POLITICO: The propaganda war Obama is losing
By Josh Gerstein -- POLITICO
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.
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.