WASHINGTON – The efforts of a grieving Canadian mother were highlighted at a White House summit this week as an example of how to turn the tide in the online war against ISIL.
According to some participants at the three-day summit on countering violent extremism, it’s been a lopsided fight. They say the terror group has dominated on the battlefield of modern media.
Its gory videos keep surfacing on websites, its online magazines invite youth to the jihadist cause, and its hackers even temporarily seized the social-media accounts of U.S. government and military agencies.
One presenter pointed out a rare response to that online onslaught of jihadist propaganda: Christianne Boudreau’s participation in a video about the death of her son in Syria.
The young man from Calgary was one of an estimated 20,000 people from 100 countries who went to fight with ISIL. In a speech earlier Wednesday, President Barack Obama acknowledged the struggle with social media.
“We have to be honest with ourselves,” Obama told the conference.
“Terrorist groups like al-Qaida and ISIL deliberately target their propaganda in the hopes of reaching and brainwashing young Muslims… The high-quality videos, the online magazines, the use of social media, terrorists’ Twitter accounts – it’s all designed to target today’s young people online in cyberspace.”
He added bluntly: “The older people here – as wise and respected as you may be, your stuff is often boring compared to what they’re doing. You’re not connected. And as a consequence, you are not connecting.”
In his speech, the president mentioned five challenges in stopping youths from becoming radicalized. One was outreach through social media, family and community leaders.
Another one subtly touched on an ongoing political controversy.
Obama suggested there are reasons he avoids referring to Islamic extremism, which has drawn scorn from his opponents. He said terrorists crave legitimacy as religious leaders, and he doesn’t want to provide it. He said they paint themselves as holy warriors specifically to recruit young people: “(But) they are not religious leaders; they’re terrorists,” Obama said. “And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
The main point of his speech – and of the entire three-day conference – is that military action alone won’t defeat groups like ISIL. Speakers from 70 countries have come to share ideas about projects with schools, religious groups, municipalities, community organizations and law-enforcement.
The mayor of Paris spoke about the shootings that shocked her city, and she talked about new ideas like keeping schools open on Saturday mornings: “Behind every pathway to radicalism is a failure at school,” Anne Hidalgo said.
An entire panel was devoted to the cyber-battle.
Presenters included a former U.S. State Department official who now runs Google Ideas, a think-tank that studies how to use technology to counter extremism. Jared Cohen said extremists are vastly outnumbered, and it’s time to enlist the legions of ordinary people who can fight them online.
Government can’t fight that battle alone, said another presenter.
“We all know very well that ISIS could give master classes in branding and peer-to-peer social-media marketing,” said Sasha Havlicek of the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “We’re being outdone both in terms of content, quantity and quality.”
She said her group had done research for the Canadian government. It also launched the Extreme Dialogue project this week in Calgary, with the release of two videos.
One video showed a weeping mom telling her story. Boudreau described the pain she felt after her son Damian Clairmont, a recent convert to Islam, left to fight in Syria without telling her. He was killed while fighting with ISIL.
“Her absolutely heartbreaking story – I would challenge anyone here to watch the film … without weeping and then wondering whether perhaps your own children could end up with such a fate,” Havlicek said.
The video had more than 15,000 views in its first day on YouTube.
Havlicek’s group is working with partners like Google, Facebook and Harvard University on about three-dozen such projects. But she called that a drop in the ocean. To catch up to the ISIL propaganda machine, which she described as a 24/7 operation, she said there need to be hundreds more projects like these, with thousands of times the reach.