Why the U.S. government is 'trolling' jihadists on social media

Nasir al-Wuhayshi, head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in a still from an al Qaeda propaganda video released this week.

Story highlights

  • The U.S. State Department has begun engaging with Muslim extremists on social media
  • It hopes to dissuade potential Islamic militants by presenting an alternative viewpoint
  • Some have derided the initiative as 'trolling,' while others say it is rattling jihadist leaders
  • Social media has become a vital recruiting ground for Islamic extremists
"We don't negotiate with terrorists," has long been the standard refrain of governments when it comes to violent extremists.
But these days, when it comes to the realm of social media, they are at least talking to them.
In recent years, the U.S. State Department has launched social media efforts to engage jihadists and their sympathizers online, contesting their claims with the intention of dissuading potential converts to Islamic extremism.
"We are actually giving al Qaeda the benefit of the doubt because we are answering their arguments," says Alberto Fernandez, coordinator of the State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which runs the program. "The way I see it is we are participating in the marketplace of ideas."
That marketplace is now online, and the corners of it dedicated to Islamic extremist talk can be surreal, noisy, sometimes horrifying places.
Jihadist social media: Decapitations, appeals for wives
Like no conflict before, the Syrian war, the prime focus of the world's jihadists, is being discussed, disputed -- and waged, in its propaganda aspects -- on social media.
The content ranges from the shockingly grisly to the bizarre. Combatants post photos of decapitated heads as trophies of battlefield victories, or images of victims from their own side, captioned with vows to avenge them.
Links to grainy phone-camera footage abound, documenting everything from group executions, to a video appeal summoning Muslim women to come to Syria to find a husband among the Islamist rebels. On Twitter, jihadists post their theological quandaries: how to watch football when it means being exposed to men's bare legs?
Often informed by the memes and language of the broader Internet, the content is disseminated swiftly around the world through a diverse network of jihadists and their supporters, journalists, analysts and onlookers.
In this way, social media has become a prime conduit for motivating budding extremists to take up arms.
A recent tweet by the State Department directed at an Islamist in Somalia.
A study recently published by researchers at King's College London traces how Western-based radical preachers with strong social media influence have inspired a wave of Western Muslims to fight in Syria, where they are now estimated to account for about a quarter of the 11,000 foreign jihadists in the country.
In response to this threat, the U.S. government has been "messaging" in social media in Arabic, Urdu and Somali for three years now, attempting to penetrate the virtual echo chambers of jihadist thought with contrary points of view.
But it is only since their English-language Twitter feed was launched in December, becoming a pugnacious new voice in the conversation, that their efforts have increasingly drawn attention -- and raised eyebrows -- in the West.
This development has led to the spectacle of the U.S. government publicly bickering with jihadists and their ideological fellow travelers on social media, debating Syria, the War on Terror, "the clash of civilizations" in 140-character bursts.
A typical exchange occurred recently when a pro-jihadist Twitter user admiringly posted an image of a desecrated Buddha of Bamiyan, one of the monumental statues in Afghanistan destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. The CSCC account tweeted in response: "Destroying ancient culture out of hatred and backwardness are a feature of al Qaeda's ideology."
"Crying about so-called ancient culture when there was no food and children were dying out of hunger," scoffed the Islamist. "The shortage of food in Afghanistan was due to Taliban's disastrous policies," replied the State Department account.