CONFRONTING THE ‘CALIPHATE’ | This is part of an occasional series about the rise of the Islamic State militant group, its implications for the Middle East, and efforts by the U.S. government and others to undermine it.
As fighters surged into Syria last summer, a video surfaced online with the grisly imagery and sneering tone of a propaganda release from the Islamic State.
“Run, do not walk, to ISIS Land,” read the opening line of a script that promised new arrivals would learn “useful new skills” such as “crucifying and executing Muslims.” The words were juxtaposed with images of the terrorist group’s atrocities: kneeling prisoners shot point-blank; severed heads positioned next to a propped-up corpse; limp bodies left hanging from crosses in public squares.
The source of the video was revealed only in its closing frame: the U.S. Department of State.
“Welcome to ISIS Land” was in some ways a breakthrough for the U.S. government after years of futility in attempting to compete with the propaganda of al-Qaeda and its offshoots. The video became a viral phenomenon — viewed more than 844,000 times on YouTube — and a cause of significant irritation to its target.
But the minute-long recording also became a flash point in a much broader debate over how far the United States should go in engaging with a barbaric adversary online.
The clip was assembled by a special unit at the State Department charged with finding ways to contain the spread of militant Islamist ideology. The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, or CSCC, had direct backing from President Obama, help from the CIA, and teams of Arabic, Urdu and Somali speakers who were thrust into the fray on Twitter and other social-media platforms.
The center was to function “like a war room in a political campaign — shake things up, attack ads, opposition research,” said Alberto Fernandez, a veteran U.S. diplomat who was put in charge of the group. The video targeting the Islamic State, which is also known by the abbreviations ISIS and ISIL, was emblematic of that edgy approach, using the enemy’s own horrific footage to subvert the idea that recruits were “going off to Syria for a worthy cause,” Fernandez said, “and to send a message that this is actually a squalid, worthless, dirty thing.”
In seeking to change minds overseas, however, the CSCC also turned heads in Washington. Experts denounced the group’s efforts as “embarrassing” and even helpful to the enemy. Critics at the State Department and White House saw the use of graphic images as a disturbing embrace of the adversary’s playbook. And for all the viral success of “ISIS Land,” even the center’s defenders could never determine whether it had accomplished its main objective: discouraging would-be militants from traveling to Syria.
The fallout has put the U.S. government in a frustratingly familiar position — searching yet again for a messaging strategy that might resonate with aggrieved Muslims and stem the spread of Islamist militancy.
It is a problem that has proved more difficult to solve than almost any other for counterterrorism officials. In the 14 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has degraded al-Qaeda, tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden and protected the country from any mass-casualty follow-up attacks.
Al-Qaeda’s brand of militant ideology, however, has only spread.
Previous U.S. efforts have ranged from covert CIA propaganda programs to a Walt Disney-produced film. Their ineffectiveness has hindered attempts to rebalance U.S. counterterrorism policy, leaving the government heavily dependent on armed drones, commando teams and other instruments of lethal force.
With less than two years to go in Obama’s second term, his administration is trying yet another approach. Fernandez, 57, has been replaced, and the unit he led has been instructed to stop taunting the Islamic State. The State Department recently launched a new entity, the Information Coordination Cell, which plans to enlist U.S. embassies, military leaders and regional allies in a global messaging campaign to discredit groups such as the Islamic State.
The plan is to be “more factual and testimonial,” said Rashad Hussain, 36, a former White House adviser brought in to lead the effort. It will seek to highlight Islamic State hypocrisy, emphasize accounts of its defectors, and document its losses on the battlefield — without recirculating its gruesome images or matching its snide tone. “When amplified properly, we believe the facts speak for themselves,” Hussain said.
The CSCC began with more going for it than any of its predecessors, but it also faced major obstacles.
It was always vastly outnumbered by its online adversaries, had a minuscule budget by Washington standards, and was saddled with what some regard as the insurmountable burden of having to affix the U.S. government label to messages aimed at a skeptical Muslim audience.
The center was conceived by senior officials at the State Department, including its counterterrorism chief, Daniel Benjamin, who was among a group of administration insiders who worried that the White House had become more focused on killing terrorists than preventing the recruitment of new ones.
It also became a priority for then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who wrote in a memo that the unit should be modeled on a campaign “war room,” equipped to monitor every utterance by the adversary and respond rapidly.
