Carter: Countering Islamic State online is 'very important'

Ashton Carter

Defense Secretary Ash Carter

Countering terrorists who use social media as a recruitment tool is "very important" to the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said at a Dec. 1 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

Carter commended the work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in countering the social media attacks online, but said DOD looks primarily toward law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security in this effort. 

There are roughly 30,000 ISIL forces in Syria and Iraq, according to Carter, though he cautioned that he is always hesitant to use specific numbers.  And ISIL has actively recruited online, both on traditional social media platforms like Twitter and in more-focused message boards and chat rooms.   

Congress had scaled back the ability of the Department of Defense to engage in online influence in the fiscal year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act. Early this year, two DOD websites aimed at countering radical movements in Africa were shuttered in response to the statutory directive; Congress was looking to divert online influence to the State Department.

But the military has been looking to get back in the influence game. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command told a House committee in written responses to questions from members stemming from a March 2015 hearing that, "Congress has expressed concern with DOD engaging violent extremist propaganda on the Internet, except in very limited ways. They tend to view the Internet as a strategic platform and efforts to influence civilians outside an area of conflict," as more in the realm of diplomacy. Votel's written responses were first reported by the Federation of American Scientists.

"We believe there is a complimentary role for the Department of Defense in this space which acknowledges the need for a civilian lead, but allows DOD to pursue appropriate missions, such as counter-recruitment and reducing the flow of foreign fighters… An explicit directive from Congress outlining the necessity of DOD to engage in this space would greatly enhance our ability to respond," Votel wrote.

And the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act appears to give DOD just that sort of permission. The NDAA, which President Barack Obama signed into law on Nov. 25, contains a provision instructing the Defense secretary to  "develop creative and agile concepts, technologies, and strategies across all available media…to counter and degrade the ability of adversaries and potential adversaries to persuade, inspire, and recruit."

The bulk of the Dec. 1 hearing, meanwhile, was  focused on physical-world efforts against the Islamic State group.  Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who also testified, voiced support for additional U.S. troops to fight the group. Currently, there are approximately 3,500 U.S. troops in that region, and fewer than 50 special operations forces set to deploy to Syria. Carter said the U.S. will be expanding its special operation forces in Iraq and Syria, but did not specify by how much.

"We want a victory over ISIL that sticks," Carter said during the packed hearing. He outlined certain points that would help achieve that goal, such as increasing intelligence, airstrikes, and coordination with coalition partners. Dunford echoed that strategy, and said DOD's main goal is to "disrupt, degrade and defeat ISIL."

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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