TIME foreign affairs

The State Department’s Twitter War With ISIS Is Embarrassing

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
Reuters

Rita Katz is the director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which studies jihadi extremists’ behavior online.

An English-language outreach program is not only ineffective, but also provides jihadists with a stage to voice their arguments

Thirteen years into the war on terror, it is distressing to see certain ways the U.S. government is combating domestic radicalization by groups like al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS). Among the more embarrassing of these ventures is the “Think Again Turn Away” campaign, launched in English in December 2013 by the United States Department of State as part of an effort to enter the war of ideas and win over hearts and minds of jihadists on social media. (Earlier efforts began in Arabic and Urdu in 2011.) And while the State Department is making a great step in the right direction by recognizing the importance of social media in jihadi recruitment, the Think Again Turn Away campaign has been anything but valiant—particularly on Twitter. This outreach by the U.S. government is not only ineffective, but also provides jihadists with a stage to voice their arguments—regularly engaging in petty disputes with fighters and supporters of groups like IS (also known as ISIS), al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, and arguing over who has killed more people while exchanging sarcastic quips.

U.S. Department of State

The Think Again Turn Away Twitter account has over 7,300 followers and has made more than 1,900 tweets since it was created in December 2013—roughly six to seven tweets per day. The account uses two approaches: tweeting counter messaging material and addressing prominent jihadist accounts.

The account’s counter-message material is mostly taken from the media, with articles related to the jihadi threat. For instance, on September 15 the account sent tweets touting articles such as “Grassroots citizen effort to defeat #ISIS using technology to track them”; “US President condemns murder of David Haines; his brother says #ISIS not about Islam, only terror”; and “Girls marry jihadis, frequently widowed, subject to polygamy; see non-Muslim female slaves.”

Though these messages are unlikely to be effective coming from the State Department, I would accept the argument that they’re not actually doing any harm. However, the account’s second approach of directly addressing and engaging with jihadist accounts is where things start to get ridiculous.

Illustrating these discussions is, for instance, one initiated on September 4 when an IS-supporting account, under the handle @de_BlackRose, showed gruesome pictures of tortured prisoners from the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal in 2003-2004 along with the message: “REMEMBER HOW YOU AMERICA ARRESTED AND HUMILIATED OUR BROTHERS IN IRAQ AND HUMILIATED THEM IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY!!”

Following a couple of messages of support, the Think Again Turn Away account responded, “US troops are punished for misconduct, #ISIS fighters are rewarded,” along with a collage of U.S. soldiers interacting happily with children in the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, the user, along with other IS followers, jumped on the opportunity to drag the U.S. government in a discussion about the Abu Ghraib scandal. @de_BlackRose, along with likeminded others, rebutted to Think Again Turn Away’s response with such replies as, “loool in spilling their bloods only a misconduct? Well that’s not enough,” “poor children where Americans fooling them with their smiles,” and “well only in june did isis crucify one if its fighters for robbing civilians at checkpoint.”

Even then, Think Again Turn Away persisted through the conversation, tweeting, “This is what children see under #ISIS rule, this brand of honor and respect,” and included a picture of children standing around a crucified soldier in the street of an unidentified city. From here, over a dozen anti-American tweets were made at the account, most of which from @de_BlackRose, stating, “looool you dont know about shariah.. better think again and turn away..”; and, “i rather my children see this so they know whats their fate when they aganst shariah of ALLAH, than democazy.”

Now, while no one would doubt that the Abu Ghraib scandal was a brutal act of torture on the part of American soldiers in Iraq, the topic is one the U.S. government should probably avoid conversing about on Twitter—especially to an audience it is trying to sway. Yet, the State Department showed no such tact.

Think Again Turn Away’s involvement in counterproductive conversations has been a regular occurrence for some time now. Some of the most tragic of these conversations are often shared with “Amreeki Witness,” a pro-IS user and a follower of late jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki. Amreeki Witness’s Twitter account profile pictures directly mock that of Think Again Turn Away: the Arabic text from the IS banner inside of the Department of State seal and the IS flag on top of the White House. The page info section reads: “Dedicated to raising awareness about the upcoming conquest of the Americas, and the benefits it has upon the American people.

