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Event in Review: State Dept’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications

HSPI hosted Ambassador Alberto Fernandez for a Strategy and Leadership Forum event on October 7th, providing a compelling articulation of the efforts of his team at the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication (CSCC).

The goal of CSCC is two-fold, he explained: to contest the adversary’s space and render them uneasy. Pushing back, however, is no easy task: the “jihadi” narrative is already entrenched, so it will be a long slow struggle to present an alternative worldview — an exercise that will involve more art than science. And as things now stand, ISIS is claiming victory in the form of momentum, territorial gains, and the ferocity of its fighters in battle.

CSCC operates in Arabic, English, Somali, and Urdu. The team’s work in English is relatively new, and began at the end of 2013, partly in response to al Shabaab’s live-tweeting the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. With just fifteen Arabic speakers, CSCC has issued 40,000 tweets in Arabic.

In all its languages of operation, CSCC targets the fence-sitters, as opposed to the already-committed who are unlikely to be dissuaded. Yet the so-called Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) has a much bigger footprint than CSCC in the social media universe. This is partly because ISIS benefits from what the Ambassador termed “fanboys” or “cheerleaders”, or as ISIS itself calls them, “knights of the uploading” — individuals who amplify the ISIS message by re-tweeting it.

Part of CSCC’s challenge stems from the appeal of ISIS’ message and trappings to impatient youth seeking immediate satisfaction. Think stirring imagery and rhetoric, including a catchy slogan (“The Islamic State is here to stay — and its growing”) and a “cool” flag.

To push back effectively, the Ambassador suggested, CSCC needs its own “knights of the uploading” who will help spread the message that, in fact, the Islamic State is not here to stay; and that ISIS is saying one thing, but doing another. On this last point, the Ambassador emphasized the hypocrisy of ISIS in saying that Islam is threatened by the U.S., the West, and Israel — yet it is al Qaeda and its ilk that are actually destroying Muslims.

When asked to compare ISIS and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Ambassador described the latter as less sophisticated than its successor in terms of use of social media.

While saying that it is ultimately up to governments in the region to come up with answers that rebut ISIS’ claims and resonate with local populations in the conflict zones, the Ambassador also observed that there is more that the private sector can do to speak to disaffected, urban Muslim youth. Whereas government can help convene efforts, it really is up to non-governmental entities to grow a wider community of interest and like-minded, building on the work of CSCC and others worldwide.

There are different ways to do counter-messaging, and the Ambassador emphasized that others (such as European governments) certainly need not do it the way that CSCC does. But, the bottom line, the Ambassador stated, is that the adversary’s appeal must be countered, and not simply permitted to stand — for, as al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri once said: media is half the battle. Or, as American foreign terrorist fighter Omar Hammami once said: the war of narratives is more important than the war on the ground.