Ex-terrorist explains how to fight ISIS online

CNN/December 19, 2015

By Elizabeth Cohen and Debra Goldschmidt

They look like scenes from a Hollywood movie.

Swiftly moving panoramic shots of mountains and fields dissolve to a circle of smiling, gun-wielding soldiers enjoying camaraderie. A young man speaking perfect English beckons his brothers to join him in battle. Underneath the images, a track of soulful music enhances his emotional plea.

But this video isn't from Hollywood. It's from ISIS.

The Islamic State's online recruitment is so powerful that the U.S. government is having a difficult time counteracting it, according to experts who study efforts by both sides.

They say even just the name of the State Department's anti-terrorism campaign -- "Think Again, Turn Away" -- is pretty lame.

"I have a lot of friends in the State Department and I respect their efforts, and their intentions are good, but seriously -- 'think again, turn away?'" said Nadia Oweidat, noting that it's a hard name to remember and also that those who are sympathetic to ISIS won't take directives from the U.S. government.

Oweidat, a senior fellow in the international security program at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, has some advice for the State Department: Reconsider the whole effort, because it's just not working well.

"It's ineffectual. It's simply ineffectual," she said.

"It's not reaching the right population. It's not reaching the potential jihadists," added Daniel Cohen, coordinator of the military and strategic affairs program and the cyberwarfare program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Abu Hurriya agrees. And he should know.

He was recently released from a U.S. prison for propagandizing on behalf of a terrorist organization.

The same reasons a kid joins a gang

Abu Hurriya -- not his real name -- said he was once the chief propagandist for al Qaeda in the United States, helping recruit hundreds of Americans into the fold.

He was once a lost, angry young man -- a "seeker" who went through the radicalization process, just as young people are going through it today.

"I can put myself in their shoes because I was once in them," said Abu Hurriya, 37, who was born and raised in New York. "I don't justify it because I don't think you can justify it, but at the end of the day I understand how they can get to that point. They're young and vulnerable. It's the same way that a kid in the ghetto joins a gang."

He said the ISIS recruitment video with the panoramic views and warm camaraderie hits the sweet spot for angry young men and women who are searching for a purpose in life and a community of like-minded souls.

John Horgan, a psychologist at Georgia State University, agreed.

"Part of being young is about finding your place in the world," Horgan said. "It's empowering when someone comes along and convinces you you're destined for greater things."

Abu Hurriya pointed to a video that uses a different and equally as effective tactic: professional-quality, fast-paced computer-generated graphics and symbols designed to resonate with members of the gamer generation.

Compare that video to a video from the State Department, which is made up entirely of static photos and text.

Lives at stake

Without better counterterrorism messaging, the United States could continue to see homegrown attacks by ISIS admirers, such as the Boston Marathon bombers and the San Bernardino shooters, Abu Hurriya, Cohen and Oweidat said.

The U.S. government seems to agree that it needs to step up their game.

"We need to do more to counter their messaging online," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier this week.

"We have to figure out what it is, that 21st century means of communication for government. It's not propaganda and it's not press releases. It's something in between," Richard Stengel, the State Department's under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, said at a talk at New America earlier this week.

"It's a big challenge for government because government doesn't always move rapidly and nimbly."

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama said, "Our campaign to prevent people around the world from being radicalized to violence is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds."

Abu Hurriya, Cohen, Oweidat and other experts said it's a battle the United States can win if it does it right. Here's their advice.

1. Let others do the talking

A young person who's seriously considering committing murder in the name of Islam would never pay attention to a tweet or a video from the U.S. government, no matter how expertly crafted, Abu Hurriya and Oweidat said.

The State Department seems to agree.

"We know the U.S. government is not always the best messenger to reach out to the most vulnerable populations, a senior State Department official said. "The most effective voices to counter ISIL's narrative come from our partners in Muslim-majority countries. We will continue to build those relationships, indeed to expand them."

One of those partners is the Sawab Center, a "joint operations center for online engagement" in the United Arab Emirates, the official said, adding that the State Department is also working with the Malaysian government and the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, which have announced intentions to open similar centers.

Oweidat recommended that the State Department also support individual scholars and intellectuals who have credence in the Muslim world: Californian Hamza Yusuf; Egyptian Islam al-Behery; Iraqi Ayad Jamal al-Din; Saudis Ibrahim al-Buleihi and Turki al-Hamad; and Bahrinian Dhiyaa al-Musawi.

2. Present an alternative world view

ISIS tries to sell a certain worldview to seekers in the United States: that their country hates Muslims and is actively trying to destroy Islam.

Oweidat, who grew up in Jordan, argued the U.S. government needs to lay out the truth plainly.

"They need to take apart that narrative," she said. "Muslims in America are so much better off than in the entire globe. I grew up in the Arab world and witnessed firsthand the systematic and structural silencing of those who espouse liberal values like democracy, diversity and freedom of religion.

"America is so awesome -- it shouldn't be hard to sell. People risk their lives to come here Let's tweet how the U.S. gives scholarships to Arab and Muslim students, and how the U.S. is the largest donor to Syrian refugees."

3. Don't shoot yourself in the foot

A recent tweet from the State Department's "Think Again, Turn Away" campaign, noted that Italy was sending 450 troops to Iraq.

That plays right into ISIS' hands, Abu Hurriya said.

In one of the group's videos, ISIS discusses a prophecy that 80 countries will rise up against Islam.

Pointing out that countries are sending troops to the region just seems to prove ISIS' point.

4. Step up the production values and volume

ISIS uses slick videos to sell its point of view. The United States should, too, experts said.

And the United States needs to be on social media nonstop, just like ISIS.

"Every region controlled by ISIS has its own production company, and every day they're publishing," Cohen said. "People sit around for hours tweeting and re-tweeting and sending messages all around."

The U.S. efforts aren't as prolific, he said, and not as shared, either. For example, the State Department tweet above about Italian troops was re-tweeted only eight times.

5. Attack the snake from the head

Cohen noted that the ISIS effort seems to be well-funded and led by people who know what they're doing.

"Who are the people behind this? Who are the resources? Who's giving the money for it? Who's running the IT production?" he asked. "We need to get to the minds behind it. We need to dig deeper."


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