May 24th, 2012
04:22 PM ET

Little-known State Department unit targets al Qaeda online

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."

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Rhiannon Elery

    good job

    April 9, 2021 at 11:57 pm | Reply
  2. ClarkClurn

    7efxm 1hi6n ul4l

    February 28, 2021 at 8:38 pm | Reply
  3. Maisyr Ksenjaz

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    July 25, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  4. craig

    This activity is obviously going on. The State Department would be negligent if they didn't pursue this activity. However, the primary activities of State are: 1. Intimidating other governments to march to our (the US) 'tune'. 2. Give away funds to countries that stab the US in the back and 3. Make big arms deals with our so-called allies thereby protecting our major export: GUNS AND AMMO! Good job Hillary!

    May 25, 2012 at 8:13 am | Reply
  5. michaelfury

    And of course there's this guy:

    May 25, 2012 at 7:51 am | Reply
  6. Sam None

    The State Dept. is like a varsity badminton team in your school. No blocking or tackling required, but it gives the namby pambys a chance to wear a letter jacket.

    May 25, 2012 at 7:19 am | Reply
    • craig

      I could not have said it better if I tried... good one.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  7. Jaimie

    Just what the doctor ordered.

    May 25, 2012 at 1:22 am | Reply
  8. Islam4fools

    These Islamic fundamentalist roaches are everywhere and are inbreeding out of control.

    May 25, 2012 at 12:24 am | Reply
  9. b in fl

    now if only the government can take all of the dead people off of the voter registration list

    May 24, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Reply
    • nmmell08

      How does a dead person vote?

      May 25, 2012 at 12:49 am | Reply
    • Sharp

      Only the Dead Democrats.

      May 25, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  10. bill

    Mans inhumanity to man..this killing will never stop. It has gone on for years and years. don't be at the wrong place at the wrong time...If this will not kill you, religion will..

    May 24, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Reply
    • Tim

      Religion will kill. But Jesus saves!

      May 25, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  11. Hahahahahahaha

    Better upload viruses to the beastiality sites where the sheep fu_kers lurk! Hahahahahahahah

    May 24, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Reply
    • ujellycuzubadcuzuMAD

      U MAD? racist S.O.B.

      May 24, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Reply
      • DoubleSecretPalinTwit

        How is hating sheep fu_kers racist? Do you have to be a specific race to fu_k sheep?

        May 25, 2012 at 9:23 am |
      • craig

        Yup.... and your mother is one of the sheep.

        May 25, 2012 at 2:06 pm |

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