It’s no secret that, for a long time, the iihadists were kicking American ass in the information war — especially online. Slowly, slowly, the U.S. government is starting to push back, just a little. The new arsenal of the propaganda campaign: Arab-language bloggers, podcasts, “webchats” — and maybe even Second Life and cell phone games, too.


That’s the word from Duncan MacInnes, who works in the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. He’s testifying today before the House Armed Services Committee’s panel on terrorism, where chairman Adam Smith is holding hearings into this issue of strategic communications right now. “My sense is that we lack a coordinated, comprehensive, adequately resourced strategy to confront al-Qaeda’s ideology through a strategic message campaign,” Smith sighs. DANGER ROOM has advanced copies of the testimony. There’s some small, encouraging signs. But I doubt Smith will be all that reassured.


During the hearing, MacInnes is scheduled to talk about the State Department’s “Digital Outreach Team,” launched as a pilot program “to counter ideological support for terrorism.”


It employs Arabic speakers to post entries on influential Arabic-language blogs, challenging misrepresentations and providing accurate information about U.S. policy and American society. These bloggers speak the language and idiom of the region, know the cultural reference points and are often able to converse informally and frankly rather than adopt the usually more formal persona of a U.S. government spokesperson. This is a major departure from our previous ways of conducting public diplomacy. It requires both creativity and a new set of skills.

The cultural sensitivity that this approach affords has been very successful, but it is labor-intensive. We are currently in the process of expanding the original team of two Arabic bloggers to six, while also adding one Urdu and two Farsi (Persian) linguists. The team does not engage hardcore militant sites, but concentrates on mainstream sites with heavy traffic that discuss U.S. policy, such as BBC Arabic, Al-Jazeera Talk, and Elaph On-Line News. We are also exploring how we can use the applicability to our mission of new cyber-technologies such as Second Life and cell phone games to further advance our mission.

Our Bureau of International Information Programs is fully engaged in dramatically expanding public diplomacy and countering extremist ideologies through the Internet. Our English language website and six foreign language sites – including Arabic and Persian – are being revamped to use more videos, blogging, podcast and webchats designed to reach younger audiences. The Arabic web site has the specific goal of countering violent extremism by offering a positive vision rooted in American values. It attracts more than 200,000 visitors per month, top users coming from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.

Ummmm…. Two bloggers, and 200,000 visitors — that’s kind of small potatoes, right? I mean, even lame sites like this one bring in more traffic. And of course, this would all be a hell of a lot easier if the 180,000 American troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan were encouraged to spread the word about what they do online. But as we all know, that ain’t the case.


What’s more, Michael Doran, who serves in the Pentagon doing public diplomacy support, warns that even these kind of outreach efforts are only part of the equation. “We cannot simply focus on ‘getting our message out,’ or on writing better talking points,” he says.

It primarily requires taking actions that make the alternative narrative real, and building partnership capacity among our Muslim allies. Thus, other key components of an effective CIST [countering idealogical support to terrorism] program include civil affairs, security, education reform, establishing the solid rule of law, and opening economic opportunity for all.

And then publicize the hell out of them.