WASHINGTON - Setbacks on the battlefield seem to be doing little to dent the success the Islamic State is having in the world of social media, U.S. officials say.
“Hundreds, maybe thousands of people across the country who are receiving recruitment overtures from the terrorist group or directives to attack the United States,” FBI Director James Comey said Thursday in a meeting with reporters.
And that’s prompting a new outcry from U.S. lawmakers, who say Washington’s online strategy is off-base.
“We may not have rapid communications response capability in the federal government [to counter terrorist messaging],” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said Thursday in a Congressional hearing on IS social media successes. “But I think most elected officials who have gone through a campaign, particularly presidential campaigns, have that within the political world.”
As investigators dig deeper into the recent attack on a convention and Prophet Muhammad cartoon-drawing contest in Garland, Texas, the IS group’s rush to claim responsibility is sparking renewed concern.
“These arrests, the revelation of these things, are growing and they’re increasing in frequency,” Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Johnson said.
Johnson points to more than a dozen arrests of Americans inspired by IS or other terror groups to travel overseas or to carry out an attack in the U.S.
One of the few things that connect those cases – finding IS contacts on social media, experts told U.S. lawmakers.
“There’s a sense of remote intimacy,” said J.M. Berger, an author of a book on IS terror and a Brookings Institution fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. “Somebody Tweeting from Syria, who is a member of ISIS, can develop a very emotionally powerful relationship with somebody who’s sitting in the United States.”
Intelligence officials say IS has done more than any other militant group to capitalize on the power of social media – attracting young people who feel isolated, aggrieved or are simply seeking adventure.
US counter-messaging efforts slammed
U.S. counter-messaging efforts have been slammed by critics as being crude or worse.
“It’s laughable” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. “Three retweets. Two retweets…If you know anything about social media, then one of the things you should look at is the engagement of people on our social media feeds.”
Mubin Shaikh, a former radical who’s worked with Canadian security services, told Congress members that much of the outreach also misses the target audience.
“If you want to fight back against recruitment of 15-year-old kids, you need to work with 15-year-old kids,” he said. ” “My approach is to show how wrong they are and to criticize and delegitimize them from the very Islamic sources that they misquote and mutilate. I submit to you it is not as hard as some may suggest. We already have talent that just need the direction and guidance in order to get it going.”
Still, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the panel that the social media tide can turn quickly.
“They’re susceptible to a brand reversal because jihadists themselves would turn on them if they start to lose the territorial advantage,” he said of IS.
VOA wire services contributed to this report