well it targets and exploits the weaknesses of the state it is demonstrating against, we can assess how successful movements are likely to be.” The meat of the report describes protest tactics, organization, perception and their strategy of weakening pillars of the state:

Protest Tactics

Protest movements usually start with far fewer resources and far less organization than the established entity against which they are protesting. They are fighting an asymmetric battle against a state that has far more resources to use against protesters. For example, the April 6 movement that was behind Egypt’s 2011 protests got its name from April 6, 2008, the day Egyptian authorities clamped down on a fledgling political youth movement with a series of arrests. The Egyptian state was able to end the 2008 protest movement relatively quietly; this is how most protest movements end.

Those groups that do survive must have a fluid yet responsive organizational capability, and they must control the perception of what they — and their opponents — stand for.


Organizing protests becomes increasingly dangerous as the movement becomes more successful. Most authorities will tolerate a certain amount of activism because it is seen as a way to let off steam. They appease the protesters by letting them think that they are making a difference — as long as the protesters do not pose a threat. But as protest movements grow, authorities will act more aggressively to neutralize the organizers. Sincere protest movements may prove successful if they can survive a round of arrests, a baton charge from the police or a counterprotest from government supporters.

Another element to look for in protest organization is the unity of message. Using the same slogans and carrying mass-produced signs, especially if the protesters are in multiple cities, shows a level of unity that indicates a single organizer, whether that be an individual or a committee. The centralization of a protest movement is key because it means better coordination and swifter decision-making in response to obstacles. And later on, if the protest movement is successful, there is an individual or small group of individuals who can exploit the power generated by the protest movement for political gains.

The level of discipline shown by the members is another important indicator of a movement’s organization. It is absolutely critical that a protest movement maintain the moral high ground; otherwise it is too easy for their opponents to smear the protesters as thieves, thugs or hooligans. Once protest movements number in the tens or hundreds of thousands it is impossible for organizers to enforce discipline themselves. However, organizers can recognize the importance of discipline and instill a zero-violence rule across the movement, while relying on grassroots security efforts to enforce it.

Protest movements become successful when large groups of people gather, yet abstain from the obvious power they have to loot, steal or commit other crimes in the chaos of street protests. That abstention shows discipline, and discipline indicates control over what is effectively a civilian army.


In the beginning, protest organizers must overcome the authorities’ attempts to disperse the movement as well as the movement’s initial lack of legitimacy. Protest movements typically start small and represent a fringe opinion. In order to increase the movement’s numbers, organizers have to convince others that their interests are best pursued through protest. One way to do this is to make the smaller demonstrations appear larger in order to convince people that the protests represent the interest of more of a majority.

Protest movements often frame their demonstrations to make them appear larger. If a protest only has a few hundred people, it will look small and insignificant huddled in the middle of a massive central square. It will look much more formidable walking down a narrow, winding street that conceals the length of their procession and amplifies their noise. This doesn’t mean that protest movements demonstrating on narrow, winding streets are necessarily small, but if they are, it is likely someone skillfully picked an appropriate venue for their demonstration. Knowing when and where to demonstrate indicates the sophistication of a protest movement.

Many times, the availability of imagery of a protest indicates how media savvy a protest movement is. A sophisticated movement will alert the media ahead of a demonstration to ensure it is broadcast — more sophisticated movements will make sure to provide symbolic images for the media to disperse. A good example of this is when Iranian students breached the perimeter of the British Embassy in Tehran in November 2011. Dozens of journalists and cameramen (many with pre-positioned tripods) were on hand to record the symbolic moment. In that case, the actual breach did not cause much damage, but the degree to which Iranian authorities flaunted their disregard for embassy security eventually led to the British abandoning the mission. Imagery of protest scenes is crucial to analysis of a protest; if the scenes are set up well, it’s likely someone organized it that way to ensure the message got out.

