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Social networks used to counter al Qaeda

Team tries to impede jihadi recruiters

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2011

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.

"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.

The team's target audience is "one of the toughest ... out there," the official said. "These guys don't believe what we say. They believe in exotic conspiracy theories about the United States."

The team's aim is modest, the official added. "It's not about convincing people that we're right," he said. "It's much more about nudging them in a different direction, being in that space so they hear a different voice."

"We want not just to be reactive. We're developing our own sort of campaigns to work on the divisions in al Qaeda ... and the contradictions between them and what's really going on in the world," the official said.

Recently, a team member found out from a jihadist website about an "internecine conflict" among al Qaeda and Taliban fighters that led to the shooting of a well-known extremist fighter, Abu Zarr al-Turki, the State Department official said.

The team member highlighted the incident, using the Arab proverb, "They weren't caught stealing, but when splitting the loot."

"Several al Qaeda supporters responded," said the official, adding that they "had no choice but to admit that al-Turki was 'a murderer' and 'a killer.'"

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