Abu Dhabi counter-terrorism centre to battle ISIL’s online lies

Aimed at undercutting ISIL’s appeal among young Arabs in the region, the Sawab Centre will focus on countering the group's online propaganda.

US president Barack Obama vowed on Monday to go after ‘the heart of ISIL that pumps funds and propaganda to people around the world’. His remarks came days before the launch of the Abu Dhabi-based Sawab Centre, a counter-terrorism outfit created to blunt the etremist group’s online propaganda. Saul Loeb/AFP Photo
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>> Click here to watch launch video of Sawab Centre

New York // The anti-ISIL coalition led by the US will launch a new counter-terrorism centre based in Abu Dhabi today.

The Sawab Centre will focus on counter-propaganda aimed at undercutting ISIL’s appeal among young Arabs in the region to help staunch the flow of foreign fighters from the Middle East and North Africa.

The centre is part of a strategy to revamp faltering efforts to blunt the extremist group’s online propaganda, which has drawn tens of thousands of foreign fighters from around the world.

Officials involved in the initiative say the goal is for the centre to eventually become a global hub linked to similar centres around the world to share effective online content and strategies.

“The centre, named after the Arabic word for ‘the right and spiritual path,’ will use direct online engagement to counter the terrorist messaging that is used to recruit foreign fighters, fundraise, and terrorise local populations,” the state department said.

The opening comes after US president Barack Obama cautioned on Monday said the coalition was “intensifying” its campaign against the group’s base in Syria. “We’re going after the ISIL leadership and infrastructure in Syria, the heart of ISIL that pumps funds and propaganda to people around the world,” he said after a meeting with his national security team at the Pentagon.

Undersecretary Richard Stengel, the senior state department official responsible for counter-propaganda efforts, is in the UAE for the launch of Sawab Centre.

He recently admitted in a leaked memo that internal disagreements and bureaucratic confusion had allowed the US-led coalition’s online efforts to be “trumped” by ISIL’s sophisticated social media strategy.

In 2011, the state department created a small office, the Centre for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), to combat ISIL online via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

But the centre has largely been viewed as a failure by counter-terrorism analysts and government officials, who say its online sparring with ISIL supporters lacked a coherent strategy.

By disseminating clips of ISIL’s videos in an attempt to portray the group as cruel and un-Islamic, they say, the CSCC has inadvertently contributed to the extremist group’s strategy to project an image of power.

However, US officials say that the CSCC learned from its mistakes and will now seek closer coordination with allies in the Middle East as well as prominent religious scholars and respected civil society leaders, whom officials hope will help steer at-risk Arab youth away from ISIL. The new Sawab Centre will play a central role in this plan.

Talks about establishing a regional hub that could respond more quickly and credibly to blunt the extremists’ propaganda began last year during coalition meetings in the UAE and Kuwait, according to Alberto Fernandez, director of the CSCC at the time.

Arab countries in the coalition have been focused on removing or blocking extremist content, but not on creating a counter-narrative to battle ISIL in the realm of ideas online.

The refocusing on the war of ideas with ISIL comes at a crucial moment, as the group faces significant setbacks in Syria — losing up to a third of its territory there in recent weeks — and is more reliant than ever, analysts say, on its carefully constructed narrative of momentum, power and a burgeoning caliphate to draw foreign recruits, regional affiliates and the coerced loyalty of Sunni Arabs in areas under its control. Overstretched, ISIL is now increasingly vulnerable to propaganda that undermines this narrative.

The Sawab Centre will function as a 24/7 operations room that will be staffed by officials from the UAE, US and other coalition members.

The centre’s staff will have a number of primary tasks. The first will be to monitor ISIL’s content and analyse what is resonating with the small demographic subsets targeted by the extremists so that the coalition can produce more research-based messaging to undermine ISIL, according to an official involved with the centre’s creation who requested anonymity.

Rather than highlighting the group’s brutality — precisely what inspires potential recruits — the centre’s own content may work to undermine the idea of ISIL’s “caliphate” by highlighting their inept governance, crumbling infrastructure and poor health services.

The analysis produced by the Sawab Centre will be shared with coalition members to help them in their own counter-propaganda efforts, the official said. Members of the coalition will also share their own best practices with the centre.

The UAE-based centre will also develop real-time content in response to unfolding events on the ground in Syria and Iraq that provides the coalition’s narrative.

The effectiveness of the centre’s messaging will also depend in part on political and military realities. “You can have the most wonderful messaging in the world, but if there is a factor on the ground which is radicalising people, driving people to violence, it’s going to be hard to overcome that with smart, snazzy messaging alone,” Mr Fernandez said.

Having the resources to produce content that rivals the slickness of ISIL propaganda films is also important, he added, as well as skilled people from the region who understand the allure of ISIL’s messages and how to counter them.

“Can you seek to match the adversary in both quality and quantity?” Mr Fernandez asked rhetorically.

Another central focus of the Sawab Centre will be figuring out how to amplify through social media campaigns credible religious figures who oppose ISIL.

The official involved with the centre gave the example of taking a lengthy fatwa by Sheikh bin Bayyah, the Maruitanian Islamic scholar who has issued fatwas against ISIL, and repurposing it into a series of tweets, to make it more accessible and understandable by regional youth who are fluent in social media.

But counter-extremism experts and former officials like Mr Fernandez say that this aspect of the centre’s mission will be the most difficult and perhaps even ill advised, because moderate voices are unlikely to have any impact on potential ISIL recruits, who are already far along the spectrum of radicalisation.

Social media broadcasting is only one part of the puzzle of radicalisation, the former officials and experts said. The one-on-one interaction with supporters is what pushes people to travel to Syria.

While much more difficult to achieve, it should be replicated by experts at the centre, the observers said.


* The former director of CSCC is Alberto Fernandez, not Alberto Gonzalez as an earlier version of this article stated.