Obama administration plans shake-up in propaganda war against the Islamic State
By GREG MILLER AND KAREN DEYOUNG | The Washington Post | Published: January 8, 2016
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is overhauling its faltering efforts to combat the online propaganda of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, U.S. officials said, reflecting rising White House frustration with largely ineffective efforts so far to cut into ISIS's use of social media to draw recruits and incite attacks.
Officials will create a new counterterrorism task force, which will be based at the Department of Homeland Security but aims to enlist dozens of federal and local agencies. Other moves include revamping a State Department program that was created to serve as an information war room to challenge the Islamic State online and erode its appeal.
U.S. officials said the unit at the State Department will turn its focus toward helping allies craft more localized anti-terrorism messages and will stop producing any videos or other material in English – ending a campaign that had been derided by critics.
The plans were announced by the White House on Friday, as senior members of President Obama's national security team traveled to California in a renewed effort to enlist Silicon Valley companies to help contain the morphing terrorist threat. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, spy chief James R. Clapper Jr. and FBI Director James B. Comey were to meet with executives from Apple, Facebook, Twitter and other firms.
The moves come at a time of increasing public anxiety and criticism of the administration's strategy after recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, that were linked to or partly inspired by the Islamic State. Although some of the initiatives have been in development for months, U.S. officials acknowledged a heightened sense of urgency and opportunity.
"Everybody realizes that this is a moment . . . to take advantage of," a senior administration official said before the announcement. The official added that the objective in sending so many top officials to Silicon Valley was to make sure the tech firms "understand what we are up against with respect to ISIL."
The official was one of several who were authorized to discuss the plans on the condition of anonymity.
But the changes are also likely to be seen as the latest sign of turmoil in U.S. government attempts to disrupt recruitment and radicalization efforts by terrorist groups that increasingly exploit social-media platforms and encrypted-communications technologies, often developed in the United States but beyond the reach of law enforcement.
The State Department's counter-messaging team has had three leaders in a little more than a year and has cycled through multiple strategies in its search for a way to counter the massive propaganda output of the Islamic State. The FBI has also ramped up efforts against violent extremism, opening nearly 1,000 cases across the country and cultivating closer ties to Muslim communities. Even so, it was caught off-guard by the San Bernardino rampage last month.
A report released this week by the conservative Heritage Foundation concluded that U.S. strategy for countering violent extremism "has fallen short, lacking meaningful attention and resources."
The changes unveiled Friday appear to be centered on bureaucratic and strategic adjustments, with little indication of any substantial increase in resources.
U.S. officials said that the State Department's counter-messaging operation would be re-branded the Global Engagement Center but acknowledged that its annual budget for now remains unchanged at about $5 million.
Planning that led to the new initiatives was set off in February at a Washington summit held by Obama to spark ideas and buy-in here and abroad. In September, Obama convened another international meeting at the U.N. General Assembly.
"Ultimately, it is not going to be enough to defeat ISIL in the battlefield," Obama told representatives from more than 100 nations and civil society groups. "We have to prevent it from radicalizing, recruiting and inspiring others to violence in the first place. And this means defeating their ideology."
But one of the biggest problems the administration has faced is determining whether any of it is working. As the U.S. government's counter-messaging campaign has grown, so has the Islamic State's recruitment spread. Recent attacks outside the Middle East indicate that the group has grown more powerful, rather than less.
"That is the billion-dollar question," one official said of how they determine whether the campaign is actually accomplishing anything. "We don't have great, perfect data on why people become radicalized or why people change their mind. . . . You can't prove a negative – 'How many young guys did you prevent going to Syria today?' – We don't know the answer to that. What we can do is learn what kinds of messages resonate."
In the absence of evidence, and in the face of more attacks, the new initiatives inevitably appear to be shuffling the deck chairs rather than introducing new, proven strategies.
"It doesn't sound sexy to say we're setting up a task force to better coordinate the United States government," acknowledged another official. "I understand that there's skepticism; we've all been at this problem for a long time."
The centerpiece of the administration's revised plan is the new task force at the Department of Homeland Security that officials said would coordinate all of the government's domestic counter-radicalization efforts and serve as a conduit for ideas, grants and other resources to community groups across the country.
The task force will be led by George Selim, a Homeland Security official who previously served at the White House as director for community partnerships – a position that put him in regular contact with local law enforcement agencies and Muslim communities.
U.S. officials said that the new unit will be made up of representatives from at least 11 different departments or agencies and that its mission will involve using data to find better ways to combat radicalization, as well as funding and supporting intervention efforts.
Part of the outreach will be to U.S. Muslim communities, although officials cautioned that the environment for these Americans has become more toxic in recent months amid the fallout from the Paris and San Bernardino attacks.
"The climate overall has become pretty bad," a U.S. official said. "Our business is an uphill business."
The revamped State Department program will be led by Michael Lumpkin, a former U.S. naval officer who since 2013 has served as assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.
He takes over an organization that became a point of controversy last year for the mocking tone and gruesome images it used in videos and other materials posted online targeting the Islamic State. The group has abandoned aspects of that strategy and is now largely focused on working with other governments to set up overseas messaging centers that officials hope will have more credibility with Islamic State followers.
"We're not the most effective messenger for the message we want to get out," a U.S. official said. As a result, the State Department unit has already helped set up a messaging center in the United Arab Emirates, with plans for others in places including Malaysia and Nigeria.
Friday's high-level conference with senior executives of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Apple is the administration's most ambitious attempt to persuade those companies to collaborate in the counter-militant campaign.
"The idea is to come out with a work plan," one administration official said. "Nobody wants to have their platforms co-opted by terrorists."
But companies have been reluctant to cooperate on critical fronts with the government, which has pressured firms to alter encryption systems used in smartphones and other devices to enable the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to monitor communications.
The roster arriving in Silicon Valley represented almost every top national security official in the U.S. government. Others attending included White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers and Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.
The assembled firepower was puzzling to some in Silicon Valley, who said there was no expectation that companies were prepared to grant major new concessions. Many were angered by the public fallout for their prior cooperation with the government, the extent of which was exposed in documents leaked by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
"Being seen as having the U.S. government force our hands makes others around the world lose confidence in us," said an industry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the discussions. "We understand that the White House [has] a political need to show progress, but we don't necessarily share that political need."
The Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima contributed to this story.