Social networks used to counter al Qaeda

Team tries to impede jihadi recruiters

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Anwar al-Awlaki may be dead, but the war he helped al Qaeda wage for the hearts and minds of Muslims continues — and on the battlefield of social media, the United States is fighting back with what critics say is a tiny and ineffectual army.

Fewer than 10 diplomats make up the State Department’s digital-outreach team, which is charged with countering al Qaeda’s recruitment efforts via social networks, blog posts and Internet videos, according to current and former officials.

The “eight or nine” team members hang out online with angry young Muslims to steer them away from terrorist radicalization, a senior State Department official said on background.

“We’re in the business of trying to cut down the supply of people who want to kill Americans,” the official said.

The team is part of a new interagency initiative at the State Department called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which President Obama established last month by executive order.

Team members declare up front that they represent the U.S. government before joining Internet bulletin boards and chat rooms where young men discuss current events and religion, the State Department official said.

The team has Urdu and Arabic speakers and is “adding Somali to the mix,” the official said. They are “focused on those people that al Qaeda is trying to recruit those young men who are vulnerable to al Qaeda’s mythologization of itself.”

“They go on the [Internet] forums where the jihadis phish” for recruits, the official said of the team.

It was on such Internet forums — rather than the password-protected sites where the convinced jihadis meet - that blog posts and videos by al-Awlaki proved such an effective recruiting tool for al Qaeda.

“His stuff is everywhere,” said Christopher J. Boucek, who researches security challenges in the Arabian Peninsula at the Carnegie Endowment think tank in Washington.

But critics say the State Department’s response to al-Awlaki’s online recruitment efforts typifies the ineffectual character of the hearts-and-minds campaign.

No U.S. agency made any effort to publicize the U.S.-born al-Awlaki’s two citations for soliciting prostitutes when he lived in San Diego, said J. Michael Waller, professor of public diplomacy and political warfare at the Institute for World Politics in Washington.

“What about [Osama] bin Laden’s porn?” he said, referring to the stash of pornography reportedly recovered by U.S. forces from the slain al Qaeda leader’s compound. “There’s no legitimate reason for that stuff to be classified. Get it out there.

“Why is [the State Department] so loath to destroy the images, reputations, ideas and ideologies of the extremists’ role models?”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton “would know what to do with this stuff in a domestic political campaign. She would use it to destroy and dehumanize her enemies. Why can’t she do the same to the enemies of the United States?” Mr. Waller said.

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