AP: Pentagon Program to Counter Islamic State Propaganda Rife With Incompetence, Corruption
In 2011, the Obama administration conducted a purge of counter-terrorism training across all relevant federal agencies. It then imposed a new "countering violent extremism" (CVE) regime in its place, which removed all references to the role of certain trends in Islamic ideology in support of terrorism from training materials.
As I reported last year here at PJ Media, these CVE programs have collapsed into absurdity, with some Obama administration programs intended to directly confront online terror recruitment becoming more harmful than helpful in that effort.
Now, an extensive investigation by the Associated Press has found that CVE claimed yet another victim -- the Pentagon's $500 million WebOps program intended to provide a counter-narrative to Islamic State propaganda.
According to the AP, the WebOps program is rife with incompetence and corruption.
Some whistleblowers told the news agency that the effort has become a laughingstock in the online jihadist community.
The AP reports:
A critical national security program known as "WebOps" is part of a vast psychological operation that the Pentagon says is effectively countering an enemy that has used the internet as a devastating tool of propaganda. But an Associated Press investigation found the management behind WebOps is so beset with incompetence, cronyism and flawed data that multiple people with direct knowledge of the program say it's having little impact.
Several current and former WebOps employees cited multiple examples of civilian Arabic specialists who have little experience in counter-propaganda, cannot speak Arabic fluently and have so little understanding of Islam they are no match for the Islamic State online recruiters.
It's hard to establish rapport with a potential terror recruit when -- as one former worker told the AP -- translators repeatedly mix up the Arabic words for "salad" and "authority." That's led to open ridicule on social media about references to the "Palestinian salad."
Four current or former workers told the AP that they had personally witnessed WebOps data being manipulated to create the appearance of success and that they had discussed the problem with many other employees who had seen the same. Yet the companies carrying out the program for the military's Central Command in Tampa have dodged attempts to implement independent oversight and assessment of the data.
So according to whistleblowers, government contractors tasked with countering Islamic State propaganda -- much of it religious arguments -- have no knowledge of Islam.
Remember, this is a feature, not a bug, of Obama's CVE policies.
It gets worse:
Engaging in theological discussions on social media with people who are well versed in the Quran is not for beginners. Iraq and Syria are riven with sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, who follow different interpretations of Islam. Multiple workers said that WebOps "experts" often trip up on language that is specific to one sect or region.
"People can tell whether you are local, or whether you are Sunni or Shia," said another former worker, so poorly crafted messages are not effective. He said he left WebOps because he was disgusted with the work.
A number of the workers complained to AP that a large group on staff from Morocco, in North Africa, were often ignorant of Middle Eastern history and culture -- or even the difference between groups the U.S. considers terrorist organizations. The group was so dominant that colleagues jokingly referred to them as "the Moroccan mafia."
A lot of them "don't know the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas," said the employee who left to find more meaningful work.
All of this is due to Obama's purge.
Many of the government subject matter experts (SMEs) in the fields of Middle East culture, Islamic ideology, and Islamist organizations were either removed from their positions following hysterical accusations of "Islamophobia" and biased training, or so limited in what they could teach by Obama's CVE policies that it was inadequate for the U.S. government departments and agencies to adequately conduct their missions.
A Joint Chiefs of Staff Action Memorandum issued at the height of the counter-terror training “purge” on October 11, 2011, directed a new undefined and secretive CVE screening process for all trainers. It involved “Military Information Support Operations, Information Operations, and Military Intelligence curriculum,” or, the military’s “eyes out” operations.
The failed WebOps program would be part of the Pentagon's Information Operations branch and subject to the Joint Chiefs CVE guidelines.
The devastating effects of the “purge” aren’t limited to civilian specialists operating behind computer screens. The warriors on the front lines fighting against the Islamic terrorists that have sworn to destroy our society and threaten attacks against our homeland were hurt as well.
