Social media the latest battleground against IS
THE United States has launched a social-media offensive against the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda, setting out to win the war of ideas by ridiculing militants with a mixture of blunt language and sarcasm.
Diplomats and experts are the first to admit that the digital blitz being waged on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube will never be a panacea to combat the jihadists.
But US officials see social media as an increasingly crucial battlefield, as they aim to turn young minds in the Muslim world against groups like IS and Al-Qaeda.
For the past 18 months, US officials have targeted dozens of social-network accounts linked to Islamic radicals, posting comments, photos and videos, and often engaging in tit-fot-tat exchanges with those who challenge America.
At the US State Department, employees at the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), created in 2011, manage an Arabic-language Twitter account set up in 2012, an English-language equivalent and a Facebook page.
A senior US State Department official described the strategy as a kind of cyber guerilla campaign.
"It is not a panacea, it is not a silver bullet," the official explained. "It is slow, steady, daily engagement, pushing back on a daily basis... like guerilla warfare."
The murder of US journalist James Foley, whose execution on Aug 19 by IS militants was released in a video on the Internet, jolted the new breed of US cyber warriors into a frenzy.
Since Mr Foley's murder, the CSCC has ramped up its Twitter campaign, posting tributes to the slain reporter, opinion pieces and analyses on radical Islam from across the international media, along with cartoons and graphic photos.
The US officials say the social-media offensive is an attempt to "contest space" on social networks which had previously been dominated by Islamist radicals.
"Before we came along, the adversaries had this space to themselves," the official explained. "You had English-language extremists that could say any kind of poison and there would be very low pushback against them."
The ultimate aim is to make youth in the West or Muslim nations think twice before embarking on a journey to Syria or Iraq to join IS fighters.
The move is timely, given that Germany's domestic intelligence agency says the Internet plays an important role in recruiting youngsters.
In an interview yesterday, Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany's BfV domestic intelligence agency, revealed that some young Muslims are attracted to the IS in Iraq and Syria because of its brutality, which makes it appear "more authentic" than Al-Qaeda.
"The Islamic State is, so to speak, the 'in' thing - much more attractive than the Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda spin-off in Syria," he told Deutschlandfunk public radio.
"What attracts people is the intense brutality, the radicalism and rigour. That suggests to them that it is a more authentic organisation than even Al-Qaeda."