ISIS Propaganda Centers Mapped, But US Won't Launch Airstrikes

Image: ISIS Propaganda Centers Mapped, But US Won't Launch Airstrikes An airstrike by a U.S.-led coalition warplane explodes on an ISIL position on November 10, 2015 near the town of Hole, Rojava, Syria. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

By Cathy Burke   |   Tuesday, 15 Dec 2015

Intelligence officials are secretly mapping Islamic State media centers where the jihadists' toxic propaganda is churned out but with most operating in civilian neighborhoods, they're off-limits to U.S.-led airstrikes, the Washington Times reports.

Efforts to track the locations of Islamic State media outfits are a "major intelligence priority," and officials "have it mapped but can't talk about it," one unnamed source tells the Times.

But one analyst was aghast that any hot spots, if known, are not being destroyed.

"Obviously, if we know where they're producing the propaganda, we should be doing everything we can to destroy their facilities," William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar and former State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism, tells the Times.

Adding, however, he "would anticipate that the network ISIS media production operations is pretty well distributed physically."
One unnamed source tells the Times the debate over whether or not to authorize U.S. military strikes against the media centers is heated within the Obama administration because leaving them online allows officials to continue studying them.

"There's always this balance between needing to take action and needing to study how they operate," this sources tells the Times, insisting that "bombing is absolutely not the only way to take a communications product offline."

The fact, however, that many ISIS media centers are smack in the middle of civilian neighborhoods is a big problem for the administration, the Times reports, noting the administration has taken particular pride that U.S.-led airstrikes have been the most precise campaign in history in terms of minimizing civilian casualties.

President Barack Obama said as much in his speech Monday, declaring "this continues to be a difficult fight" because "ISIL is dug in, including in urban areas, and they hide behind civilians, using defenseless men, women and children as human shields."

According to the Times, the Obama administration is aiming to counter the ISIS online messaging with international partners and by pressuring U.S. social media companies to block extremist content and links, the Times notes.

But critics, including lawmakers on Capitol Hill and those familiar with the mapping project, say the effort is badly mismanaged and underfunded, the Times reports.

Citing an October report by a U.K.-based, counterterrorism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation, the Times reports there are 35 media organizational outfits that produce propaganda material from "all corners of the Islamic State 'caliphate.'"

"This is an exceptionally sophisticated information operation campaign, the success of which lies in the twin pillars of quantity and quality," the report said, the Times reports. "Given this scale and dedication, negative measures like censorship are bound to fail."

The report also suggested separate media operations are all linked to a secret "Islamic State Central Media Command."

But the Times reports the thrust of the Obama administration's strategy for countering ISIS propaganda is less about bombing and more about what goes on in a little-reported interagency messaging operation called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, inside the State Department.

Created in 2011, the operation has roughly 69 employees, a portion of whom engage in daily dissemination of anti-Islamic State messaging in multiple languages, including English, Arabic, Urdu and Somali, via such social media outlets as Twitter and Facebook.

One State Department official who works in the office tells the Times a recent "Why They Left Daesh" another name for ISIS Twitter campaign that used imagery to highlight the cases of ISIS defectors who spoke of "severe punishments, brutal torture and ruthless killings."

The official told The Times that the majority of those working in the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications are focused on crafting messaging that exposes "weakness" and "lies" in ISIS propaganda that can be disseminated to allies around the world including moderate Islamic leaders from Europe to the Middle East and Asia who can then promote it to young people who may be targets of ISIS radicalization.

The operation, which has an annual budget of roughly $5.5 million, is being "grossly underfunded," the official tells the Times, and its importance to the long-term fight against the extremists has been badly "misunderstood" by critics.

The ISIS propaganda machine, meanwhile, about a month ago put out an English-language video, the Times reports.
"Not only did it go to staggering lengths to mock the U.S. military's failure to contain the Islamic State, but a sober-voiced narrator also went so far as to taunt America over the sensitive issue of suicide rates among U.S. soldiers and veterans," the Times reports.

According to the Times, a narrative speaking unaccented English taunts:

"You claim to have the greatest army history has known. You may have the numbers and weapons, but your soldiers lack good will and resolve."

"Still scared from their defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, they return dead or suicidal, with over 6,500 of them killing themselves each year. So while you go around cooking the facts on the results of your military airstrikes, we continue to haunt the minds of your soldiers and sew fear into their hearts."

It's unclear where the slickly produced video was edited, and the Times reports intelligence officials say the final cut could have been produced and uploaded to an Internet host site by Islamic State admirers anywhere in the world.

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