ISIL and the “Information Battlefield”: Undersecretary of State Richard Stengel on US Counter-Terrorism Operations

 /  Oct. 17, 2016, 10:52 a.m.


The Honorable Richard Stengel has been serving as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs since February 14, 2014. Stengel manages global strategic leadership in public diplomacy and engagement for the Department of State, as well as overseeing multiple bureaus, such as Educational and Cultural Affairs, International Information Programs, and Public Affairs, and the Global Engagement Center. Prior to joining the State Department, Stengel served as the managing editor of TIME. He was previously the president and chief executive officer of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Stengel visited the University of Chicago Institute of Politics for an event called “Breaking ISIL’s Brand: How the US Fights the Global Propaganda Battle,” moderated by University of Chicago political science professor Paul Staniland. After the event, Stengel sat down with the Gate’s Asya Akca to discuss the nature of ISIL’s outreach strategies, US counter-ISIL operations, the “information battlefield,” and American foreign policy under a new administration.

The Gate: ISIL, and many other militant groups, choose to claim attacks that they carry out successfully. Can you speak to the value of groups claiming attacks and how the United States can counter the impact of these claims?

Richard Stengel: ISIL has actually been relatively disciplined in terms of claiming attacks that actually have an ISIL background versus some that have not. That being said, we have made a distinction, after a while, between so-called “ISIL-inspired” and “direct” attacks, and then there’s a kind of continuum in between. What ISIL has started doing is claiming those inspired attacks by saying, “This was as a soldier of the Islamic State,” and in that [Abu Muhammad] al-Adnani video, basically he said, “drive a car into someone, stab someone, pledge allegiance to ISIL before you do it and then you’ll be a warrior of the Islamic State.” In some ways, that distinction becomes less important in terms of their ability to claim attacks, but what we do worry about are those people, those lone actors, who take some kind of vengeance against people who do in the name of al-Qaeda or [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi.

Gate: How do groups like ISIL recruit in countries where civilian access to social media platforms and the internet at large is restricted, as opposed to recruitment in other countries?

Stengel: Some of it is through platforms like Telegram Messenger that are encrypted, and through VPN, virtual private networks, that people use all around the world, and which ISIL guys use. But that’s also part of the larger problem of this sort of rise in disinformation and the crackdown on true information in places like Russia, China, and Turkeythat’s a big, big problem. That’s a bigger problem than just the ISIL communications problem.

Gate: In an ideal world, what would the relationship between tech companies in the private sector and the government in the public sector look like for combating national security issues?

Stengel: I actually think the cooperation between the government and the tech companies is much better than people realize. You know, in a very public way, we do programs with Facebook, Twitter, and Google. We have a fantastic educational program we do with Facebook called the Peer to Peer network against violent extremism or challenging violent extremism, where we help college students at 150 colleges and universities around the world create this content. It’s a great program, and Facebook is going to grow it even further. The Venn diagram overlap is that tech companies don’t want this content on their platforms, and we don’t want that on their platforms. And the question is: how do we cooperate to get that content off? And they consult with us sometimes about the nature of that content. They have trusted flagger systems in which the government participates. If the Justice Department sends the tech companies a message saying, “Let’s take this content down, it’s a violent extremist group,” then they pay attention to that. The places where there is tension is around issues of privacy. But around the issues of content, I think we are very much synced up.

Gate: Switching gears, can you talk about Vladimir Putin’s disinformation programs in Russia, and how the Russian government builds false narratives?

Stengel: It’s something we saw before the annexation of Crimea, and [the Russian government] used disinformation and propaganda to foment ethnic Russian anger at Ukraine. I mean, the Russians are very, very sophisticated at the use of this. You saw stories from Sputnik, one of their radio agencies, that were used in the presidential campaigns recently. So I think, [the Russian government] is not an honest actor in this, and it’s something that is a cause of great concern.

Gate: Moving forward into a new administration, what changes do you foresee in terms of US counter-ISIL policy?

Stengel: Regardless of who becomes president, I think there will be a continuity in anti-ISIL operations on both the military battlefield and the information battlefield. Secretary Clinton was in fact the person who created the entity at the State Department that combats violent extremist content, so I think she spoke knowledgeably about it, and is dedicated to continuing that. I think that that will continue no matter who is in the White House.

Gate: And lastly, where do you see the partnership between the United States and Turkey going, in terms of counter-ISIL operations?

Stengel: That’s what diplomacy is forto continue to address issues with the Turks that are of both mutual benefit and mutual challenges. And I think that will continue.

The image featured in this article was taken courtesy of the author, Asya Akca. 

Asya Akca