The U.S. is struggling with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on two fronts: on the ground in the Middle East, where it has deployed more troops, and in the virtual world online, which is creating a supply of real-world fighters for its cause. Its abilities online are formidable.
The State Department employs a staff of a few dozen to battle ISIS' virtual online army, which is posting videos and messages constantly, from as many as 90,000 twitter accounts around the world. The group has used the web effectively to draw in more than 20,000 foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria for its cause. It paints a compelling image of itself as a force for good - defending Sunni Muslims against a government run by enemy Shiites in Iraq, as well as President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
"The jihadis are figuring out how to use new forms of communication, social media, to not just message broadly, but to do peer to peer recruitment and radicalization, and that's really a game-changer," said CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate. "We have not quite figured out how to not only counter the narrative, but to interrupt that cycle of radicalization."
CBS News State Department Correspondent Margaret Brennan recently interviewed Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, who ran the State Department group tasked with fighting ISIS online,the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), from March 2012 until he retired last month.
He had grown frustrated with the government's approach.
"There is a fantasy which exists in Washington, which is this: That somehow if you put magic social media or public diplomacy pixie dust on a problem, it will go away," he told Brennan. "It's not that ISIS is so great. It is that the response against ISIS is both limited, and weak."
Zarate said that from Fernandez's perspective, the effort has been woefully under-resourced.
"You look at it compared to the military budget. It's miniscule. And if you look at it in terms of the capabilities that the U.S. government has brought to bear, [it is] rather minimal and meek," he said.
The department's previous allocation was $5.5 million dollars. The State Department asked for more, but wouldn't say how much more it wanted.
Fernandez said that stopping ISIS requires understanding that its followers often believe that they are serving a "noble" cause. And, he told Brennan, U.S. officials are often too afraid of being mocked for their efforts.
Zarate identified more problems with the U.S. approach. One is that dismantling a jihadist's website or Twitter feed is a temporary solution since it's so easy to create a new one. "The disruption is relatively minimal or short lived," he said. And the U.S. government doesn't even really want to take all the insurgents' communication out of circulation because it's trying to learn what the jihadists are doing.
The second challenge he identified is the wide range of audiences the U.S. must target with its counter propaganda.
"You've got very hard-core members, so it's going to be very hard to pull them back or to convince them that ISIS is not the group to follow. But then you've got fence sitters and you've got young people out there that are looking at the environment and trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives and how they define themselves. I think our messaging has to try to address all of that," Zarate said. "The challenge has been we haven't done it very well, we haven't figured out how to amplify the credible voices that are out there, particularly in Muslim communities."
Former White House adviser Rashad Hussain, who is himself a Muslim, recently replaced Fernandez at the CSCC. He told Brennan that he is crafting ways to counter ISIS in a less overt way. He wants the department's new strategy to "properly amplify" facts and stories, particularly those gathered from former radicals that can "expose the reality of what terrorists are doing, including the damage they are inflicting on the Muslim communities they claim to defend."
Videos uploaded to YouTube most recently by the State Department - within the last two weeks - purport to be the testimonials of jihadists who saw ISIS up close and were disillusioned by what they saw. One recruit who fled ISIS told of watching a commander give a knife to his eight-year-old son and forced him to hack off a prisoner's head. The videos each end with text that reveals onto the screen: "Violence. Cruelty. Injustice. That's what recruits find with ISIS in Syria. When they find out what ISIS really stands for, it's too late. Don't get caught in the trap."
It will be an uphill fight. Even with increased attention from the White House on the problem of violent extremism, Zarate said the international community is not fully galvanized.
"This is going to be with us for years to come," he said.
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