U.S. State Department “trolling” jihadists on social media: “As a psy-op tool, it’s pretty laughable”

140417150235-think-again-tweet-4-story-body“As a psy-op tool, it’s pretty laughable.” Indeed. Alberto Fernandez, coordinator of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), says: “The way I see it is we are participating in the marketplace of ideas.” He sees it wrong. Take the State tweet about the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas: “Destroying ancient culture out of hatred and backwardness are a feature of al Qaeda’s ideology.” An al Qaeda member is not going to be moved by that, for several reasons. Foremost among them is that he has no respect for “ancient culture,” and doesn’t think that destroying its artifacts is a manifestation of “hatred and backwardness.”

This is because the Qur’an suggests that the ruins of non-Muslim cultures are a sign of Allah’s punishment of those who rejected his truth: “Many were the Ways of Life that have passed away before you: travel through the earth, and see what was the end of those who rejected Truth.” (Qur’an 3:137) This is one of the foundations of the Islamic idea that pre-Islamic civilizations, and non-Islamic civilizations, are all jahiliyya — the society of unbelievers, which is worthless. The State tweet shows no awareness of any of that, and proceeds from the assumption that al Qaeda members share certain values and priorities with non-Muslims that in fact they do not share: that ancient cultures have value in themselves, that one would want to destroy them only out of hatred and backwardness, etc.
This program is rendered useless by the State Department’s willful ignorance of Islam, and resolute denial of politically incorrect facts about Islamic texts and teachings. As such, it is not going to make an al Qaeda member “think again turn away” for a nanosecond.

“Why the U.S. government is ‘trolling’ jihadists on social media,” by Tim Hume, CNN, April 18 (thanks to Bobby):

(CNN) — “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” has long been the standard refrain of governments when it comes to violent extremists.

But these days, in the realm of social media, at least, they are talking to them.

In recent years, the U.S. State Department has launched social media efforts to engage jihadists and their sympathizers online, contesting their claims with the intention of dissuading potential converts to Islamic extremism.

“We are actually giving al Qaeda the benefit of the doubt because we are answering their arguments,” says Alberto Fernandez, coordinator of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which runs the program. “The way I see it is we are participating in the marketplace of ideas.”

That marketplace is now online, and the corners of it dedicated to Islamic extremist talk can be surreal, noisy, sometimes horrifying places.

Like no conflict before, the Syrian war, the prime focus of the world’s jihadists, is being discussed, disputed — and waged, in its propaganda aspects — on social media.

The content ranges from the shockingly grisly to the bizarre. Combatants post photos of decapitated heads as trophies of battlefield victories, or images of victims from their own side, captioned with vows to avenge them.

Links to grainy phone-camera footage abound, documenting everything from group executions, to a video appeal summoning Muslim women to come to Syria to find a husband among the Islamist rebels. On Twitter, jihadists post their theological quandaries: how to watch football when it means being exposed to men’s bare legs?

Often informed by the memes and language of the broader Internet, the content is disseminated swiftly around the world through a diverse network of jihadists and their supporters, journalists, analysts and onlookers.

In this way, social media has become a prime conduit for motivating budding extremists to take up arms.

A study just published by researchers at King’s College London traces how Western-based radical preachers with strong social media influence have inspired a wave of Western Muslims to fight in Syria, where they are now estimated to account for about a quarter of the 11,000 foreign jihadists in the country.

In response to this threat, the U.S. government has been “messaging” in social media in Arabic, Urdu and Somali for three years now, attempting to penetrate the virtual echo chambers of jihadist thought with contrary points of view.

But it is only since their English-language Twitter feed was launched in December, becoming a pugnacious new voice in the conversation, that their efforts have increasingly drawn attention — and raised eyebrows — in the West.

This development has led to the spectacle of the U.S. government publicly bickering with jihadists and their ideological fellow travelers on social media, debating Syria, the War on Terror, “the clash of civilizations” in 140-character bursts.

A typical exchange occurred recently when a pro-jihadist Twitter user admiringly posted an image of a desecrated Buddha of Bamiyan, one of the monumental statues in Afghanistan destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. The CSCC account tweeted in response: “Destroying ancient culture out of hatred and backwardness are a feature of al Qaeda’s ideology.”

“Crying about so-called ancient culture when there was no food and children were dying out of hunger,” scoffed the Islamist. “The shortage of food in Afghanistan was due to Taliban’s disastrous policies,” replied the State Department account.

Another user chimed in with a tweet at the State Department: “Al Qaeda just bombed a kindergarten and school with your funding and guns.”

Trolling the terrorists?

Some observers have been dismissive of the State Department’s efforts, conducted under the banner: “Think Again, Turn Away.” Jonathan Krohn, a journalist who, with a colleague, has launched a Twitter account and podcast dedicated to jihadist social media, and sometimes tussles with the State Department account online, describes their activities as “trolling.”

“As a psy-op tool, it’s pretty laughable,” he said. “They target journalists and analysts with as much verve as attacking jihadis.”

But others say the efforts appear to having some success at “getting in the heads” of senior Islamic militants.

“For years, al Qaeda had gotten in the heads of the U.S. government, and the U.S. government had become very sensitive to various al Qaeda talking points,” says Will McCants, a scholar of militant Islam at the Brookings Institution, who was involved in setting up the CSCC.

“I felt there’s no reason why we can’t return that favor… The more you can make them think on these points, the more you can damage their credibility and shape their behavior.”

For his part, Fernandez, a former U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea, rejects the “State Department troll” label.

“Some people use that because I think it’s convenient shorthand for an adversarial relationship,” he said. “To me, (a troll) … is a person who is annoying and obnoxious and stupid. Well, we’re none of those things, because we’re answering their charges with facts.”

But he admits to drawing on the same emotional arsenal as an Internet troll in the center’s work.

“People who study the Internet more than I do… mention that the two things that motivate people the most when it comes to social media are comedy and anger,” he said. “If you’re talking about al Qaeda — let’s face it, it’s going to be negative. So it might as well be pointed.”

‘An ungoverned space’

For the U.S. government, entering the social media fray to argue with terrorists has required a substantial paradigm shift. The default posture had been not to dignify the extremists with a response. But gradually, said Fernandez, the government realized that doing so was simply surrendering ground to their opponents.

“We seek to contest space that previously had been ceded to our adversary,” he said. Al Qaeda tends to thrive in “the ungoverned spaces of the world,” such as “the Sahara desert, or places in Somalia or Yemen or Syria. The Internet is also an ungoverned space, so it’s an area of opportunity for them.”

Al Qaeda has long publicly acknowledged the crucial importance of propaganda to their cause, he said, with its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri quoted as saying that “more than half” their battle to win the hearts and minds of Muslims was being waged through media.

“We in the West think kinetic strikes or arresting people or fighting… that’s important,” said Fernandez. “Media stuff… it’s secondary or tertiary. Al Qaeda doesn’t see it that way.”

The aim was also, broadly, to make “life more difficult for the extremists.” “It’s very easy if you’re out there and able to say whatever you want and nobody contradicts you,” said Fernandez.

McCants said the online space taken up by jihadist chatter has expanded and become much more diffuse in recent years, as it had migrated from discussion boards to social media platforms like Twitter, and been increasingly conducted in English.

“There are many more people talking,” he said, adding that while that meant they could be harder to find, “once you find them you really can insert yourself and engage directly. They have to listen to it, at least until they block you.”

Fernandez said the CSCC’s efforts were aimed not at converting extremists — although “it would be nice” — but reaching the wider audience of onlookers that jihadists were trying to influence. “In a way, we’re picking a fight with the extremists, because the extremists are there to radicalize other people,” he said.

Their “bread and butter” was using jihadists’ own content to make the case against them, he said, such as when they recently hijacked a hashtag in Arabic — “accomplishments of the Islamic state” — that had been started by supporters of the bloodthirsty Islamist militant group ISIS.

The CSCC account used the hashtag on 176 tweets that Fernandez said listed the true achievements of ISIS: “Things like poverty, murder, detracting from the decency of the Syrian revolution, helping the Assad regime by trading oil with them.”

Is it working?

Studies have pointed to the potential shortcomings of this kind of work: that the counter-messaging is simply ignored, as Krohn suggests it often is, or stirs up antagonism by providing an opponent for extremists to rally against.

So is the project working well enough to justify its 50 staff and a $5 million a year budget?

Fernandez says feedback had been positive and the work would continue, although it was difficult to quantify results objectively. “We are never going to know … unless they put up their hand and say ‘I saw your stuff and decided not to become a terrorist’,” he said. “You’re almost never going to get that.”

