By Suzanne Kelly and Jamie Crawford
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered rare insight this week into a little-known unit within the Department of State that aims to counter terror groups like al Qaeda who are actively seeking new recruits online.
Speaking Wednesday at a special operations dinner in Tampa, the secretary laid out the challenge and the team's mission. She gave an example:
"A couple of weeks ago, al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen began an advertising campaign on key tribal Web sites bragging about killing Americans and trying to recruit new supporters," Clinton said. "Within 48 hours, our team plastered the same sites with altered versions of the ads that showed the toll al Qaeda attacks have taken on the Yemeni people. "
The online posting was carefully crafted in Arabic by the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which was brought together under a presidential directive issued last fall. The CSCC's message was described by a government official, who is not authorized to talk publicly about the program, as a parody of al Qaeda's earlier ad bragging about killing Americans.
The countermessage was meant to look like it came from the same al Qaeda group and, as described by the official, sent the message: "If this is how we treat the Americans, imagine what we will do to the American puppets," meaning Yemenis themselves.
"The Yemeni site had put up pictures of coffins draped in American flags. We put up a counter-post of coffins in Yemeni flags to indicate that it is Yemenis who are dying at the hands of al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday.
According to the official, that ad went up on Sunday, just one day before a suicide bombing killed more than 100 soldiers in Yemen's capital.
Nuland defended the posting.
"This is a matter of countering propaganda that is in the absolute worst taste," Nuland said at the State Department press conference. "This is a site that is endeavoring to incite violence. We are simply making the point that the violence that they are inciting is ricocheting back against the local population and is not in service to a strong, stable, peaceful Yemen, but in fact is having the opposite effect. So we are countering propaganda with a counter-narrative that we believe is closer to the truth of the situation."
Today's cyberbattle is occurring in the highly trafficked, publicly open sites in the Arab and Muslim world, sites like YouTube and Facebook in Arabic. That's what U.S. officials call the "contested space" where speed is the biggest advantage.
"For many years, al Qaeda publicists would put out their poison and it would not be countered. So this gives us the opportunity to respond rapidly to their media initiatives," said the unnamed official.
Clinton offered a few more details on Wednesday, saying that the CSCC is housed within the State Department, and that it works with the intelligence community and the Defense Department, which includes Special Operations Forces.
Clinton described the team as a "digital outreach team of tech savvy specialists, fluent in Urdu, Arabic, Somali," and said they are "patrolling the Web and using social media and other tools to expose the inherent contradictions in al Qaeda's propaganda and also bring to light the abuses committed by al Qaeda, particularly the continuing brutal attacks on Muslim civilians."
The government official, though, insists that the CSCC is strictly an overt affair.
"There is no hacking involved, this is not cyberwarfare. This is communications, this is rapid response," said the official.
That's not to say that there aren't other close partners of the CSCC who take more aggressive measures in cyberspace, but Clinton believes the overt mission is an effective one.
"We can tell that our efforts are starting to have an impact," Clinton said. "We monitor the extremists venting their frustration and asking their supporters not to believe everything they read on the Internet."
"We also count the number of times people respond to or view something," said the official. "But I don't want to oversell this. It's a small part of what the U.S. government is doing overall."