State Dept. attempt to fight ISIS online with gruesome videos brings backlash

State Dept. attempt to fight ISIS online with gruesome videos brings backlash
The US State Department recently released a propaganda video in English to counter gains made by the Internet-savvy militant group Islamic State. Yet the use of the extremist’s own violent footage may have the opposite effect, critics say.

The video, "Welcome to 'Islamic State' land,” is part of the State Department’s 'Think Again Turn Away' campaign and aims to speak to potential young Muslim recruits for Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL). The militant group, formerly allied with Al-Qaeda, has gained stature through, in part, its social media presence and videos such as those marking the alleged beheadings of captured American journalists.

The US government’s video - released in Arabic in July and in English in late August - uses patchwork footage from, among other sources, Islamic State’s own propaganda videos that show crucifictions, executions, and other violence to depict IS as having an extremist ideology whose aggression is wielded against other Muslims, not necessarily Western symbols of domination.

The Islamic State “is the gold standard of terrorist propaganda in terms of quality and quantity,” an anonymous senior State Department official involved in the effort told the Washington Post. “They put into practice what Al-Qaeda has ­always said and could never do,” in using online content to promote themselves effectively.

According to the Washington Post, the State Department’s short video was produced in July after IS militants breezed through resistance from Iraqi security forces to overtake the city of Mosul. The State Department’s 50-employee Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications is behind the video. The office produces videos, tweets, and other online content in Arabic, Urdu, English, and other languages.

The 'Think Again Turn Away' campaign itself not only has a YouTube platform, but a presence on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. The campaign often tweets with the tagline “some truths about terrorism.” While the campaign’s video has less than 50,000 views on YouTube, hundreds of thousands have viewed IS beheading videos.

Alberto Fernandez, coordinator of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, told CNN that the program to combat IS propaganda is about "participating in the marketplace of ideas."

“The point, obviously, of this is to target potential recruits, potential sympathizers, to show the brutality” of IS, said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. “To point out the fallacies, point out the inconsistencies.”

According to reports, US intelligence believes as many as 300 Americans are fighting along IS militants in Syria and Iraq, where the group has made significant gains this year after developing into a force during Syria’s civil war. Two Americans from Minnesota were recently killed fighting in Syria with IS, the US government has confirmed.

But using the militant group’s own words against them, to discredit and mock its mission in Syria, Iraq, and beyond, is dicey, critics say, considering the explicit source of the message is the despised US government, and that violence can appeal to potential recruits.

“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,” said Evan F. Kohlmann, chief information officer of Flashpoint Global Partners, a security consulting firm that tracks militants online, according to the Post.

Kohlmann added that messaging that reaches true sympathizers is often quite difficult to achieve.

“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.”

The State Department is aware of the limitations of their campaign, and that recruitment for IS is tied to a long history of grievance in the region, a senior State official told the Post.

“So we poke holes in their narrative, try to turn the tables,” the official said. “You’re not going to get a knockout blow.”

The State Department has a track record of psyops and propaganda production around the world, including inside the United States. Recently, the Department’s US Agency for International Development (USAID) targeted Cuba with a text-messaging service aimed to spread opposition to the nation’s government. The State Department has also been criticized for producing propaganda videos to influence events in Ukraine.

US President Barack Obama announced last week that his administration is seeking partners in the Arab world and beyond to counter IS, both on the ground and online. On Sunday, Obama told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the US will “start going on some offense” against IS. US Secretary of State John Kerry and other US officials will be in the Mideast this week to urge Sunni Arab support for Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government as it fights off IS operations there.

“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 US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement last week.

Despite the ongoing consternation in official Washington over the jihadist threat du jour Islamic State, observers note that IS gained strength from the financial backing of United States’ allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar.

Elite donors of American allies in the Persian Gulf region have poured an immense amount of resources into rebel groups like IS in efforts to advance on three general goals: opposing Iran, its ally Bashar Assad and his government in Syria, and fomenting the Sunni-Shia divides in the region.

Meanwhile, the United States has also supported so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels with both lethal and non-lethal aid, lending to fears that arms sent with the help of the Gulf states were channeled to the likes of IS.

In addition, Western incursions in the region, namely the 2003 invasion of Iraq that ushered in a brutal sectarian war that still divides the country today, have led to extreme instability, creating a power vacuum for militant groups to fill.