New York Times alertly reports the war against ISIS' cyber-jihadis

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ISIS terrorists are outgunning us -- even in the cyberspace we created, spreading its hate with up to 90,000 online messages daily. The Obama administration's newest effort to fight this bombardment is the focus of an alert New York Times report:

At the heart of the plan is expanding a tiny State Department agency, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, to harness all the existing attempts at countermessaging by much larger federal departments, including the Pentagon, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies.
The center would also coordinate and amplify similar messaging by foreign allies and nongovernment agencies, as well as by prominent Muslim academics, community leaders and religious scholars who oppose the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, and who may have more credibility with ISIS’ target audience of young men and women than the American government.

The Times is apparently way out ahead on this story. My searches here and here indicate that only a handful of other news agencies have even noticed, and most of those trailed the Times by six hours or more.

The Times notes the formidable potential of mustering "more than 350 State Department Twitter accounts, combining embassies, consulates, media hubs, bureaus and individuals, as well as similar accounts operated by the Pentagon, the Homeland Security Department and foreign allies." The newspaper also highlights difficulties in coordinating so many competing agencies, each claiming its own turf.

Make sure to click the accompanying video. I know, some videos we post here on GR are just surface treatments that last under two minutes. This one is different; it's an absorbing, five-minute report on the birth and growth of ISIS.

As a GetReligionista, I naturally wanted to know more about how the religious angle would work in the new anti-ISIS initiative. Since the three days of meetings just started on Monday, that's still uncertain. But the Times tells us how the center has been working since its start in 2011: with "digital outreach specialists fluent in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi and Somali to counter terrorist propaganda and misinformation about the United States on the Internet in real time."

It also offers examples:

The online messaging has aimed to create a competing narrative that strikes an emotional chord with potential militants weighing whether to join a violent extremist group. One online image two years ago, for instance, showed photographs of three American men who traveled to Somalia and died there, including Omar Hammami, a young man from Alabama who became an infamous Islamist militant. The accompanying message reads, “They came for jihad but were murdered by Al Shabab.”
Another image showed a young man weeping over a coffin. The message read, “How can slaughtering the innocent be the right path?”
Each of the online posts carried a warning: “Think again. Turn away.”

Considering the big gains by ISIS over those two years, one might wonder how well these tactics have worked. But they may be hitting their stride. Says the Times: "Last June, Islamic State supporters warned fighters to beware of the center’s Twitter account and not to interact with it."

Enlisting Islamic religious scholars would help rob ISIS and other jihadis of their claim to speak for the "true" faith. Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under President Clinton, argued for something like this nearly a decade ago in her 2006 book The Almighty & the Almighty. She said that America, with its ideal of separation of church and state, often didn't understand beliefs and actions of other nations. She might well say the same of movements that give rise to groups like ISIS.

The Times quotes an endorsement for the new plans by terrorism expert John D. Cohen: "When the U.S. government works with faith communities, including the Arab-American and Muslim community, to prevent violence at the local level in the U.S., that is not only effective but it also serves to counter the narrative we are at war with Islam."

But to be fair, the newspaper should have checked in with naysayers who warn against the defining an Islamic enemy too specifically. One of them is Richard LeBaron, founding coordinator of the U.S. Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications Strategy itself.

For one, he says, there is no consensus on the definition of "radical" Islam. For another, some of our allies, like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, tolerate or even embrace radical elements. For still another, he says, declaring war on radical Islam "serves to legitimize a group of people that we should be making every effort to marginalize."

But LeBaron simply recommends the usual fixes: more info-gathering, an effective military, sharing of intelligence with friendly nations. He doesn't seem to consider the need to distinguish peaceful forms of religion from those that shoot, bomb, rape and behead.

These are heavy matters, and I would have liked to see them addressed in the Times article. I hope they're brought up in the White House talks, which are scheduled to end today. I also hope to read a follow-up in the Times.

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