Online, an uphill battle for U.S. agencies against terror recruitment

U.S. officials testified at a hearing of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Wednesday, describing the challenges they face in countering violent jihadi extremist propaganda online.

It’s an illustration of how great the challenges are for U.S. government agencies trying to counter online recruitment by Islamic terror groups, that the organizations and leaders overseas whose credibility they want to use to help steer young people away from extremism, mostly don’t wish to be known as American partners.

“We have pivoted from direct online engagement to partner-driven messaging and content,” Meagen LaGraffe, from the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, told a hearing of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Wednesday.

That’s meant abandoning the approach of the center’s predecessor, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications — whose small team of e-diplomats, always identifying themselves as U.S. government employees, hung out online with would-be Jihadis — and its trademark “Think again, turn away!” social media campaign.

“When CSCC was stood up” in 2011, LaGraffe said, “it was designed to fight a different enemy in a different time.”


Today, “While the U.S. government has a good message to tell, we are not always the most credible voice to tell it. Instead, there is an abundance of credible and diverse voices across the Middle East, Europe and Africa — governments, NGOs and civil society groups — that we are now leveraging in this fight,” she went on.

Alas, she couldn’t discuss most of this work. “We are not publicizing who many of our partners are, so that we don’t undermine their credibility,” she told lawmakers. 

The hearing came amid growing concerns about so-called “lone wolf” or “self-radicalized” terrorists — like those who carried out the San Bernardino and Orlando attacks. While inspired by the violent online and social media propaganda of Islamic extremist groups like ISIL and al-Qaida, such attackers often have no substantive contact with them and their deadly plans are not directed by, or even coordinated with, terrorist leaders — making them all but impossible to detect in advance.

Underlining the difficulties, the attackers in both the Boston and Orlando cases had previously been fingered as possible extremists and looked at by the FBI — who found no evidence of any crime or conspiracy. 

“We have to be aware of those first amendment issues,” said Michael Steinbach, executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, pointing out that merely reading and/or reposting online content, no matter how offensive, was not a crime.


“We depend on our partners to reach these individuals before they become radicalized,” he said. The time it took a radicalized convert to take action could be very short indeed: “That ‘flash to bang’ time is down in some cases to a number of days,” he said.

“By the time they’ve come to our attention, and we’ve predicated and opened a case against them, it’s too late,” Steinbach concluded.

But even domestically, the federal government probably isn’t the best partner to help the FBI in countering violent extremism, or CVE, Department of Homeland Security Office for Community Partnerships, or OCP, Director George Selim, told lawmakers. 

“We are aware that there is a limit to the effectiveness of government efforts with regard to countering terrorist recruitment and radicalization to violence, particularly in the online realm,” he said. 

“We at DHS can act as a facilitator, connector and convener, but ultimately, communities and individuals are best positioned to take action to counter violent extremism.”


That is why DHS is focused on “cultivating and empowering partners — particularly those in civil society and the private sector — to develop and amplify content that resonates” with the intended audience for violent jihadist propaganda: Young Muslims who because of their lack of theological background or emotional or mental problems are vulnerable to extremist recruitment.

Selim unveiled Thursday a $10 million grant program to help “empower credible voices in communities that are targeted” by ISIS for recruitment. The money, allocated by Congress in the fiscal year 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Act, will be administered jointly by OCP and FEMA. 

“This is the first time federal funding at this level will be provided, on a competitive basis, specifically to support local CVE efforts,” Selim added.

LaGraffe said the new CVE approach was “focused on changing audience behavior not attitudes.”

“Any long-term strategy to counter violent extremism cannot focus only on killing terrorists; it also means preventing the recruitment of new ones,” added LaGraffe, who was previously chief of staff in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict or SOLIC. Her boss, the head of the Global Engagement Center, Michael Lumpkin, was previously assistant secretary for SOLIC and is a 20-year Navy SEAL veteran.  


LaGraffe told lawmakers they were determined to quickly develop metrics to ascertain the effectiveness of their interventions. “We’re building a data analytics shop,” she said.

“For each campaign we bake in a requirement for analysis on the back end,” she said.

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