State Department Farms Out Counter-ISIS Messaging Abroad

Foreign states given lead under new Global Engagement Center

ISIS propaganda video
Screenshot from an ISIS propaganda video / AP
July 14, 2016

The State Department’s latest effort to counter Islamic State propaganda and recruitment is relying on foreign states for strategic messaging, according to the department’s public diplomacy official.

Richard A. Stengel, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, testified to Congress that the Obama administration believes other countries can better deal with terrorist information operations than the United States. He asserted that U.S. government propaganda is helping recruit terrorists.

"Our strategy is informed by a core insight: we are not always the best messengers for the message we want to deliver," Stengel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. "Public statements from U.S. government officials condemning ISIL can easily be used by the enemy as a recruitment tool."

The latest approach to countering ISIS propaganda is the mission of the State Department’s new Global Engagement Center, created in March.

The center replaced the troubled Center for Counterterrorism Communications earlier this year.

A six member panel of experts from the tech industry reviewed the operations of that center and concluded in December that the U.S. government should not be engaged in information operations against the Islamic terror group. The panel said it was concerned that the center lacked credibility in the Muslim world.

Critics contend that allowing foreign states, including Muslim majority countries, to take the lead in counter-terrorism messaging will result in promoting other forms of radical Islam, such as the Saudi variant known as Salafism, or the Egyptian-origin extremism of the Muslim Brotherhood.

President Obama in 2011 signed a secret directive that outlined U.S. policies to support the Muslim Brotherhood as an ideological alternative to al Qaeda, according to a State Department official.

Patrick S. Poole, a counterterrorism expert, criticized the State Department counter-ideology program as ineffective. The Center for Strategic Communications was a "disaster" and may have actually "legitimized terrorism," he said. Now, the new center has farmed out the mission to foreign states, Poole said.

"So basically we have foreign nationals running our information operations," Poole said. "It's an embarrassing testament to how ill-conceived and poorly executed the State Department's efforts have been under the Obama administration."

Stengel described the new counter-ISIS soft power initiative as "partner-driven messaging."

"Instead of direct messaging to potential ISIL sympathizers, much of our work focuses on supporting and empowering a global network of partners—from NGOs to foreign governments to religious leaders—who can act as more credible messengers to target audiences," he said.

Ultimately, Stengel said long-term success would result in a media environment "that does not require U.S. government messaging at all, because NGOs, local governments, partners, and credible voices are effectively drowning out ISIL’s message of hate."

In the short term, the number of foreign fighters joining ISIS is declining sharply and media and social media activity by the terror group also has diminished.

A key focus is on what is called the Sawab Center, in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, a Persian Gulf state, where U.S. officials work with Emiratis. So far nine social media campaigns using victims of terrorism and defectors to speak in favor of what Stengel said was "national pride."

The campaigns have averages of 125 million views on social media.

The Abu Dhabi center is being bolstered with similar "messaging centers" in Jordan, Nigeria, and Malaysia.

The center is using big data analytics to measure social media activity.

According to Stengel, anti-ISIS content online outnumbers pro-ISIS content by a ratio of six to one.

Under U.S. government prodding, Facebook and Twitter have been working to eliminate ISIS content and users from their services.

However, Stengel acknowledged that as terrorists are driven off of platforms like Twitter and Facebook, they are moving to new and more difficult to counter platforms, like Telegram, a cloud-based messaging and communications service that uses encryption.

Despite the signs of messaging progress, ISIS Islamic terror ideology is spreading to other parts of the world, Stengel said.

Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, (R., Calif.) told the hearing the Internet is "awash" in ISIS propaganda, including gruesome videos of beheadings and other violent acts by ISIS terrorists.

Operating globally, ISIS operates a "virtual caliphate" to recruit members and propagandize.

"Using popular social media sites, ISIS can reach a global audience within seconds," Royce said.

Instead of urging fighters to travel to Syria and Iraq, ISIS is now telling overseas supporters to conduct attacks locally.

According to Royce, "more and more, the virtual caliphate is calling on its followers not to go to Syria, Iraq or Libya and take up arms—but to attack where they are at home. Orlando is a grim example of that."

An Islamic terrorist killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub, pledging loyalty to the Islamic State during the attack.

ISIS had announced in June that the observance of Ramadan would be a time of global attacks in the United States and Europe. The Obama administration issued no warnings and took no additional security measures until after the Orlando shooting.

"Time is of the essence. If we don’t come to grips with the virtual caliphate now, this struggle against Islamist terrorism will become more challenging by the day," Royce said.

Analysts say the Obama administration counter-ISIS ideology program has been hampered by the president’s pro-Islam sympathies and his refusal to identify the threat from terrorism as based on radical Islam.

The president last month defended his reluctance to identify violent extremism as derived from Islam. "Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction," he said.

However, other counterterrorism analysts say unless the nature of the terrorist threat is properly understood, efforts to defeat the threat will not be successful.

Under Obama foreign and security policies, Islamic terrorism has evolved from al Qaeda-style extremists conducting mass casualty attacks to more violent and deadly Islamic State-style attacks aimed at seizing and holding territory and then expanding both regional and globally.