Abu Dhabi centre to counter ISIS propaganda

Friday 24/07/2015
Countering a bellicose narrative

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.