In a secret project tied to the overall U.S. campaign against the Islamic State, intelligence officials have spent months mapping out known physical locations of media safe houses where the extremist group’s operatives are compiling, editing and curating raw video and print materials into finished digital propaganda products for dissemination across the Internet.
Most of the locations are embedded in heavily residential areas in Syria, Iraq and Libya and are not being targeted by U.S. airstrikes because of Obama administration concerns about civilian casualties, according to sources who spoke to The Washington Times only on the condition of anonymity.
The White House also has been pressing the intelligence community to continue studying the facilities for a deeper understanding of how the Islamic State and its media enterprises operate, the sources said.
While the White House, CIA and Pentagon declined to comment on the clandestine mapping project, its existence was revealed amid mounting debate over whether the administration’s strategy is robust enough for countering the professionalized blitz of digital propaganda that the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, is using to recruit fighters and radicalize supporters around the world.
The administration is engaged publicly in a dual-track approach that involves an interagency push to spread carefully crafted messaging online and through local partners in various corners of the world to counter the Islamic State, while ramping up pressure on American social media companies to block extremist content and links from their online platforms.
But critics, including a growing number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill and some current and former officials directly involved in the project, say the administration’s effort is badly mismanaged and underfunded, allowing the Islamic State to maintain a physical footprint of media production houses upon which creation of the terrorist group’s most influential products depends.
The propaganda operation’s vastness and sophistication are considered unprecedented in Islamic terrorism. Although its penetration across the Internet relies on a seemingly endless spray of links posted by the Islamic State on social media sites, it is the core media products that such links lead back to that analysts describe as most worrisome.
Twelve issues of the group’s official propaganda magazine Dabiq are now online in several languages, including Arabic, English, Russian, French and Turkish. The shiny content, organizational integrity and layout are more thorough and professional than those of many American newsmagazines.
More striking for the visually driven young audience are the dozens of highly curated recruiting videos that Islamic State operatives have produced using elaborate graphic animations, special effects, live-action speed edits and Hollywood-quality voice-overs.
Videos that have emerged in recent months are clearly bent on reaching an international audience way beyond the borders of the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The first Chinese-language Islamic State video appeared online last week, replete with a theme song calling on Muslims to “wake up” from a century of humiliation.
The most recent English-language video circulated roughly a month ago. Not only did it go to staggering lengths to mock the U.S. military’s failure to contain the Islamic State, but a sober-voiced narrator also went so far as to taunt America over the sensitive issue of suicide rates among U.S. soldiers and veterans.
“You claim to have the greatest army history has known. You may have the numbers and weapons, but your soldiers lack good will and resolve,” the deep voice says in unaccented English. “Still scared from their defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, they return dead or suicidal, with over 6,500 of them killing themselves each year. So while you go around cooking the facts on the results of your military airstrikes, we continue to haunt the minds of your soldiers and sew fear into their hearts.”
Animation-enhanced blood bursts and sprays across a white background in the video as gunshots ring out — a macabre display apparently designed to depict the suicides of American service members.
What is unclear is specifically where the video was edited. Intelligence officials say the final cut could have been produced and uploaded to an Internet host site by Islamic State admirers anywhere in the world.
“There are a number of ISIL supporters online that help disseminate propaganda or craft their own,” said one U.S. intelligence official, who spoke anonymously with The Times.
But there are indications it was originally produced at an editing house in Islamic State-held territory — either in Iraq, Syria or one of the many “provinces” that have arisen over the past year in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, the North Caucasus and beyond.
An October report by the Quilliam Foundation, a counterextremism think tank based in the United Kingdom, pointed to the existence of 35 media organizational outfits that produce propaganda material from “all corners of the Islamic State ‘caliphate.’”
“This is an exceptionally sophisticated information operation campaign, the success of which lies in the twin pillars of quantity and quality,” the report said. “Given this scale and dedication, negative measures like censorship are bound to fail.”
The report suggested that the separate media operations are all in some way linked to an “Islamic State Central Media Command.”
Detailed information about the command’s physical location, along with that of any of the smaller, individual media outfits, is closely guarded.
