Terrorist organizations use the Internet to propagandize and recruit across the globe. So prevalent are extremist websites that they have been described as a "virtual caliphate" in cyberspace.
Several witnesses appearing before the Subcommittee in recent years have urged a more vigorous U.S. effort to combat terrorist use of the Internet. One cited "the absence of an effective campaign to counter al-Qaeda’s extremist ideology" as a central challenge. Another called U.S. efforts in this area "anemic."
Stepping into this void is the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, established by Executive Order last fall. While other U.S. agencies may hack into extremist chat rooms to sow confusion, render them useless, or collect intelligence, CSCC's mission is to "identify, confront, and undermine the communications of al-Qaeda and its affiliates." Or as the Ambassador will testify: "get in their heads."
Arabic, Urdu, and Somali speakers "contest" the online space, media websites and forums where al-Qaeda and its affiliates operate. As we will hear, the aim of its "digital outreach team" is to expose the inherent contradictions in al-Qaeda propaganda and bring to light its atrocities. One recent effort caught headlines: after the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen posted photos of coffins draped in American flags, the Center produced a counter-ad that replaced the flags with Yemeni ones - conveying that most victims of terrorist attacks are locals. These videos have been applauded by analysts for their use of "out of the box" thinking and ridicule.
This is all new. There are many issues to consider. Can the Center keep from becoming just another office, plagued by bureaucracy, with any innovation beaten out of it? Is it responding to events on the ground with appropriate "counter-narratives," to use the term of art? The digital outreach team, which includes many contract personnel, must master sensitive and complex issues, or it could do harm. How does the State Department oversee their work and avoid the quality control issues that have plagued U.S. international broadcasting efforts? Should its targeting go beyond al-Qaeda? Does the Center face legal constraints?
An overriding question facing the Center is its ability to measure impact. Anecdotally, terrorist propagandists have felt compelled to react to the Center’s work with vitriolic attack. In December, a top al-Qaeda website began discussing ways to counter videos posted by the digital outreach teams. State Department officials take the attitude that it is better to be hated than ignored. But at the end of the day, we need a measure of effectiveness. Are opinions changing – and if so, is the Center a significant influence, or is it just a commendable but ultimately futile attempt to empty an ocean of militancy with a spoon?
We look forward to discussing this promising initiative today.