The initiative, already active across Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, would look to branch out to other social media where jihadists were active. “What about Ask.fm? What about Instagram? What about Pinterest?” said Fernandez. “In a way, we’re mirroring or shadowing what they do.”

McCants said he considered the program “a qualified success,” and that criticisms of the work tended not to be data-driven.

Really? What data does McCants have to show that this program has made a dime’s worth of difference to anyone on the planet?

“I don’t think anyone believes this has been a dramatic blow against terrorism recruitment… But I think on this particular measure of getting inside the heads of terrorist recruiters and leaders — at least in the al Qaeda orbit — it has been successful.”

Evidence, please? McCants doesn’t produce any, and can’t, because there is none. Here is his best attempt:

He believed jihadist groups had been rattled by certain of the CSCC’s claims — in particular, that the victims of Islamic extremists were predominantly other Muslims. It was possible to tell when messaging had struck a nerve, he said, as jihadist leaders would typically respond “by putting messages out on the discussion boards saying, ‘Listen, they’re putting these lies out, don’t engage them’.”

Actually, the fact that jihadis kill other Muslims has been a preoccupation of jihadist theological writings for far longer than the three years this program has been operating. Back in May 2005, the late al-Qaeda commander in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, issued a detailed theological justification for the killing of Muslims in jihad operations. He didn’t do this because he was “rattled” by State Department tweets (or any State Department messages, as neither Twitter nor this program existed in those days). He did it because this is an ongoing preoccupation of jihadists and a frequent topic of jihadist theological exposition. In any case, these State Department tweets proceed from so many false assumptions about Islam and jihad that it is hard to imagine any jihadist taking them seriously.

“We got quite good at this during the Cold War, and then we forgot, because as the only superpower, we didn’t really have to do it,” he said. “(But) the U.S. government is rediscovering its skills in this sort of thing.”

Yeah, those are some mad skillz, all right. Jihadis will be hanging their heads in shame, putting down their AK’s and registering Democrat any day now. It’s no surprise that the puerile and silly Will McCants would think this risible program “a qualified success.” He is one of the learned analysts who are essentially children in adult’s clothing, babbling on like fifth graders about “bad guys” and ideas that are “crazy pants.” McCants also harbors a Reza Aslan-like fondness for contemptuous Twitter abuse of those who dare to suggest that Islamic texts and teachings may sometimes incite believers to violence.

This is the kind of boy who sets State Department policy these days. No wonder we’re in the fix we’re in.

Robert Spencer in PJ Lifestyle: How the Ft. Hood Massacre Could’ve Been Prevented
Syria: Islamic jihadist threatens jihad attacks against Obama, Canada and the U.S.
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  1. Sam says

    This is more than stupid. I don’t understand why these people can not read the Koran and clearly see that Jihadists are REAL Muslims. How could such ignorance be possible at the age of Internet? It is really scary, These people who govern us can not and do not protect us. We have to protect us ourselves from Islam. No other way. We are in a war against Islam with leaders who are, knowingly or not, with the enemy.

  2. Jay Boo says

    Social Media blitz
    ‘Arab Spring’ so called “freedom Fighters” ???


  3. mortimer says

    Alberto Fernandez is UNACQUAINTED with the doctrine of warfare against disbelievers.

    What Al Qaeda fighters weigh is ONLY: ‘Is Islam true?’ or ‘Is Islam false?’

    If Islam is true, they must fight. If Islam is FALSE, they must cease fighting.

    Mr. Fernandez, prove that Islam is false.

    • mortimer says

      Muslims are not Utilitarians like you, Mr. Fernandez.

      They are obscurantists. This black-and-white mentality can only be derailed by proving the falsity of Islam.

      • Kepha says

        Well said, Mortimer.

        As a former US Foreign Service Officer myself, I find myself more and more embarrassed by what comes out of the aptly named Foggy Bottom. More like Foggy Top, I fear.

  4. says

    “Jihadis will be hanging their heads in shame, putting down their AK’s and registering Democrat any day now.”

    Instead of the “Destroying ancient culture out of hatred…blah…blah…” tweet, the State tweet should be something like…

    “It was something of a habit for Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, to dress in female clothing.”
    “Muhammad used to have ‘fun’ with his male friends”

    And, of course, providing the link to the islamic texts.

    With a few similar tweets, Jihadis will indeed be hanging their heads in shame!

