Counter-terrorism experts have long warned against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) sophisticated use of social media in minting thousands of potential fighters to join its cause.
Despite the U.S. leading role in quickly understanding the regional threat and developing a multinational coordinated military coalition to combat ISIS, winning the online war has not been at the top of its priorities.
But the new Mideast digital communication center promises to be the informational parallel of the military coalition and to counter the group’s propaganda efforts online.
The U.S. and Emirati governments launched the new Sawab Center, named after the Arabic word for “the right path,” on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich capital of the UAE, a member of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS and a key American ally.
“We have a great partner in the Emiratis, and we hope that the Sawab Center will become an important regional hub for counter-Daesh messaging,” Richard Stengel, the U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, told Al Arabiya News.
Stengel, who is a former Time magazine managing editor, traveled to the UAE to launch the center alongside Dr Anwar Gargash, the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs.
“As President Obama said, ideologies will not be defeated with guns; they're defeated by better ideas - a more attractive and more compelling vision,” said Stengel.
The launch comes two days after U.S. president Barack Obama announced the coalition as “intensifying” its campaign against ISIS in Syria.
“We’re going after the ISIL leadership and infrastructure in Syria, the heart of ISIL that pumps funds and propaganda to people around the world,” he said after a meeting with his national security team at the Pentagon.
The Obama administration has often urged Arab allies to up their effort in combating the media blitz, saying the fight on the information space was a key pillar in the overall effort to defeat the radical group.
Using the same social media platforms the radical group relies on, the Sawab Center will “will refute the lies propagated by Daesh with an authoritative, credible voice,’ said Stengel, using the Arabic acronym of the group.
“At the same time, the center will launch creative, proactive campaigns that will promote the alternative vision that the President spoke about.
About 15 to 20 full-time staff, mostly Emiratis, will work at the Sawab Center, reported the Associated Press, quoting Rashad Hussain, the U.S. special envoy and coordinator for strategic counterterrorism communications as saying.
Reporters were not allowed to attend the opening or visit the center, which has been testing its operations and developing its branding since April, according to AP.
The center released its YouTube videos and Twitter messages in Arabic and English announcing its launch on Wednesday. But the project does not yet have an active website or dedicated YouTube and Facebook channels, highlighting the work that needs to be done.
Still, officials say they hope the center will eventually offer an alternate voice that was “sidelined” by ISIS.
“As we do so, we will continue to share content that is being produced by the Sawab Center and our partners, through our cloud-based file sharing website,” said Stengel.
“We are working to assist our Coalition partners to expose Daesh for what it really is. These efforts will counter Daesh’s appeal to vulnerable and gullible youth,” said Stengel.
A recent Brookings study estimated that at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS sympathizers, from September through December 2014. The center put the maximum estimate of Twitter accounts at 90,000.
ISIS’ Hollywood-style film clips and well-organized online campaign has been able to lure up to 3,400 foreign fighters every month.
The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), a small office the U.S. state department set up in 2011, has been already working on thwarting ISIS recruitment operations online but was often criticized for failing to make an improvement.
Following a revamp, the CSCC increased its efforts in sharing stories of defectors and former radicals and even displaying battlefield realities in ISIS-held areas in Syria and Iraq, reported AP.
“The CSCC is producing original content on social media platforms in Arabic, Somali, Urdu, Hausa, and English to amplify stories of ISIL defectors, and ISIL atrocities, particularly against Muslims, who make up a vast majority of ISIL's victims,” Stengel said, using another English name for the radical group.
Stengel told Al Arabiya News that the Sawab Center compliments the efforts of the CSCC and the two will be working closely together.
But the informational battle against ISIS is “not traditional by any means,” explained Stengel.
“In a traditional information campaign, if your opponent has approval ratings in the single digits, as ISIL does in much of the Muslim world, you would think that you were well positioned.”
“ISIL is overwhelmingly rejected by the vast majority of the world's 1.6 Muslims. But ISIL is trying to appeal to the grievances of several audiences,” he added.SHOW MORE