Marines Arm Iraqis, Kurds with 'Clever' Messages to Defeat IS

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Melissa Giannetto, center, attends opening ceremonies July 17 for the first Vocalis Program course -- which she oversees -- that trains Kurdish fighters to "win back the information battle space." (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)
U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Melissa Giannetto, center, attends opening ceremonies July 17 for the first Vocalis Program course -- which she oversees -- that trains Kurdish fighters to "win back the information battle space." (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)

IRBIL, Iraq -- In a sweltering classroom on a base outside the Kurdish region's capital, about 40 Kurdish soldiers gathered last month to learn how to fight the Islamic State group using new skills and equipment provided by the U.S. government.

Their new weapons are laptops, digital cameras and sets of a low-power, portable radio kit called a "radio in a box." Their mission: to destroy a target that has proven to be highly resistant to U.S. efforts -- the Islamic State's extremist ideology.

"You cannot defeat an idea with a bullet," U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Melissa Giannetto told those seated in the classroom, the first of the Kurdish forces, or peshmerga, to undergo training under the Vocalis Program. Designed by the Marine Corps, it aims to train them to "choose decisive messages that will destroy (the Islamic State's) influence."

Military successes on the ground in Iraq and Syria are not enough, Pentagon officials say. In the words of trainers, the coalition needs help the Iraqi and Kurdish forces to "win back the information battle space."

Since the three-year program was launched in January, it has trained and equipped more than 220 members of the Iraqi Ground Forces Command and Counterterrorism Service. The first peshmerga completed their training media last week.

After training and equipping operators in social media and traditional media techniques in the first year, Vocalis will provide "train the trainer" courses in the second year, followed in the third year by establishment of a "center of excellence" to sustain the training, Col. Christopher Garver, a spokesman for the U.S.-led counter-Islamic State coalition, said in an email.

"We are happy to have this," said Helgurd Hikmet Mela Ali, a spokesman for the Kurdish force. "This is just the start."

The training will help the peshmerga in the coming offensive to retake Iraq's second largest city of Mosul, Ali said, by giving them the skills to warn civilians of the campaign and to prepare them for the "best and worst case." But it will be a challenge to combat the militants' influence.

"Daesh's social media is strong there," he said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.

Locals say that the militants' advantage is compounded by their success in cutting cell and internet service in the city, which permits them to control the flow of incoming and outgoing information.

The Vocalis training dovetails with the United States' new government-wide approach to combating violent extremism that uses data-analysis techniques in collaboration with groups and leaders outside the government. The overall effort, led by a former Navy SEAL, is the latest U.S. attempt to dominate the information front since the 9/11 attacks.

Despite degrading al-Qaida on the battlefield and killing Osama bin Laden, Washington has failed to stop the group's ideology from proliferating and mutating into the one professed by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Critics have argued that the government's bureaucratic culture has hampered its efforts. Others say the power of the ideology has been underestimated.

"ISIS has an unbending ideological commitment to the end of days," said Scott Mann, a retired Green Beret lieutenant colonel and author of "Game Changers," a book about working with local leaders to defeat violent extremism. "These guys are savvy and their narrative is strong, and it is much more resilient than we give it credit for."

Pentagon officials acknowledge that ousting the militants from Iraq and Syria and destroying their self-proclaimed caliphate won't be enough to stop the spread of their "barbaric ideology."

"This cancer can metastasize, and in some cases it already has," Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned troops at Fort Bragg in North Carolina late last month. He cited its growth in Afghanistan, in Libya and "in the intangible geography and terrain of the internet."

Like al-Qaida, the Islamic State has made propaganda a key part of its strategy, proving adept at using social media to spread its message, recruit members and inspire deadly attacks in Europe and the United States. In 2013, as the group began capturing cities in Syria and Iraq, pro-Islamic State accounts flooded Twitter with tens of thousands of tweets a day.