  5. Notta_allah_followa says

    You know what I call three dead wannabe jihadis? A good start. Let them lie in the bed they’ve made. Best they die before they have a chance to kill us.

  6. Ahem says

    More sickening lunacy and ignorance from the US State Department

    I know Robert Spencer is a very busy man but I feel that there is an urgent need for an authentic version of the Koran to be prepared as a free downloadable PDF to include after each and every abrogated verse – all 246 of them – in a different font and colour, the abrogating verse and in the margin the Islamic legal authority for the abrogation.

    Use of footnotes won’t be adequate. I feel it is essential that the abrogating verse be quoted in full after the abrogated verse.

    The so called “verse of the sword” is responsible for 126 abrogations, but the temptation to simply put “verse of the sword” will not do as too many people might have forgotten the reference.

    If nothing else, it might undermine the taquiyya tactics used by Muslims when quoting sweet sounding abrogated verses to those few liberal arts faculty types who are not completely gullible.

    Perhaps a printed version of this authentic Koran could be prepared and Mr Spencer can send it as a gift to selected ignoramuses in academia and the media prior to his debating them.

  7. Buraq says

    Maybe repeating the same question on all the jihadi websites would loosen the grip of the Islamic imperative to fight Jihad. The question?

    Why doesn’t Allah make all jihadists invincible so that they can’t be killed. Then Islam would conquer the planet in next to no time. The fact that Allah allows jihadists to be slaughtered wholesale suggests He hasn’t thought of the obvious. A weakness in this so-called perfect, cosmic power, d’ya think?


    • Charli Main says

      Take your point Buraq, but Allah has to allow the REAL MUSLIMS to get slaughtered so they can become martyrs and spend eternity getting drunk and raping little boys and girls in Paradise.
      Keep up the Good Fight.!!!!!

  8. mark says

    If this were a low-cost operation and other more effective means were also used then I’d say “why not?”. Its unlikely to be effective in general but there could be a couple of people who were not fully indoctrinated who would be effected by seeing sensible arguments – maybe just enough to have doubts and not join Jihad.

    Unfortunately I bet it’s the big “hearts and minds” strategy with no real effort to undermine Islam gong on.

  9. Tim says

    “tolling jihadists” by itself is not too bad of an idea. But they approach them with a Western mindset – which is completely backwards. They need to troll them with the Quran and counter their position and provide proof of it from the Koran.

    • Jay Boo says

      It is only a matter of time until they announce a ‘success’ at converting some over to so-called moderate Islam and hooking them up with jobs at CAIR and ISNA.

  10. Aardvark says

    “Many were the Ways of Life that have passed away before you: travel through the earth, and see what was the end of those who rejected Truth.” (Qur’an 3:137)

    How can anyone ‘travel through the earth and see what was the end of those who rejected Truth’ if these barbarians have destroyed all of the ancient artifacts?

    Such destruction is obviously against the instructions of the Koran, and those carrying it out are committing blasphemy. They should be facing the appropriate shariah punishment – and we all know what that is…

  11. joeb says

    Yes, this ridiculous effort is not so much aimed at stopping then being jihadists as getting them to become Democrats.

    It’s pathetic. It’s only one rung up the ladder from the idiots who leave a pig’s head on the site of a proposed mosque.

  12. Jay Boo says

    Didn’t the U.S. State Department ‘discover’ that Benghazi was caused by an obscure film when it allowed Americans to be murdered lest Muslims get even more upset at a rescue attempt?

  13. Anushirvan says

    Islam posits itself as a total package of transnational culture, i.e. a culture that has universal validity in the Muslim view and that necessarily overrides or abrogates any culture that has either gone before it , constitutes a corruption of its precepts after its inception, or is the product of modernity, rooted in Western philosophy.

    As such, all religions, political views, philosophical views, identity markers rooted in nationality or ethnicity (referring to their historical origins) are invalidated by Islam. Muslim purists will not renege on their intent to continuously hammer down on this core precept, simply because it’s the very lifeblood of their existence, that’s what they’re there for. That is the very point they try to prove every day.

    Debating the issue is a null and void exercise. You can’t expect to smooth things over by debating such issues. Islam constitutes the very identity marker most important to just about ANY Muslim, Muslims have been socialized into this Islamic culture of theirs, into this very ideology, that runs counter to all things cultural !! Sitting around the conference table in order to discuss things is a Western type of approach, and the most feeble one at that !

