America’s top diplomat for countering terrorist propaganda said Islamic State’s cyber outreach has been constrained, but that its message continues to resonate with disaffected, angry, and mentally unstable Muslims.
Portions of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel’s assessment were significantly more upbeat than those of other U.S. officials in recent weeks.
“The virtual-caliphate itself is shrinking,” said Stengel, testifying Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Now we see the tide turning.
“There's now six times as much anti-ISIL content as pro-ISIL content,” he added, using an alternate acronym for Islamic State.
Stengel helps oversee an inter-agency group that coordinates U.S. counterterrorism messaging to foreign audiences. The initiative has sought to channel non-governmental elements to fight extremist messaging, drawing on technology companies, Hollywood producers, and peaceful Muslims around the world.
As an example, Stengel said, thousands of pro-terrorist Twitter handles have been removed, and YouTube and Facebook are aggressively removing extremist material.
If such efforts are beginning to succeed and Islamic State’s cyber platforms are shrinking, terrorist messaging still reaches eager audiences, according to Stengel.
The under secretary of state called it a “misnomer” that “ISIL’s messaging is so diabolically clever that they are taking nice, young Muslim boys and girls and turning them into foreign terrorist fighters.”
“They are tapping into an already existing market of grievance and unhappiness that is [exists] throughout the Muslim world. They are sometimes pushing on an open door,” Stengel said.
The committee’s chairman, Republican Congressman Ed Royce of California, said Islamic State’s cyber outreach remains potent.
“ISIS operates a vast network of online recruiters, online propagandists,” Royce said. “They use popular media sites, and through that process ISIS can reach a global audience – it does this within seconds.”
Last week, the FBI assistant director, Michael Steinbach, told a Senate panel that Islamic State had boosted the quality and volume of its messaging.
“No matter the format, the message of radicalization spreads faster than we imagined just a few years ago,” Steinbach said. “The most concerning trend that we’ve seen in the past year when we identify these individuals online is the speed with which they mobilize.”
Stengel told lawmakers that Islamic State’s military losses are beginning to impact the group's cyber capabilities as well.
“With our success on the military battlefield, getting back almost 40 percent of the territory in Iraq that ISIL once held, we are getting rid of a lot of those people who were creating that [cyber] content,” he said.
Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel said that pressure must continue.
“We’re connected on a global scale like never before. And so much good can come of that,” Engel said. “But we know it cuts both ways. This incredible tool can also be used for incredible harm.”