The State Department responded to an August 6 tweet by Amreeki Witness stating, “IS has flaws, but the moment you claim they cut off the heads of every non-Muslim they see, the discussion is over.” Though the discussion was not addressed to them, Think Again Turn Away replied, “#ISIS tortures, crucifies & shoots some- ISIS also gives ultimatums to Christians: convert, pay or die- Some flaws u say?”

Amreeki Witness, thrilled to be noticed by the U.S. Government, and given a stage on which to launch radical jihadist views toward Think Again Turn Away’s thousands of followers, provided a long series of rebuttals, some of which linking to form lengthy attacks. The Think Again Turn Away account, instead of ignoring the claims of a pro-IS jihadist, dignified them by responding, “#ISIS confiscated food, houses, stole millions from banks & has only brought suffering and death to innocents- Join reality!”

Of course, the State Department’s intent here is to hijack the audience of accounts like Amreeki Witness in order to address the moderate Muslims on the fence regarding jihad—their real target audience. However, these exchanges, as illustrated by the overwhelming response from Amreeki Witness as compared to that of Think Again Turn Away, frequently backfire by providing jihadists legitimacy and a stage on which to project their messages.

The State Department account is not only a gaffe machine, but in fact some of its tweets walk dangerous ethical lines. On September 11, for example, Australian cleric Abu Sulayman, an official leader within AQ al-Nusra Front in Syria, tweeted, “On this day, in 2001, the USA’s largest economic shrine, the idol of capitalism was brought to the ground..the toll of injuctice is hefty.”

To this tweet, by the AQ official, the Think Again Turn Away account jumped in, tweeting, “Nobody’s a bigger fan of the fruits of capitalism than so-called #ISIS Caliph” and provided a picture pointing out IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s watch, stating it was a “Rolex.”

Now, al-Muhajir, an AQ and al-Nusra Front religious leader, is among the most prominent opposing figures of Baghdadi and IS, who has been fighting IS and its leadership for more than a year, and constantly fight against the group physically and religiously. So why would the State Department tweet to the AQ leader bashing a figure he already opposes?

Even worse, Sulayman is not just another AQ supporter, but an AQ official! The irony is ugly: When State Department makes a series of tweets about the horrors of 9/11 and attacking those that committed it, it also tweets directly to an AQ leader, providing legitimization to the account of the same people who committed the attacks.

Any competent foreign policy analyst knows that the al-Nusra-IS feud is one all jihadists are attuned to, so the State Department’s tweet to Sulayman and his 18,000 followers could only suggest that the U.S. is clueless to the jihadi landscape.

On July 30, responding to an IS fighter discussing the training of newcomers at IS training camps, the Think Again Turn Away tweeted, “everything #ISIS does is hardest on their victims & families- #alqaeda ideology shames humanity,” and provided a link their video titled, “Welcome to the ‘Islamic State’ land (ISIS/ISIL).” The video, widely discussed by the media in recent weeks, is a grim parody of IS recruitment materials, sarcastically stating that Muslims should come to the Islamic State wherein one “can learn useful new skills for the Ummah [Nation],” which include “Blowing up mosques” and “Crucifying and executing Muslims.”

Videos like this clearly illustrate that the U.S. government lacks the basic understanding of recruitment of young Westerners, that these ghastly scenes of executions and destruction are exactly what groups like IS have been using as recruitment propaganda.

The video prompted anti-American responses, including a counter-spoof video, published on September 7, by jihadi Twitter account of “tawheedvlag,” telling viewers, “Run Do not walk to US Terrorist State…Where you can learn usefull new anti Islam skills.”

In order to counter a problem, one must first study it before adopting a solution. Had the people behind Think Again Turn Away understood jihadists’ mindsets and reasons for their behavior, they would have known that their project of counter messaging would not only be a waste of taxpayer money, but ultimately be counterproductive.

To be fair, I acknowledge that the State Department’s project, at the very least, may serve as a noble undertaking by those in power to fight an idea while preserving free speech. Sadly, though, that’s all the credit I can give it. I would much rather see the State Department’s online ventures involved in projects that explain the great things American policies have achieved—not arguing with jihadi fighters on who killed more innocent Muslims.

Rita Katz is the director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which studies jihadi extremists’ behavior online.

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