One of the sources who spoke to The Times described efforts to track the physical locations of Islamic State media outfits as a “major intelligence priority” and asserted that officials “have it mapped but can’t talk about it.”
The notion, meanwhile, that U.S. officials possess such information is confounding to some analysts.
“Obviously, if we know where they’re producing the propaganda, we should be doing everything we can to destroy their facilities,” said William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar and former State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism. He authored the recently released book “The ISIS Apocalypse.”
But Mr. McCants also said he “would anticipate that the network ISIS media production operations is pretty well distributed physically.”
In late November, The Washington Post published findings from interviews with more than a dozen Islamic State defectors and members, who provided detailed accounts of their involvement in, or exposure to, a Syria- and Iraq-based propaganda operation fueled with cameras, computers and other video equipment that arrives in regular shipments from Turkey.
In one Islamic State-controlled enclave near the Syrian city of Aleppo, the media division’s headquarters, was a two-story home in a residential neighborhood, according to some of the defectors, who told The Post that the home was packed with high-end equipment, had Internet access through a Turkish wireless service and served as an editorial office for Dabiq and al-Furqan — an Islamic State media channel believed to be responsible for many of the extremist group’s videos.
The Pentagon declined to comment when pressed about The Post’s findings, and the question of whether the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State has taken — or is planning to take action — against the Aleppo location.
Army Col. Steve Warrant, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, told The Times that he could “not discuss intelligence-related issues [or] disclose current and future details of our targeting efforts for specific facilities.” He also said he could not point to any specific examples of coalition action against any such media command centers.
Another source who spoke anonymously with The Times said debate over whether or not to authorize U.S. military strikes against the centers is heated within the Obama administration because leaving them online allows officials to continue studying them.
“There’s always this balance between needing to take action and needing to study how they operate,” said the source, who added that “bombing is absolutely not the only way to take a communications product offline.”
There is also the reality that many Islamic State media centers are completely embedded in civilian communities — something that is particularly vexing for some in the administration, which has privately touted the U.S.-led airstrikes against the terrorist group as the most precise campaign in history in terms of minimizing civilian casualties.
The president himself alluded to such factors Monday when he told reporters at the Pentagon that “this continues to be a difficult fight” because “ISIL is dug in, including in urban areas, and they hide behind civilians, using defenseless men, women and children as human shields.”
“Even as we’re relentless, we have to be smart, targeting ISIL surgically with precision,” Mr. Obama said. “At the same time, our partners on the ground are rooting ISIL out town by town, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block.
“We are hitting ISIL harder than ever,” the president said, asserting that U.S.-led “fighters, bombers and drones” have carried out nearly 9,000 strikes against the terrorist group since last year and have “been increasing the pace of their strikes”
“In November, we dropped more bombs on ISIL targets than any month since this campaign started,” he said.
But away from such pronouncements, the thrust of the administration’s strategy for countering Islamic State propaganda appears to have nothing to do with military action. It is instead being driven by a little-reported interagency messaging operation known as the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications inside the State Department.
Created in 2011, the operation has roughly 69 employees, a portion of whom engage in daily dissemination of anti-Islamic State messaging in multiple languages, including English, Arabic, Urdu and Somali, via such social media outlets as Twitter and Facebook.
A State Department official who works in the office pointed to the recent “Why They Left Daesh” Twitter campaign that used imagery to highlight the cases of Islamic State defectors who got duped into joining only to bear witness to “severe punishments, brutal torture and ruthless killings.”
The official told The Times that the majority of those working in the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications are focused on crafting messaging that exposes “weakness” and “lies” in Islamic State propaganda, so that the messaging can be disseminated to local partners around the world — such as moderate Islamic leaders from Europe to the Middle East and Asia — who can then promote it to young people who may be susceptible to recruitment or radicalization by the terrorist group.
The official lamented that the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications operation, which has an annual budget of roughly $5.5 million, is being “grossly underfunded” and that its importance to the long-term fight against the extremists has been badly “misunderstood” by critics.