As the Islamic State, ISIS or Daesh, continues to lose territory in Iraq and Syria, it’s their next act that most concerns Michael Lumpkin, the Obama administration’s new counter-propaganda czar.
“What I fear is that Daesh, once it’s constrained on the battlespace, it will rebrand itself as something else. And then we have to be ready for that,” Lumpkin, told Defense One in an interview at the State Department. “but not two years after.”
Lumpkin is referring to the State Department’s slow-to-launch campaign to fight ISIS’s robust online messaging campaign he was called in to turn into something, well better.
Lumpkin, director of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, or GEC, is a newcomer to State but no stranger to the Islamic State. Previously, as assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, or SOLIC, Lumpkin was the Defense Department’s policy lead on virtually everything involving special operations. The former Navy SEAL knows his way around Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq, having served as deputy commander of all special operations forces early in the Iraq War. After retiring, Lumpkin ran for California’s 52nd district against Republican Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, making his service a cornerstone of his campaign. He lost the election, joined the private sector, and went back into government and the Pentagon.
The GEC effectively replaces the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, or CSCC, which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood up as a means to combat al-Qaeda's propaganda efforts.
Alberto Fernandez, vice-president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, and the coordinator CSCC from 2012 until 2015 says the change is mostly cosmetic. “It’s more of a matter of nuance…not that big. They’ve made it look big to bamboozle the media,” he said.
The mission of both the CSCC and the GEC is no less vital just because ISIS continues to lose on the battlefield. In fact, says Fernandez, as the group loses territory they could actually become more intent on staging dramatic attacks in the West, using media to do it.
“Before you had a functioning state. That shows your relevance. If you no-longer have the state, you have to do other things to show ‘Hey, we’re still around.’" Preferably, big things, he said. "In the West, that becomes even more of an imperative.”
But the GEC is much better funded than its predecessor. In fiscal 2015, the former program’s budget was $5.4 million. The new GEC budget will reach close to $16 million this year and the administration want $21.5 million next year.
The bigger budget represents, if nothing else, a growing sense of urgency. The State Department’s response to ISIS online launched an English language ad campaign called “Think Again, Turn Away.” To many observers, the campaign represented the equivalent of a “Just Say No” marketing effort—a lame and marmish admonishment to stay away from dangerous kids, stamped with the seal of approval of the United States government.
Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, described the campaign as an “embarrassment.” Lumpkin, too, has been frank about the campaign’s limitations. In testimony last October, he said the State Department had put just 20 people on the anti-ISIS propaganda mission, of which the Defense Department was providing five. “The fact that we have 25 percent of the CSCC detail to fill critical positions over there tells me that they don’t have the manpower to put against the mission like they would,” he said.
Someone, it seems, was listening. In March, President Barack Obama signed an executive order establishing the GEC, where Lumpkin is trying to build an entirely new model for countering extremist messaging: starting with prevention. Lumpkin wants the State Department to focus not on people who have already joined ISIS but people who may be vulnerable to recruitment. “Those on the battlefield, the coalition and DOD can take of it. What I’m focused on is people joining and trying to starve [ISIS] of recruits and to make sure that they understand the impacts on their families, the impacts on their livelihood and their life.”
Making that case requires more than just a Twitter or Facebook page but a detailed understanding of the target audience, people around the world who may be vulnerable to ISIS messaging. “Tip O’Neil said that all politics was local. All messaging is local, too. You have to look through the local lens,” Lumpkin said. “Daesh, in particular, they are not creating new audiences. They are going after highly vulnerable people who are susceptible to their messaging. What we have to do, whether it’s Daesh in Iraq and Syria, or someone desiring to be a foreign fighter, or it’s in Nigeria with Boko Haram is make sure that the message is tailored to the audience. That’s exactly what Daesh does. It tailors the message based on the audience.”
One of the key features that distinguishes ISIS from other extremist groups is the way its network of online followers and supporters around the world use social media in the way the platform was designed to work, to have two way conversations. Consider the case of “Alex” a 23-year old woman from rural Washington State, profiled by The New York Times in the summer of 2015, who was a target recruit for the Islamic State. Her story provides a chilling illustration of the group’s reach and the persistence of its messaging. For most in the West, ISIS is a menacing phantom, a headline, and news clip. For some like Alex, ISIS was a constant and familiar entity. She reports how one of the group’s supporters named Faisal, “became her nearly constant companion, spending hours each day with her on Twitter, Skype and email, painstakingly guiding her through the fundamentals of the faith.”
The State Department, of course, can’t do that with every potential vulnerable recruit. At the core of Lumpkin’s efforts is an understanding that the U.S. has limits in the way it tries to talk directly with people and populations. The strategy employs a network of partnerships with organizations and others beyond the State Department, including some organizations that can do the same sort of one-on-one connecting as ISIS.
“We have a wide range of partners. We have nation-states standing up messaging centers, working with the Global Engagement Center. We’re working with them to make sure that they have the technical skills to do effective messaging. We’re working with non-governmental organizations … who work with these different audiences of susceptible populations.”
The executive order establishing the GEC gives Lumpkin hiring authority to bring in people from outside of the government, quickly.
“I’m raiding, or poaching, industry for talent,” he says, by which he means social media companies in Silicon Valley. “We have a talented force already within the GEC, but we’re augmenting it with folks from the private sector who have got significant experience, whether it be with analytics that underpins what we’re doing, whether it’s with the reach, influencing vulnerable populations so that they don’t’ go down this path of radicalization and don’t become violent. So we’re able to leverage people that have significant marketing expertise or who have expertise in building partnership, we’re able to bring them in directly, which is a powerful, powerful tool.”
The GEC is emerging as a place where technologists in both the intelligence community and Facebook types, people who find themselves on opposite sides of several key issues, can find common ground and common mission.
But every tool comes at a cost. The U.S. intelligence community, for instance, is prohibited from undertaking any action to influence American domestic politics, policy, or media former Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program director Rand Waltzman has said the law is “poorly conceived” and antiquated, and one of many reasons why the United States is “unable to effectively take advantage of social media.”
Poorly conceived or no, it’s one of many laws, like the 1974 Privacy Act, that shows up in daily discussions about what the center can and can’t do, sometimes to the chagrin and confusion of foreign partners. “It’s part of the conversations that we have with our partners around the globe so that they understand the challenges that we have.” After all, Facebook, Twitter, and even Telegram are global companies. Millions of people from around the world interact with one another. That’s the whole point. But that makes trying to influence some people but not others incredibly difficult. “We’ve been very transparent about the fact [that] this is hard,” says Lumpkin.
Other tools include polling and traditional marketing analysis, and some new ones, such as the Quantitative Crisis Response, or QCR, from DARPA, described in the agency’s budget as a big data analysis tool to find patterns to “understand the true nature of non-traditional threats, track the effectiveness of remedial measures and develop or optimize alternative strategies.”
How will Lumpkin know his efforts have been successful? The most important metric for success is watching recruitment numbers for ISIS continue to drop. “Again, we’re not a stand alone panacea that will solve it. This is in conjunction with every other aspect of national power, it’s affecting situations on the battlespace, it’s the building partner capacity, when we see the Daesh brand as an organization, if it’s in trouble… people clearly recognize that Daesh is not the thing they made themselves out to be.”