Pentagon Ordered to Counter Islamic State Propaganda

Obama administration failing to effectively combat terror group’s online empire

Screenshot from Islamic State recruitment video
Screenshot from Islamic State recruitment video
November 30, 2015

Congress is ordering the Pentagon to beef up its cyber operations to counter the Islamic State’s online propaganda campaigns to recruit and radicalize individuals across the globe, according to recently passed legislation.

Defense Department officials have told Congress they lack the ability and authority to launch cyber efforts to counter the terror group’s recruiting efforts, which have radicalized scores of Americans and Europeans, some of whom have traveled to the Middle East to fight alongside the group.

Some reports indicate that the Islamic State has radicalized thousands of Americans and many more in Europe and throughout the Middle East.

Most of the Obama administration’s online operations in this arena have been operated by the State Department, which is traditionally responsible for global outreach of this nature.

However, in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress inserted new language ordering the Defense Department to "counter and degrade" terror groups such as the Islamic State from radicalizing individuals over the Internet.

"The secretary of defense should develop creative and agile concepts, technologies, and strategies across all available media to most effectively reach target audiences, to counter and degrade the ability of adversaries and potential adversaries to persuade, inspire, and recruit inside areas of hostilities or in other areas in direct support of the objectives of commanders," Congress ordered in the defense bill, which allocates all annual funding for these priorities.

"The secretary of defense should request additional funds in future budgets to carry out military information support operations to support the broader efforts of the government to counter violent extremism," the bill mandates.

U.S. military officials have been trying to boost anti-propaganda efforts but have been stymied by Congress in the past.

"Congress has expressed concern with DOD engaging violent extremist propaganda on the Internet, except in limited ways," Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, told Congress earlier this year.

Votel and other officials argue that they must increase their efforts to counter the Islamic State’s propaganda and online recruitment.

"We [U.S. Special Operations Command] believe there is a complementary role for the Department of Defense in this space which acknowledges the need for a civilian lead, but allows DOD to pursue appropriate missions such as counter-recruitment and reducing the flow of foreign fighters," Votel told Congress.

Even with the congressional directive, the Pentagon will likely face challenges in launching these efforts due to its inexperience in the cyber realm.

High-level government authority is required to pursue such operations, Votel said.

"The ability to rapidly respond to adversarial messaging and propaganda, particularly with offensive cyberspace operations to deny, disrupt, degrade, or corrupt those messages, requires an Executive Order and is limited by current U.S. government policies," Votel said.

In addition, "another gap exists in [the Pentagon’s] ability to operate on social media and the Internet, due to a lack of organic capability" in this arena, Votel told Congress.

These efforts may be handed off to independent contractors as military officials figure out a way to "improve the department's ability to effectively operate in the social media and broader online information space," Votel said.

The Obama administration has come under fire from its own officials and outside advocacy groups for failing to effectively counter online efforts by terror groups to radicalize individuals.

"The difficulty that the U.S. government has had in confronting the Islamic State on the level of messaging, influence, or propaganda is more than an embarrassing bureaucratic snafu; it has also tended to expedite the resort to violent military action," the Federation of American Scientists wrote in a report on the efforts and the new congressional directive.

The Islamic State, for instance, operates scores of official and unofficial social media accounts that romanticize the group’s military campaigns. The terror group has put particular emphasis on the recruitment of women, girls, and children.

The Islamic State has even created video games for younger audiences.

The State Department’s most prominent online anti-propaganda campaign is known as Think Again, Turn Away. Via its Twitter account and a YouTube page, the State Department disseminates English and Arabic videos and tweets meant to counter the radical propaganda published by terror groups.

It remains unclear how effective these efforts have been. The Think Again, Turn Away Twitter account has more than 24,000 followers and a similar Facebook page has more than 11,000 fans.

Published under: Islamic State , Pentagon