Centcom Counters ISIL Propaganda

July 6, 2016 | BY Karen Parrish , DOD News

While Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve’s air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant notched more than 26,000 ISIL targets damaged or destroyed as of the end of May, the war against ISIL also proceeds on other fronts.

From its headquarters here, Central Command runs two separate programs in the information war against ISIL. Through the command’s Digital Engagement Team, or DET, and separately through its web operations cell, Centcom’s military, civilian and contract employees work to combat ISIL propaganda in the cyber domain.

DoD graphic
DoD graphic
DoD graphic
Abadi Quote
DoD graphic
Photo By: Centcom
VIRIN: 160626-D-ZZ999-676

Centcom officials spoke to DoD News on background about the counter-ISIL information efforts.

Digital Engagement Team

The 11-member DET includes native-born speakers of Arabic, Urdu, Russian, Farsi, Dari and Pashto. Their job, officials said, is to represent Centcom in those languages and tailor their messaging to regional news cycles: Arabic in Arabic-speaking countries, Dari and Pashto for Afghanistan, Farsi for Iran, Russian for the Central Asian states, and Urdu for Pakistan.

Officials said ISIL’s dominance in the cyber realm has diminished since the group came to prominence in 2014. Now, one official said, “You’re not seeing the YouTube videos of victory parades, of lines of vehicles and black flags anymore.”

Centcom officials said the main “hub” of ISIL’s information campaign remains Twitter, but the group’s reach has been diminished as both Twitter and Facebook “have been pretty aggressive in taking down the accounts that they can recognize or that get reported to them.”

ISIL’s response has been to have supporters create dozens of dormant accounts to fall back on as active accounts are cancelled, a Centcom official said. “The way that they will maintain their audience is either through a hashtag in the description of the account, or the account image will be something like a little brand that people will be able to recognize, and the account will be numbered in such a way that people can sort of figure out -- because it will be sequential in numbers or letters or some way. So people can then very quickly get back to that source.”

Taking Back the Space

The “Iraqi on the street” is the audience the DET seeks to reach in its counter-ISIL efforts, officials said, and they reported that a “groundswell” of Iraqis took to Twitter in late May, right around the time Iraqi security forces began the campaign to retake Fallujah.

The DET “amplified” a popular meme that translated to “Iraqis tweeting in Iraqi.” That is, in the Iraqi dialect, one official said. “And so that started kind of a meme throughout the region. They took the space back.”

An official noted, “For a couple of weeks there, in the Arab world, Iraq was the top Twitter user.”

Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve has also weakened ISIL’s hold in the cyber domain by destroying some of the facilities the group used to produce its propaganda products, Centcom officials said.

Web Operations and MISO

Centcom’s other counter-ISIL social media-based effort goes by the name of Web Ops, an effort involving military information support to operations -- what used to be known as psychological operations. An official explained, “We’re concerned with foreign audiences only, not domestic, whereas public affairs interacts with both.”

Web Ops involves about 120 people. The group coordinates with the DET, coalition partners and the State Department to ensure themes and messages are consistent, officials said.

An official who works with Web Ops said ISIL’s propaganda efforts have altered in the past two years. “In 2014, when ISIL took Mosul, they maintained a dozen official [social media] accounts that said ‘We Are ISIL,’ the official said. “They also relied on several dozen ‘fanboy’ accounts which could boast upwards of 100,000 followers. So in terms of official messaging and in terms of unofficial support messaging, ISIL could quickly and easily reach hundreds of thousands of supporters and really the whole world with minimal effort.”

The official continued, “But since 2014, a combination of aggressive suspensions from social media companies, attrition and decrease in morale in ISIL’s own ranks -- which we’ve seen play out and we’ve seen them express this; that there’s a loss in morale --  and the third element would be counter-efforts from both governmental and nongovernmental entities. A combination of those three has gradually degraded ISIL’s footprint, ISIL’s ability to quickly and easily reach the masses.”

ISIL’s ‘Bait and Switch’

Officials said one of the main narratives web ops works to amplify involves the stories of ISIL defectors.

“The main thing we see defectors complaining about is that … it was a bait and switch,” one official said. “They were told they would be fighting the Syrian regime or ‘the crusaders,’ and instead they found themselves fighting against other Muslims -- opposition groups. That’s the single most prominent complaint we hear. That’s the most commonly cited reason why they leave [ISIL], because they were lied to about what they would be doing.”

The official said ISIL defectors also “revealed how ISIL had staged a lot of their supposed demonstrations of power -- everything from raids on enemy strongholds to food in the marketplace, and how everything about ISIL’s public persona is being micromanaged by media spinners. Fake propaganda.”

Disrupting ISIL Propaganda

Web ops uses a three-prong approach, an official said: ‘disrupting’ adversary propaganda, exposing adversaries’ hypocrisies and crimes through engagements with at-risk target audiences, and mobilizing the adversaries’ opponents to more effectively combat the adversary online.

Mobilizing adversary opponents occurs, the official explained, “through regular engagement, in-language, with regional target audiences online, using factual information consistent with our approved narratives.”

To locate ISIL adversaries and target audiences, the official said, “We use mostly commercial off-the-shelf regular old [searches] to identify keywords associated with the adversary’s narrative, along with obviously manual analyst target-audience analysis. And for at-risk users it’s a similar process; we identify common terms that are publicly searchable that indicate an individual is sympathetic to the adversary’s narrative.”

An assessments team works to measure the effectiveness of web operations, officials said. One noted, “MISO is a traditional military activity, and if it’s directed at an adversary communications [capability], then simply countering or disrupting adversary communication could in and of itself be a measure of effectiveness.”

(Follow Karen Parrish on Twitter: @DoDNewsKParrish)