Geoff Dyer, ft.com
The White House said that it was setting up a new counter-terrorism task force that will develop policies to prevent the radicalisation of potential terrorists. The State Department is also shaking up a much-criticised programme that seeks to challenge pro-Isis messages on social media.The Obama administration announced a major revamp on Friday of its campaign to counter Isis propaganda amid mounting public anxiety about the group’s ability to encourage attacks within the US.
The announcement followed new evidence of Isis infiltration in the US, including the shooting of a police officer on Friday in Philadelphia by a man who pledged loyalty to Isis and the arrest on Thursday of two men accused of having links to Isis, including one who was a refugee from Syria.
Particularly since the mass killing in San Bernardino, California in December that was linked to Isis, the administration has come under intense criticism over its efforts to prevent online recruitment by Isis.
The overhaul of the counterterror programmes was announced after a meeting in California between senior administration law enforcement and intelligence officials and executives from leading technology companies whose help the administration is seeking in its bid to thwart Isis propaganda.
The attendees of the meeting included attorney-general Loretta Lynch, FBI director James Comey, director of national intelligence James Clapper and Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple.
The State Department counter-messaging unit has been buffeted in recent years by a series of leadership changes and disputes over strategy. But it has also struggled to define what the role of the government should be in shaping anti-Isis messages.
Alberto Fernandez, one of the former heads of the unit, complained last year about the “fantasy in Washington” that Isis could be defeated by official propaganda. “Somehow if you put magic social media or public diplomacy pixie dust on a problem, it will go away,” he described the conventional wisdom.
Speaking at the end of last month, Richard Stengel, undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, admitted that “it’s not a big revelation to say government isn’t always the best messenger for the message we want to get out there”. He added that the administration needed to work out “who are the valid third-party folks who really have credibility”.
The new State Department counter-messaging approach will involve much less use of public government Twitter accounts to engage in arguments in English with Isis sympathisers, and more work with other governments to help develop broader narratives and campaigns that challenge Isis.
The US has already helped set up one messaging centre in the United Arab Emirates and is looking to do something similar in Nigeria and Malaysia. The State Department’s operation will now be headed by Michael Lumpkin, a former Pentagon official.
The new counterterror task force is partly an attempt to overcome bureaucratic infighting between the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI but it is also a reflection of an increased focus by the administration on ways to head off domestic radicalisation.
US officials said that the high-level meeting in California on Friday was a reflection of the role the administration hopes technology companies will play in countering Isis. However, they face resistance from an industry that is wary of being seen to be too close to the government in the wake of the Snowden revelations.
“Online radicalisation is taking place much faster than before and the administration knows that it will be much more effective if it is working with the tech sector,” said Matthew Levitt, a former counter-terrorism official at the State Department and Treasury, now at the Washington Institute.