Twitter and other social media are the new battle ground in the war of ideas between Islamist radicals and the U.S. State Department. Since July 17, Islamist tweeters and the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team (DOT) have been dueling on Twitter.
The DOT is part of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication. The center is only a few years old, but it has greatly improved the U.S. government’s ideological toolkit under the leadership of Ambassador Alberto Fernandez and counterterrorism experts such as Daniel Kimmage.
The center, which also coordinates counterterrorism activities among government agencies, employs a staff of Arab speakers, who spend their days trying to outwit the terrorists on the Internet. Its efforts have been noted—and resented—by Islamists propagandists.
According to Foreign Policy’s blog The Cable, a recent exchange of fire between jihadists and DOT staff started on July 17 when jihadi Mu‘awiya al-Qahtani established a new Twitter account, @Al_Bttaar, to advance pro-Islamist propaganda on Twitter.
The Cable writes that “there is reason to believe the @Al_Bttaar initiative is a direct response to the DOT’s activities: not only is it patterned after the DOT, its opening salvo was directed against one of the DOT’s tweeters, Tariq Ramzi (@dsdotar).” Apparently, the opposition tried unsuccessfully to take down the State Department’s account.
A survey of the tweets coming from both sides reveal a fairly clear pattern—@Al_Bttaar’s tweets congratulate terrorist groups for their successful attacks: “Young Mujahideen Movement last night carried out approximately ten operations in the state of Lower Shabelle alone and Asthzvt the more operations forces of the Crusaders.” They also try to mobilize support: “What do you suggest to advocate for your brothers in the land of the Two Holy detainees,,,, contributed under this tag #suggest to advocate detainees.”
The State Department argues against the Islamist tweets: “Are you trying to legitimize #Qaeda massacres against Muslims? If that is what you mean, maybe you should drop #bloody rule.” Its tweets also defend America’s role in the world: “America plays a crucial role in stopping the massacres which targeted the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo and died saving thousands of innocent civilians.” And they argue against Islamist theory: “[A]ccording to your logic separate from reality, I am sure that America was also behind the solar eruptions.”
Twitter’s 140-character exchanges may not change huge numbers of minds, but maybe some. And at least the terrorists now know that we are playing on the field that has given their recruiters opportunities for years.
Heritage intern Franklin Holcomb contributed research and translation to this blog.