Even with Clinton’s backing, however, a 2010 meeting at the White House offered an early indication of how contentious the plan would be. The CIA’s drone war in Pakistan was at full throttle when Benjamin pitched the idea for the center to Obama and key players on his national security team, including Clinton, counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and senior aide Denis McDonough.
As Benjamin wrapped up, Obama erupted.
“This is what I’ve been asking for — why haven’t we been doing this already?” the president demanded, according to a former senior U.S. official who attended the meeting and did not represent the State Department.
“There was irritation” in Obama’s voice, the former official said, aimed at aides he had been pressing for options to keep al-Qaeda’s ideology from spreading. “Everybody on his counterterrorism team had a little bit of egg on their face at that point,” said the former official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the meeting and requested anonymity.
McDonough, Brennan and others seemed angered to have been upstaged, former officials said, and would continue to be seen as obstacles to the plan.
“The whole thing got off on a bad foot bureaucratically,” the former official said. “The antibodies were out to kill it from the beginning.”
The proposal languished long after Obama’s flash of frustration. In her memoir, Clinton said that “despite the president’s pointed comments in July 2010, it took more than a year for the White House to issue an executive order” establishing the center.
That order, which was finally signed just two days shy of the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11. attacks, outlined the center’s mission in broad terms and made Obama’s backing explicit. But its most important provision to State was language requiring the CIA, Pentagon and Justice Department to contribute employees and resources to the CSCC.
The authority seemed to mark a turning point for the State Department after years of being powerless to compel cooperation from other departments, and an opportunity to break from approaches tried in a string of earlier, ill-fated initiatives.
Among them were videos commissioned in 2002 by former Madison Avenue advertising executive Charlotte Beers, who was appointed to the public diplomacy post one month after the Sept. 11 attacks. The $15 million campaign, called “Shared Values,” profiled Muslims living contentedly in the United States, including a baker in Ohio and a fire department medic in Brooklyn.
Some in the State Department derisively labeled it the “Happy Muslim” campaign. It was quickly shelved, and Beers left the administration in 2003.
As the Iraq war raged in 2005, President George W. Bush turned to his longtime communications adviser, Karen Hughes, to reverse the plunging global opinion of the United States. As the new head of public diplomacy, she created a unit named the Digital Outreach Team to defend U.S. policies in online chat rooms that seethed with hostility toward the United States. She also persuaded Disney to produce a feel-good “Portraits of America” film that was shown in airports and U.S. embassies.
As U.S. efforts faltered, al-Qaeda was learning to take advantage of a rapidly changing media landscape.
The group’s early attempts at messaging had often been amateurish, consisting mainly of stilted videos that showed bin Laden staring into the camera, lecturing followers and referring to world events that had occurred weeks or months earlier — a reflection of how long it took to smuggle out the recordings.
But al-Qaeda understood the importance of messaging from the outset. It had established a media wing known as As-Sahab, or “The Cloud,” to manage its propaganda efforts. The unit began turning out dozens of films a year and was led by an American convert, Adam Gadahn, who helped produce the group’s Western-aimed propaganda until he was killed in January in a CIA drone strike.
By 2009, al-Qaeda had found a compelling voice for the Internet age in Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who joined the terrorist group’s affiliate in Yemen, known as AQAP. Awlaki’s English-language sermons attracted a global following, and his calls for violence were seen as a catalyst in a series of attacks, including a 2009 shooting at Fort Hood in Texas that killed 13 people.
A year later, that same Yemen-based franchise began releasing an English-language online magazine called Inspire with bomb recipes and articles encouraging lone wolf attacks. The first issue arrived the same month as the White House meeting in which Obama endorsed the CSCC plan.
As the center finally began to take shape at the State Department, there was a sense that significant ground had already been lost.
When Richard LeBaron, a career U.S. diplomat, was asked to be the center’s first director, he described the job offer to his wife. Noting that it had been nine years since the Sept. 11 attacks, she reacted with disbelief.
“You’re doing this now?” she asked.
LeBaron spent much of his first year securing resources and assembling staff. As the group’s work got underway, he steered away from the mass audience approaches of Beers and Hughes, campaigns that he thought had only convinced Muslims that “the United States perceived them as a problem,” he said. He believed that al-Qaeda’s ideology appealed to a tiny fraction of that population and that any effort to divert recruits had to be “fought in a very, very narrow trench.”
Under LeBaron, the group produced its first online video mocking al-Qaeda. The video alternated footage of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri declaring that only violence would bring change to the Middle East with scenes of what were then the largely peaceful uprisings of the Arab Spring.
