America Escalates Overseas Propaganda War
Pentagon trying to ‘out-message’ terrorists online
To save money, the Pentagon is cutting troops, planes and overseas bases. But there’s at least one area where the military is getting more active—on the Internet and social media, where America is escalating its information war against terrorists.
In February, the Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies hosted a workshop in Ethiopia for U.S. government officials and their African counterparts. The topic? How to counter “violent extremist messaging.”
And a week before that, the Army issued a request for information from the private sector on providing “social media data-mining” and “social media monitoring and analysis.”
Data-miners sift through vast troves of Internet traffic to find useful intelligence. Media monitors basically spend all day reading and summarizing Facebook and Twitter posts and online news stories. Basically, monitoring is for context. Mining is for detail.
The ground combat branch wants to deploy data-miners and media-monitors in Europe to track “violent extremist influences” from around the world.
It might sound like the policy equivalent of vaporware, which gobbles up vast sums of money without ever really doing anything—but in fact, social media and Internet news are true Internet battlegrounds.
Activists took to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other media to organize the Arab Spring protests that rattled governments across the Middle East and North Africa. For years terrorists have used social media to spread their ideology and recruit followers.
In September, the Al Shabab terror group in Somalia Tweeted a brutal play-by-play of its bloody attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The online taunting only underscored the country’s embarrassing response to the crisis.
Al Shabab has been a particularly prolific social media user. Notably, American-born Omar Hammami, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Mansoor Al Amriki, had given the the group an English-speaking voice on YouTube and Twitter.
Hammami regularly engaged with researchers and journalists. After breaking away from the militant group last year, he continued to Tweet … right up until Al Shabab agents killed him. Al Shabab and its media savvy was clearly the focus of the American-run conference in Addis Ababa.
The Pentagon could model the new online campaign on its earlier efforts. After 9/11, European Command worked with other government agencies to launch Magharebia, a government-run online “news” outlet.
Magharebia and a similar site, Sabahi, now belong to Africa Command. The sites publish military-approved articles in a number of languages, including English.
The general themes of the sites are fairly predictable. Democracy good. Terrorists bad. Good governance equals security. The Pentagon hopes—perhaps a tad optimistically—that Magharebia and Sabahi can function as antidotes to extremist messaging from groups like Al Shabab.
The news Websites are part of AFRICOM’s little-known Operation Objective Voice, an inter-agency affair also involving the State Department and the Agency for International Development.
Since 2009, Military Information Support Teams from Special Operations Command have deployed to Kenya, Mali and Nigeria to help promote Objective Voice. AFRICOM says its forces play only a supporting role. Local contributors write the articles on topics they choose themselves.
The operation has also funded sporting events in Mali and a film project in northern Nigeria.
Not everyone is thrilled with the program. Last year, American diplomats told the General Accountability Office that “such Websites have the potential to unintentionally skew U.S. policy positions or be out of step with U.S. government efforts in a particular country.”
In response Rep. Jeff Denham, a California Republican, proposed to strip from the 2014 Pentagon budget the entire $19.7-million budget for Magharebia, Sabahi and other sites.
The measure failed. The Pentagon named Objective Voice as one of the activities the Pentagon kept running during last year’s government shutdown. And with the recent workshop and industry request, the online information battle is only escalating.