Abu Dhabi centre to counter ISIS propaganda
London - In a bid to counter the Islamic State’s social media propaganda efforts, the governments of the United States and the United Arab Emirates have launched the first multinational online messaging and engagement programme to combat terrorism.
According to a statement by the US State Department, the Abu Dhabi-based Sawab Center will “use direct online engagement to counter terrorist propaganda rapidly and effectively, including messages used to recruit foreign fighters, fund raise for illicit activities, and intimidate and terrorise local populations. The Sawab Center will increase the intensity of online debate by presenting moderate and tolerant voices from across the region and amplifying inclusive and constructive narratives.”
The anti-jihadi centre’s opening was attended by US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel and Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, who emphasised that “by tackling the problem of online radicalisation, the Sawab Center will make an important contribution to the stability and security of the region and will make a start in reclaiming the online space from the extremists”.
In an interview with the US-based Arabic-language News channel Alhurra, Stengel said the centre’s aim was to utilise information to stop individuals from being recruited by the Islamic State (ISIS). “If somebody is debating whether to go, tell them that the mythology of what Daesh [an Arabic acronym for ISIS] is creating is false; you know the caliphate isn’t a paradise — there’s no plumbing, there’s no electricity, there’s no internet access.”
Despite the scope of the project, the Sawab Center is still in its infancy. Local media were not allowed to attend the launch or visit the actual centre. Sawab is yet to introduce its official online website but has launched accounts on prominent social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
A recent report by the Brookings Institution, The ISIS Twitter Census, revealed that much of ISIS’s social media success can be attributed to a relatively small group of hyperactive users that control 500-2,000 accounts. The report also stated that ISIS-supporting accounts had an average of about 1,000 followers each, considerably higher than an ordinary Twitter user, and that overall ISIS supporter accounts were estimated at 90,000 users.
The report disclosed that the largest cluster of location-enabled accounts was in Iraq and Syria, made up 28% of the overall figure and saw its highest concentration in areas either controlled or contested by ISIS. The next most prevalent location was Saudi Arabia, with 27%. After Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, no single country represented more than 6% of the total.
According to the Associated Press, US Special Envoy and Coordinator for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications Rashad Hussain said that the centre would employ 15-20 full-time staff, mostly Emiratis, and that the project was estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars, with most of the bill footed by the UAE.
Hussain said Sawab’s efforts to counter the ISIS narrative would include sharing stories of defectors and former radicals, highlighting Muslim victims of terrorism and showcasing living conditions and battlefield realities in ISIS-held areas.
Additionally, the Abu Dhabi centre’s staff would engage social media users on various platforms and work with prominent individuals and organisations to counter ISIS’s messaging, while also hosting a content-sharing platform so partners could upload and download files.
“It’s important that our partners step up in the messaging space in a way that reflects the Muslim communities around the world,” Hussain said. ISIS has been successful in spreading its ideology and recruiting new members on social media platforms, producing slick recruitment videos that often appeal to disenfranchised and misguided Muslim youth.
In Europe, this has led to some governments passing laws requiring social media companies to censor posts deemed terror-related, while in the United States the US Senate Intelligence Committee advanced a bill requiring social media companies to inform authorities when they become aware of terrorist-related content on their sites.