The warning issued by FBI Director James Comey that the Islamic State (ISIS) has potentially "thousands" of online followers throughout the United States underscores an uncomfortable reality: the U.S. government is struggling to counter the terrorists' successful propaganda campaign.
"ISIS' message is that Muslims are being killed and that they're the solution ... There is an appeal to violence, obviously, but there is also an appeal to the best in people, to people's aspirations, hopes and dreams, to their deepest yearnings for identity, faith, and self-actualization.
"We don't have a counter-narrative that speaks to that. What we have is half a message: 'Don't do this.' But we lack the 'do this instead.' That's not very exciting," Alberto Fernandez, a coordinator at the State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), told The Atlantic
"It's not about quoting the secretary of state, because that's boring, that's lame. Our focus is not on the positive message. What we do is counter-messaging. We're the guys in the political campaign that [do] negative advertising. We're in people's faces," said Fernandez.
The CSCC, founded in 2010, is part of the administration's strategy to counter the success ISIS has achieved in delivering its message to vulnerable and susceptible individuals.
One way in which the CSCC is fighting back is developing online videos that mimic the high-quality and graphic nature of the propaganda clips that ISIS distributes on a regular basis, reports The Washington Post
One video distributed on YouTube by the State Department last summer as more foreigners began traveling to fight in Syria, "Welcome to ISIS Land," was viewed more than 844,000 times and was a "cause of significant irritation to its target," according to the Post report.
However, the newspaper notes, the CSCC was never able to determine or show that its goal of dissuading people from heading to Syria was reached.
"They are shooting out into the ether-sphere thousands and thousands of messages a day, over 90,000 a day, and it's to millions of people across the globe," John Carlin, head of the Justice Department's National Security Division, told ABC News in explaining the extent of ISIS' social media presence.
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Counterterrorism sources told correspondent Pierre Thomas that they are "struggling" to meet the threat ISIS poses online.
Thomas Sanderson, co-director and senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies' transnational threats project, agrees that the government's own propaganda efforts are falling short.
"I guarantee you that we are not moving fast enough, nor do we have enough resources going against what is an extremely widespread, dynamic, well-funded social media campaign on the side of ISIS," he said, according to National Defense Magazine
Key to the success of the CSCC will be maintaining an aggressive counter-propaganda campaign, which some critics contend has been lacking in the administration's previous efforts.
"Thirteen years into the war on terror, it is distressing to see certain ways the U.S. government is combating domestic radicalization by groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State," Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, wrote in Time magazine
"Among the more embarrassing of these ventures is the 'Think Again Turn Away' campaign, launched in English in December 2013 by the United States Department of State as part of an effort to enter the war of ideas and win over hearts and minds of jihadists on social media."
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