US campaign aims to blunt extremists' online recruitment

Campaign aims to blunt online push by extremists to lure English speakers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 December, 2013, 5:38am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 December, 2013, 5:38am


Concerned by the attempts of al-Qaeda and its global affiliates to attract more Americans and other Westerners, the US State Department is expanding its online efforts to combat violent extremists' recruitment of English speakers.

The campaign is starting as intelligence officials say dozens of Americans have travelled or tried to travel to Syria since 2011 to fight with the rebels against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Al-Qaeda's operation in Yemen now has English subtitles on website propaganda. Al-Shabab, the extremist group in Somalia, publishes an English-language online magazine.

US State Department officials acknowledge that the programme is a modest trial run facing an array of English-language websites, Twitter feeds, YouTube videos and Facebook pages that violent extremist groups have established, largely uncontested, in the past few years.

However, US and European intelligence officials warn that al-Qaeda's efforts to recruit English-speaking fighters could create new threats when battle-hardened militants returned home.

For the past three years, a small band of online analysts and bloggers in a tiny State Department office have focused their efforts on trying to understand what inspires their target audience - men 18 to 30 years old, mostly in the Middle East - to violent extremism, and on finding ways to steer them away from that. The analysts speak Arabic, Urdu, Somali and Punjabi.

In the pilot programme that began on Wednesday, the same analysts also have started to post messages on English-language websites that jihadists use to recruit, raise money and promote their causes. For now, the analysts will post only images and messages, and not engage extremists in online conversations.

"We need to be ready to blunt their appeal," said Alberto Fernandez, a former US ambassador to Equatorial Guinea who is the co-ordinator of the office, which is known as the centre for strategic counter-terrorism communications.

The online messaging aims to create a competing narrative that strikes an emotional chord with potential militants weighing whether to join a violent extremist group.

One online image, for instance, shows photographs of three American men who travelled to Somalia and died there. The accompanying message reads: "They came for jihad but were murdered by Al Shabab."

Each of the online posts carries the warning: "Think again. Turn away."