U.S. Targets Al-Qaida In Chatrooms, Banner Ads

For some time now al-Qaida has been attracting recruits through the Internet. The group has launched jihadi chatrooms and online magazines, and their recruitment efforts have been fairly successful. Now the State Department is fighting back with something they call the "Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications."

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For some time now, Al-Qaida has used the Internet to attract recruits. The group has launched chat rooms, online magazines, and their efforts to turn moderate Muslims into violent Jihadis have been fairly successful.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports that the State Department is now fighting back online.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided a new detail about how the fight against Al-Qaida is changing. She was speaking to the special operations command in Tampa, Florida. And she said that a team of Arabic, Urdu and Somali speakers had been joining Islamic chat rooms to undermine Al-Qaida's violent message on the Web.

Here's how State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said it works.

VICTORIA NULAND: We are countering propaganda with a counter narrative that we believe is closer to the truth of the situation.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Working with Special Operations Forces, the State Department has a digital outreach team that patrols the Web and joins chat rooms. And then they provide essentially an alternate narrative. The State Department's Nuland offered a recent example. A couple of weeks ago, a tribal website linked to Al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen began an ad campaign of sorts. It linked to photographs of coffins draped with American flags and it called on followers to kill more Americans.

NULAND: We put up a counter post of coffins draped in Yemeni flags to indicate that it is Yemenis who are dying at the hands of Al-Qaida terrorists in Yemen.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Nuland made clear that the U.S. isn't hacking into websites, but is merely joining in on chat room conversations.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: I'm sitting here and I'm on the tribal forum right now for the al-Awalik Tribe. And this tribal forum has several different chat rooms.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Gregory Johnsen is a Yemen expert at Princeton University.

JOHNSEN: So, for instance, there is a particular chat room that you can go to for political news. There's one that you can go to, to read about the history of this particular tribe.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And there are chat rooms where people can post things like photographs of dead soldiers.

Before this new effort, Al-Qaida recruiters hoping to whip up the young Muslims to join the fight could say anything they wanted and there was no one to contradict them. Now there is. The State Department effort is coming at a time when, in Yemen at least, Al-Qaida is losing support among the local population.

JOHNSEN: The name Al-Qaida carries with it a great deal of baggage within the Middle East.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So, according to Princeton's Gregory Johnsen, Al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen is taking a new name.

JOHNSEN: So we've seen in Yemen a rebranding process, where Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has adopted the name on sol Ansar al-Sharia or the Supporters of Islamic Law. And by presenting themselves with this name, they feel as though they won't sort of have been prejudged.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Prejudged as indiscriminate killers, which is exactly the label the new State Department team is trying to make stick.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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