The center’s appetite for barbed attacks intensified when LeBaron retired in early 2012 and was replaced by Fernandez.
A Middle East expert and one of the State Department’s best Arabic speakers, Fernandez had studied al-Qaeda’s ideology and propaganda strategy with the mind-set of a scholar. But he also had a penchant for bluntness that sometimes rankled his bosses. In 2006, he was forced to apologize for remarks during an interview on Al Jazeera television in which he said the United States had been guilty of “arrogance and stupidity” in Iraq.
As head of the center, Fernandez sought to sharpen a campaign that some in the State Department already saw as uncomfortably edgy. He pushed the team to take a more combative stance against al-Qaeda online. But his arrival coincided with the emergence of a new adversary with its own impulse to escalate.
The Islamic State began as an Iraq-based franchise of al-Qaeda, but it severed those ties and transformed itself into the most potent militant force in Syria with a mix of daring assaults on major cities and public displays of gruesome violence, including videotaped beheadings of Western prisoners.
The group’s power in Syria accounts for much of its appeal. But the danger it poses beyond the Middle East is based largely on the global following it has amassed by exploiting Twitter and other social media in ways that al-Qaeda never envisioned.
Compared with the Islamic State, “al-Qaeda is your parents’ Internet,” Fernandez said. “It’s AOL.com or MySpace.”
Over the past four years, more than 20,000 foreign fighters have flocked to Syria and Iraq, including at least 3,400 from Western countries. The migration has eclipsed the flow of militants into Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the Islamic State has been the main draw.
The Islamic State’s media wing employs a virtual production line, turning battle footage captured on GoPro cameras into polished propaganda films, including an hour-long documentary called “Flames of War,” that are disseminated by an army of followers and “fanboys.” The group has produced unsettlingly authentic “news” reports with the coerced cooperation of one of its prisoners, British television correspondent John Cantlie. Through exchanges on Twitter, it has also enticed Western women to travel to Syria to become “ISIS brides.”
U.S. officials have described the Islamic State’s propaganda as remarkably slick and sophisticated, characterizations that LeBaron called “borderline racist.” “The notion behind that is how could these Arabs be so smart? How could these terrorists be so skilled?” he said. “Why wouldn’t they be? They’re growing up with the same exposure to social media.”
By mid-2013, the Islamic State had eclipsed al-Qaeda as the CSCC’s top priority. The team produced dozens of videos and banners depicting ISIS as a menace to Muslims in Syria, and it tried to trade blows with the group on Twitter, even though State Department posts were often drowned out by the volume of Islamic State messages.
As the center’s campaign intensified, the Islamic State showed flashes of irritation. The group launched a Twitter account, @Al-Bttar, specifically to engage in running arguments with the State Department team.
It also orchestrated campaigns aimed at getting the team kicked off Twitter and YouTube by bombarding those companies with waves of complaints accusing the CSCC of violating their terms of service. At times, Fernandez said, the effort forced State Department officials to appeal to the companies to get their accounts restored.
There were also death threats. Most were vague vows by Islamic State followers to track down the center’s employees. But in one case, ISIS managed to identify one of the center’s contract workers by name and singled him out as a target. The threat was traced to a militant in Spain who was subsequently arrested, U.S. officials said.
The center occupies a cramped second-floor office at the State Department that officials said is the only space in the department’s Public Diplomacy Bureau equipped with the locks, alarms and other systems needed to serve a classified facility. Inside, employees track terrorist propaganda and devise responses at computers that are equipped with access to reports from the CIA’s Open Source Center and other channels. Most of the front-line work on social media is carried out by contractors in a separate building nearby.
Since its inception, the center had purposely avoided posting any material in English. It did so in part to avoid running afoul of rules barring the State Department from attempts to influence American citizens. But officials also cited another concern: venturing into English would expose the center’s efforts to more scrutiny in Washington.
At times the constraint seemed absurd. In September 2013, gunmen from al-Shabab staged an assault on a shopping mall in Nairobi while supporters of the Somali terrorist group touted the unfolding carnage on Twitter. Although the al-Shabab tweets were in English, the State Department team could respond only in Somali or Arabic.
As the Islamic State expanded its efforts to attract Western recruits — largely through English-language propaganda — the State Department scrapped its policy.
