A new investigative report into the United States’ efforts to mount counter-ISIS propaganda on the internet asserts that the initiative is crippled by operatives’ lack of familiarity with Arabic and Islam – and that the metrics are being gamed to reflect false performance whilst maintaining a stream of government funding.
The report by the Associated Press features testimony from several sources inside the WebOps program set up by the Pentagon with the aim of deflecting attempts by ISIS to recruit and radicalise people online.
It characterises WebOps resources as ‘no match’ for Islamic State online recruiters, claiming that the operation employs people with such sketchy Arabic as to make student-level mistakes – such as confusing the words for ‘Salad’ and ‘Authority’. The operatives, according to the report, have been mocked on social media consequently, with a new meme about ‘Palestinian salad’.
The other cultural obstacle for operatives is the encyclopaedic knowledge their targets possess about Islam, stemming from a genuine personal enthusiasm that no amount of cramming can easily counter.
The defence contract, which centres on Iraq, Syria and Yemen, is run by Colsa Corp out of Huntsville, Alabama. The company has reportedly had great difficulty in recruiting staff with adequate security clearance who are both genuinely fluent in Arabic and have enough appropriate religious knowledge to engage targets on a level playing field; little surprise, as the latter characteristics practically preclude the first.
One former employee that AP spoke to attributed embarrassments such as the ‘Palestinian salad’ to the company taking on new recruits who managed to hide their lack of skill in Arabic at interview. Imitating the interview process, the source said it would run like “‘Do you speak Arabic?’. ‘Yes.’ ‘How do you say ‘good morning?’ ‘Oh, you can do that? You are an expert. You are hired.'”
In another case, an ex-employee reports an occasion where she questioned a recruit about why he was omitting notes from a soap opera, only to be told that the sections he appeared to be ignoring were in Farsi or Urdu. They were, in fact, in Arabic.
General cultural ignorance, according to the workers spoken to, is rife, with operatives unable to distinguish or imitate characteristics specific to Sunny or Shia – a critical distinction. One disillusioned employee said that another operative didn’t ‘know the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas’.
The same ex-employee was shocked, according to the report, at the corruption evident in terms of reporting metrics for the WebOps program. When she asked how scoring was achieved, she was apparently told that the objective was ‘the bread we put on the table for our children’, and that only enough progress should be reported to maintain adequate ‘online terror’ to keep the scheme’s funding running.