Military’s online fight against ISIS hits snags


TAMPA, Fla. — On any given day at MacDill Air Force Base, web crawlers scour social media for potential recruits to the Islamic State group. Then, in a high-stakes operation to counter the extremists’ propaganda, language specialists employ fictitious identities and try to sway the targets from joining ISIS ranks.

At least that’s how the multimillion-dollar initiative is being sold to the Defense Department.

A critical national security program known as “WebOps” is part of a vast psychological operation that the Pentagon says is effectively countering an enemy that has used the internet as a devastating tool of propaganda. But an Associated Press investigation found the management behind WebOps is so beset with incompetence, cronyism and flawed data that multiple people with direct knowledge of the program say it’s having little impact.

Several current and former WebOps employees cited multiple examples of civilian Arabic specialists who have little experience in counter-propaganda, cannot speak Arabic fluently and have so little understanding of Islam they are no match for the Islamic State online recruiters.

It’s hard to establish rapport with a potential terror recruit when — as one former worker told the AP — translators repeatedly mix up the Arabic words for “salad” and “authority.” That’s led to open ridicule on social media about references to the “Palestinian salad.”

Northrup Grumman contractors 13117

This document, photographed in Washington on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, details the announcement of a five-year, $500 million contract awarded to Northrop Grumman on Sept. 30, 2016. The contract, for an expanded psychological operations campaign against the Islamic State and other extremist groups, is one of the largest such efforts to date.
Photo Credit: Jon Elswick/AP
Four current or former workers told the AP that they had personally witnessed WebOps data being manipulated to create the appearance of success and that they had discussed the problem with many other employees who had seen the same. Yet the companies carrying out the program for the military’s Central Command in Tampa have dodged attempts to implement independent oversight and assessment of the data.

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