The State Department social media initiative designed to engage with ISIS terrorists and jihadist sympathizers is “embarrassing,” “ineffective” and “distressing,” the head of a prominent intelligence group wrote Tuesday in a scathing editorial.
The “Think Again Turn Away” campaign and Twitter account, launched by the State Department in December, in part, to dissuade on-the-fence jihadists from joining the fight against the West is actually serving to embolden and legitimize the social media presence of bloodthirsty terrorists already on the ground, Rita Katz, the director of the SITE Intelligence Group, wrote in a Time magazine article published online Tuesday.
The State Department’s “English-language outreach program is not only ineffective, but also provides jihadists with a stage to voice their arguments,” Katz claimed, calling the initiative’s Twitter account a “gaffe machine that “walks dangerous ethical lines.”
“Thirteen years into the war on terror, it is distressing to see certain ways the U.S. government is combating domestic radicalization by groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State,” Katz wrote. The account regularly (engages) in petty disputes with fighters and supporters of groups like IS (also known as ISIS), Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab, and (argues) over who has killed more people while exchanging sarcastic quips.”
Katz describe in details several examples that show the account’s operator engaging in shocking back-and-forths with terrorists that seem only to strengthen the resolve of the men and women at the other end of the line.
She cites in one case a situation where the “Think Again Turn Away” account responds to posts from an ISIS-supporting account of pictures of tortured prisoners from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal with the message: “U.S. troops are punished for misconduct, #ISIS fighters are rewarded,” along with a photograph of U.S. soldiers playing with children in the Middle East.
The bizarre State Department response ends up being a launching point for many other ISIS-supporting accounts to “drag the U.S. government into a discussion about” the scandal, Katz asserts.
In another case, after a notorious cleric and Al Qaeda leader tweeted on Sept 11 that “on this day, in 2001, the USA’s largest economic shrine, the idol of capitalism was brought to the ground..the toll of injuctice (sic) is hefty,” the “Think Again Turn Away” account responded with an unusual retaliatory tweet that only served to legitimize the author.
“Nobody’s a bigger fan of the fruits of capitalism than so-called #ISIS Caliph,” the State Department-run account wrote, along with a photo showing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wearing a Rolex watch.
But those “embarrassing” examples actually offer a learning opportunity for the State Department, Katz says.
“In order to counter a problem, one must first study it before adopting a solution. Had the people behind Think Again Turn Away understood jihadists’ mindsets and reasons for their behavior, they would have known that their project of counter messaging would not only be a waste of taxpayer money, but ultimately be counterproductive,” she wrote. “I would much rather see the State Department’s online ventures involved in projects that explain the great things American policies have achieved — not arguing with jihadi fighters on who killed more innocent Muslims.”
Her blistering criticism of the program, however, is hardly the first time “Think Again Turn Away” has faced disapproval.
Earlier this month, the social media campaign released a graphic, satirical counter-propaganda video designed to convince homegrown terrorists that enlisting with ISIS is a bad idea, prompting a barrage of criticism over its tongue-in-cheek tone.