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Engaging Through Messaging - The New Global Engagement Center

About three months ago, I was asked to reimagine and redevelop our govern­ment’s efforts to counter the messaging and narrative propagated by violent extremists abroad, Daesh in particular. At the same time, the Obama administration began intensifying its “whole-of-government” approach to countering violent extremism, both domestically and internationally.  

A new task force at the Department of Homeland Security is focused on the domestic effort in the United States, and the administration established the Global Engagement Center (GEC) in response to the new urgency to break the recruiting efforts of violent extremists abroad. The GEC, with a mandate to coordinate, integrate, and synchronize government-wide communications with foreign audiences to counter violent extremism and terrorism, is housed at the State Department and is an interagency organization drawing on staff from the Departments of Defense, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, State, the Intelligence Community, and USAID.

In March, President Obama signed an Executive Order formally establishing the GEC. We are currently adding staff and securing more funding, but, most importantly, we are taking a fundamentally new approach to the problem. The GEC is using new data analytic technologies to track counter-messaging effectiveness, and it is empowering governmental and nongovernmental partners to speak out and provide alternatives to extremist groups’ nihilistic vision.

Exposing the true nature of these groups is just one part of our strategy to counter violent extremism, albeit an important part. Ultimately, any long-term strategy to counter violent extremism cannot focus solely on killing terrorists; rather, it must effectively prevent the recruitment of new ones.  

Contesting the Information Battlespace

Contesting the information battlespace is not a new effort for the US government. The Committee on Public Information (CPI, also known as the Creel Committee) sought to influence publics at home and abroad during World War I. The United States Information Agency (1953-1999) was established during the Cold War, in part to counter Soviet disinformation and engage directly with overseas audiences. The GEC’s predecessor, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, was created in 2010 by Secretary Clinton, when al-Qaeda and its affiliates were the primary focus. Al-Qaeda always used communications in its strategy, but the volume and quality was nothing like what we see violent extremists doing today. Overtime, we were not putting the right amount of resources—technology, people, and funding—necessary to address the evolving threat. The communications landscape has changed, and we must adapt to it to be successful.

Today, violent extremist organizations are innovative, opportunistic, and they consider the manipulation of information as central to everything they do. Currently, Daesh is the prominent example of this new generation of non-state actor. Daesh has proven to be a force in blasting out its propaganda, reaching millions of people daily in a campaign strategy that portrays their group as a bourgeoning community. It has demon­strated an ability to recruit and radicalize—both internal and foreign fighters—through social media and other networks. When Daesh directly disseminates a hateful narrative to millions online 24/7, they can essentially “crowdsource” terrorism.

As it has evolved, Daesh has adapted its communications strategy with a three-tiered approach to getting its message out. There are central media hubs creating the top-line messaging for an online, global audience; provincial information offices to localize those messages; and a broader base of supporters to amplify them.

For Daesh, the information space is as important as the physical battlespace. Even in the past two years, we’ve seen their messaging become more creative, more adventurous, and more global. It has essentially become a modern full-service news operation; making news, then packaging and disseminating it. 

Reports from defectors who have been interviewed reinforce the importance that Daesh places on the information space. Because of the power of propaganda to attract new recruits, the media and military leaders in the organization are treated as equals, and both sides are directly involved in decision-making. We’ve seen that power in action, as thousands of foreign fighters from around the world—including Europeans and Americans—have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the fight. And, now we have entered a new phase in Daesh’s evolution, with its expansion through affiliates globally.

Yet another indication of the importance that Daesh attaches to its media operations is the lengths to which it goes to still dissenting voices, especially those of the news media and courageous citizen journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted that last year 71 media workers were killed on duty and almost 200 were thrown into jail. Of those who were killed, 40 percent died at the hands of Islamic extremist groups such as Daesh and al-Qaeda. At least three were from the Syrian citizen journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which was honored by the CPJ with its International Press Freedom Award in 2015. Daesh and other violent extremists use these killings to silence their critics and spread fear among journalists and others who dare to speak out against them, reveal their true nature, and discourage others from joining. They fear the message and so they kill the messenger. 

A New Approach

The GEC is currently gearing up with a new approach and philosophy. Our messaging cannot be just an after-thought, but rather it has to be baked into everything we do from the beginning. As a government fighting an agile movement, we face disadvantages. While the United States has many good messages to tell, the US government is not always the most effective messenger when it comes to countering the propaganda of violent extremists at a local level. We have to break out of our traditional bureaucratic stovepipes and be innovative and agile to address this threat.

Therefore, we are developing a network of credible voices across regions of the world and within vulnerable communities. The GEC focuses on empowering and enabling partners, both governmental and nongovernmental, to speak out against groups that espouse violence using both traditional and social media.

To give just one example, in East Africa we are establishing an online radio station in Kiswahili (or Swahili). It airs youth-produced programming that pushes back against the rising volume of violent extremist propaganda in the region. In particular, the content is aimed at local youth living in neighborhoods where violent extremists are known to recruit.

There are many partnerships like this coming on line, in all regions of the world.  Ultimately, this “partners-first” approach is necessary to change the context and stimulate and amplify the voices of influential and peace-promoting actors to counter the violent extremist propaganda in their regions, and expose Daesh’s true nature.

We are also cultivating the expertise of the tech and the marketing industries, in Silicon Valley, on Madison Avenue, and in other parts of the country. There exists a wealth of knowledge about marketing and messaging in the private sector that the GEC is leveraging. Moreover, we are using sophisticated data analysis software and technologies to track the reach and effect of that content.

My goals are to build on the cooperation that already exists in the US interagency process, as well as with our Coalition allies; seek out partners with the most credible voices to assist in our messaging delivery efforts; and reach out to the private sector, both in the United States and abroad, to tap into the latest research, innovative marketing, and analytical technology. 

This is a long-term challenge. We will continue to see ups and downs. But, if we work innovatively across the government, if we leverage our allies, local partners, and the private sector, and if we continue outreach to communities, I believe we can effectively stem Daesh’s extremist propaganda.

The defeat of Daesh—and we will defeat them—will not mean an end to violent extremism, however, nor will it mean the elimination of terrorism as a tactic. Our struggle against those who espouse violent ways of achieving their strategic ends will continue, and we will continue to have to use public diplomacy, including messaging, as one of our tools of national power in that struggle.

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Special Envoy and Coordinator of the Global Engagement Center