From John Brennan’s hopes of reaching out to “moderates” among Hezbollah to the Countering Violent Extremism conference, the Obama administration has made counter-information campaigns a central part of its foreign policy. This is particularly the case on the “cyber front;” whether through hashtag campaigns or YouTube back-and-forths.
In the war to counter online jihadist recruitment, the Department of State’s Think Again Turn Away Twitter account (@ThinkAgain_DOS) is exemplary of this trend. Many of the statements put out by the account are indeed admirable, whether in exposing the Islamic State’s (ISIS) atrocities or celebrating the unity of Syrian rebels and Kurdish nationalists in Kobane. However, the account’s rapid retweet-and-forget strategy, coupled with the administration’s selective concern for extremism, has proven not merely counter-intuitive to meaningful dissuasion, but has also serviced the interests of the jihadist propagandists themselves.
The account’s most intrinsic flaws are reflective of the problems besetting the overall messaging campaign of the State Department and Inherent Resolve. In championing any and all who oppose ISIS, the organization has endorsed the accounts of various apologists for the Iran-led Shiite militias.
The first instance, a tweet mourning a regime soldier who had evidently fallen in battle with jihadists was written off as a mistake that was deleted. However, a pattern has emerged recently of retweetingpartisans of groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq (or “special groupies”). Initially these “special groupies” seem innocent enough, engaging in mass information distribution (or “Info dumps,”) and being generally amicable to watchers of the region. They soon become regarded as “reliable” even as their sectarian agenda becomes evident. What’s more worrisome is how this sets a norm for other observers of the region: if the Department of State believes these agents, so might members of prominent think tanks. This is particularly problematic given these accounts’ willingness to actively spread disinformation or harass genuine experts on militant groups.
A case in point was the distribution of the @SunniTribes “sockpuppet” account. In January, a Shiite militia source tweeted out celebrations of ISIS fighters purportedly being beheaded at the hands of the allied al-Jaghaifa tribe. When the atrocity was called out, a “@SunniTribes” account spontaneously merged to blame the atrocities on the Albu Mahal tribe in Ramadi. Haidar Sumeri then used this fake account as “proof” that the Albu Mahal tribe was responsible. Furthermore, from the original account blaming the Jaghaifa tribe, only the heads are shown; no Jaghaifa flag is present. Instead, there were images of the Ubaidi tribal militia Fursan Emarat al-Ubaid carrying heads. A brief perusal of the militia’s YouTube account indicates its proud affiliation with Sadrists. While members of the Jaghaifa tribe certainly “were” in al-Khafsa village and had worked alongside the Ubaidis in another village, uncertainty remains as to whether they actually committed the war crime in question. The Jaghaifa tribe may well have been guilty, as asserted by the original militia source, but the reliability is called into question given the propaganda tactics these “special groupies” deploy. Relying on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) militants and their apologists for public information opens up the possibility of being the stenographers for the jihadists you so condemn.
On March 12, Think Again retweeted Hala Jaber’s, journalist for The Sunday Times, tweets about an ISIS suicide bomber. Considering that Jaber has at times served as a kind of stenographer-propagandist for the Assad regime and Hezbollah, Syrian rebels can be forgiven for thinking this was a foreshadowing of Kerry’s rapprochement with the IRGC satrap himself.
With these facts in mind, perhaps the gaffes are not so much flaws as they are features. As the Obama administration stated its willingness to negotiate with Assad and his Shiite jihadist backers to end the conflict, it should not be surprising about what has happened to “countering violent extremism:” they have simply decided that some extremists are better than others. Barack Obama once advocated “we don’t look away” in the face of mass atrocities, and hypocritically proved otherwise. In keeping with this about-face, maybe @ThinkAgain_DOS should change its name to “Think Not, Look Away.”
John Bundock is a recent graduate from Fordham University who writes on Middle Eastern politics.