Newest U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy: Trolling = Brilliant!
In the decade since 9/11, the U.S. government has used a wide variety of tactics against terrorists. It’s invaded countries where they operated (and ones where they didn’t). It’s tried to win the backing of foreign populations in which the terrorists hide. And it’s sent commandos and deadly flying robots to kill them one by one.
One thing it hasn’t done, until now: troll them.
Within the State Department, a Silicon Valley veteran has quietly launched an improbable new initiative to annoy, frustrate and humiliate denizens of online extremist forums. It’s so new that it hasn’t fully taken shape: Even its architects concede it hasn’t fleshed out an actual strategy yet, and accordingly can’t point to any results it’s yielded. Its annual budget is a rounding error. The Pentagon will spend more in Afghanistan in the time it takes you to finish reading this sentence.
But it also represents, in the mind of its creator, a chance to discourage impressionable youth from becoming terrorists — all in an idiom they firmly understand. And if it actually works, it might stand a chance of cutting off al-Qaida’s ability to replenish its ranks at a time when it looks to be reeling.
The program, called Viral Peace, seeks to occupy the virtual space that extremists fill, one thread or Twitter exchange at a time. Shahed Amanullah, a senior technology adviser to the State Department and Viral Peace’s creator, tells Danger Room he wants to use “logic, humor, satire, [and] religious arguments, not just to confront [extremists], but to undermine and demoralize them.” Think of it as strategic trolling, in pursuit of geopolitical pwnage.
Al-Qaida’s influence has waxed and waned during the past decade, but its adherents, both current and potential, have gradually drifted online. Forums like the password-protected Shumukh site host extremist bulletin boards, where regulars debate the finer points of jihadist theory and boast of grandiose plans to assassinate senior U.S. officials.
The denizens of those forums might be scrubs. But the online havens are, increasingly, the town square for extremism, especially as drones and commandos batter the terrorists’ physical sanctuaries. Al-Qaida’s Yemen branch publishes an English-language web magazine; its Somali branch recently joined Twitter.
The U.S. has thought of several strategies for confronting the not-so-new wave of online extremism, from apparent DDoS attacks on extremist websites to infiltrating them using fake jihadi personas. The White House’s broad counterterrorism strategy, meanwhile, all but ignores the internet.
Amanullah has a different view. You don’t necessarily need to deface the forums if you can troll them to the point where their most malign influences are neutralized.
In an interview at a Washington coffee shop near his State Department office, Amanullah explains that online extremists have “an energy, they’ve got a vitality that frankly attracts some of these at-risk people,” Amanullah says. “It appeals to macho, it appeals to people’s rebellious nature, it appeals to people who feel downtrodden.” Creating a comparable passion on the other side is difficult. But it’s easier if the average online would-be jihadi has his mystique challenged through the trial by fire that is online ridicule.
To Jarret Brachman, it’s an idea with promise. Brachman is one of the leading researchers of online jihadism. The people who post to the forums are “are massive narcissists [who] need constant ego boosts,” Brachman says — and, like other online blowhards, they tend to talk outside their areas of presumed expertise. Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be Christmas bomber, used to bloviate on an Islamic forum about “love and marriage” while simultaneously complaining about his moribund love life.
And that makes Abdulmutallab’s virtual contemporaries vulnerable to trolling — hopefully, before they can command attract an audience. The jihadi braggarts “keep the momentum, the anger and the virulence going in forums, and they have a disproportionate impact, so if you can get rid of them, it’ll pay dividends,” Brachman says.
But not every extremist forum is alike. Will McCants, a former State Department official now at the CNA think tank and another scholar of online jihadism, argues Amanullah’s pupils can’t focus on the hardcore extremist forums like Shumukh. “The admins will immediately take down” posts that challenge the jihadi narrative, McCants tells Danger Room. “For something like that to work, it would have to be in more mainstream fora where extremists are trying to recruit,” like the conservative muslm.net, where “you can engage and the admins wouldn’t necessarily take you offline.”
