How the US is working to defeat ISIS online

How the US is working to defeat ISIS online
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The Obama administration is ramping up its efforts to fight terrorism online as extremist Islamic groups seek to motivate homegrown attackers.  

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Driving the effort is the recently set up Global Engagement Center, housed at the State Department but led by retired Navy SEAL Cmdr. Michael Lumpkin, a former top Pentagon official. 

The effort comes late in the administration, and more than two years after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria began its land-grabbing blitz across Iraq and Syria, prompting criticism from some Republicans in Congress for moving too slowly.  

It also comes after the State Department set up an earlier effort, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, whose government-branded videos have been widely seen as a failure. 

But Lumpkin, in a recent interview with The Hill, said the goal is to get the infrastructure in place to effectively counter terrorists' messaging beyond the Obama administration.  

One major difference between the new effort and the previous effort, he says, is that the GEC is an interagency body that pulls from all across government, including the intelligence community, versus just the State Department.  

"We bring all the best and the brightest from the interagency coming together in a single place," he said.  

The president has also given Lumpkin hiring authority that allows him to hire directly from outside the government -- "people who know the technology better than we may in social media," he said.  

The office is also planning to grow from 68 people to about 150.  

Its budget has grown from $5.6 million in 2015, to more than $15 million this year. The administration has requested $21.5 million for 2017.  

The amount, which comes out of the State Department's budget, equals less than two days worth of military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, at approximately $11.7 million a day. 

That's despite agreement across government that stopping terrorist propaganda online is as important as operations on the battlefield.  

"ISIS’s online dominance is just as critical to the organization as the large amounts of territory it controls in Iraq and Syria," said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) at a hearing on ISIS's "virtual caliphate" on Thursday.  

Another major difference from the previous effort is how the U.S. government is going about countering the message. 

Whereas the previous effort distributed U.S. government-branded messaging, Lumpkin says the GEC is applying a lesson honed by special operators during more than 15 years of war against terrorists around the world: 

"We recognize that it takes a network to defeat a network, so we're building a network of partners because we believe we have a very good message, we're not always just the most credible entity to convey that message," he said. 

"So we have partners that have a tremendous amount of credibility that we're working with to make sure they have the tools and capabilities to get out the word that Daesh is indeed a vicious awful organization that is rife with hypocrisy and everything else," he said, using a derogatory Arabic term for ISIS.  

So far, highlighting that hypocrisy is what's been shown to be most effective, particularly using defectors, Lumpkin said.  

"There's two ways to influence people, one is through, you know, logic, and then there's emotion," he said. "I think most of our efforts have been focused on having defectors tell their story."  

"It's about revealing their true nature so people understand they aren't what they say they are," he said. "They're not paying their fighters what they claim to be paying them, and nor is the quality of life what they're advocating."  

Lumpkin is also applying a mentality to the job learned after 21 years of military service as a special operator that seeks to cut across bureaucracy and get things done. 

"I think that we've had the most successes at building the partnership network and working with the interagency," he said.  

However, he still said there are barriers within the government, even with introducing new software to communicate across agencies.  

"What we're trying to do is build an innovative, agile organization, and while we're making significant inroads, it is just difficult based on the security constraints of IT networks and things of that nature," he said.  

"Each department has got its own rules and regulations and review procedures, and we just need to work through," he said. "It's not that it's not working, it's just frankly, it'll take some time to work through the process."  

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) recently noted during the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that the State Department currently needs 14 levels of review before sending out a Tweet.  

Those who receive State Department funding also have to meet a bar, albeit a lower one, of six levels of review, he added. By contrast, he said, "If you're a volunteer, you do a tweet."  

So far, there is cautious optimism from the Hill on the new efforts and support for expanding those efforts. 

A House Armed Services Committee aide said on background, "We've been pleased with the direction of the GEC so far. However, a lot of work remains to be done, including building the institutional foundation to ensure these efforts are able to take root and continue into the next administration." 

Lumpkin acknowledges that he is a race against time to build as much of the network and infrastructure as he can during the remainder of this administration, so that it persists after it leaves office.  

He also acknowledges the U.S. needs to get in front of extremist ideology sooner than later, even as the military campaign is succeeding in taking away territory from ISIS in Iraq and Syria. 

And although the GEC is mandated to counter extremist messaging to audiences outside of the U.S., the lines are blurring as ISIS and other groups increasingly shift their messaging to encouraging recruits to conduct attacks at home.  

Earlier this month, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American-born citizen, opened fire at an Orlando nightclub after consuming extremist propaganda and pledging allegiance to ISIS, killing 49 and wounding 53.  

"We can't kill our way to victory here. We can't. This is the fight. We have to prevent people from joining Daesh and organizations like it abroad," he said.  

"We've lost too many Americans, too many citizens of the world to groups like Daesh, Boko Haram, and things of that nature. This is the fight that needs to be won."

 

-- Updated 6/29/16 at 4:24 p.m.