By the time it took Mosul in 2014, the group maintained a dozen official accounts and dozens of unofficial ones, some with more than 100,000 followers. To bolster support, the group often touts the caliphate as good for Muslims or boasts of its supposed battlefield successes.

In contrast to the militants' knack for online propaganda, U.S. counter-efforts sometimes backfired embarrassingly, as with a popular video called "Welcome to ISIS Land." Released two years ago, it juxtaposed the militants' own violent imagery against ironic recruiting messages meant to undermine the Islamic State's credibility. For example, it promised would-be jihadists they would learn new skills, such as blowing up mosques and "crucifying and executing Muslims."

Produced by the State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which was formed in 2010 to counteract al-Qaida's propaganda, the video was a viral success, but its effectiveness was dubious. Critics said it may have helped the enemy.

"You are banking a lot on any potential militant understanding that that is sarcasm," said comedian John Oliver, mocking the parody recruitment video in an episode of his late night show "Last Week Tonight."

But Carter said last month that the United States was getting better at combating the new online threat. About the same time, President Barack Obama's administration said the Islamic State's Twitter traffic had plunged 45 percent in the past two years, The Associated Press reported.

Data obtained by the news agency show anti-Islamic State posts outnumber posts of support by a 6-1 ratio, while the follower numbers for each newly discovered pro-Islamic State account is roughly one-fifth of what it was for such accounts in 2014.

The administration credits its new approach for helping to stifle the extremists' propaganda machine. That effort is being coordinated by the Global Engagement Center, which was established in March, replacing the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.

To better reach the audiences that are vulnerable to the Islamic State's narrative, the U.S. government has joined with Muslim governments, religious leaders and others with credibility in local communities to flood social media with images and statements exposing the militants' hypocrisy and debunking their lies.

A counter-extremism image that the State Department provided to the AP shows a teddy bear with a message saying Islamic State "slaughters childhood," "kills innocence," "lashes purity" and "humiliates children."

The Vocalis Program, named for a throat muscle used in speech, aligns with the new strategy by helping local military forces in Iraq speak out against the Islamic State fighters more effectively.

"They are more credible in the eyes of their nation than an external entity," Garver said.

It's more challenging to aim and assess the impact of messages in the information war than bullets and bombs in kinetic warfare, officials have said. But much like online marketers, the government relies on polling, market research and data analysis to gauge the effectiveness of its adversary's campaigns and its own.

Likewise, Vocalis teaches students to understand the information environment, Giannetto said. They know the Iraqi audience better than the coalition, she said, but the training gives them tools to hone their efforts at winning them over.

"War is a clash of wills," Giannetto said. "How do you defeat your enemy's will? You affect his heart and mind."

The anti-Islamic State coalition needs to do a much better job of that, said a former member of the Norwegian army's mechanized infantry who fights alongside the peshmerga in Iraq and uses the photo-sharing platform Instagram to document the fight. He posts under the pseudonym Peshmerganor to conceal his identity and protect his family.

"There are many conspiracy theories ... that ISIS was created by the Western powers and Israel," Peshmerganor said in an email interview. "Being more open about how the fight is going and exactly how the coalition is killing terrorists ... could perhaps silence the conspiracies, give the coalition more credibility and generally make people more interested."

The Norwegian veteran, who boasts 142,000 Instagram followers, posts videos of firefights and photos of dead Islamic State fighters, along with pictures of kittens, puppies and everyday life. He says he has used social media to raise funds to support himself and to recruit forces to fight the Islamic State.

"I get daily messages from people who tell me they will join this and that branch of the military, so they can do their part fighting the Islamic State," he said.

The Iraqis trained in the Vocalis program have shown improvement in working with the media and tailoring messages to their audience, said Mike Shearer, the course's lead instructor. The retired British army officer stressed the power of messaging to the peshmerga students.

"You've got to be more clever than simply pulling a trigger," he said. "If you win the information space, you win the war."

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