But all that is several steps ahead of Viral Peace at the moment. Viral Peace doesn’t have a strategy yet. And to hear Amanullah and his colleagues tell it, the State Department won’t be the ones who come up with one. It’s better, they argue, to let Muslims in various foreign countries figure out which message boards to troll and how to properly troll them. Americans won’t know, say, the Tagalog-language Internet better than Filipinos; and as outsiders, they won’t have the credibility necessary to actually make an impact. The best the State Department can do is train good trolls — which Amanullah began to do this spring.
That means taking a big risk. If Viral Peace works as intended, with the trainees taking control of the program, Amanullah and the State Department will have little control over how the program actually trolls the terrorists. And the first wave of meetings in Muslim countries shows how far the program has to go.
It makes sense that someone like Amanullah would think about pwning terrorists. A 44-year old proud Muslim and proud California geek, he was the editor-in-chief of the web magazine Altmuslim; started an online restaurant-rating service called Zabihah that’s like a Halal version of Yelp; and launched a business service called Halalfire to drive advertising to the Muslim consumer market. Long before he arrived at the State Department in October 2010, he was profiled in Newsweek, which described the bookshelves at his El Cerrito home as “lined with copies of Wired magazine and Jack Kerouac novels.”
In April, Amanullah dispatched two young associates, Humera Khan of the U.S.-based counter-radicalization think tank Muflehun and the playwright and essayist Wajahat Ali, to set the idea into practice. They took a quickie tour of Muslim nations to meet young local leaders who might be interested in confronting extremism. It was a pilot program for Viral Peace and a related program of Amanullah’s called Generation Change. The idea was to connect notable people — rising stars in the arts, business and culture fields, who had an online following — with one another and to people who focused on counterterrorism.
“You don’t need to teach this generation how to use social media. They know how to use Twitter. They know how to use Facebook,” says Khan, who participated in Viral Peace in her individual capacity. “The whole [Viral Peace] curriculum is about learning what strategy is.”
Except that the first wave of Viral Peace didn’t yield a strategy. In Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia — Ali went to Pakistan as well — the opening meetings brought together about 30 people per country, selected by the State Department and Amanullah’s own social networks, for sprawling brainstorming sessions. Some of them were just about how Muslim communities are perceived in their own countries. And some participants didn’t place counterterrorism at the top of their agendas.
“Yes, there were issues of extremism” discussed, Khan says. “But by and large, the people felt that if you could deal with economics, education, making sure the rights of the underprivileged were maintained, it would take care of a lot of the other problems.”
That may be, but it’s also far afield from trolling the trolls. Amanullah accepts that mission creep is a risk. But, he contends, if you want to get the most effective people denouncing jihadis online, it’s a risk worth accepting. And unlike the U.S. government, they stand the better chance of getting lurkers to think of them as “actually a cool group of people to be in,” as Amanullah puts it.
What’s more, Amanullah has basically no budget. Viral Peace, a global program, has mere thousands of dollars in annual seed money so far; the Obama administration is asking for about $85 billion for the Afghanistan war next year. Participants are staying connected via Facebook, with minimal U.S. government presence as a middleman; Amanullah wants to expand to more countries soon. But it’s not clear where Viral Peace fits in Obama’s broader counterterrorism strategy: White House officials declined repeated requests to comment for this story. Amanullah sees it as a supplement to existing counterterrorism efforts — not a replacement for, say, drone strikes in Yemen — and he also concedes that his project will take a long time before it starts to pay counterterrorism dividends.
But Amanullah doesn’t view that as an unconquerable obstacle. He thinks of counterterrorism like a venture capitalist might.
“I come from Silicon Valley, from the start-up environment. I want to prove you can do small, inexpensive, high-impact projects that don’t just talk about the problem but solve the problem,” he says. “And solve it the right way: not with the government’s heavy hand but by empowering local people to do what they already know to do but don’t know how.”