Perception becomes reality when fear of the regime evaporates. Despotic regimes rule through fear, and when demonstrators lose their fear of the regime and begin to realize that they have power to make changes, the protests often can make some quick progress — as seen with the rapid fall of former Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. However, this loss of fear does not always guarantee success; the government sometimes can drastically increase violence to counter protesters’ lack of fear — as seen in Tiananmen Square in 1989. In the Syrian uprising in 1982, fear of the regime never evaporated, and the movement was quickly and firmly put down in a few weeks. In the Syrian opposition’s current iteration, the fear of the regime has been broken, and the movement has persisted for more than a year.

Pillars of the State

Once the tactics of a protest movement have been assessed as organized and sophisticated, it’s time to assess strategic weaknesses of the state that the movement can attack. Governments rule by controlling key pillars of society, through which they exercise authority over the population. These pillars include security forces (police and military), the judicial system, civil services and unions. If the protest movement is trying to overthrow the government and not just extract concessions, the movement will work to undermine the pillars of the state. Removing the support of one or more of these pillars will erode a government’s power until it can no longer effectively govern, at which point protest movements can begin assuming institutional control.

It’s important then to assess the key pillars of the government that a protest movement is targeting. Stratfor has done this in Syria by identifying the al-Assad clan, Alawite unity, supremacy of the Baath party and control over the military-intelligence apparatus as the key pillars of the Syrian state. The Syrian opposition may employ the most sophisticated tactics possible, but unless those tactics erode one or more of those pillars, the government can continue to exercise power over the state.

In a more recent report published on December 19, “Analyzing Protest Movements,” analyst Scott Stewart focuses on the Ukraine but makes some broader points.

Assessing Crowds

As the U.S. Park Police can testify, estimating crowd size is always difficult and almost always controversial. This is why the U.S. Park Police no longer publishes estimates of crowd size. The controversy over crowd size inevitably arises because supporters of a protest will nearly always inflate numbers in an attempt to give their cause more weight, and opponents of the protests nearly always seek to minimize numbers in an effort to discount the significance of the protest.

That said, while it is nearly impossible to get an exact count of a crowd, it is important to attempt to get a rough estimate of the number of protesters to help determine whether the organizers should be taken seriously. A protest claiming to have 100,000 people but drawing only a few thousand is far different from a protest claiming to have drawn 100,000 that really drew 70,000 or 80,000.

The ability to draw even a rough estimate of a crowd is largely dependent upon imagery available of the crowd, and even that can vary, with protest supporters pointing to photographs of the most densely packed areas while protest opponents tend to show sparsely packed areas on the edge of the protest. But in a best-case scenario, there will be aerial photos of the protest area. Then it is a matter of simple mathematics. The area where the protest is occurring can be measured and the crowd density estimated, to provide a rough estimate of the number of protesters. These rough estimates will never be exact, and they have a large margin of error, but they can at the very least be helpful in rapidly dismissing heavily inflated or diminished estimates.

Usually crowd density will vary from place to place within the protest. Crowd-counting researchers, such as Ray Watson of Melbourne University and Paul Yip of the University of Hong Kong, have published academic papers documenting that protest crowds can range from a mosh-pit closeness of one person per 2.5 square feet to a dense crowd of one person per 4.5 square feet to a light crowd with one person every 10 square feet. Because of this variable density, the total area of the protest must be broken into smaller blocks and the crowd density estimated block by block. Still, it is difficult to use a photograph taken at a particular point in time to count people who are moving and shifting, and estimates are always going to be quite inexact — far more art than science.

In the case of Ukraine, the protesters claimed that on Dec. 8 they amassed a crowd of 500,000 people at their demonstration. Reuters later estimated the total as 800,000. Our internal estimate was that Independence Square could hold maybe 125,000 at normal crowd levels and approximately 200,000 at mosh-pit tightness. (There were also substantial barricades and other objects taking up space in the square.) The streets around the square could hold tens of thousands more, but we were skeptical of the higher numbers, unless they were based on protesters at other locations, or upon photos and video we did not have access to, which is always a possibility. Still, there were likely at least 250,000 people demonstrating, and that is a sizable crowd, especially in the cold December temperatures. The protests were not to be dismissed too readily.

