Sunday, June 14, 2015

MIDDLE EAST: ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War, U.S. Concludes

By MARK MAZZETTI and MICHAEL R. GORDON JUNE 12, 2015,; copy of memo at

WASHINGTON — An internal State Department assessment paints a dismal
picture of the efforts by the Obama administration and its foreign allies to
combat the Islamic State’s message machine, portraying a fractured coalition
that cannot get its own message straight.

The assessment comes months after the State Department signaled that it
was planning to energize its social media campaign against the militant group.
It concludes, however, that the Islamic State’s violent narrative — promulgated
through thousands of messages each day — has effectively “trumped” the
efforts of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced

It also casts an unflattering light on internal discussions between
American officials and some of their closest allies in the military campaign
against the militants. A “messaging working group” of officials from the United
States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates, the memo says, “has not really
come together.”

“The U.A.E. is reticent, the Brits are overeager, and the working group
structure is confusing,” the memo says. “When we convened meetings with our
counterparts, I am certain we all heard about various initiatives for the first

The blunt assessment comes amid broader criticism that the military
campaign against the Islamic State is flagging. The group’s fighters recently
took over the city of Ramadi in western Iraq and have occupied Falluja and
Mosul for more than a year.

State Department officials have repeatedly said that “counter-messaging”
the Islamic State is one of the pillars of the strategy to defeat the group. But
Obama administration officials have acknowledged in the past that the group
is far more nimble in spreading its message than the United States is in
blunting it.

The internal document — composed by Richard A. Stengel, the State
Department’s under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs and a
former managing editor of Time magazine — was written for Secretary of State
John Kerry after a conference of Western and Arab officials in Paris this
month on countering the Islamic State.

A communiqué issued at the meeting took note of the Islamic State’s gains
and expressed the coalition’s determination to remove the group from the
territory it held in Iraq and Syria. The document was issued in the name of Mr.
Kerry, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius of France and Prime Minister Haider
al-­Abadi of Iraq. Mr. Kerry was in Boston recuperating from a broken leg, but
he spoke to the meeting by phone.

Mr. Stengel noted that the message from the conference — that a
disparate coalition of nations was resolute in destroying the Islamic State —
fell flat, with news media reports highlighting how little of substance seemed
to emerge from the meeting.

“From the outside, it mostly seemed exactly like business as usual,” he

The memo, labeled “sensitive but unclassified,” was given to The New
York Times by an Obama administration official.

Mr. Stengel did not respond to a request for comment. John Kirby, the
State Department spokesman, said that the memo “acknowledges what we’ve
made clear in the past: We must do a better job at discrediting ISIL in the
information space.” Mr. Kirby was using an acronym for an alternate name for
the group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

“The memo is an assessment not of the larger counter­-ISIL messaging
effort, but how the small group of coalition members communicates internally
and externally,” Mr. Kirby said, adding that Mr. Kerry would “take into
consideration” Mr. Stengel’s ideas and recommendations.

Spokesmen for the British and Emirati Embassies in Washington declined
to comment.

This year, administration officials said they planned to expand the State
Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, a tiny
office created in 2011 to combat terrorist messages on the Internet in real time.
The center employs specialists fluent in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi and Somali to
counter terrorist propaganda and misinformation, offering a competing
narrative that seeks to strike an emotional chord. The analysts also post
messages on English-­language websites that jihadists use to recruit, raise
money and promote their cause.

Mr. Stengel has also sought to work with other coalition members,
particularly Arab ones, to discredit the Islamic State in the hope of stemming
the flow of foreign fighters to the group. Mr. Kerry has said that the effort to
“start drying up this pool” of potential volunteers may be even more important
than military efforts.

When Mr. Kerry traveled to the Middle East in September to start
building a coalition against the Islamic State, Mr. Stengel went with him to
meet with Arab officials and establish what he called “a communications
coalition, a messaging coalition, to complement what’s going on the ground.”

A crucial part of the public diplomacy has involved encouraging Arab
religious leaders, Muslim scholars and Arab news media organizations to
denounce the Islamic State as a distortion of Islam. State Department officials
have praised the United Arab Emirates for establishing its own center to
counter the Islamic State’s prodigious propaganda.

But Mr. Stengel’s assessment makes clear that American officials believe
that much more needs to be done.

In the memo, he proposes to Mr. Kerry that a “communications hub” be
created somewhere in the Middle East — staffed by representatives from the
various coalition members — that would perform “daily and weekly messaging
around coalition activities” to fight the Islamic State, and that would have a
spokesman in Baghdad.

But even this, he said, would face hurdles.

“This seems like an obvious and simple solution — but I am sure it is not
as easy as it sounds for a hundred different reasons,” he wrote.

Still, Mr. Stengel did have one piece of good news for Mr. Kerry from the
Paris conference. An event at the Louvre intended to focus on the Islamic
State’s destruction of antiquities in Syria and Iraq, Mr. Stengel said, was a
success and could be followed up with an entire conference on the issue.
The conference, he wrote, could bring together “dealers, auction houses,
collectors, scholars” and others to highlight that trafficking in antiquities is a
“war crime” and a “tool of terrorism,” and is financing the Islamic State’s “dark

1 comment:

Shoofi said...

Social media play a vital role in middle east..