The Washington Post reports: As fighters surged into Syria last summer, a video surfaced online with the grisly imagery and sneering tone of a propaganda release from the Islamic State.
“Run, do not walk, to ISIS Land,” read the opening line of a script that promised new arrivals would learn “useful new skills” such as “crucifying and executing Muslims.” The words were juxtaposed with images of the terrorist group’s atrocities: kneeling prisoners shot point-blank; severed heads positioned next to a propped-up corpse; limp bodies left hanging from crosses in public squares.
The source of the video was revealed only in its closing frame: the U.S. Department of State.
“Welcome to ISIS Land” was in some ways a breakthrough for the U.S. government after years of futility in attempting to compete with the propaganda of al-Qaeda and its off-shoots. The video became a viral phenomenon — viewed more than 844,000 times on YouTube — and a cause of significant irritation to its target.
But the minute-long recording also became a flash point in a much broader debate over how far the United States should go in engaging with a barbaric adversary online.
The clip was assembled by a special unit at the State Department charged with finding ways to contain the spread of militant Islamist ideology. The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, or CSCC, had direct backing from President Obama, help from the CIA, and teams of Arabic, Urdu and Somali speakers who were thrust into the fray on Twitter and other social-media platforms.
The center was to function “like a war room in a political campaign — shake things up, attack ads, opposition research,” said Alberto Fernandez, a veteran U.S. diplomat who was put in charge of the group. The video targeting the Islamic State, which is also known by the abbreviations ISIS and ISIL, was emblematic of that edgy approach, using the enemy’s own horrific footage to subvert the idea that recruits were “going off to Syria for a worthy cause,” Fernandez said, “and to send a message that this is actually a squalid, worthless, dirty thing.”
In seeking to change minds overseas, however, the CSCC also turned heads in Washington. Experts denounced the group’s efforts as “embarrassing” and even helpful to the enemy. Critics at the State Department and White House saw the use of graphic images as a disturbing embrace of the adversary’s playbook. And for all the viral success of “ISIS Land,” even the center’s defenders could never determine whether it had accomplished its main objective: discouraging would-be militants from traveling to Syria. [Continue reading…]