London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Although the US-led airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Nusra Front have grabbed most of the headlines, US officials have been careful to emphasize that there is no purely military solution to the threat posed by jihadists groups.
Just last week, President Obama’s special envoy to the international anti-ISIS coalition, the retired US Marines general, John Allen, told Asharq Al-Awsat that ISIS exists “in the physical sphere, what we call the battle space; it exists in the sphere of financial revenue development; and it exists in the information sphere.”
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to one of the officials attempting to undermine the group and its allies and sympathizers in the “information sphere,” especially social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, by debunking claims made in its posts and challenging its views.
Ambassador Alberto Fernandez oversees the US State Department’s Digital Outreach Team in his role as coordinator of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. He assumed the role in 2012 after serving as a US diplomat in a number of countries in the Middle East and South America. Born in Cuba, he arrived in the US as a refugee in 1959 and served in the US Army before joining the State Department.
Asharq Al-Awsat: When and why was the Digital Outreach Team (DOT) established? What is its purpose and main activities?
Alberto Fernandez: The DOT in its current function came into existence in early 2011, as part of the creation of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.
Q: What do the DOT’s staff do on a daily basis? How many staff are there, and how many are Arabic speakers?
The staff looks at social media, what are the issues of the day, what lies and exaggerations Al-Qaeda and ISIS are putting out, and what opportunities we have to point out the truth: that the biggest victims of Al-Qaeda and ISIS are Muslims and that Al-Qaeda and especially ISIS are reducing the region to rubble. Most of the staff are Muslims, but not all. We have about 20 Arabic speakers.
Q: There is suspicion in the region that the activities of the DOT essentially amount to espionage—how would you respond?
We are well aware of suspicions in the region since many of us know the region very well. Our work is essentially a form of communications, of answering the lies of terrorists with the truth.
Q: Do you monitor individuals or organizations? How do you decide whom to follow?
We look at the issues and at where terrorist propaganda is appearing. It is a dynamic, rapidly shifting environment which changes from day to day.
Q: How many sites are you engaging with on average? Do you focus on any specific region or age group? What percentage would you classify as dangerous?
We look at dozens of sites on a daily basis. We are driven by what is occurring in the media and what people are talking about. Much of our work these days is against ISIS.
Q: Which platforms do you monitor the most? Twitter, Facebook, Emails?
Twitter has been the largest area we work on, but we are also looking at Facebook and YouTube and other, less well-known sites and platforms.
Q: Do you try to establish a rapport with radicals? Does this ever prove successful?
Establishing rapport is not our goal (we are not opposed to this if people are trying to convince them that they are on the wrong path), but we sometimes engage that way a bit. We tried to convince American [Omar] Hammami, who joined Al-Shabaab, that he had made a mistake. He didn’t take our advice and was killed in 2013 by his masters in Al-Shabaab.
Q: What kind of reaction do you get when jihadis realize they’re communicating with a government agency?
Some threaten or curse us. Some try to come up with their own response (their version of our video or picture). They also try to shut us down on social media because they cannot stand someone contradicting them and don’t believe in freedom of expression.
Q: Can you give an example of a major success story secured by DOT? Has it ever resulted directly in the foiling of a terrorist attack? Have you successfully changed someone’s view or outlook?
We have strong evidence of our effectiveness but we cannot talk openly with the press about them.
Q: How have terrorist narratives changed over the years since DOT was established?
The big change now is how the Al-Qaeda narrative is being eclipsed by the “Zarqawists” at ISIS. They push the colonization of the Arab world by foreign takfirists, as [ISIS leader Abu Bakr] Al-Baghdadi said: “Syria is not for the Syrians and Iraq is not for the Iraqis.” It is for Chechen and French and Pakistani terrorists. They tell Western Muslims that they are going to fight the Assad regime without mentioning that ISIS had a close relationship with Assad for years.
Q: Do you see major differences between the narratives of different jihadi groups?
There are local differences but they all follow the same lines. They don’t want to talk about the many innocents they kill and how they are destroying the region. They focus on the so-called kuffar (infidels) they kill. They will kill one American journalist with a lot of dawsha (noise) and kill a dozen Syrian Arab opposition journalists in secret. They boast of attacking Assad while spending their time killing Muslims, or abusing women, or even killing fellow extremists like Abu Khalid Al-Suri or the fighters of the Al-Nusra Front. They try to use the natural and moral revulsion that people feel for the crimes of Assad as a [justification for war], but they are actually just like him!
Q: People are wary of governments monitoring them—if they use terms like “terror,” “Bin Laden,” or “Al-Qaeda,” are they likely to be targeted?
It probably depends on who they are and why they are looking up these terms. We use these terms ourselves in order to fight them.
Q: How is the work of DOT changing as the US builds an international coalition to wage a long-term campaign against ISIS?
It hasn’t changed a lot, but we want to encourage all governments, NGOs and civil society groups to [create] their own digital outreach teams to challenge the lies of the extremists on social media. We are sure that people in the region can do an even better job than we do. We don’t want to see Arab youth deceived and destroyed for nothing by these extremists.