POLITICO

Posted by POLITICO on September 09, 2014 in News Clips

As President Barack Obama prepares to unveil his strategy for turning back ISIL’s gains in Syria and Iraq, the headlines will most likely focus on expanding U.S. airstrikes and challenges of defeating the group without involving American troops.

But one potentially critical part of the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant also seems poised for a big new push: working to keep foreign fighters — including Americans — from joining the group in the first place.

Officials and outside experts say an essential part of fighting ISIL, Al Qaeda and similar groups is undercutting their propaganda on social media and elsewhere, while identifying and dissuading Americans and foreigners who might be considering travel to join up with such groups or — even worse — trying to emulate them at home.

So far, at least two Americans have been killed fighting for ISIL in the Iraq/Syria region, according to U.S. officials. Dozens of other U.S. citizens are being tracked fighting with that or other radical groups.

Past U.S. efforts at what the government calls “countering violent extremism,” or “CVE,” have been ham-handed, understaffed and underfunded, former officials from both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations say. They only get attention from senior policymakers in the wake of highly publicized terrorist incidents.

“We need a much more effective counternarrative,” Obama conceded in an interview aired Sunday on “Meet the Press.”

There was interest at the beginning of the Obama administration, but it has tailed off.

 “The people that were interested in this stuff have moved on from it,” said former State Department official Will McCants, now with the Brookings Institution. “It was always a box-checking activity. There was not a serious effort to build a real program in the U.S. The strategy paper was written and then the air went out of it completely.”

Some lawmakers share the perception that the administration’s CVE efforts are not well-focused. A House subcommittee is set to hold a hearing Wednesday on the “foreign fighter” problem. Staffers are already probing executive branch agencies to prepare for future hearings on the dangers posed by recruiting of Americans and weaknesses in the government’s response.

“I am concerned we are not doing enough to combat the rising threat of domestic radicalization,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas). “These efforts have never been more important, and my committee will be taking a hard look at what the administration is doing on this front.”

Notwithstanding Obama’s concession about the need to strengthen the counternarrative, the White House contends that the administration has been aggressive about undermining terrorist messages and recruitment.

“CVE continues to be a priority for this administration,” said National Security Council spokesman Ned Price. He pointed to a State Department office “engaged in a sustained campaign against Syria and Iraq-based terrorists’ online messaging, in part to combat their ability to recruit foreign fighters,” and Department of Homeland Security efforts to promote “community-based activities to strengthen resilience in communities targeted by violent extremist recruitment.”

Obama administration officials acknowledge that ISIL is now producing polished Web videos and social media messages leaps and bounds beyond the grainy video releases and scratchy audiotapes Al Qaeda has long been known for.

ISIL “operates the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any extremist group … as a result, ISIL threatens to outpace Al Qaeda as the dominant voice of influence in the global extremist movement,” National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen said last week at the Brookings Institution.

In a separate discussion with reporters Friday, Olsen said NCTC has a “radical extremist messaging” group that closely tracks social media posts. “We actually do spend a significant amount of time on those questions,” he said.

But converting knowledge about radical groups’ propaganda into effective countermessages has proved harder than just sweeping up the info, Olsen said. “That is an area where I do think we can spend additional time and resources…. I think there’s an opportunity for more work to be done in countermessaging,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the U.S. is the best messenger. The improved “counternarrative” needed to defeat ISIL “can’t come from us,” Obama said on NBC.

‘OUR WORK IS TO BE ATTACK DOGS’

An office Obama created at the State Department three years ago, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, is attempting to counter ISIL’s sophisticated and prolific social media presence. In recent weeks, it has been promoting a mock recruiting video for the Islamic State, including extremely graphic images of the group executing Muslims and carrying out a suicide bombing in a mosque.

“We have basically a negative role, bringing the light to shine on the adversary’s action, principally using their own words and deeds against them,” said a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“In a political campaign, you have the guy who does the ‘Morning in America’ stuff… and the other guy you hire to do attack ads and opposition research. We’re the other guy….Our work is to be attack dogs.”

The counterterrorism social media shop, which includes personnel on loan from various government agencies, has been feeding out information in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi and Somali for some time. In December, the office began posting in English, largely in response to concerns that ISIL and other groups were doing more recruiting in Europe. “We identified they were seeking to kind of metastasize and grow beyond the Middle Eastern languages and the Middle East audiences [and try] to reach radical young men in the West,” the State official said.

Critics have faulted the office for sometimes engaging in pointless trolling with militants who seem unlikely to be swayed by U.S. government messages. However, the State official defended the practice. “You’re trying to challenge the audience that person is trying to reach,” the official said.

The broader anti-extremism effort has suffered from a lack of central authority in the U.S. government, especially when compared to those involved in planning responses like military strikes, one former official said.

“When you’re looking at use of hard power, there’s accountability. The buck stops with a particular person. With regard to soft power, it doesn’t,” said Farah Pandith, who stepped down in January at the U.S.’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities and previously served on the National Security Council under Bush.

The official who coordinated governmentwide policy on countering extremism until last spring, Quintan Wiktorowicz, said the Obama administration had crafted good policies on the issue but never tied much funding to the effort.

