A year after the State Department opened a data center in the Middle East aimed at countering Islamic State’s online messaging, the U.S. plans to inaugurate a similar outpost in Malaysia in coming months.
Like its counterpart in the United Arab Emirates, the new center will seek to undermine the terrorist group’s digital recruitment and propaganda efforts, Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday in Washington. The center fills a gap in the media landscape by countering the “viral spread of disinformation by state and non-state actors,” he said.
Because public statements from U.S. government officials condemning the group “can easily be used by the enemy as a recruitment tool,” Stengel said U.S. efforts “focus on amplifying credible voices and lifting up those voices in a coordinated way.”
The new center in Kuala Lumpur, which will be followed by similar outposts in Jordan and Nigeria, will go into operation as Islamic State recruiters are increasingly moving away from unprotected networks onto encrypted platforms. While that makes it harder to track some online conversations, Stengel said success can also be gauged by measuring declines in the flow of foreign fighters to conflict areas and decreased media and social media activity.
Companies such as Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. have also assisted the State Department’s efforts by being more proactive in removing pro-Islamic State accounts and propaganda, Stengel said. He told the committee that Twitter had taken down 125,000 pro-Islamic State accounts, a statistic presidential envoy Brett McGurk gave the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June.
Yet the proliferation of the anti-Islamic State centers shows the group’s increasingly global reach, even as it faces setbacks on the battlefield in strongholds such as Syria and Iraq. This year the group has managed to carry out or inspire mass-casualty events in places including Turkey, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Orlando, Florida.
While Malaysia hasn’t been targeted directly in Islamic State attacks, the country’s police detained 14 people in May for suspected links to the group. Australia in February said that terrorists may be planning to target Western interests or locations frequented by Westerners.