WASHINGTON – Mohamad al-Arefe, a radical Saudi cleric with more than 20 million Twitter followers, is a prime example of how ISIS is armed with “guns” on the social media battleground, while the U.S. is carrying “knives.”
That was one of the central arguments Haroon K. Ullah, chief strategy officer at the Broadcasting Board of Governors and a former aide to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, made on Wednesday while speaking at the Heritage Foundation. As Ullah described, the 47-year-old al-Arefe is a third-rate preacher who never would have landed a job in an urban area in the Middle East.
Yet he is Islamic extremism’s most influential social media star, Ullah argued. More than 30 percent of Saudi youths follow him, which has allowed him to become the world’s 86th most-followed person on Twitter, just behind Hillary Clinton and just before British musician Ed Sheeran. His vast footprint also spans Facebook (more than 24 million followers), YouTube and Snapchat. Al-Arefe only follows five others on Twitter, which are all mirror accounts of his in foreign languages, including English.
Ullah, who served on Tillerson’s policy planning staff, said that al-Arefe is constantly pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable on Twitter, but to this point he hasn’t violated the platform’s terms of service.
“Otherwise Twitter would have taken him off,” Ullah said. “So he’s able to maintain this because he goes up to the line but doesn’t necessarily cross the line.”
For instance, al-Arefe in the past has tweeted Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken, which suggests that there are alternate paths to success outside traditional routes. Ullah said that the young people following al-Arefe naturally draw their own conclusions about his postings based on the ideology he supports, which has allowed him to become the single biggest influencer in converting young people to radical Islam. An article in Politico recently likened his recruitment and propaganda videos to FDR’s fireside chats.
On Halloween, a rental truck barreled down a Manhattan bike path and killed eight people. Sayfullo Saipov, who has pleaded not guilty on charges of planning and orchestrating the attack, was reportedly in possession of a cell phone that included at least 90 ISIS videos.
Ullah said that young people all over the world like Saipov are looking for content, and al-Arefe has expertly tapped into their most base instincts. ISIS is reportedly responsible for about 5,000 social media postings per day, and at one point was producing as many as 35,000 per day.
“He’s rallying people, essentially saying, ‘Don’t stay at home. Don’t just sit there.’ Young people want to go out and do something,” Ullah said. “He’s bringing a gun to the fight, and we’re bringing a knife to the fight. How do you match the intensity of the tools that he is using?”
Ullah called for a Manhattan Project-style strategy in dealing with ISIS’ social media tactics. He said that ISIS’ network of social media influencers needs to be met with an equally influential network from the U.S., and pointed to the State Department’s Global Engagement Center as a possible starting point. While the center’s budget has grown from about $5 million to $40 million per year, Ullah asked if the U.S. is committing the proper resources to enable the creation of such a network.
ISIS, according to Ullah, has repeatedly harped on a David and Goliath narrative. Even if the caliphate is losing on the physical battleground, it believes it’s winning the information war based on the homegrown and lone-wolf terrorists who have repeatedly sprouted up and pledged allegiance to radical Islam.
“They understand the customer journey,” Ullah said. “They understand how to reach really niche audiences.”