Instead of hiring staff to work with U.S. communities susceptible to terrorist recruiting, the administration decided to have U.S. Attorneys take the lead, even if federal prosecutors are not the ideal individuals to reach out to those in contact with troubled youth.

Wiktorowicz said the main problem with relying on U.S. Attorneys is that the anti-radicalization effort seems certain to get short shrift. “If you think about the roles and responsibilities of U.S. Attorneys, they can’t possibly take on that function in a really robust way,” he said.

Some have questioned how much effort and money should be invested in fighting ISIL recruitment in the U.S. given how relatively rare that is. U.S. government officials say their best estimate at the moment is that about a dozen Americans are fighting with the group. However, the broader picture is murky. About 100 Americans are believed to have traveled to Syria or Iraq for reasons the U.S. government deems suspicious.

By contrast, Europeans are dealing with larger populations of citizens making their way to groups like ISIL and its Al Qaeda counterpart, Al-Nusra. According to European intelligence estimates, about 800 Britons, 600 French, 400 Germans and about 200 Belgians are believed to have gone to the region to fight as part of one of the radical groups.

“I’m not really worried about the threat they pose when they come back. Our security apparatus will be all over them — and a lot of guys will not come back,” McCants said of the American recruits. “My greater concern is why are they going in the first place? That to me is the big countering violent extremism question that isn’t being asked yet.”

“We have to be more sophisticated about this,” Pandith said. “This ideology is preying upon Muslim Millennials who are having a crisis of identity. If you don’t get that, you’ll never be able to get ahead of that.”

A report issued in 2012 warned that strategies used to fight Islamic radicalization problems in Europe might be ill-suited to the U.S. and could even backfire as some U.S. anti-drug programs did.

“Aggressively informing U.S. communities about al-Qaeda propaganda might result in a similar outcome as the War on Drug’s D.A.R.E. program (obviously, on a much smaller scale) as a result of greater exposure to al-Qaeda’s message and the repeated warnings to stay away from it, which only encourages curiosity,” said the Foreign Policy Research Institute paper, written by McCants and Clinton Watts.

More aggressive efforts to thwart recruiting raise other thorny questions as well. Muslim groups have complained bitterly about FBI sting operations that critics say sometimes target impressionable teenagers and offer people fake bombs and high-powered weapons they could never acquire or design on their own. However, using intelligence gathered online to stage some kind of intervention through religious leaders or school officials could present privacy and civil liberties problems.

“Legally, even perceptually, people are very, very uncomfortable with going into that space ,” said Wiktorowicz. “There needs to be some adjustment in terms of being open to using softer instruments for individuals who have not crossed that line where there’s a high potential to draw that individual back through other forms of interventions … To some extent, we have not been willing to invest the energy and resources to have that conversation about what we really are and are not legally allowed to do.”

WHAT’S THE MESSAGE?

Another central problem for the U.S. in the current anti-terror fight is that U.S. foreign policy lacks a central theme that can be easily explained and have appeal to potential terrorist converts, some critics say.

“If we don’t persuade some kid trying to decide whether or not to strap on a suicide vest in the boonies of Yemen or Iraq not to do it, he’s going to do it…. So, where’s a narrative that will persuade these folks?” former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) asked at the Aspen Security Forum in July.

“I’m not saying it is U.S. foreign policy, but the perception of our foreign policy in much of the Middle East is: ‘Don’t Do Stupid Stuff, plus use drones,’” she said. “I don’t think that’s winning any heart or mind or any mind or heart.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton struck a similar chord in an interview last month. “We don’t even tell our own story very well these days,” she said in an interview with The Atlantic. She later retreated from the comments.

Some warn that coming up with a narrative about the U.S. that appeals to Muslims in Europe or the Middle East could be difficult or impossible without major changes to American foreign policy that don’t currently seem to be in the cards.

“There isn’t a narrative because our policy sucks,” said James Zogby of the Arab American Institute. “We’re flying drones….We forget Abu Ghraib. We forget rendition. They don’t. You can’t alter the narrative if you keep doing bad stuff….They don’t dislike our values, they just don’t think they apply to them.”

Many analysts argue that much of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 effort at counterterrorist propaganda — largely messages about how integrated and respected Muslims are in American public life — fell flat because it focused on the U.S. rather than the weaknesses of Al Qaeda and its allies. Trying to sell the average man on the street in many majority-Muslim countries is a fool’s errand that isn’t the easiest way to undercut terrorist groups like ISIL, those experts say.

“CVE fails when it’s about selling us. It’s not about selling us, it’s about countering the jihadis’ narrative,” said one ex-official, who asserted that $1 billion has been spent on trying to sway Pakistani public opinion — to little avail. “The idea that the Pakistanis are going to like us anytime soon is just preposterous. It’s the wrong message.”

One expert said the brutality of ISIL’s recent activities present a good opportunity for the U.S. to step up its counter-extremism game.

“ISIS presents a huge, fat target for those who want to counter the narrative,” said former State Department counterterrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin. “The mayhem they’re causing, the bloodshed they’re causing is extraordinary and it’s really quite urgent to get on this.…It’s important to be taking this seriously now.”

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