Saturday, January 9th 2016
Yesterday’s White House announcement of a new Countering Violent Extremism Task Force, headed by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, and a Global Engagement Center at the State Department, reflects a learning curve on this troubling topic.
After attracting young people to its self-styled Caliphate in the tens of thousands, Daesh metastasized Islamic extremism throughout Africa and beyond. “Lone wolf” attacks are becoming more common in Europe and here, too. Nothing our government has done seems to have arrested this development.
The Task Force is new. The Global Engagement Center appears to be a rebranding of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. State's new center gets no new budget, according to today’s front-page story in the Washington Post.
For several years, a State Department team of writers labored at responding directly to the terrorists’ online propaganda, trolling their tweets and messages with a combination of facts and sarcasm. In 2011, State created the CSCC inter-agency team around it. But eventually Under Secretary Richard Stengel concluded that was simply playing Daesh’s game. The thinking was, “You can’t prove a negative: how many young guys did you prevent going to Syria today?”
Realizing that no information from the United States Government could ever be credible with a global, micro-target audience of already-sympathetic young people, Stengel and Co. turned togovernments in the region, persuading Abu Dhabi to open the Sawab messaging center and trying to start others in Africa and Asia. Before yesterday’s announcement State had already made international cooperation the main thrust for the CSCC.
Now the Administration has concluded that Daesh recruitment exceeds the scope of propaganda and indeed of foreign relations. Whether by Daesh or Al Shabaab, recruitment begins on social media, but involves direct, personal contact, financial assistance and many other elements. Hence the decision to house a task force in the Department of Homeland Security so as to enlist law enforcement as well as diplomacy, and to lean on major technology companies to suppress terrorist communications.
Broadening and strengthening the effort to counter Daesh recruitment is long overdue. The CSCC was left as the weakest link for too long. Insiders have described CSCC as an under-resourced collection of detailees and contractors: a pick-up team that never matured. I’m a veteran of inter-agency strategic communication after September 11 attacks; I can attest that the State Department is not good at this sort of enterprise. Let’s see if DHS can do any better.
It would be wise to temper public expectations. The Post’s headline casting this as an “online war” is misleading. Who can believe that there is some combination of the right images and memes that will persuade discontented and maladjusted souls to “turn back?” “Jihadi Cool” is more than a campaign; it's one of those cultural phenomena that seem to be impervious to any efforts to quell them.
That needn’t stop our trying. Scores of public diplomacy staffers at embassies tell me of cultural exchanges and information programs in their countries that probably have greater impact than all the counter-messaging put together.
And although regional governments can be helpful allies in a counter-radicalization effort, those governments are the very objects of the terrorists’ rebellion. The CSCC will have to find ways of involving non-government organizations if it expects to promote moderation.
The most evident way to turn this tide is to remove Daesh’s control over territory. Military defeat at the hands of established regional governments, with U.S. assistance as necessary, will destroy Daesh's narrative of invincibility. It will expose Daesh propaganda as hollow; few want to back a loser.
The deeper solution is political reform in those very nations that are challenged with indigenous extremist movements: new channels that offer hope for honest government and economic participation. That's a long way off. And while the United States and its Western allies can play a role in the military dimension, we enjoy very limited influence over the evolution of politics, values and religion.
That’s a simple truth that confounds both the media and the office-seekers in this capital: it’s not always about the United States.