- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2017

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Inside a nondescript building here, moderate Muslims have been waging a bare-knuckle information war against the Islamic State for the past two years, establishing deep contacts with Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies to scrub jihadi propaganda from the internet.

The little-known Sawab Center, which had its origins in Washington but has been run by the UAE government since 2015, also circulates its own intense — and, at times, violent — videos, made by Muslims to scare Muslims away from extremist content and to promote anti-terrorist sentiment online.

Sawab’s social media pages have garnered more than 2 million followers across the Middle East, but the center’s leaders say the headway they have made in identifying and quickly removing extremist propaganda from cyberspace will have a bigger impact in the long run.

“We don’t talk about it publicly on our platforms, but we have back channels directly to Twitter and Facebook,” Sawab’s top UAE director told The Washington Times on condition of anonymity during a recent visit to the center. “If we tell them we’ve identified an account that’s spreading extremist content, they shut it down.”

“We’ve gotten about 500,000 accounts across several social media platforms shut down,” said another Sawab official, who also spoke anonymously. (The topic is considered so sensitive that officials will not make public the center’s exact location.) “Twitter is the most effective at this. Whatever account we tell them, they close it immediately. We’ve built strong trust with them.”



Neither the UAE nor the U.S. government has spoken so openly in the past about the center’s collaboration with American social media giants to censor Islamic extremist postings.

Former President Barack Obama announced the Sawab Center’s creation in July 2015 as a joint U.S.-UAE countermessaging center, based in Abu Dhabi, to undermine Islamic State recruiting propaganda through “direct engagements” online.

At the time, the State Department faced sharp criticism over the failure of its efforts to counter extremist campaigns on social media — an effort seen as disorganized and too broadly focused to stanch the flow of young Muslim foreign fighters drawn to the Islamist State’s so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Costly military campaigns have since reclaimed most Islamic State territory in those two nations. At the same time, the Sawab Center has quietly matured into a central counter-Islamic State propaganda hub, producing anti-terrorism videos and targeting extremist postings on Arabic-language social media. Sawab, which means “the right spiritual path” in Arabic, has churned out more than 11,000 tweets that have triggered millions of subsequent social media engagements, including many that attract extremists bent on trying to discredit the center.

“We know [Islamic State] members are following Sawab closely because they constantly try to post things on social media criticizing us,” one center official told The Times. “This is a battlefield, and we’re on the front line of an information war between the people who hate life — [Islamic State] and other extremists — and people who call for peace, development and moderation.”

U.S. officials are deeply wary of discussing Sawab’s operations. Apart from the 2015 announcement of its creation, there has been almost no mention of the center by the State Department, where officials declined to comment for this story.

Part of the reason may be that the department doesn’t want the center’s messaging to be viewed as American propaganda. But there is also a security concern, according to one U.S. official, who said the UAE government had asked Washington not to give interviews about the center because of the threat of attacks against people who work there.

UAE officials, however, willingly obliged a Times reporter who sought access to Sawab in September, asserting that its existence is a point of pride. In another break with previous practice, President Trump toured a similar “combating extremism” center that recently launched in Saudi Arabia during a visit there in May, although his administration made few public statements on the matter.

Seeking a better way

The Sawab Center was created following the dissolution of a little-known U.S. interagency messaging operation known as the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which had originally been set up inside the State Department in 2011.

While the CSCC used Facebook and Twitter to disseminate anti-Islamic State messaging and videos, all of the content was clearly branded as having been created by the State Department.

Critics, who slammed the department for too openly engaging in propaganda, became particularly wary in May 2015 when one anti-extremism CSCC video, which had copied and repurposed grisly footage from Islamic State’s own propaganda materials, suddenly went viral and attracted nearly 1 million views on YouTube. Analysts questioned whether the move had backfired by giving new visibility to violent jihadi imagery in a video clearly identified as has having come from the State Department.

In Abu Dhabi Sawab appears to be operating free of such scrutiny. The center’s videos are all clearly branded with the Sawab name and logo, but there’s no explicit indication the content has been financed or driven by any government. Most of those working inside Sawab are under the age of 30, and their youthful energy pours out in the rawness of the center’s content — some of which is so intense American diplomats may consider it too provocative to be associated with.

One video, which circulated in April after Islamic State bombs had killed 47 people at two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, opens with dark music beneath grainy security camera footage taken in the moments before one of the bombings. The footage zooms in on a veiled woman and a child before a massive blast rips through the scene. It also shows Coptic men praying and carries the message: “Terrorism kills innocents, even during prayer.”

But Sawab officials say they have their biggest impact on young Muslim social media users through disruption operations, exposing what they say is the religious illegitimacy of Islamic State propaganda. A core part of Sawab’s work involves crafting social media posts that dispute the validity of jihadi claims online as a reflection of the true Islamic faith.

“We try to expose them as the liars they are, especially when they cite religious texts as a justification for violence,” said one of the center’s officials. “The majority of our followers are between 13 and 35 years old, and that’s exactly the age that [Islamic State] is trying to recruit.”

As of September, Sawab’s half-million Twitter followers were spread across the world, with many in the Middle East and North Africa. Nearly three in 10 are following from inside Iraq, 14 percent from Yemen and 11 percent from Egypt.

The center is also “trying to serve as a global example of what governments can do to set up their own regionally focused messaging operations,” said the official, who added that Sawab is “working closely” with officials in Egypt toward establishing a similar outfit there.

“Islam is a religion of peace, compassion and inclusion, and we have to give voice to the silent majority,” the official said. “Most social media users are silent in their views. They may retweet things, but they don’t say how they truly feel.”

He added, “There are over a billion Muslims in the world, and we cannot allow them to be drowned out by hatred coming from a small number of brainwashed extremists.”

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