The stunning rise of the Islamic State militant group as both a battlefield force and an Internet juggernaut over the summer has given new urgency to a State Department effort to counter online militant propaganda with a U.S. messaging campaign.
A U.S.-government-made video that recently made the rounds on social media — with graphic images of Islamic State executions and a beheaded body — is the best-known example of the attempt to expose the brutality of the Islamist group and undermine its online recruitment appeals.
The Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS, has supplanted al-Qaeda as the main object of U.S. efforts to understand and counter militant activity online, U.S. officials said. Intelligence agencies covertly monitor and sometimes try to disrupt militant Web sites, but the smaller, $6 million State Department effort is intended for public consumption. Videos, tweets and other online content in Arabic, Urdu, English and other languages are identified as coming from the U.S. government.
The short video titled “Welcome to ISIL-Land” and others like it aim to counter militant propaganda by producing eye-catching online material that uses the militants’ own words or images against them.
That’s a tricky line to walk, since by repurposing provocative or grisly images to discredit the groups behind them, the State Department also gives them wider distribution.
“The point, obviously, of this is to target potential recruits, potential sympathizers, to show the brutality” of the organization, said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. “To point out the fallacies, point out the inconsistencies.”
“Welcome to ISIL-Land” generated news stories and negative comments on Twitter about its extremely violent content and mocking tone. YouTube requires viewers to be 21 to watch it.
The Islamic State “is the gold standard of terrorist propaganda in terms of quality and quantity,” said a senior State Department official involved in the countermessage effort. “They put into practice what al-Qaeda has always said and could never do,” in promoting themselves effectively in the news media and online. The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the U.S. campaign on the record.
Sharpening and broadening a political-style message campaign against the Islamic State is a feature of the emerging Obama administration strategy to line up Arab and other partners to counter Islamic State on the ground and online. The group has seized territory in Syria and Iraq and become a magnet for aspiring jihadists across the globe.
President Obama began outlining a counteroffensive at the NATO summit last week in Wales. In an interview that aired Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Obama said it was time for the United States to “start going on some offense” against the Islamic State, and he plans to meet with lawmakers this week before delivering a speech to the public Wednesday on the U.S. strategy. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and others will be in the Mideast this week to ask for Sunni Arab help in support of the new Shiite Iraqi government as it fights the Sunni militants.
“They can provide physical space and locations for training, and they can agree to work with us on training and equipping and advising” Iraqi and moderate Syrian rebel forces fighting Islamic State, a senior administration official said. “They can be a voice and galvanize the moderate Sunni voices in their communities to — on the countermessaging point — to push back against . . . what’s a very empty narrative” from the militants.
Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met Friday with officials from several nations likely to join the new coalition. “There is no time to waste in building a broad international coalition to degrade and, ultimately, to destroy the threat posed by ISIL,” Kerry and Hagel said in a statement issued in Wales.
The campaign would provide military support to Iraq, stem the flow of foreign fighters coming to join the Islamic State and go after the organization’s financing, while also “delegitimizing” the group’s ideology, the statement said.
In a speech last week at the Brookings Institution, Matt Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the Islamic State operates “the most significant global propaganda machine of any Islamist extremist group. . . . No group is as successful and effective as ISIL is at using propaganda, particularly social media.”
Islamic State routinely releases scenes of carnage designed to intimidate adversaries and bolster its ruthless reputation. But it also seeks to appeal to recruits with images of its fighters cradling kittens and its religious enforcers patrolling neighborhoods and smiling affably as they warn residents to wear proper Islamic attire.
The video that became prominent last week is one of several on a new State Department YouTube channel in English aimed at disaffected young Western Muslims who may be wowed by the Islamic State’s battlefield momentum. The countermessage is simple: These guys are lying to you, and if you go to Syria to fight Western oppression you’ll just end up killing innocent Muslims.
The 50-employee Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications is the State Department office behind the video. The organization was launched in 2011 to analyze and answer militant activity on social media and does most of its work in languages other than English.
The English-language YouTube channel was created in a rush in July as part of an expanded online message campaign following the fall of the strategic Iraqi city of Mosul to Islamic State militants, the senior State Department official said.
The same video was first posted in Arabic in July, and that version has more than 42,000 views on YouTube. The English-language version was also posted in July. It is part of a campaign called “Think Again, Turn Away,” that also tweets with the motto “some truths about terrorism.”
By contrast, the Islamic State video showing the killing of American journalist James Foley has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, if not more, despite attempts to remove it from mainstream video sites.
U.S. government-branded efforts to interject online often go awry, either because the message falls flat or the Americans fail to reach real militants or their sympathizers, said Evan F. Kohlmann, chief information officer of Flashpoint Global Partners, a New York security consulting firm that tracks militant Web sites.
“The problem with this video is the same problem that seems to happen over and over again with these type of initiatives,” he said. “They don’t seem to have a clear picture of what audience they are trying to reach, or how to influence them.”
He added that “someone at the State Department has failed to recognize that most of the Westerners trying to join ISIS are actually enthused by videos of executions and suicide bombings, not deterred by them.”
State Department officials said they recognize the limits of the program.
The United States understands that the lure of the Islamic State’s jihadist message is strong, and fueled by grievance and history that no quick online American answer can fully address, the senior State Department official said.
“So we poke holes in their narrative, try to turn the tables,” the official continued. “You’re not going to get a knockout blow.”
Greg Miller, Karen DeYoung and David Nakamura contributed to this report.