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'Do you speak Arabic?': How the US bungled its online fight against IS

The US security programme dealing with IS online is beset with “incompetence, cronyism and flawed data”.

ON ANY GIVEN day at MacDill Air Force Base, web crawlers scour social media for potential recruits to the Islamic State group.

Islamic State Propaganda War The entrance to MacDill Air Force Base Source: Chris O'Meara/AP Photo

Then, in a high-stakes operation to counter the extremists’ propaganda, language specialists employ fictitious identities and try to sway the targets from joining IS ranks.

At least, that’s how the multi million-dollar initiative is being sold to the US Defence Department.

A critical national security program known as “WebOps” is part of a vast psychological operation that the Pentagon says is effectively countering an enemy that has used the internet as a devastating tool of propaganda.

But an Associated Press investigation found the management behind WebOps is so beset with incompetence, cronyism and flawed data that multiple people with direct knowledge of the program say it’s having little impact.

Several current and former WebOps employees cited multiple examples of civilian Arabic specialists who have little experience in counter-propaganda, cannot speak Arabic fluently and have so little understanding of Islam they are no match for the Islamic State online recruiters.

It’s hard to establish rapport with a potential terror recruit when — as one former worker told the AP — translators repeatedly mix up the Arabic words for “salad” and “authority.” That’s led to open ridicule on social media about references to the “Palestinian salad.”

Four current or former workers told the AP that they had personally witnessed WebOps data being manipulated to create the appearance of success and that they had discussed the problem with many other employees who had seen the same.

Yet the companies carrying out the program for the military’s Central Command in Tampa have dodged attempts to implement independent oversight and assessment of the data.

Central Command spokesman Andy Stephens declined repeated requests for information about WebOps and other counter-propaganda programs, which were launched under the Obama administration. And he did not respond to detailed questions the AP sent on 10 January.

The AP investigation is based on Defence Department and contractor documents, emails, photographs and interviews with more than a dozen people closely involved with WebOps as well as interviews with nearly two dozen contractors.

The WebOps workers requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the work and because they weren’t authorised to speak publicly.

The information operations division that runs WebOps is the command’s epicenter for firing back at the Islamic State’s online propaganda machine, which uses the internet to sway public opinion in a swath of the globe that stretches from Central Asia to the Horn of Africa.

Early last year, the government opened bidding on a new counter-propaganda contract — separate from WebOps— that is worth as much as $500 million.

Islamic State Propaganda War The document announcing the new $500 million defence contract. Source: John Elswick/AP Photo

Months after the AP started reporting about the bidding process, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service told the AP that it had launched an investigation. NCIS spokesman Ed Buice said the service is investigating a whistleblower’s “allegations of corruption” stemming from how the contract was awarded.

The whistleblower’s complaint alleges multiple conflicts of interest that include division officers being treated to lavish dinners paid for by a contractor.

The complaint also alleges routine drinking at the office where classified work is conducted. The drinking was confirmed by multiple contractors, who spoke to AP and described a frat house atmosphere where happy hour started at 3 p.m.

Cronyism

One of the most damning accusations leveled by the whistleblower is against Army Colonel Victor Garcia, who led the information operations division until July 2016, when he moved to a new assignment at Special Operations Command, also in Tampa.

The whistleblower contended that Garcia steered the contract to a team of vendors that included a close friend’s firm. The whistleblower requested anonymity for fear of professional retribution.

The AP obtained a screen-grab from a Facebook page that shows Garcia and the friend at a tiki bar in Key Largo two weeks before the winning team was officially announced 30 September.

The photo was also turned over to NCIS investigators by the whistleblower, who said the photo created a “clear impression and perception of impropriety.”

Islamic State Propaganda War Colonel Victor Garcia (left) posing with Simon Bergman Source: AP Photo

Garcia, a West Point graduate and decorated officer, denied any wrongdoing and described the complaint as “character assassination.”

Garcia, who moved to his new post two months before the contract was decided, said he scrupulously avoided any discussions about the contract with both his friend and his former deputy. His former deputy served on the five-member panel that reviewed all of the bids.

“Because I was aware of these conflicts of interest, I intentionally kept myself out of that process — with any of these contract processes,” Garcia said.

The whistleblower is a senior manager at a company that lost its bid for the work. He told AP that he was investigated for attempting to accept kickbacks on an unrelated government contract.

He denied the allegations, which were made four years ago, and no charges have been filed in the case.

The problems with the WebOps operation and the personal bonds underpinning the new contract illustrate challenges awaiting President Donald Trump. He has promised to boost military spending by tens of billions of dollars while also cutting waste at the Defense Department and ensuring that contractors aren’t getting sweetheart deals.

Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore’s law school and a government contracting expert, reviewed AP’s findings and called Central Command’s lack of rigorous oversight inexcusable.

“These people should not be wasting the money consigned to defend us against terrorism,” said Tiefer, who served on a bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting. The commission reported in 2011 that at least $31 billion was lost to waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Do you speak Arabic?

In a large office room filled with cubicles at Central Command, about 120 people, many of them Arabic language specialists, are assigned to fight IS militants on their own turf: the internet.

The WebOps contract is run by Colsa Corp., based in Huntsville, Alabama.

A major challenge for Colsa — and contractors working on other national security programs— is finding people who can speak Arabic fluently and can also get security clearances to handle classified material.

The problem, according to six current and former Colsa employees, is that to engage with operatives of the Islamic State, or their potential recruits, you need to be fluent in language, nuance and Islam — and while Colsa has some Arabic experts, those skills are not widely distributed.

“One of the things about jihadis: they are very good in Arabic,” said one specialist who worked on WebOps.

Another former employee said common translation mistakes he personally witnessed, including the “Palestinian salad” example, were the result of the company hiring young people who were faking language abilities.

He mockingly described the conversations between managers and potential hires: “‘Do you speak Arabic?’” he mimicked. “‘Yes. How do you say ‘good morning?’ Oh, you can do that? You are an expert. You are hired.’”

A third specialist said she asked a colleague, who was assigned to analyse material written in Arabic, why he was discarding much of it.

shutterstock_429265000 Source: Shutterstock/chainarong06

 

While watching a soap opera online, the colleague said the material was irrelevant because it was in Farsi or Urdu. But when she checked, it was indeed Arabic. She has since left WebOps to find more meaningful work, she said.

The WebOps Arabic program focuses on Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but for most of the time Colsa has been running it, it has had no Syrian or Yemeni staff, the AP was told in separate interviews with two current employees and one who left recently.

Engaging in theological discussions on social media with people who are well versed in the Quran is not for beginners. Iraq and Syria are riven with sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, who follow different interpretations of Islam.

Multiple workers said that WebOps “experts” often trip up on language that is specific to one sect or region.

“People can tell whether you are local, or whether you are Sunni or Shia,” said another former worker, so poorly crafted messages are not effective. He said he left WebOps because he was disgusted with the work.

A number of the workers complained to AP that a large group on staff from Morocco, in North Africa, were often ignorant of Middle Eastern history and culture — or even the difference between groups the U.S. considers terrorist organisations. The group was so dominant that colleagues jokingly referred to them as “the Moroccan mafia.”

A lot of them “don’t know the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas,” said the employee who left to find more meaningful work. Hezbollah is an Iran-backed Shiite group based in Lebanon. Hamas, based in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, is the Palestinian branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.

Cathy Dickens, a vice president for business management and corporate ethics at Colsa Corp., referred questions to CENTCOM, which declined comment.

Read: BBC causes a stir with Real Housewives of ISIS sketch

Read: Here’s how fighter jets refuel while bombing ISIS

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