Clinton’s Program to Counter ISIS Propaganda ‘Embarrassing,’ ‘In Disarray’

In recent speech, former secretary of state touted creation of center that is widely viewed as ineffective

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton / AP

A program touted by Hillary Clinton that was designed to counter the online propaganda of ISIS has been sharply criticized as ineffective and even embarrassing, according to recent reports.

In a speech Tuesday, Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, mentioned the creation of an interagency center in 2011 while she was secretary of state. That initiative, known as the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, employed specialists to "to wage online battles with extremists to counter their propaganda," she said.

As part of her plan to counter the radicalization of Americans, she said that "we need to step up our game" and intensify existing efforts to combat the digital messaging of ISIS and other terrorist groups.

However, the center and its messaging efforts have been widely panned by experts and other critics, raising questions about Clinton’s counterterrorism policies.

Rita Katz, an analyst with the SITE Intelligence Group who tracks the online communications of jihadists, told the Washington Post in May that the center, as well as its "Think Again Turn Away" campaign, has produced "embarrassing" content that might have even benefited ISIS.

"It’s better to not do anything than to do what they’re doing at the State Department," she said.

The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

The program was reported to be a priority for Clinton, who envisioned that it could operate as a campaign-style "war room" delivering rapid-fire responses to terrorist propaganda.

Yet critics said that one of the group’s most prominent videos, designed to showcase the actual brutality of life in ISIS territory and released last year, was a misfire and a mistake. The video begins with the text "Run Do not walk to ISIS Land" before showing images of suicide bombings, crucifixions, and other atrocities committed by the terrorist group.

The graphic images did not appear to slow ISIS’ recruitment of foreign fighters, Katz said, and might have enhanced its reputation among individuals vulnerable to radicalization.

Additionally, critics said the center was underfunded and overwhelmed by the burgeoning presence of jihadists on platforms such as Twitter. Terrorist messengers sent a barrage of complaints to Twitter and YouTube arguing that the center violated the companies’ terms of service, forcing the State Department to contact the companies to bring their accounts back online.

After a review by outside experts from Google, Twitter, and other technology companies, the State Department said it might scale back its efforts to produce counterpropaganda content on social media. The panel of experts said the State Department needs to do a better job of working with allies in the Middle East to combat ISIS ideology.

"The group’s skepticism reflected concern about U.S. credibility with Muslim audiences overseas as well as the scant evidence that the State program has diminished the flow of recruits to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL," the Washington Post reported earlier this month.

With the exit of center head Rashad Hussain to the Justice Department, the program has now lost two directors in one year.

Will McCants, an ISIS expert at the Brookings Institution and former State Department adviser, told the Post that the counterpropaganda program "is in disarray." For those engaged in the effort, "morale is low, and they’re not getting any clarity from the top about what they’re supposed to be doing," he added.

Critics have also condemned other elements of Clinton’s record fighting terrorist groups. Brian Hook, co-founder of the John Hay Initiative and former assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, said in a statement that she "misjudged the threat posed by ISIS while others were sounding the alarm."

"Jihadists have far more recruits, weapons, and territory today than they did at the start of her tenure as Secretary of State," he said. "This is the price of Secretary Clinton's failed leadership, which our nation cannot afford at this dangerous time in the world."