In late 2013, the center unveiled an English-language campaign dubbed “Think Again Turn Away” aimed at the Islamic State. In a typical skirmish last year, the terrorist group launched a barrage of messages on Twitter under the hashtag #CalamityWillBefallUS. The center tried to disrupt the stream with caustic replies. One showed a feeble-looking bin Laden watching television in the compound where he was killed and warned Islamic State followers: “I want to remind you what happens to terrorists who target us.”
At first, the messages caused only small ripples of reaction outside these narrow channels on social media. But Fernandez soon began scribbling out a script for a new video that would draw a much bigger audience.
The idea for “ISIS Land” emerged in the summer of 2014, while the Islamic State was rapidly expanding. The group had stormed into Iraq and seized Mosul, a city of 2 million, with virtually no resistance from the American-trained Iraqi army. The organization changed its name from ISIL to the Islamic State as it formally declared itself ruler of a restored caliphate — a highly symbolic move that harked back to the historic empires of Islam.
Simultaneously, the Islamic State unleashed a barrage of new videos in English. Among them were segments dubbed “five-star jihad” that depicted life for Islamic State fighters as lavish, with access to hillside mansions, gleaming SUVs and swimming pools overlooking the group’s conquered terrain.
Fernandez, who had served in Syria, wanted to counter that message with a video that would both mock and mimic the Islamic State’s preening style. Fernandez drew inspiration from Monty Python spoofs of the Crusades, and he asked his team to gather some of the most brutal footage of the Islamic State available online.
“Welcome to ISIS Land” sat largely unnoticed on the center’s YouTube channel after it was posted on July 23, 2014. It was part of a much larger collection that included nearly 300 other clips, including more than 200 in Arabic.
Then, like so many online phenomena, “ISIS Land” was propelled into the mainstream by seemingly inexplicable forces.
A reporter for a British newspaper, the Guardian, posted a link to the video on his Twitter feed. CNN aired an arched-eyebrow segment. HBO comedian John Oliver lambasted the video on his mock news show. And Islamic State followers responded with a parody of their own called “Run Do Not Walk to U.S. Terrorist State.”
Critics blasted not only the video, but also the broader “Think Again Turn Away” campaign. Rita Katz, whose SITE Intelligence Group tracks the online communications of terrorist groups, began cataloguing what she considered to be the center’s most embarrassing materials and said the campaign was playing into the Islamic State’s hands by bolstering its reputation for cruelty and expanding its audience.
“It’s better to not do anything than to do what they’re doing at the State Department,” Katz said.
Others bridled at what they considered the unseemly spectacle of a U.S. government entity behaving like a social-media punk. “They’re trying to reach these kids, but it’s backfiring,” said Patrick M. Skinner, a former CIA agent who works as a counterterrorism consultant. “It’s like the grandparents yelling to the children, ‘Get off my lawn.’ ”
Fernandez had made sure that the “ISIS Land” video was approved in advance by officials from the White House, the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department. But the public reaction emboldened insiders who were already skeptical of the center’s work.
Amid the rash of negative coverage, Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, began urging that the CSCC be reined in. In an e-mail to White House communications adviser Ben Rhodes and others, she said that she was “supremely uncomfortable” with the graphic images that were “going out under the State Department seal.”
The center’s ability to fend off the criticism was hampered by the difficulty of measuring the effectiveness of its work. The group could point to the size of its following on Twitter and argued that all the death threats and efforts to shut down its accounts were evidence that the center had gotten under the Islamic State’s skin.
But the claims were seen by many as irrelevant or unconvincing.
“The consensus has been that this has been ineffective,” said Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has oversight of the State Department and its operations. “If we can’t measure the impact of what we’re doing, how do we prove that it’s effective?”
“Welcome to ISIS Land” went on to be viewed in numbers never approached by any of the center’s other films. But even now it is not clear that any of those viewers were ever at risk of joining the Islamic State, let alone diverted from that path.
To Fernandez, the center has been subjected to an impossible standard.
“How do you prove a negative?” he asked. “Unless some guy comes out with his hands up and says, ‘I was going to become a terrorist. I saw your video. I loved it. I changed my mind.’ You’re never going to get that.”
The fallout weakened the center’s already wobbly footing in Washington.
Since its creation, the center’s budget had hovered between $5 million and $6 million per year, a range that barely registers on Washington’s spending scale.
The Pentagon, by comparison, spends about $150 million each year to influence public opinion and win “hearts and minds.” The CIA has spent more than $250 million to monitor social media and other “open” sources of intelligence, according to documents obtained by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, with millions more spent on covert propaganda efforts.
