Islamic State is Winning Message War, US Says

Washington: An internal State Department assessment paints a dismal picture of the efforts by the Obama administration and its foreign allies to combat the Islamic State's message machine, portraying a fractured coalition that cannot get its own message straight.

The assessment comes months after the State Department signaled that it was planning to energize its social media campaign against the militant group. It concludes, however, that the Islamic State's violent narrative - promulgated through thousands of messages each day - has effectively "trumped" the efforts of some of the world's richest and most technologically advanced nations.

It also casts an unflattering light on internal discussions between American officials and some of their closest allies in the military campaign against the militants. A "messaging working group" of officials from the United States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates, the memo says, "has not really come together."

"The UAE is reticent, the Brits are overeager, and the working group structure is confusing," the memo says. "When we convened meetings with our counterparts, I am certain we all heard about various initiatives for the first time."

The blunt assessment comes amid broader criticism that the military campaign against the Islamic State is flagging. The group's fighters recently took over the city of Ramadi in western Iraq and have occupied Fallujah and Mosul for more than a year.

State Department officials have repeatedly said that "countermessaging" the Islamic State is one of the pillars of the strategy to defeat the group. But Obama administration officials have acknowledged in the past that the group is far more nimble in spreading its message than the United States is in blunting it.

The internal document - composed by Richard A. Stengel, the State Department's undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs and a former managing editor of Time magazine - was written for Secretary of State John Kerry after a conference of Western and Arab officials in Paris this month on countering the Islamic State.

A communique issued at the meeting took note of the Islamic State's gains and expressed the coalition's determination to remove the group from the territory it held in Iraq and Syria. The document was issued in the name of Kerry, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius of France and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq. Kerry was in Boston recuperating from a broken leg, but he spoke to the meeting by phone.

Stengel noted that the message from the conference - that a disparate coalition of nations was resolute in destroying the Islamic State - fell flat, with news media reports highlighting how little of substance seemed to emerge from the meeting.

"From the outside, it mostly seemed exactly like business as usual," he wrote.
The memo, labeled "sensitive but unclassified," was given to The New York Times by an Obama administration official.

Stengel did not respond to a request for comment. John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said the memo "acknowledges what we've made clear in the past: We must do a better job at discrediting ISIL in the information space." (Kirby was using an acronym for an alternate name for the group.)

"The memo is an assessment not of the larger counter-ISIL messaging effort, but how the small group of coalition members communicates internally and externally," Kirby said, adding Kerry would "take into consideration" Stengel's ideas and recommendations.

Spokesmen for the British and Emirati Embassies in Washington declined to comment.

This year, administration officials said they planned to expand the State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, a tiny office created in 2011 to combat terrorist messages on the Internet in real time. The center employs specialists fluent in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi and Somali to counter terrorist propaganda and misinformation, offering a competing narrative that seeks to strike an emotional chord. The analysts also post messages on English-language websites that jihadis use to recruit, raise money and promote their cause.
Stengel has also sought to work with other coalition members, particularly Arab ones, to discredit the Islamic State in the hope of stemming the flow of foreign fighters to the group. Kerry has said that the effort to "start drying up this pool" of potential volunteers may be even more important than military efforts.

When Kerry traveled to the Middle East in September to start building a coalition against the Islamic State, Stengel went with him to meet with Arab officials and establish what he called "a communications coalition, a messaging coalition, to complement what's going on the ground."

A crucial part of the public diplomacy has involved encouraging Arab religious leaders, Muslim scholars and Arab news media organizations to denounce the Islamic State as a distortion of Islam. State Department officials have praised the United Arab Emirates for establishing its own center to counter the Islamic State's prodigious propaganda.

But Stengel's assessment makes clear US officials believe that much more needs to be done.

In the memo, he proposes to Kerry that a "communications hub" be created somewhere in the Middle East - staffed by representatives from the various coalition members - that would perform "daily and weekly messaging around coalition activities" to fight the Islamic State, and that would have a spokesman in Baghdad.
But even this, he said, would face hurdles.

"This seems like an obvious and simple solution - but I am sure it is not as easy as it sounds for a hundred different reasons," he wrote.

Still, Stengel did have one piece of good news for Kerry from the Paris conference. An event at the Louvre intended to focus on the Islamic State's destruction of antiquities in Syria and Iraq, Stengel said, was a success and could be followed up with an entire conference on the issue.

The conference, he wrote, could bring together "dealers, auction houses, collectors, scholars" and others to highlight that trafficking in antiquities is a "war crime" and a "tool of terrorism," and is financing the Islamic State's "dark game."

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