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U.S. Launches Media Campaign To Counter ISIS Videos


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn. In the theater of war with the Islamic State, there is a battle for the hearts and minds of new recruits. This past week, the group released two videos specifically targeted toward a Western audience; one was captured British journalist John Cantlie apparently reading from a script condemning a U.S.-led military assault.


JOHN CANTLIE: After two disastrous and hugely unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, why is it that our governments appear so keen to get involved in yet another unwinnable conflict?

GOODWYN: The other with its images of attacks on U.S. troops was staged not unlike a Hollywood trailer for an action film, albeit a low budget one.


GOODWYN: At the end of the violence, the words coming soon appear as the screen fades to black. This is one of the many videos produced by the Islamic State to market their bloody cause and recruit new fighters. America is responding with social media efforts on its own. The State Department's Counterterrorism Division is making videos using the militants' own footage. The hope is that instead of being attracted by the violence, potential recruits will be repulsed by the brutality, especially that committed against Muslims.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

GOODWYN: I spoke to Alberto Fernandez. He is the coordinator of the State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. I asked him about the messages they are sending.

ALBERTO FERNANDEZ: These young men that are going off feel that they are committing violence for a worthy cause. And so what we hope to do is at least raise doubt and ask the question really? Is this violence that you're doing, is it really the violence that you expected? Are the people that you're killing really the infidel? You know, are you killing Americans and Jews and Paeans? Or are you really killing the very people that ISIS claims to defend? What we try to do is highlight those fissures, those inconsistencies that exist between their narrative and the facts on the ground.

GOODWYN: On Tuesday, the Islamic State's propaganda arm released a 42-second spots that features slow-motion affects and executions. Instead of repelling recruits, this is the kind of method the Islamic State is using to attract fighters.

FERNANDEZ: Well, there's an element to that, which, of course, it depends which fighters you're talking about. For some young men, especially some young men in the West, it's about lifestyle. It's about a thug lifestyle. It's about a look. These guys have the flag. They have the slogan. You know, al-Qaida never had a cool slogan or a flag. It's about caliphate now, not sometime in the year after or years from now. So there's immediacy. There's agency. There's a deep emotional commitment. You see the faces of individuals, and individuals tell you their life story. So it is effective. We believe, of course, that it's effective not because of the slickness of the packaging or the fact that they have a large, online army of people amplifying it, but because of the message itself, because of the building blocks of the message.

GOODWYN: Are you pleased with how things have been going so far?

FERNANDEZ: Well, it's a daunting task because the extremists have a long lead time. There are more of them. They have been doing this longer. And they have been doing it with a lot more focus. So I feel that we are a relative success, but we are way behind, and we are out-manned by the adversary.

GOODWYN: Do you have some way to measure your effectiveness?

FERNANDEZ: Well, in English, of course, we just started. You know, we started basically in late July. So it's a little early to talk about effectiveness. Right now, we're focused on two things. First, to be in the space where the extremists are. And before our presence, they had full reign. The second thing is content. There is a need for developing more and more content. There is a Mount Everest of radicalizing material online. And the amount of non-radicalizing or counter-radicalizing material from all sources, not just us, is a mole hill.

GOODWYN: Your department is also very active on Twitter and Facebook. And sometimes you've engaged in back-and-forth arguments with some jihadists who seem clearly fanatical. There's the saying never argue with a moron, they'll drag you down to their level and beat you with experience. Any worry on that front?

FERNANDEZ: Well, we're pretty experienced. I mean, we have been doing this since 2011, especially in Arabic. You know, we have a team of people who know the area, who know the region, who have spent years - I've spent 20 years of my adult life working in the Middle East. And I speak Arabic. Many of my colleagues in our office are Muslims. I mean, we're not - we didn't start yesterday. But to the larger point, we believe that it's important to contest the space. And if that means getting down in the dirt and getting down in the mud with them, we believe that that's important to do. I mean, what we don't do is we don't lie, and we don't insult people. I mean, we don't use, you know, insulting language, vulgar language. But beyond that, all bets are off.

GOODWYN: Alberto Fernandez is the coordinator of the State Department's Center for Strategic Counter Terrorism Communications. Thank you for joining us.

FERNANDEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.