By HELENE COOPER JULY 28, 2016, New York Times [original article contains links.]
Image from article, with caption: "Daesh deprives a woman of her voice," reads one image that is part of State Department program, using the Arabic acronym for the Islmic state
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has revamped a program designed to
lure foreign fighters away from extremist groups like the Islamic State, focusing on a
series of new advertisements and social media posts that seek to appeal to emotion
rather than logic.
Money for the program, which is managed by the State Department’s Global
Engagement Center, tripled this year, to $16 million, after administration officials
concluded that past efforts that had attempted to scare potential militants away from
the extremist groups were not working.
It is the latest in a long series of efforts from the Obama administration at what
diplomats and other officials euphemistically call “public engagement,” and the
multiple reboots have shown how hard it has been for these programs to find
traction. Recent attacks in Turkey, Iraq, France and Bangladesh seemed to show
extremism has been spreading.
But one thing has changed from similar efforts in the past. The new initiatives
have been tailored to keep the United States government’s involvement as low-key —
and in some cases, as secretive — as possible, because overt American backing for
some projects had turned off the exact group of disaffected young men that the
campaign is trying to reach.
These new efforts include using Facebook videos, Instagram ads and other
social media that have been designed to convince young men and women that
joining the militants’ fight means breaking their mothers’ hearts, tearing apart their
families and leaving their loved ones to lives of emptiness.
Past efforts from the administration had sought to frighten potential jihadists
with warnings that waging war against the West would get them killed, but officials
concluded that the warnings actually served the opposite purpose of glorifying
Many of the previous programs were overtly tied to the United States
government, including one video, branded as part of the State Department’s “Think
Again, Turn Away” program, called “Welcome to the Islamic State Land.” The
graphic video, which shows beheadings, crucifixions and executions by firing squad,
is full of ominous music and sarcastic commentary. “Run, do not walk, to ISIS,” the
English subtitle says, telling fighters they will be taught useful skills.
Examples of these skills, the video says, include “Blowing up mosques!
Crucifying and executing Muslims! Plundering public resources! Suicide bombings
inside mosques! Travel is inexpensive because you won’t need a return ticket.”
The video ends with “Think Again, Turn Away,” and the seal of the State
Michael Lumpkin, a former member of the Navy SEALs who was sent by
President Obama from the Pentagon to the State Department in January to overhaul
the program, turned to a reporter after playing the “Think Again, Turn Away” video
recently. “How did that make you feel?” he asked. The answer, he said, was that the
video leaves the viewer annoyed at its smug sarcasm rather than appalled at the
horrific images on the screen.
The video’s American branding, he added, destroys any chance that a potential
foreign fighter would be persuaded to turn away. “We’re not the most credible
messenger,” Mr. Lumpkin said.
The appointment of Mr. Lumpkin, who led the Defense Department’s response
to the Ebola crisis in 2014, was designed at least in part to bring in someone who
could better unify the effort. But it is a tough job: In December, the Soufan Group,
an intelligence consulting firm, reported that the number of foreign fighters from
Western Europe battling for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had more than
doubled since June 2014. The number from North America remained relatively flat.
The State Department launched the “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign in
December 2013, but the outreach effort quickly came under sharp criticism from
terrorism experts who said that in addition to emboldening terrorist groups it
burnished their social media presence on Twitter and Facebook.
On Sept. 11, 2014, for example, a Qaeda leader posted on Twitter that “on this
day, in 2001, the USA’s largest economic shrine, the idol of capitalism was brought
to the ground.” The State Department quickly responded on Twitter by posting a
photo of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State leader, wearing a Rolex watch:
“Nobody’s a bigger fan of the fruits of capitalism than so-called #ISIS Caliph.”
The response, critics said, only legitimized the original message on Twitter, and
was unlikely to have done anything to dissuade young people from joining either Al
Qaeda or the Islamic State.
“Apart from the fact that the U.S. government shouldn’t do snark, it’s not
persuasive,” said Richard Stengel, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy
and public affairs. “We’re not the most effective messenger for our message. There’s
no tweet from the U.S. State Department that’s going to talk a young man out of
Mr. Lumpkin was more descriptive. Such Twitter messages, he said, were “like
wrestling with a pig. The pig likes it, and you get dirty.”
The administration is now working with organizations overseas to get out the
message without an American imprint, including the Sawab Center in Abu Dhabi.
The United Arab Emirates supplies the bulk of the funding, but the State
Department has contributed two full-time foreign service officers to work at the
center to counter online messaging and recruitment by the Islamic State.
Beyond the Sawab Center and another office to open soon in Malaysia, the
administration is paying for small operations in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and
Mr. Lumpkin said that administration officials looked at a study done by the
Quantum Group, a communications firm based in Lebanon, that found that many
foreign fighters joined the Islamist State not for ideology but for a host of different
reasons, from thrill-seeking to a search for redemption.
Mr. Lumpkin pointed to a video posted online in April by the Quilliam
Foundation, a counter-extremist research organization based in London, that
features a Muslim family of four sitting around a dinner table set for five people.
There is the usual bickering about cellphones at the table and a comment to “start
eating before it gets cold.” Then one son motions toward the empty place setting and
the family matriarch gets angry.
“Don’t you dare,” she says. “It’s Salsan’s. You know how much he loves my
“Mom, he’s not here,” her son says.
“He’ll be back soon,” the mother insists. “He never misses this.”
“It’s been two years.”
The scene fades away as the video voice-over says, “They’ll be missed more than
they’ll ever know.”
Mr. Lumpkin said the video offered the kind of messaging that could be effective
at convincing potential jihadists that joining the Islamist State will cost pain to their
In Tirana, Albania, Blendi Salaj, a radio host, was waiting to hear back from the
State Department about whether his application for $9,700 for funding for a
messaging project had been approved. A report last year by the Albanian Institute of
International Studies said the number of fighters from Albania who had joined the
Islamic State in 2014 was between 90 and 150.
Mr. Salaj said he wanted to appeal to jihadi aspirants through a series of
broadcast talks in which religious leaders will discuss tolerance for other religions.
He will broadcast those talks on his radio show, he said, and then will link to them
on social media. “We will get to the essence of what it is like to live beside other
people with tolerance,” he said. “It can be done.”
Follow Helene Cooper on Twitter @helenecooper.