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“The State Department is once again confusing strategy with tactics, still trying to chase individual ants without going after the nest and the source of sustenance.”

Charles Allen, a former senior intelligence official who served at the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security, said he does not believe that releasing bin Laden’s pornography stash would be a successful tactic.

“He was a such a charismatic leader, it would be very hard to do. They would claim all the information was pinned on him,” he said.

But he agreed that more could have been made of the “incredible documentation” the United States had about al-Awlaki’s “illegal sexual proclivities.”

“These are things that have to be weighed and judged as to whether the reactions would be more negative, more drawing together his supporters,” he said.

Mr. Allen said he was surprised to learn of the small size of the digital outreach team. “That seems to me inadequate,” he said.

Even the team’s defenders agree that they lack necessary firepower. “They need analytic support,” said a former State Department official familiar with the team’s work.

The former official said the team had no way to properly assess “what [social media] spaces do you go to, what message do you put out … how do you figure out who matters?”

The current State Department official acknowledged that discerning who is influential in the various social media forums is a complex task. “When we talk about credible voices these days, we’re talking about a much wider variety of voices than in the past,” he said.

In dealing with expatriate communities abroad, for example, the center has found that “very often the leaders of the major [community] organizations are not necessarily the people who actually influence the young people in that community. In fact, they’re normally not,” the official said.

Identifying and influencing the key voices requires “micro-level engagement, really staying in touch with individuals and communities,” he said.

Nonetheless, he defended the team’s work, providing examples of its successes.

A recent “mash-up” — Web-speak for a short compilation of edited videos — made by one team member mocks al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. More than 70,000 Arabic speakers worldwide have watched it and posted comments.

“Zawahiri has no business with Egypt; we will solve our problems ourselves,” said one viewer on the discussion site Egypt Forum.

“Those are people no one listens to anymore,” chipped in another who watched the Zawahiri videos on Facebook.

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