At the State Department, the stagnant funding became a major source of frustration, at times spilling into public view. When an ABC News story described the administration’s media strategy against militant Islam as underfunded and falling short, Rhodes, the Obama adviser, fired off an e-mail to Fernandez saying that he had backed the group’s work. He also told Fernandez that he thought criticism of the White House was unfair.
Fernandez replied in an e-mail that he hadn’t been a source for the story, but he agreed with its contents, according to several officials familiar with the exchange. Fernandez declined to comment on the matter.
The center’s troubles were compounded as its supporters in the administration dwindled. Benjamin, who had pushed to create the group, left the State Department at the end of 2012 for an academic position at Dartmouth College. Clinton resigned as secretary of state weeks later and was replaced by John F. Kerry, who overhauled the department’s public diplomacy ranks.
Even so, Fernandez pressed ahead late last year with an ambitious proposal to double the center’s budget. He made his case in a memo that detailed how badly the center was overmatched. Because of budget constraints, the outreach team could be online only five days a week, rarely during hours that corresponded with peak Internet activity in the Middle East. The proposal cited the poor production quality of its videos as proof that even its equipment was inferior to that of the Islamic State.
But in a broader sense, Fernandez saw the budget struggle as a test of U.S. resolve after years of waiting for moderate Muslim leaders to take on the religion’s most radical strains.
“It is about contesting a space that had been ceded to the adversary,” Fernandez said. “Even if you’re outnumbered, even if you’re shouted down, there is value in showing up.”
The new leadership at the State Department eventually decided that more resources were needed, but that they would go to a new entity, and that it was time for Fernandez to retire.
Richard Stengel, a former managing editor of Time magazine hired by Kerry as head of public diplomacy, had concerns about the center’s “snarky tone.” He pushed an approach he had employed at Time: “Curate more and create less.”
“The kind of content we were creating wasn’t resonating in ways I would have hoped,” Stengel said in an interview. Going forward, messages would be more fact-based. “You say the caliphate is heaven on earth? We’re going to show you pictures where sewers don’t work. You’re winning on the battlefield? Here’s a satellite picture of you guys retreating.”
As foreign officials gathered in Washington in February for a White House-sponsored summit on countering violent extremism, the State Department announced the creation of the Information Coordination Cell.
In part, Stengel said the new direction was driven by resource realities. There is no way for the department to match the volume of output on social media from the Islamic State, and therefore it should enlist other departments and allies. One of the cell’s main initiatives is to distribute a “talking points” memo each day to U.S. embassies and allied governments, urging them to emphasize a common set of themes or news items about the Islamic State.
But Stengel also acknowledged that the changes reflect competing points of view in a philosophical debate.
Fernandez was convinced that the Islamic State’s appeal was largely emotional, casting itself as an antidote to feelings of victimhood and powerlessness among alienated Muslims. Undermining that appeal required using — and hopefully subverting — the graphic images and themes that resonated with the group’s recruits.
Skeptical, Stengel cited what he said researchers have called “the backfire effect: when you try to disabuse somebody who has a strongly held belief, more often than not it makes their belief even stronger.”
In February, Fernandez was replaced by Hussain, the Obama adviser who served as special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and was a close associate of Rhodes at the White House.
The center has not produced a new English-language video in several months. The “Think Again Turn Away” campaign is being shelved in favor of a new tag line: “Terror Facts.” And the CSCC is expected to be combined with the Information Coordination Cell as part of an unnamed new entity.
The center’s creators see the changes as a retreat from the war room they envisioned.
“The fate of the CSCC just underscores the difficulty of experimentation in government — there is zero tolerance for risk and no willingness to let a program evolve,” Benjamin said.“It’s easier to do the same stuff over and over and wring your hands instead of investing resources and having patience.”
In interviews, Hussain and Stengel described ambitious plans to build on the work of the center and help other nations set up messaging operations modeled on the one at State. The first of these was recently established in the United Arab Emirates, although officials said its messaging work remains in “beta mode” and has not yet surfaced online.
The department also appears to be revisiting some pages of the Bush administration’s propaganda playbook.
Late last year, Stengel reached out to Hollywood, asking for help to counter the messages of both the Islamic State and Russia. On Oct. 14, he met with Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment, according to company e-mails obtained by hackers and released by WikiLeaks in April.
“Michael: It was great to see you yesterday. As you could see, we have plenty of challenges in countering ISIL narratives in the Middle East,” Stengel wrote the next day. “I’d love to convene a group of media executives who can help us think about better ways to respond.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.Read more stories from the series: