Saturday, October 3rd 2015
“We've seen a sharp decline in the volume of ISIL messaging and social media,” said Richard Stengel, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs during a September 25, 2015,interview with the Voice of America’s Pamela Dockins. “I think the scales are shifting.”
In the interview (transcript below), Stengel previewed the Leaders’ Summit to Counter ISIL and Violent Extremism held four days later during the United Nations General Assembly. A few key points:
- The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) is now a “full time counter-ISIL messaging machine.”
- “We’re not the best messenger for our message,” he noted, so the CSCC works with “third party groups, non-governmental organizations, and other media businesses to balance that noxious flow of messaging that comes from ISIL.”
- The Sawab Center in Abu Dhabi is the first hub in “a network of networks.” Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have other organizations that counter violent extremism.
- CVE and social media campaigns must work with intelligence and law enforcement to diminish the flow of foreign fighters.
- “Nobody is radicalized single-handedly by watching a YouTube video,” Stengel noted. “There is really no such thing as a lone wolf. . . . it’s actually personal contact – and very, very focused social media, email, telephone calls, etc. on that one person.”
- There’s also “the kind of countering violent extremism that has to deal with educational exchanges, with programs where we deal with people who are returning back to their community, former fighters, the rehabilitation of young men and women who may have actually gone and fought for an extremist group.” “It runs the gamut from hard to soft,” Stengel said.
The transcript, with occasional ellipses for the sake of brevity, is below.
DOCKINS: Good morning, I'm Pam Dockins. I'm joined by Under Secretary Richard Stengel. * * * I wanted to talk to you about the State Department's efforts to counter violent extremism. And of course this is going to be a big issue on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. . . .
STENGEL: . . . . There's a kind of more kinetic aspect to it which is focusing on anti-ISIL, and then there's a larger, broader effort which we call CVE -- countering violent extremism -- which has all kinds of manifestations -- education, civil society, media -- so it will be a very broad focus. * * * * *
One of the sets of things that we're focused on is the globalization of ISIL, or Daesh as we call it (which is the Arabic name), so there will be conversations with world leaders in those countries where ISIL is actually growing and are creating their own kind of markets there -- so that's one thing.
Then there's the -- not softer so much -- kind of countering violent extremism that has to deal with educational exchanges, with programs where we deal with people who are returning back to their community, former fighters, the rehabilitation of young men and women who may have actually gone and fought for an extremist group. So it runs that whole gamut of hard to soft.
DOCKINS: Are you seeing any success in efforts to counter violent extremists in the U.S. social media campaigns which you mention? There had been some initial criticism that some of the U.S. campaigns may have been having the opposite effect.
STENGEL: One of the things that's under me as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy is the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications which was set up under Secretary Clinton to counter al-Qaeda messaging, and then it morphed into a full-time counter-ISIL messaging machine. And as you mentioned, ISIL is very sophisticated in social media, but actually I think the scales are shifting. I mean if you look at what the volume of messaging that they are doing -- and not just U.S. messaging to counter it, but messaging by Muslims around the world -- that share is actually growing so that actually I always say that we're not the best messenger for our message. Obviously a lot of people who are attracted to ISIL are anti-U.S., so part of what we do at CSCC is to enlist third party groups, non-governmental organizations, and other media businesses to balance that noxious flow of messaging that comes from ISIL.
DOCKINS: One of the things that you were involved in was -- in July you launched the Sawab Counterterrorism Center in Abu Dhabi. The focus is on countering, of course, the propaganda from the Islamic State. How's that doing?
STENGEL: It's doing well. It's a big sign post in our counter-ISIL campaign. It's a joint effort between the United Arab Emirates and the U.S. The Sawab Center -- Sawab is Arabic for the right path -- and this is part of our strategy which is not to focus on American-versus-ISIL messaging. That isn't the ball game. It's the whole rest of the Islamic world-versus-ISIL. So we want to create a network of networks -- of different hubs, the first of which is the Sawab Center. They have more than 10,000 followers. They're on many, many tweets and pieces of social media every day, and they're gaining attention and followers even as we speak.
DOCKINS: This is a relatively new effort, but are there any indications that the Center has been having success in helping stem the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria, also helping to counter some of the messages that the Islamic State has been sending out, especially those targeting young people?
STENGEL: I think there's kind of a false correlation between messaging and the flow of foreign fighters.
Is messaging important to their brand? Yes. Is a tweet going to take a nice young man who's living in Tunisia and make him decide to go and fight in Iraq or Syria? I don't think so.
So we don't look so much at the media war as a real war to prevent foreign fighters. It's more about the share of market. At the same time, we are trying to reach individual people with a message that says ISIL's message is all wrong. So, for example, we have a campaign that we're doing with Sawab this very week during UNGA -- the defectors campaign -- which is using direct testimony from dozens and dozens of young men and women who have come back from Iraq and Syria and said the Caliphate is a myth. You know, I was abused there. They're not religious. They're venal and money-grubbing. So that type of campaign to refute their disinformation is the kind of thing that we're doing.
DOCKINS: What do you look at? How do you measure the success of those campaigns if you don't base it on the flow of foreign fighters? What do you do to measure the impact?
STENGEL: You know, in many ways it's almost a traditional media campaign. I come from a media background. I mean you measure engagement. You measure trajectory. You measure the number of followers. You measure how long people stay online. You look at what they do after they look at your social media. So it's very hard to actually, as I was saying before, correlate something in messaging with the flow of foreign fighters.
But, for example, what we have seen this summer -- we've seen a sharp decline in the volume of ISIL messaging and social media. I can't tell you exactly why. I'd love to say that it's because of what the Sawab Center is doing and what we're doing, but I don't know, but it's a good sign.
DOCKINS: . . . are there other centers that are set to come online soon?
STENGEL: There are, and I think you'll hear some announcements about that at UNGA. I don't want to preview something that's not my place to announce. I think you'll see some announcements by some of our partners and allies about messaging centers that they're going to start.
DOCKINS: There's been some criticism from lawmakers that the U.S. response in terms of its social media messages have been ineffective, in that they don't seem to target the teens and young adults that are often targeted by militants. What's your response to that?
STENGEL: My response, without being frivolous about it, is that what they don't seem to understand is that it's not U.S.-versus-ISIL messaging. It's Muslims around the world-versus-ISIS messaging. Ninety-five percent of the ISIL messaging is in Arabic. I'm not so sure of how many of our men and women in Congress read social media in Arabic. So the battle is in Arabic. They're looking at the handful of English social media that we do, which is a tiny percentage of what CSCC does, and an even tinier percentage of what the messaging centers around the world and third parties are doing. So I'm happy to have a conversation with a Congressman who is aware of what's going on in Arabic media.
DOCKINS: Could you talk a little bit more about what the third parties are doing? You mentioned that little bit earlier.
STENGEL: There's so many different places that are rising around the world. There is the rapid messaging center in Jordan. There's al-Ifta, a rapid messaging center in Egypt. The Saudis are doing a great deal. There's the Hedaya Center in Abu Dhabi that is a larger CVE effort. These are places which a lot of people in the American Congress don't have visibility on, which I think is worth knowing about. And I think as more and more people and more and more Muslims around the world become revulsed and repulsed by what ISIL is doing, you'll still see the flow of social media increasing and increasing until it completely drowns out their messages.
DOCKINS: This is relatively new effort, but are there any early indications on what social media tool, if any, is most effective? Is it twitter? Is it Facebook? What seems to be your most effective?
STENGEL: It's a very good question, but I think it points to a kind of misconception about how people become radicalized. There really is no such thing as a lone wolf. If you look at the stories that have been in the New York Times or The Washington Post about ISIL poaching young men and women – it’s not social media, it's actually personal contact -- and very, very focused social media, email, telephone calls, etc. on that one person.
Nobody is radicalized single-handedly by watching a YouTube video, so one of the things that we've seen is we have to try to interrupt that flow. That's the use of intelligence services. That's the use of law enforcement. And what a lot of people, American legislators, are concerned about is this "a lone wolf" phenomenon in America. But that, again, only part of that is social media. A lot of that is law enforcement etc. And one of the things that we've seen about ISIL if you look at them around the world, social media is just the tip of the iceberg of what they do. They do billboards. They do kiosks. They do flyers. They have a magazine called Dabiq. So it's not just social media.
DOCKINS: We focused a lot on ISIL, but of course countering violent extremism is broader than the Islamic State. What other militant groups are you focused on, and generally speaking, what's being done to counter what's coming from those groups?
STENGEL: Well, as a government effort we're focused Boko Haram, al-Shabaab. We've been giving money and aid to those countries that are directly affected by them. We're trying to interrupt their messaging as well. CSCC is in five or six different languages, so as ISIL and Counter Violent Extremism go into different areas, we're trying to be in there as well, in those languages, so it's something that we're very much aware of and something that we're working on.
DOCKINS: Thank you.