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As ISIS Evolves, U.S. Counter-Efforts Must Advance, Lumpkin Says


And let's look now at the Obama administration's expanding fight against ISIS. On one front, we are likely to see troops in Iraq and special forces in Syria. But the U.S. is also revamping and ramping up an online propaganda offensive against the Islamic State. Up until now, that social media offensive has included efforts like this video you are going to hear, aimed at keeping young people from joining the terrorists. It's an attempt to parody the Islamic State's recruiting videos.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

MONTAGNE: "Come over, for Syria is no longer for Syrians. Iraq is no longer for Iraqis," a narrator says, as gruesome images pass by of crucifixion, kneeling prisoners being shot point-blank, severed heads, mocking the idea that this is some kind of promised land. That video got almost a million views and also fueled a heated debate over how far the U.S. government should go online. Michael Lumpkin is the brand-new coordinator of the counterterrorism unit at the State Department's Global Engagement Center. He joined us to talk about what's ahead. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: You are taking on a challenge in countering propaganda, especially by ISIS, which is an effort that so far has attracted rather a lot of criticism and, in some cases, even ridicule. What are your first priorities? You're looking at this challenge. What are your priorities?

LUMPKIN: Well, four days on the job, so you've caught me right at the front end. And I think the first thing we have to do is we have to truly recognize that the threat has evolved. And we need to evolve and get ahead of it, not just on the battlefield but also in the information space as well. So Daesh treats the information battlefield in space as seriously as it does the physical battlefield.

MONTAGNE: Let me just interrupt you. And Daesh being one more name for ISIS, or the Islamic State.

LUMPKIN: That is correct. So we're at the point now that because things have evolved, we kind of used - to use computer parlance - to do a control-alt-delete and kind of reset on how we're approaching Daesh in the information space. So we need to, candidly, stop tweeting at terrorists. I think we need to focus on exposing the true nature of what Daesh is.

MONTAGNE: Exposing ISIS, or Daesh, for what it is and for who they are, that obviously was the goal in the previous incarnation of this unit, set up about five years ago. That group created a series of sarcastic videos mocking ISIS. They even had a name, "Welcome to ISIS Land." Those videos got a lot of flack for showing graphic images, really trying to show how awful ISIS was and for their brutal tone. Do you think they worked at all?

LUMPKIN: You know, candidly, I don't have the metrics of what came out of that. And that's one of the things that we have to create here, is we need to do a much better job of interpreting data. I'm of the opinion that there probably was not a large impact on that effort. But I think where we can address a lot of this - because one of our other things we want to do is we want to bring in top talent from outside of the U.S. government to assist and augment our efforts. And I'm talking about bringing people from Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue who can help us work through our approach and the information battle space.

MONTAGNE: May I just say, I think it's tricky with social media and with companies that, on the one hand, don't want to be platforms for ISIS, or Daesh, but they also don't want to be co-opted, as they might see it, by the government.

LUMPKIN: Well, I think when I'm talking about partnering, I'm talking about bringing in very talented, highly-skilled people to work for the government, to help us to do this, instead of taking government employees and trying to teach them, you know, all of the tricks of the trade of social media. I think part of this can be bringing highly talented people from outside to within government to assist our efforts. Just please understand that as we work this information battle space issue, we have to treat it as sensitively as we do the physical battle space and not telegraph our movements and our efforts to the enemy.

MONTAGNE: You just said one thing, though, a moment ago; we're going to stop tweeting. The Islamic State has proved itself to be a master of Twitter thousands and thousands of messages going out constantly to what would seem to be vulnerable possible recruits. So has the State Department been tweeting, and you're looking at that saying, actually, it's not really working?

LUMPKIN: I think there's some things that we're doing. We're looking at building in real metrics so we can see and bring in data to see what the impacts of our efforts are. Candidly, we're not completely there yet. We have work to do on that front. But for those people who are already a hard-core member of Daesh, sending a tweet out will likely have little impact on swaying them. So we're going to stop tweeting at terrorists.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

LUMPKIN: Thank you very much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Michael Lumpkin is coordinator and special envoy of the newly revamped counterterrorism unit at the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.