There are as many as 90,000 Twitter accounts associated with or sympathetic to the Islamic State terror group, whose digitally-savvy recruiting operation “produced nearly 7,000 slick pieces of propaganda” in 2015.
Such statistics were at the heart of remarks that Lisa Monaco, a top counterterrorism adviser to the Obama administration, made Monday as she emphasized the extent to which the global jihadist terror threat has evolved in recent years.
“What distinguishes the threat today is that it is broader, more diffuse — and less predictable — than at any time since 9/11,” Ms. Monaco told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
“Where we once spoke of hierarchical ‘networks’ and ‘sleeper cells,’ much of the threat today is online, distributed across the globe,” she said in a speech likely to draw ire from critics, who claim the administration is failing to act on intelligence to crush the far-reaching media arms of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
The Washington Times reported in December on the existence of a secret project tied to the overall U.S. campaign against ISIS, in which American intelligence officials have effectively mapped the physical locations of media safe houses where the terror group is compiling, editing and curating raw video and print materials into finished digital propaganda products.
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 Times only on the condition of anonymity.
At the time, the sources said the White House was pressing on the intelligence community to continue studying the facilities for a deeper understanding of how the Islamic State and its media enterprises operate.
Ms. Monaco made no mention of the the secret mapping program in her remarks Monday, although she maintained that U.S. forces are “hammering ISIL on the ground.”
“In Iraq and Syria, coalition forces have conducted almost 11,000 precision airstrikes on ISIL,” she said. “Today, these terrorists have lost about 40 percent of the territory they once controlled in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria.”
But debate over the scope of propaganda spewing from the group remains heated in Washington. And Ms. Monaco seemed keen to put a fine point on it.
“They’re on Facebook. They’re on YouTube. There are something like 90,000 Twitter accounts associated with or sympathetic to ISIL, sometimes with 50,000 followers each,” she said. “Last year, ISIL produced nearly 7,000 slick pieces of propaganda, disseminated by 43 distinct ISIL media offices.”
“I remember only a few years ago, the counterterrorism community was worried about an al Qaeda affiliate distributing an online magazine via PDF file,” Ms. Monaco said in prepared remarks. “That looks like the eight-track tape version compared to what we’re seeing now.”
“With the click of a mouse, these Internet-savvy extremists are poisoning the minds of people an ocean away,” she added. “The FBI has investigated ISIL-inspired suspects in all 50 states. And this is not just an American or a Western problem — as we’ve seen from Nigeria to Indonesia, this is a global problem.”
While critics say President Obama should do more to prevent ISIS from maintaining a physical footprint of media production houses upon which creation of the terrorist group’s most influential products depends, Ms. Monaco argued that progress is being made in other ways.
She suggested the administration is succeeding by doubling down on its current dual-track strategy toward countering ISIS propaganda — a strategy that involves an interagency push to spread carefully crafted counter-messaging online and through local partners around the world, while also ramping up pressure on American social media companies to block extremist content and links from their online platforms.
“Tech firms like Facebook, Google, YouTube and Instagram have made significant strides — removing terrorist content that violate their terms of service and denying ISIL a digital safe haven,” Ms. Monaco said. “Twitter has suspended roughly 125,000 ISIL-linked accounts in just the past six months.”
“No amount of airstrikes — no amount of military power alone — can defeat these fanatics and their warped worldview once and for all,” she said. “The only lasting answer to hateful ideologies are better ideas. So, even as we target ISIL’s men and money, our final pillar recognizes that we must also confront—and defeat — their twisted message.”
Ms. Monaco pointed to the State Department’s recent creation of a new “Global Engagement Center, which will amplify and empower the voices of our international partners, from religious leaders to ISIL defectors.”
She also pointed to the administration-backed “Global Youth Summit” held in New York in September, in which “hundreds of young people, from 45 countries, came together to build digital platforms designed to help keep people off the dark road of radicalization.”
“They came up with incredible ideas — from supporting aspiring entrepreneurs to anti-extremist rap music,” Ms. Monaco said.