As the Islamic State Propaganda Tide Turns

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The tide of the propaganda battle against the Islamic State has turned, an administration official announced Wednesday, just weeks after CIA director John Brennan said that the group had lost significant territory.
     “This narrative that we are losing the information war with ISIL is wrong. In fact, mainstream Muslims are winning the information war with ISIL,” Richard Stengel, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department, told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
     The Islamic State has waged a sophisticated, multi-faceted propaganda campaign to recruit fighters. Most of the focus on the group’s internet and social media presence has zeroed in on its graphic videos of torture, beheadings and firing squads as its most powerful recruiting force.
     But Stengel told the House committee that the group is getting more credit than it deserves.
     “There’s a misnomer about what they’re doing,” he said, “that somehow ISIL’s messaging is so diabolically clever that they’re taking nice young Muslim boys and girls and turning them into foreign terrorist fighters. That is not the case. They are tapping into an already existing market of grievance and unhappiness that is throughout the Arab-Muslim world,” he said.
     High unemployment, lack of education and repressive regimes have helped create that market, he said, adding that ISIL often targets the mentally ill for recruitment.
     U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, including the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, were conspicuously absent from his list of contributing factors, even though ISIL’s origins can be traced to Camp Bucca, a U.S. detention center in Iraq. Some of ISIL’s top command, including its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, met and were tortured in the prison, likely deepening their extremist resolve.
     But Stengel noted that 80 percent of Middle Eastern youth completely reject ISIL’s ideology, and would still reject it if the group renounced violence. A November 2015 Pew poll supports this claim. No Muslim-majority population surveyed showed more than 15 percent favorable attitudes toward the Islamic State.
     Still, the group has managed to sway people to join its ranks.
     Stengel, a former chief editor of Time Magazine, now directs his communication efforts at foreign audiences through the State Department’s counterterrorism messaging programs to combat ISIL’s influence, which Stengel says is waning.
     But Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., says the agency’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications has struggled to reach people.
     “Because its communications were ‘branded’ with the official State Department seal, nobody listened,” Royce said.
     Stengel acknowledged as much.
     “Public statements from U.S. government officials condemning ISIL can easily be used by the enemy as a recruitment tool,” he said. But the agency has shifted its tactics. It now works with individuals and organizations in Muslim countries to coordinate and amplify the voices of credible Muslims repulsed by ISIL’s vision and ideology.
     “That is ultimately where that battle of narratives will be won — when those regular voices dominate,” Stengel said.
     Stengel noted significant improvement in anti-ISIL messaging. “According to a recent RAND study, anti-ISIL content online outnumbers pro-ISIL content approximately six to one,” he said, noting that State Department analysis shows a 45 percent decline in Pro-ISIL content since 2014.
     “The lion’s share of it is individuals, and organizations and clerics – imams,” he said. Though noting some of it is government messaging, “most of it is the voices of mainstream Muslims,” he said.
     Stengel has also reached out to Islamic universities to help them streamline their messages, which Islamic scholar Tarek Elgawhary suggested before a Senate committee June 22.
     Elgawhary added that religious scholars need better media training to get their message out.
     “You can’t write a 40-page legal opinion and expect that to be trending on Twitter, that’s just not going to happen,” Elgawhary said.
     Stengel said his team can help religious scholars with brevity. “Here’s how you shorten a 68-page fatwa to three different tweets,” he said. “That is more effective.”
     A fatwa is a Muslim religious ruling.
     Royce was optimistic that new technologies capable of automatically deleting content could help in the propaganda battle, too.
     Stengel said tech companies have been instrumental in the information war thus far, and called their effort the “underwritten story.” ISIL propaganda videos, including beheadings, get taken down within a matter of minutes, and Twitter has removed roughly 125,000 pro-ISIL handles, he said.
     In a meeting with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg several weeks ago, Stengel learned that the social networking site has Arabic speakers working 24 hours a day, seven days a week to take down pro-ISIL content.
     The Committee and Stengel both avoided addressing the free speech issues associated with censoring internet content, but they were willing to discuss the challenges that remain. CIA director John Brennan cautioned mid-June that as ISIL loses territory, it will step up efforts to inspire lone-wolf attacks like the San Bernardino and Orlando shootings.
     Stengel expressed concern about the dangers, and said there is long-term and difficult work ahead to counter violent extremism. But he remained optimistic.
     “After nearly two and a half years in this office, I am confident that we have the right strategy to accomplish our mission,” he said.

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