Consider Who Is Protesting

When assessing a crowd, the number of protesters is not the only thing to focus on. The composition of the crowd is just as significant. If the protest comprises only students or marginalized people, it is far easier to quash. However, if members of the military and police, bureaucrats, educators, clergy and business owners begin to participate in protests, it is a sign that the protest movement is much more serious, since these people constitute the pillars that provide power to a regime and have the institutional capacity to better organize a movement that employs sophisticated tactics. Because of this, it is the strategy of most protest movements to undercut the regime by recruiting from these classes of people. In the case of Ukraine, the protesters are mostly young people, though not just students, which meant the protests became significantly smaller during the work week when people had to return to their jobs.

While social media is often of limited use in determining numbers, following social media is an excellent way to judge the composition of the protest movement and to obtain details regarding protest tactics and organization, though even this must be done carefully. During Iran’s 2009 “Green Revolution,” a great number of social media reports claiming to be from people on the ground in Tehran were actually being created by opposition groups in the United States.

Read Their Manuals

As a young intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, I was trained to study Soviet military doctrine. By understanding the Soviets’ military philosophy and how their troops were trained to fight, I was equipped to be able to predict how they would deploy and move on the battlefield. The same principle holds true for protest movements. It is very useful to read their training manuals.

Many groups, ranging from the April 6 Movement in Egypt to opposition movements in Ukraine, are working off the same basic playbooks for overthrowing their respective regimes. Influenced by the work of Gene Sharp of the Albert Einstein Institution, groups such as Freedom House, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Conflict and Strategies, among many other organizations, have been busy propagating Sharp’s strategies for nonviolent struggle through literature, videos and training seminars. They have conducted hundreds of seminars in scores of countries over the past decade. Sharp’s most influential book, “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” has influenced revolutionaries from Serbia’s OTPOR to the Arab Spring and has been translated into 30 different languages. These strategies are employed in a number of different environments, but knowing the strategy makes it easier to judge how well a protest movement is employing it — and whether the protest movement is likely to produce a sustained and wide-ranging impact.

There are numerous questions to ask when examining protest movements. Are the protesters under a unified command, or are various groups involved in the protests? Do the protesters carry uniform, mass-produced signs? What languages are the signs in? Have they adopted a common symbol or color of clothing? Are their able to retain discipline and refrain from violence in the face of state brutality? Are they able to mock and undercut symbols of the regime’s power? Are they attempting to lure the security forces onto their side of the conflict? Can the protesters grow their support base by recruiting classes of people belonging to the regime’s power base? Is their media outreach intentional and sophisticated or ad hoc?

Obviously, not all protest movements are nonviolent or ascribe to Sharp’s strategies. In fact, many subscribe to the Marxist, Maoist or Focoist philosophies we have discussed elsewhere. Still, having a solid understanding of the basics of struggle and regime power as laid out by Sharp provides a very good baseline for judging the status of a particular protest movement, even if it is based on a different operational philosophy.

Resistance movements seeking social and economic justice need to understand that the security state, along with security firms of which Stratfor is one, will be monitoring our activities, infiltrating and looking for ways to combat our actions.  This is part of the process.  One of the most important strategies for dealing with this is to be a broad-based, diverse movement with a multitude of leaders in many parts of the country (or around the globe) so that their ability to predict which tactic will be used, where and when is made more difficult.

We believe that a movement to be successful needs to work for a common goal and within a strategic framework. While we subscribe to the strategy described by people like Gene Sharp about weakening the pillars that hold the power structure in place, there are hundreds of tactics that can be used in achieving that goal.  Even with groups like Stratfor monitoring our activities it will not stop the ultimate success if movements are strategic and persistent in their actions.

The fact that Stratfor and other corporate and government enforcement agencies are paying so much attention to our work is evidence that we are too significant, too threatening to ignore.  Their attention is a measure of our success that should encourage us to grow, broaden and deepen our efforts at seeking social and economic justice.

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