In the war for Middle Eastern hearts and minds, the U.S. Digital Outreach Team is on the virtual front lines: debating America's critics on Twitter, commenting on Arabic message boards and generally engaging with anyone they can reach. But that outreach appears to have crossed a new line: spoofing al-Qaeda propaganda videos on an official State Department YouTube channel.
The above video, published in late May, shows al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri delivering a speech to “Muslim brothers everywhere.” But from the opening title, it’s clear something’s a little off: “Alert! It is best to consume carbonated beverages with this material,” it says, according to a translation for The Washington Post by Jennifer Tobkin, an Arabic language specialist at George Washington University. An edited voiceover, meant to sound like al-Zawahiri, then says:
Greetings, Muslim brothers everywhere and especially in Syria. In spite of all the unrest and my jihad duties in the lines of conflict and on the battlefield, [I am] far from Syria. (clears throat) Nevertheless, I wanted to speak to you today to clarify a very important matter that affects your lives and how we will control your destiny, uhhh, I mean your future, especially since today al-Qaeda has the opportunity to take the banner of oppression, tyranny, and killing from Bashar al-Assad …
It gets weirder from there: A somewhat clunky montage shows brightly garbed dancers spinning in front of Zawahiri. A closing credit asks viewers to follow the Engagement Team on Facebook, where they post translated press releases, crude Photoshopped illustrations of Zawahiri and other militants and -- inexplicably -- a photo of the 8-year-old Boston bombing victim Martin Richard, which prompted a long exchange about the impact of American policy on children in the Muslim world. A press officer confirmed that all of these accounts do, in fact, belong to the State Department.
The Digital Outreach Team is fairly transparent about its activities -- as evidenced by that closing credit. According to an Associated Press article from April, a month before the Zawahiri spoof went online, the team consists of roughly 50 native Arabic, Punjabi, Somali and Urdu speakers. It’s grown considerably since January 2009, when a State Department bulletin listed only 10 team members; it’s been around, per the bulletin, since November 2006.
The team runs Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels, and it tangles with commenters on popular Arab news and discussion sites, always identifying themselves as State Department employees and using their real names. In 2012, they had 7,000 online engagements, reports the AP, up from 2,000 in 2009. The idea is to “explain U.S. foreign policy and to counter misinformation” through the power of Diplomacy 2.0, says the State Department bulletin.
The program's success is difficult to gauge. A 2012 study of the program, published in The Middle East Journal, concluded that engagement did little to change the tone of anti-American conversations. In a sample of several hundred forum posts, users were more likely to ridicule or refute the Outreach Team than engage with it. Only 4 percent of posts expressed positive views of the team, and a sliver more -- 4.8 percent -- expressed positive views toward U.S. foreign policy.
The Outreach Team’s posts, the study noted, could possibly change the attitudes of “lurkers” -- readers who view the posts and don’t respond online. But that, of course, is impossible to evaluate. And the comments on the Zawahiri spoof, at least, don’t suggest much positive reception.
“Is this supposed to be funny??!!” Reads one of the milder criticisms -- harsher posts promise violence or vengeance against the United States. One wrote only, “The worst comedia[n] that I’ve seen in my life!”
We’ll let you judge for yourself. Tobkin’s full translation of the video is below.
Greetings, Muslim brothers everywhere and especially in Syria. In spite of all the unrest and my jihad duties in the lines of conflict and on the battlefield, [I am] far from Syria. (clears throat) Nevertheless, I wanted to speak to you today to clarify a very important matter that affects your lives and how we will control your destiny, uhhh, I mean your future, especially since today al-Qaeda has the opportunity to take the banner of oppression, tyranny, and killing from Bashar al-Assad, who has held onto it for decades, during which time he subjected you to humiliation and misery, and today, it’s our turn.
This matter is our indecision in choosing one of two sheiks of the killers, excuse me, I mean the jihadists, to be your new oppressor, uhhh, I mean your new leader. These two jihadists are Sheik Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, commander of the Islamic state of Iraq, and Sheik Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, commander of Jabhat al-Nusra. I shall briefly go over with you the thuggery, excuse me, I mean the virtues of these two jihadists, so that I can decide on your behalf, I mean, you can help me decide, from which of them I will receive allegiance and which one I will install as your leader.
As for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Iraq has seen what he has done to it, I mean, his heroic jihad . Not a city in Iraq has been spared. He has killed many Iraqis, blown up their schools, markets, and hospitals, and destroyed their mosques and churches, but unfortunately, because of his ferocity, which counts in his favor and not against him, he has made Iraqis hate al-Qaeda and the establishment of an Islamic state of Iraq. The Iraqi clans have begun to fight against us, and we no longer have a place to work there, so we have moved to Syria.
As for Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, he is new to the field of terrorism, I mean jihad, and even though he makes every effort, he has not accomplished as much as al-Baghdadi has. Many opportunities have presented themselves to him, but he has not used them well, and therefore, the name Jabhat al-Nusra is still new, and some naïve people do not know that it is only a branch of al-Qaeda. There is some hope that we will remain for a longer time and carry out more beheadings, I mean, jihad, and impose our plan on Syria and its people, but the decision is still difficult, and I am still undecided as to which one to choose.
[Ending title card: Digital Outreach Team
U.S. State Department
Follow us on Facebook]
Update: Alberto Ferndandez, who heads the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications -- the group that oversees DOT -- told the Post that the CSCC took over the group in 2011, after the 2009 bulletin that laid out some of the team's early goals. Since then, Fernandez says, DOT has refined its mission to focus more on spreading negative information about al-Qaeda and less on spreading positive information about the U.S.