Booker preparing bill to combat ISIS online recruitment

Greg Nash

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is preparing legislation to help combat the massive online propaganda machine the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) uses to recruit foreigners.

“I’m a little frustrated when it comes to our efforts at counter-messaging,” Booker said Wednesday during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on ISIS ideology.

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Booker said his bill would give the Department of Homeland Security “the tools to widely implement” courses in which college and high school students develop more effective counternarratives for other teenagers and young adults.

Jessica Stern, a research professor at the Boston University Pardee School for Global Studies, is set to offer the course with some State Department backing. But she told lawmakers on Wednesday that these efforts must be expanded.

“I think we really haven’t taken this issue ... seriously enough,” she said.

“One of the major gaps in our response to ISIS is the lack of investment in developing and disseminating effective counternarratives that are compelling to the millennial youth who are ISIS’s principal targets for recruitment,” she said. “To do this effectively, we need to listen closely to what ISIS says it wants to achieve and to what it claims to offer youth.”

And ISIS is offering youth an attractive message, said Bernard Haykel, director of the Institute of Transregional Studies in the Middle East at Princeton University, during his testimony.

“They’re very, very sophisticated in using our culture, basically things we have produced and then distorting them for their purposes,” he said.

Haykel mentioned that ISIS has been found to lure youth with its own versions of popular video games, such as Grand Theft Auto, before exposing them to the group's extremist ideology.

Lawmakers and experts alike agree the government has been ineffective at using its own digital propaganda to counter these Internet recruitment efforts. In May, Booker memorably held up examples of online jihadists postings during a Homeland Security hearing and said, “Look at their fancy memes compared to what we’re not doing.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, Booker noted the government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on outdated, Cold War-era propaganda initiatives that could be retooled.

“That’s just one tool in a toolbox,” Booker said, “but it’s one that I really don’t believe we’re doing that well.”

Federal agencies need to better suit their message for Middle Eastern countries, which skew young, Booker insisted. Nearly 30 percent of the Middle East's population is between the ages of 15 and 29, according to the Middle East Youth Initiative, a joint research project between the Brookings Institution and Dubai School of Government.

“You have, in all of these countries, massive youth populations,” Booker said.

He said a first step could be the template offered by Stern’s course. Stern mentioned that the program is now in 30 countries, including Bosnia and Saudi Arabia.

Booker’s bill could help spread it even farther.

“It’s so inexpensive compared with the money we spent on the military aspect,” Stern said. “We can afford to experiment and see what works.”