Homeland Security and Public Safety

War of Words: U.S. Fights Islamic Extremists on Social Media

A cyber effort by the U.S. State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications aims to counter al-Qaeda's online propaganda and steer away potential recruits.

This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 4, 2014, which is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Shakir Waheib, a senior member of the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, left, next to a burning police vehicle in Iraq's Anbar Province. (AP Photo via militant website, File)

In a recent online video, the German rapper Deso Dogg laughs as he glorifies jihad as "fun" and invites Muslims to join al-Qaeda's war against the Syrian regime.

"I invite you to jihad! jihad! jihad! jihad!," Deso Dogg, dressed in combat fatigues, chants. "It is not so creepy here as all say. It is not a horror movie here. This is jihad, jihad makes fun."

The odd thing is that the video was posted by the U.S. government — but with its own digital trailer including blurred scenes of beheadings and shootings of hostages at point-blank range.

The one-minute-20-second video ends with a group of jihadists standing around the purported dead body of Denis Cuspert — Deso Dogg's real name.

A message in Arabic declares that jihad was not "fun" for the Muslim convert from Germany, one of the foreigners who have flocked to Syria to support the jihadist cause and unseat President Bashar al-Assad.

The video is part of a major cyber effort by the U.S. State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) to counter al-Qaeda's online propaganda and steer away potential recruits in the West and Muslim world through an open exchange of views on social media networks.

"It is a war of thousands of skirmishes every week," coordinator Alberto Fernandez told dpa.

"We are not cyber police, we are not silencing people, but we confront and challenge them. We say, 'Wait a minute, you are saying that you are defending the Muslims, how can you defend the Muslims by killing them?’"

Dozens of Americans and hundreds of Europeans have joined al-Qaeda factions that often fight each other or undermine the Syrian rebels. Just last week, the U.S. confirmed an American as the first known citizen to have been involved in a suicide bombing in Syria.

Intelligence services worry that these battle-hardened militants could create new terrorist threats when they return home to Western countries — similar to the Arab veterans of the anti-Soviet fight in Afghanistan who returned home to create al-Qaeda.

A majority of Western fighters in Syria — estimated at 800 to 900 — come from Germany, Britain, France and the Netherlands, but European intelligence communities have largely resorted to arresting them and blocking or taking down their online sites, Fernandez said.

"It is not enough to seek to silence but to challenge them in real time and in real space," Fernandez said. "That is an area that the European governments could do more in answering the appeal of the extremists."

Isaac Kfir, professor of International Affairs and Law at Syracuse University, said that there was no public information about the existence of any European counterstrike online unit.

He, however, said that European intelligence is said to have established backchannel contacts with Assad's regime "to help curtail the travel of Europeans to join jihadi organizations."

Some 50 U.S. cyber operators have uploaded hundreds of videos and exchanged more than 25,000 messages on Facebook and Twitter with extremists and their potential recruits — in Arabic, Somali and Urdu — since the campaign started in September 2011.

"Al Qaeda puts such an emphasis on communication and on media," Fernandez said.

Fernandez noted that al-Qaeda issued its first Fatwa in 1998 — and it went unanswered by the U.S.

"We are beginning to do that now, but they had a head start of 12 years at least if not longer," he conceded.

In December, the CSCC launched an English language Twitter feed: Think Again. Turn Back.

"Assad and al-Qaeda in a race to destroy Syria, don't make it worse," reads one tweet which bears photographs of Assad and al-Zawahiri.

Another shows an iconic picture of Osama bin Laden watching TV in his Pakistan hideout, where he was killed by U.S. Special Forces in 2011. The message reads: "Would you throw away your life for those who hide far away?"

Some observers dismiss the U.S. online efforts.

"The work of the @ThinkAgain_DOS account is shoddy at best," Jonathan Krohn, a journalist who launched a Twitter account and a podcast dedicated to jihadist social media, told dpa.

"The account has no effect on the small jihadi Twitter community and it gets treated the same as any other Western troll: with disdain and witty replies," he said.

Krohn, who sometimes tussles with CSCC's operators, said if the U.S. government were serious in countering jihadi propaganda, it would treat them "like fellow human beings (and) start a respectful conversation."

"By throwing out soundbites and poorly designed propaganda photos of dead children, the State Department comes off more as a crazy, old hobo shouting in the middle of Times Square about the end (of) times than as a serious part of the debate within the jihadi Twitter subculture."

Fernandez, who has served as American ambassador to Equatorial Guinea, admits that gauging the effectiveness is challenging.

"I know the extremists hate what we are doing, because they say so, because they repeatedly try to silence us," he said.

In one case, the CSCC unit was engaged directly on Twitter with Omar Shafik Hammami, an Alabama-born member of the Somali militant group al-Shabaab. Hammami, who was later killed by al-Shabaab after he criticized their tactics, mocked CSCC's efforts.

In another exchange, a militant operator tweeting from @Qawlu_Sawarim ended the conversation saying: "I have no time to waste it to a dogs of hellfire like you. And infidels always live in hell."

©2014 Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany)