The State Department is considering scaling back its direct involvement in online campaigns to discredit the Islamic State after a review by outside experts cast new doubt on the U.S. government’s ability to serve as a credible voice against the terrorist group’s propaganda, current and former U.S. officials said.
The findings by the six-member panel, which included marketing experts from Silicon Valley and New York, have added to the uncertainty surrounding a State Department program that also faces another management shake-up with the departure of its second director in less than a year.
The developments are the latest indication of continued turmoil in the Obama administration’s effort to erode the online appeal of a terrorist group that has used a massive presence on social media to attract recruits, radicalize followers and incite attacks against the West.
The terrorist assaults that killed more than 130 people in Paris last month were seen by counterterrorism officials as a demonstration of the Islamic State’s expanding reach. Several of those involved in the plot had traveled to Syria, and the attacks were followed by a flurry of new Islamic State messages warning that the United States and its allies face a wave of further violence.
The threats added to the urgency surrounding a State Department team that was set up to serve as an information war room against terrorist networks. Over the past two years, the unit has mounted campaigns on Twitter, Facebook and other social-media platforms to sow doubt among those who may be enticed to join the Islamic State.
The review group, which included veterans of Google, Twitter and other technology companies, endorsed State Department initiatives to enlist Middle Eastern allies in the propaganda war as well as a campaign that called attention to often-harrowing accounts from Islamic State defectors.
But the team “had serious questions about whether the U.S. government should be involved in overt messaging at all,” said a U.S. official briefed on the group’s findings. The group’s skepticism reflected concern about U.S. credibility with Muslim audiences overseas as well as the scant evidence that the State program has diminished the flow of recruits to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
The report coincided with the departure of Rashad Hussain, who was installed this year by the White House as head of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, or CSCC. Hussain has taken a position at the Justice Department, and officials said the shift was not related to the review or to concern about his tenure at State. But his departure has brought new tumult to a unit already associated with frequent changes of strategy and personnel.
The U.S. counter-messaging operation “is in disarray,” said Will McCants, an expert on the Islamic State at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to the State Department. Among those involved in messaging efforts, McCants said, “morale is low, and they’re not getting any clarity from the top about what they’re supposed to be doing.”
State Department officials acknowledged that aspects of the program’s strategy are again being reevaluated, and that the number of positions devoted to producing content and posting items on Twitter and other platforms could be scaled back. But officials cited what they described as major progress on other fronts over the past year, including the addition of foreign partners to an expanding network of messaging centers overseas.
The State Department’s messaging operation “is trending upward,” said Richard Stengel, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, who oversees the CSCC. “It is doing more straightforward, fact-based counter-ISIL messaging and working much more closely with our international partners.”
Stengel said that constant adaptations by the Islamic State put pressure on the U.S. government to keep pace. “They learn from their mistakes. They change and adapt to the digital battlefield,” he said. As a result, he said, the State Department program “has to be equally creative and innovative.”
State Department officials declined to release the review group’s findings, which were laid out in a 100-page collection of slides shortly before Thanksgiving. Officials also declined to identify participants in the study but said the panel included marketing experts and data scientists from California, Texas and New York.
The “sprint team” spent three weeks reviewing U.S. messaging operations, including the work of the CSCC. The project was commissioned by the White House, but the panel’s credentials were questioned by some at State. None of the participants spoke Arabic, were knowledgeable about terrorist groups or had security clearances that would enable them to evaluate classified work.
“They were largely on the marketing and branding side — looking at ISIL and the U.S. governments as brands,” said a U.S. official familiar with the review. One of their main conclusions was that “it’s not the U.S. government that’s going to break the [Islamic State] brand,” the official said. “It’s going to be third parties.”
That finding was interpreted as an endorsement of the center’s work under Hussain to set up messaging centers overseas with the expectation that their postings would have greater credibility and impact than those coming from the U.S. government. A center in the United Arab Emirates became operational this year. Others are planned in Malaysia and Nigeria.
Stengel said the effort will only expand. “We’re going to a model that involves more partnership with credible voices, with other governments and third parties,” he said.
The review also backed ideas that have languished for lack of funding at the State Department, including a plan to create counter-radicalization “SWAT” teams that could be deployed to cities in Europe and elsewhere where officials see spikes in Islamic State recruitment.
But in urging that resources be shifted abroad, the review raised doubts about the value of work by teams of analysts and contractors who post hundreds of messages and videos each month in Arabic, English and other languages — all under the State Department seal.
U.S. officials said there is no plan to dismantle that direct-messaging operation, but they acknowledged that it could be downsized and focused more narrowly on themes such as the campaign centered on Islamic State defectors that was launched this year. Messages in English probably would be aimed mainly at media organizations rather than would-be militants, eliminating skirmishes on Twitter with Islamic State sympathizers.
Hussain, an American Muslim with close ties to the White House, arrived at the State Department this year with a mandate to end what critics called “tweeting at terrorists.” He replaced Alberto M. Fernandez, who had pushed the center to take a more combative approach online with barbed exchanges on Twitter and with videos that mocked the Islamic State, often by using footage of its atrocities.
Hussain left the unit shortly after the review group completed its work, but U.S. officials said that his move to the Justice Department had been planned for months. Officials said he is a senior official in the department’s national security branch, where he is in charge of an expanding effort to combat violent extremism as well as the Islamic State’s recruiting efforts in the United States.
“It has been an honor serving in international roles for the past five years,” Hussain said in a statement provided to The Washington Post. “I’m committed to continuing working on these important national security challenges domestically.”