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US trying to battle al-Qaida attempt to recruit English speakers

Friday, December 06, 2013

The campaign is starting at a time when intelligence officials say dozens of Americans have traveled or tried to travel to Syria since 2011 to fight with the rebels against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen now puts English subtitles on its website propaganda. The Shabab, the Islamist extremist group in Somalia, publish an English-language online magazine.

State Department officials acknowledge that the new program is a modest trial run that faces a vast array of English-language websites, Twitter feeds, YouTube videos and Facebook pages that violent extremist groups have established largely uncontested in the past few years. But American and European intelligence officials warn that Al Qaeda’s efforts to recruit English-speaking fighters could create new terrorist threats when the battle-hardened militants return home.

For the past three years, a small band of online analysts and bloggers in a tiny State Department office have focused their efforts on trying to understand what inspires their target audience — men 18 to 30 years old, mostly in the Middle East — to violent extremism, and on finding ways to steer them away from that. The analysts speak Arabic, Urdu, Somali and Punjabi.

In the pilot program that began Wednesday, the same analysts will for the first time also post messages on English-language websites that jihadists use to recruit, raise money and promote their cause. For now, the analysts will post only images and messages, not engage extremists in online conversations, as they do in the other languages.

“We need to be ready to blunt their appeal,” said Alberto M. Fernandez, a former American ambassador to Equatorial Guinea who is the coordinator of the State Department office, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.

The online messaging aims to create a competing narrative that strikes an emotional chord with potential militants weighing whether to join a violent extremist group. One online image, for instance, shows photographs of three American men who traveled to Somalia and died there, including Omar Hammami, a young man from Alabama who became an infamous Islamist militant. The accompanying message reads, “They came for jihad but were murdered by Al Shabab.”

Another image to be posted shows a young man weeping over a coffin. The message reads, “How can slaughtering the innocent be the right path?”

A posting aimed at English speakers considering whether to travel to Syria bears a split photograph of Mr. Assad and Ayman al-Zawahri, the Qaeda leader. The message reads: “Assad and Al Qaeda in a race to destroy Syria. Don’t make it worse.”

Each of the online posts carries a warning: “Think again. Turn away.”

To counter the use of the Internet by extremists over the past decade, American cyberwarriors have gone into chat rooms to sow confusion, or to inject poisonous code to take down websites. Sometimes, they choose not to act, but silently track the online movements of jihadists to learn their plans.

By contrast, the center’s postings will be clearly identified as products of the State Department and will in some cases carry the agency’s logo, agency officials said. The postings are aimed at foreign websites, though Americans, obviously, can visit the sites.

“Many jihadi foreign fighters from the West and at least one Al Qaeda affiliate, the Shabab, use English to recruit new soldiers online and sway the media, so it makes sense for the C.S.C.C. to write in English when trying to blunt their efforts,” said William McCants, a former State Department counterterrorism official who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The State Department efforts are part of a broader public diplomacy push across the United States government to combat violent extremism. The military’s Central Command established a Digital Engagement Team in 2008 to carry out similar tasks. The team consists of 12 native speakers of Arabic, Pashto, Dari, Urdu, Persian and Russian. Russian is spoken across the Muslim countries of the former Soviet states of Central Asia.

In September, the United States and Turkey announced the creation of a $200 million fund to combat violent extremism by undercutting the ideological and recruiting appeal of jihadists in places like Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan.

The new fund, the Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience, will award grants to an array of projects, including websites and social networks to educate young people about the dangers of extremist ideologies.

Al Qaeda and its affiliates have already used their online prowess with deadly effect. The authorities say that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev used information published in an issue of Al Qaeda’s online magazine, Inspire, to fashion the pressure-cooker bombs used in the Boston Marathon attack this year.

Administration officials acknowledge that many challenges remain. Financing delays and bureaucratic inertia have in the past hampered Mr. Fernandez’s center and its three dozen staff members. But State Department officials said that the Boston attack and mounting evidence of Al Qaeda’s appeal to English speakers also focused attention on the problem in recent months at other agencies, including the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon, as well as, most important, the White House.

Officials said they would adjust the messages if necessary, and would decide in the next several months whether to make the effort permanent, and possibly expand it. Gauging the effort’s effectiveness will be challenging, but even interrupting Al Qaeda’s unimpeded English-language efforts would amount to a modest success, officials said.

“They were setting the narrative and had a free shot at the audience for radicalizing people,” Mr. Fernandez said in an interview. “Nobody was calling them” on it.


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