Sometime today, a teenager in Tunis will check his smartphone for the latest violent video from the Islamic State. But the images that pop up first will be of a different genre: young Muslims questioning the morality of terrorists who slaughter innocents and enslave girls for sex.
“Don’t you kill our own Muslim brothers?” a mop-haired youth asks a terrorist recruiter in one animated video showing up on Arabic Facebook accounts in North Africa. “So much of this, it doesn’t seem right.”
The video is one of several paid ads that are turning up on millions of cellphones and computer screens in countries known to be top recruiting grounds for the Islamic State. The ads offer a harrowing view of life inside the self-proclaimed caliphate, sometimes with photos or cartoons and often in the words of refugees and defectors who warn others to stay away.
Most of them make no mention of the ads’ sponsor: a small unit inside the State Department that is using guerrilla marketing tactics to wage ideological warfare against the Islamic State. U.S. officials are using Facebook profile data to find young Muslims who show an interest in jihadist causes. Then they bombard them with anti-terrorism messages that show up whenever the youths go online.
Other government agencies have tried unsuccessfully to compete with militant jihadists in cyberspace. But officials at the State Department’s new Global Engagement Center say they’re the first to tap into the Internet’s vast stores of personal information to discourage individual users from joining the Islamic State.
“You have meat-cleaver messaging — large, thematic campaigns with big audiences — and then you have ‘scalpel’ messaging,” said Michael Lumpkin, a retired Navy SEAL who headed the center before stepping down last month at the start of the Trump administration. “These are highly targeted messages that go to the most vulnerable audiences: people who are susceptible to recruitment.”
The four-month-old campaign is undergoing renewed scrutiny as the Trump administration formulates its own strategy for fighting the Islamic State. The White House has pledged to accelerate efforts to defeat the group, though some senior officials have questioned the effectiveness of government initiatives that seek to address the causes of violent extremism.
The center’s counter-propaganda mission, now headed by a career civil servant, was mandated by Congress under a 2016 law that increased funding for the center and expanded its mission, ensuring that the effort will continue for the immediate future.
Many lawmakers, including prominent Republicans, have praised the new approach. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who heads the investigations panel on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, championed the legislation to expand the center, saying in December that the United States was “going to confront this threat head-on.”
But others have expressed skepticism.
“Should the federal government produce and disseminate content? Is the federal bureaucracy equipped for such a fast-moving fight? I suspect not,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) asked the program’s State Department overseers at a hearing last year.
Some critics have also questioned whether the program’s leaders would ever be able to produce quantifiable results, something that’s “difficult, given what they are trying to do,” said Tara Maller, a former CIA military analyst and senior policy adviser for the Counter Extremism Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to prevent terrorists’ use of social media.
“While they can target the vulnerable audience they want to capture and provide counter-messaging, that is only one part of addressing the fight against extremism online,” said Maller, who says she is broadly supportive of the new approach. But she said that other government agencies and social-media companies must work in tandem to “remove the horrific content . . . that is radicalizing individuals online every single day.”
State Department officials acknowledge that it may be difficult to prove that their ads dissuaded anyone from joining a terrorist group. Yet the program’s reach is indisputable: The videos have been watched more than 14 million times in a campaign that started in September and is pitched mainly to three countries: Tunisia, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. The effort recently was expanded to include nine other nations from Europe to Asia, including France, Libya and Jordan. Other targeted countries remain secret to protect partnerships with their governments.
Though the program is in its infancy, Lumpkin and his supporters see the potential for achieving a goal that has eluded Western governments for more than a decade: an effective and credible counter-message to jihadist propaganda online, at a cost that is minuscule by government standards.
“There are places in the world where it costs a fraction of a penny per click,” Lumpkin said in an interview shortly before leaving his position Jan. 20. “For $15,000 you can buy an audience. And you make sure you’re hitting them with the best information based on their profiles. That’s good business.”
The Global Engagement Center was designed to emulate a Silicon Valley start-up, and months into its creation, it retains the same edgy, bare-bones feel. The entire workforce numbers just over 70 people, crammed into a cluster of offices at the State Department. The online ads program was designed by two computer whizzes, ages 36 and 28, who were recruited from the National Security Agency.
