Al Hayat Media, the English language media arm of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), has become known for high quality videos that put U.S. pundits and lawmakers on edge. A new video was just published on Tuesday, a slick movie trailer called “Flames of War” that seems to mock the U.S.’ hesitance to put ground combat troops into play in Iraq.
ISIS has Al Hayat Media. The United States has the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC).
Based inside the State Department, a team of around 50 people man the Center, working on its own set of videos, images for sharing on Facebook, tweets, anything to blunt the spread of extremist communcations on social media. The concept behind the Center was first born in 2010 out of a desire to, rather than just ignoring the messaging that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups published, actually counter their message with one of our own.
In 2011, the president signed Executive Order 13584, establishing the Center and its mission. Since then, the body has become best known for its “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign, which seeks to convince potential jihadis that enlisting in the ranks of ISIS or al-Qaeda is a terrible choice. As Mother Jones put it in an article on the shop earlier this year, the goal is to actively troll would-be terrorists and their recruiters.
From the start, the U.S. was “way behind the curve,” one senior State Department official told ThinkProgress, compared to how widespread al-Qaeda’s message was on the Internet by the time the CSCC was founded. The level of sophistication at play in ISIS’ media packages has drawn negative comparisons with what the CSCC has managed to put out. In the case of ISIS, the official continued, the focus has been on the quality and quantity of the messaging that the militant group has produced. “It’s the Cadillac of terrorist propaganda. The Rolls Royce,” the official said, but what makes ISIS’ videos effective isn’t the medium, but rather the message.
That message, in the State Department’s view, can be broken down into three components: tapping into a deep-seated sense of grievance and persecution among Muslims, particularly as the civil war in Syria continues; an assurance that ISIS actually has the ability to right the wrongs others have imposed on the community, recruiting young men and women to join the movement and dirty their hands; and harnessing the religious aspect of their cause, promoting the rise of the caliphate and a sense of inevitability.
That’s where the CSCC comes in. “The US government has to contest these kinds of [jihadist] messages, because what was happening prior to this was nothing,” Will McCants, a former State Department official who dealt with strategic messaging and is now at the Brookings Institute, told Mother Jones. “Recruiters would recruit with impunity. When I started, the thinking was, ‘We don’t dignify this stuff with a response.’ Well, that makes sense if you’re President Obama or secretary of state. That’ll just drive traffic to it. But at least this way, we’re offering some American perspective and shooting down some of the more egregious examples. It’s targeted at blunting the recruitment pitches online.”
— Think AgainTurn Away (@ThinkAgain_DOS) September 17, 2014
Not everything has been a success, the official noted, and some attempts have been outright flops. Humor in particular has been difficult to convey, he said. He also pointed to the English-version of a video his shop produced called “Caravan of Martyrs,” which at present only has 16,000 views on YouTube — a less than impressive number given the effort put into making the video.
Those sorts of numbers are a headache for the shop, which collects and promotes metrics on the number of likes, shares, and tweets items receive to show that their work is being viewed, but are notoriously unreliable in terms of measuring just what impact the work actually has. For example, the graphic video the State Department released in an attempt to show the persecution of its fellow Muslims that ISIS indulges stands out as a stark example of the difficulty those measurements can cause. Per YouTube, that video has been watched more than 700,000 times. But the State Department estimates that of those, only maybe 1 percent was the video’s target audience, with the vast majority likely journalists writing about the video. “These aren’t meant for a mass audience, but instead a very niche audience,” the official said.
The CSCC also takes offense when critics focus on the Center’s English output and ignore its Arabic output. It wasn’t until late last year that the program began to move into producing English-language content, with its focus on first Arabic, then Punjabi, Urdu, and Somali. Until August 1st, the English-language desk only had one person producing all of the content. There are now two people working on the project’s English component.
One example of the Arabic language outreach that State highlighted for ThinkProgress was a banner created to be shared on Facebook, with their spin on Pastor Martin Niemöller’s classic poem “First they came…” Rather than the socialists and Jews, the banner reads that the unnamed menace first came for the Shiites and Christians. The banner reached “This reached at least 232,320 people, which was a new record at the time for CSCC, with most of the readers being Iraqis,” the State Department said in an email. And the Arabic language-version of the “Caravan of Martyrs” video has closer to 43,000 views, the official said, demonstrating the perils of using things like clicks and views as metrics of success without looking to the whole of the Center’s output.
As ISIS ramps up, though, the CSCC’s critics are getting more vocal. Rita Katz, founder of SITE, a website devoted to tracking jihadi communications online, on Tuesday wrote an op-ed on TIME’s website calling the “Think Again, Turn Away” program “embarrassing” and hitting out at it for engaging with low-level jihadis and supporters. “Thirteen years into the war on terror, it is distressing to see certain ways the U.S. government is combating domestic radicalization by groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State,” Katz wrote. “The account regularly (engages) in petty disputes with fighters and supporters of groups like IS (also known as ISIS), Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab, and (argues) over who has killed more people while exchanging sarcastic quips.”
— Think AgainTurn Away (@ThinkAgain_DOS) September 17, 2014
When shown the Katz article, the State Department official was dismissive, labeling it as being in line with others who would prefer to ignore the online world where ISIS supporters thrive. “You see an evil, you see a poison, you have to counter it,” he said, adding that the content being produced wasn’t for the jihadis, but for those listening in. “There’s a mindset of ‘we’re not going to deign answer them’,” he said, but “you have to answer the adversary.”
But the main problem the CSCC’s Digital Outreach Team’s efforts face, and the focus of many of the critiques of the program, is that trying to measure a negative — such as “How many people didn’t sign up with terrorist groups thanks to our efforts?” — is nearly impossible. Also, a study on U.S. digital outreach conducted in 2012 found that efforts up until that point had little demonstrable impact of the conversations taking place. “Four percent of posts expressed positive views of the outreach, and 4.8 percent expressed positive views of American foreign policy,” Mother Jones noted.
Instead, the State Department is relying foremost, like the best trolls on the Internet, on just how much they get under their adversaries skin to determine if their messaging is effective. One instance that pleased the CSCC was an effort last year to silence the State Department’s accounts. A mirror image of their account called @Al_Bttaar was created in 2013 to counter the U.S.’ counter-messaging.
“The day after @Al_Bttaar’s inaugural tweets, the group organized its first Twitter ‘raid,’ an effort to take down the State Department’s account,” Foreign Policy reported at the time. “The method was pretty simple: Just click the “report” button multiple times until a Twitter administrator removes the account.” The effort failed and the original account is no longer active. But the aggressive style of the group lives on in a bevy of other accounts like “@al_bttaar88” and “@al_bttaar99.”
That resurrection, even as Twitter and other social media platforms selectively target ISIS’ accounts, shows that there will be no shortage of targets for the Center’s outreach efforts. It remains uncertain whether these long-term efforts to end the threat that ideologies like those of ISIS and al-Qaeda pose will be successful or just screams into the dark void that is the Internet.