    We are done talking with Islam ! As long as our political leaders in the West cling to this ridiculous notion of debating stuff ad infinitum, we don’t stand any chance of preserving our own identities and cultures. The hatred of culture is what makes Islam what it is !

    • says

      You are right.

      Islam is a total system. To muslims there is no truth outside of islam. There is no debating these people. They will simply lie. This is why the Spanish needed the Inquisition to root them out.

  14. Hummer says

    Regardless of what the appeasers are practicing all this evil ideology understands is force and in the end that will be the solution as history has shown. We will have to fight for survival and that will help the numb brains think if at all possible.

  15. Alan Derpowitz says

    “The marketplace (of ideas) is now online, and the corners of it dedicated to Islamic extremist talk can be surreal, noisy, sometimes horrifying places.”

    By “corners of it dedictated to islamic extremist talk”, I presume he means Everywhere.

    In my experience Facebook and Youtube are the easiest places to run afoul of islamic extremists, but they troll ALL social and news media, with fake profiles when a profile is needed. When a little red haired schoolgirl, or some aw shucks middle aged all American guy from the midwest is using the same language and manipulations that a jihadi apologist out of Briton uses, it’s not hard to see through that profile.

    Very often these goons are mistakenly called out as “leftists”, “librals” or “useful idiots” but they’re actually jihadists using fake profiles.

    It’s not opinion that exposes them but the manipulative behavior they engage in. There’s a difference between someone who’s expressing honest (though stupid or repugnant) thought and someone who’s trying to intimidate you or goading you into using nasty language.

    • dumbledoresarmy says

      You wrote:

      “In my experience Facebook and Youtube are the easiest places to run afoul of islamic extremists, but they troll ALL social and news media, with fake profiles when a profile is needed.

      “When a little red haired schoolgirl, or some aw shucks middle aged all American guy from the midwest is using the same language and manipulations that a jihadi apologist out of Briton [sic: Britain] uses, it’s not hard to see through that profile.

      “Very often these goons are mistakenly called out as “leftists”, “librals” or “useful idiots” but they’re actually jihadists using fake profiles.

      “It’s not opinion that exposes them but the manipulative behavior they engage in.”


      I think we see exactly that kind of thing here in the comments forum at jihadwatch every now and again, and have done so from time to time ever since its inception in 2003.

      The Mohammedans are doing psy-ops here, and in every comments section everywhere, all the time. And I do not for one second believe that they will always identify themselves openly as mohammedans when they do it.

      Their aim is to confuse, to demoralise, to cause division or to make existing divisions worse – “split the camp”, “divide and rule”.

  16. dumbledoresarmy says

    Y’know, there’s nothing wrong with the basic idea of going out there into cyberspace where the jihadis lurk and “chatter”.

    But the aim should be psy-ops, the old-fashioned kind.

    Mess with their heads. Feed them disinformation. Rattle them. And…from time to time, mercilessly, accurately, cleverly…**make fun of them**, since the devil is a proud spirit and cannot abide to be mocked.

    Me, I’d recommend that the U S State Department look into hiring our own duh-swami, and the inimitable Nabi ZK/ Zonie Kafir, and turning *them* loose in such jihadi forums and Mohammedan chat rooms as use English.

    And as for “hearts and minds”…people like Fr Zakaria Botros are the only people equipped to attempt *that*. Sensible infidel governments should be bankrolling his efforts, bigtime; get all his shows, both radio and Satellite TV, dubbed into all the major languages used by mohammedans and then flood the airwaves, 24/7, unstoppably. *That* might stand a chance of cracking people loose from Islam. Or set up a “Life and Freedom Show” – give a whole bunch of happy apostates, whether they are now Christians or whether they are atheists, a secure platform from which they can critique Islam and offer alternative worldviews, persuasively, powerfully, cheerfully, day in and day out. Call it shock treatment.

  17. Lee Thomas says

    I’m sick to death giving those scum my time. Let’s finish those ass holes off NOW! U simply can’t avoid a war. U can only postpone them to your own disadvantage. Send them to Valhala!!!

  18. Charli Main says

    I second that. We should be kind and thoughtful and help our Muslims “brothers” keep on the straight and narrow and not stray into the sin of “wall worship”.
    A good start would be reducing to rubble that foul, Satanic obscenity desecrating the Temple Mount in the Holy City of Jerusalem.