Lumpkin, an energetic 52-year-old California native who started the unit, was picked by President Barack Obama to serve as a kind of entrepreneurial chief executive. Admired by former military colleagues for his skills as a fixer, the former SEAL and Special Operations commander was earlier tapped by the White House to lead the Pentagon’s response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014. Before that, he helped secure Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release from Taliban captivity and managed crises for Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department’s troubled POW accounting program.
Gen. Joseph Votel, the four-star who heads U.S. Central Command, praised Lumpkin and called his work on opposing the Islamic State’s propaganda “absolutely vital.”
“There is a lot we can do kinetically, but lasting success will only be found when we diminish ISIL’s allure in the eyes of potential recruits,” Votel said in an email. ISIS and ISIL are common English names for the Islamic State.
In his new role, Lumpkin was in charge of a section of the government’s counterterrorism operations noted mostly for its stumbles. A previous incarnation of the unit, called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, was quietly shut down in 2015 after coming under criticism for producing videos such as “Welcome to ISIS Land,” an attempt at parodying the Islamic State’s brutal propaganda. The video, which bore the State Department’s logo, was widely panned by terrorism experts as clumsy and ineffective.
“Government is not great at messaging,” said Richard Stengel, who served as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy during Obama’s second term, describing a hard-learned lesson from the program’s earlier efforts. “Anything that was seen as coming from the State Department not only didn’t work but could be used by the other side as a recruiting tool.”
Department officials instead began shifting their focus to working with allied governments in the region, he said, assisting them in developing homegrown messaging campaigns designed for local audiences.
Upon his arrival at the State Department early last year, Lumpkin was surprised to discover that much of the department’s counter-messaging was done in English, and without the kind of data analysis needed to test whether the approaches were working. Some campaigns were little more than running Twitter battles in which moderate imams would try to challenge the extremists on theological grounds, he said.
“You’re not going to convince die-hard jihadists,” Lumpkin said. “We were not resonating with the audiences that we needed to resonate with. We needed to engage with people who haven’t yet joined ISIL. It’s how you starve them of recruits.”
Lumpkin, who ran a defense contracting firm after retiring from the Navy, looked to private industry for technical help and inspiration, quickly finding an array of eager new partners and advisers.
Jigsaw, the technology incubator created by Google, had just launched a pilot program to counter jihadist propaganda on the Google-owned video-sharing site YouTube. Under this program, called the Redirect Method, YouTube users who searched for Islamic State videos would automatically encounter video advertisements denouncing the terrorist group.
Lumpkin’s team adopted a similar approach that targets Facebook users, specifically young Muslims in countries heavily recruited by the Islamic State. By buying ads on Facebook — something never before attempted in this way — the officials found that they could tap into vast troves of data on the interests and browsing habits of legions of Facebook users, allowing them to pinpoint individuals who showed an affinity for jihadist groups and causes.
Compared with the State Department’s earlier efforts, the ads that began popping up on Facebook pages in September are strikingly different: nearly always in Arabic or another local language, bearing market-tested messages that make no mention of their U.S. government sponsor.
Each day, the team monitors the responses to different variations of the ads in real time, measuring how often each is viewed and for how long. Lumpkin discovered quickly that the appeal of different messages varied from one region to another. In locales with strong tribal traditions, appeals to family and duty seem to resonate. In others, it’s the testimony of defectors, supplied mostly by partner agencies. Their disillusionment reveals “the true nature of ISIL,” including harsh conditions that the group’s propaganda videos never talk about, Lumpkin said.
“Defectors are among the most credible and capable messengers out there,” he said. “There are many of them, and they come in different forms.”
Lumpkin said he believes that the messages are helping to change young minds, pointing to sharply falling recruitment rates by the Islamic State in recent months. But he acknowledges that the link is difficult to prove, as the falloff is occurring at a time when the militants are in retreat on the battlefield.
“How do you know they didn’t join because of you? That’s where it gets difficult,” Lumpkin said.
And yet, he argues, the effort remains a critical one for a reason that has long been apparent to terrorism experts around the globe: Extremist ideologies can’t be defeated with conventional weapons alone.
“We’re not going to message our way out of this conflict, nor are we going to kill our way out,” Lumpkin said. “We have to have a layered and balanced approach.”