While President Obama prepares to lay out his military strategy on Wednesday to bomb, "degrade" and ultimately "defeat" the Islamic State, U.S. government officials are already locked in an intense, high-tech cat-and-mouse game with computer-savvy militants linked to the terror group who are proving to be formidable foes on the Internet.
For months, a State Department office set up to counter Islamist extremism has been targeting Islamic State or IS, the militant group also known as ISIS and ISIL, by sending out Twitter messages and YouTube videos designed to discredit the group by highlighting its cruelty and brutality.
But IS militants and followers have struck back with some surprising tactics: They have invoked the “terms of service” policies of major Internet companies to get the U.S. government videos and other postings taken down, either by reporting them as spam or even flagging them for excessive violence.
“They’re very organized, very systematic and extremely sophisticated about how they approach social media,” said J.M. Berger, a terrorism analyst who has studied IS’s use of social media and the editor of Intelwire.com, a website that specializes in extremist propaganda. “They understand the mechanics of how it works better than most people in this country do.”
On several occasions recently, U.S. officials say, Twitter messages attacking IS that were posted by the State Department counterterrorism office were removed shortly after they went up.
A State Department official confirmed that the tweets vanished after an “organized campaign” by IS supporters to flag the center’s postings and report them as spam “in order to have them removed.”
In another instance, the State Department office known as the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, or CSCC, posted a hard-hitting YouTube video called “Welcome to the 'Islamic State' land."
The one-minute-and-nine-second video was intended to shock viewers: It flashed grisly images of IS crucifixions, executions and whippings and then concluded with a grainy shot of an IS suicide bombing targeting Muslims praying in a mosque.
But within a day, the video disappeared from YouTube, officials tell Yahoo News. Although they acknowledge that they have no direct proof, officials say they suspect IS followers had the video flagged for violating You Tube policies, which state: “Graphic or gratuitous violence is not allowed.”
State Department officials say the group’s ability to thwart its messaging was not only frustrating, it was fraught with irony: “It was their brutality we were showing.”
The State Department later contacted YouTube and got “Welcome to the 'Islamic State' land" restored by explaining to company officials that it was “educational” in purpose, State Department officials say. (It has now been viewed 598,770 times, but with a restriction, barring access to account holders under the age of 18.)
Asked for comment, Zayna Baron, a spokeswoman for YouTube, said: "YouTube has clear policies prohibiting content that contains gratuitous violence, and we remove videos violating these policies when flagged by our users. We allow videos posted with a clear news or documentary purpose to remain on YouTube, applying warnings and age restrictions as appropriate…. When it's brought to our attention that a video has been removed mistakenly, we act quickly to reinstate it."
The ability of IS and its followers to take down U.S. government messages — if only temporarily — is only one example of what officials acknowledge is the remarkable sophistication of IS’s social media efforts. Those efforts were described by Matthew Olsen, the director the National Counterterrorism Center, last week as part of “the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any extremist group.”
IS’s social media campaign, officials and analysts say, is both aggressive and agile — complete with slickly produced, high-resolution videos (such as those showing the beheading of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff), hashtag campaigns (such as one last month targeting African-Americans outraged over events in Ferguson, Missouri) and even the creation of “bots” — or phony automated accounts — to boost the group’s Twitter messaging.
That messaging has also become increasingly brazen. This week, a Twitter account linked to IS called on followers to attack and even assassinate Twitter employees — in retaliation for Twitter’s efforts to shut down IS accounts that displayed violence.
Meanwhile, Berger, who tracks IS social media, said the group’s efforts to attack and take down Twitter and YouTube postings has not been restricted to those put out by the State Department. Berger said IS followers had flagged and tried to remove some of his own Twitter messages as well. The group previously used the same technique during internal feuding with the Al-Nusra Front, a rival jihadi group allied with al-Qaida, with whom IS has broken off relations. “They’ve got battalions of people who do this sort of thing,” Berger said.
To combat IS’s messaging, the State Department’s CSCC — an office created under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to counter Islamist extremism — is stepping up its messaging. The office recently created its own Facebook page in English. After getting approval from the Obama White House last December, it also started an English-language Twitter account, #Think Again Turn Away, on which analysts crank out a stream of daily messages intended to undermine IS.
“Australian girl marries #ISIS fighter, but dies in Syria shooting ambush,” read one of the office's messages this week, displaying a photo of a smiling young woman who was killed in Syria.
“We like to be edgy, aggressive and in your face with the extremists,” said Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, the coordinator of CSCC, in an interview with Yahoo News. He likened his office to “a war room in a political campaign,” doing “oppo research and attack ads."
But it is a campaign in which the push back from the adversaries is constant — and often ugly. Just this week, on CSCC’s Twitter account, an apparent IS sympathizer named Abu Yusef posted a photo of American flag-draped coffins, a homeless vet and an apparently staged photo of a U.S. soldier putting a gun to his mouth.
“No happy life for US soldiers,” his message read. “its either 1. Killed in combat 2. Homeless. 3. Committed suicide.”