In December 2014, the New York Times reported that Major Gen. Michael Nagata, then-head of Special Operations Command Central, had held a series of conference calls attempting to understand why the Islamic State had grown so dangerous:
Trying to decipher this complex enemy -- a hybrid terrorist organization and a conventional army -- is such a conundrum that General Nagata assembled an unofficial brain trust outside the traditional realms of expertise within the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies, in search of fresh ideas and inspiration. Business professors, for example, are examining the Islamic State’s marketing and branding strategies.
In the midst of these discussions, Gen. Nagata issued this damning indictment of how the Obama administration's CVE policies following the “purge” had blinded the very tip of the American war-fighting spear:
“We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it,” he said, according to the confidential minutes of a conference call he held with the experts. “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.”
After the intentional purge from the Defense Department's training of any ability to define the enemy, America's top warriors now admit they are blinded, with no path to success.
But it's not just the Defense Department that has been hamstrung by the Obama CVE policies.
On September 8, 2011, Obama signed Executive Order 13584, which led to the establishment of the State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) to counter terrorist propaganda.
That State Department program suffered chronic leadership changes and a string of public embarrassments in the face of the growing international terrorist threat from the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
As a consequence, the State Department closed the CSCC.
Now the U.S. government must delegate these vital tasks to foreign organizations, much as the WebOps program is doing with its Moroccan employees.
Among the many embarrassing CSCC episodes was a graphic video they produced called "Welcome to ISIS Land." It featured severed heads, corpses, and crucifixions interspersed with messages directed at would-be ISIS recruits about the grisly skills they would need to acquire.
That CSCC director -- a longtime U.S. diplomat -- was promptly replaced.
Another CSCC effort was the "Think Again, Turn Away" program, which pushed out counter-messaging via social media targeting potential ISIS recruits. The program's Twitter account would regularly "troll" ISIS adherents on Twitter.
But not long after the program was launched, terrorism experts were openly lambasting the program, including accusations that the CSCC's efforts were legitimizing terrorists. Further, the actual penetration of their social media efforts barely touched the potential terror recruits they were trying to influence. For example, when one well-known pro-ISIS Twitter user, Shami Witness, was arrested, a comparison of the Twitter followers of Shami Witness and the "Think Again, Turn Away account" found that they only shared FIVE followers:
— The Soufan Group (@TheSoufanGroup) December 16, 2014
In the comments to that tweet, some users revealed that they were among the five followers that overlapped -- and they weren't even recruiting targets, but terrorism researchers or academics.
In February 2015, Obama's envoy to the Muslim world, Rashad Hussain, was appointed to lead the CSCC. Yet by that year's end, a State Department panel of experts concluded that the CSCC's efforts were not effective, and questioned whether the U.S. government should be involved in counter-propaganda at all. Rashad Hussain was promptly moved to the Justice Department and the CSCC was shut down.
In January 2016 a new effort, the Center for Global Engagement, was launched, but with little prospect that rebranding their efforts will be more effective. Now, most of the State Department's counter-propaganda efforts have been outsourced to the Sawab Center in Abu Dhabi, which pushes the now-failed CVE strategies. The continued in-country counter-propaganda efforts now have to be characterized as "ninja," because they are essentially unseen (and unmeasurable).
On the heels of all that failure, American taxpayers are now on the hook for the $500 million WebOps boondoggle at the Pentagon. Meanwhile, the Islamic State continues to spread its ideology virtually unopposed by the U.S. government.
To defeat the Islamic State will require not just military victories, but successfully rolling back and defeating its ideology. That requires, as Sun Tzu famously said, to "know your enemy." As Gen. Negata admitted in his conference call, more than 15 years after the 9/11 attacks even our most hardened warriors don't understand their movement or their ideology.
We undoubtedly require an abandonment of the failed Obama-era CVE policies, and a change in culture where discussions of the various strains of Islamic ideology that power groups like the Islamic State are encouraged -- not punished. That's the difficult task ahead for President Trump and his new administration.