Terrorism

Incompetence and Cronyism Plague U.S. Attempts to Counter ISIS Online

WebOps, the U.S. online counter-propaganda program, appears to employ Arabic analysts who barely speak Arabic.

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A new report by the Associated Press claims that the U.S. counter-propaganda program WebOps is failing in its mission to thwart terrorist recruitment due to incompetence, corruption, and cronyism. The program was launched several years ago by a small group of civilian contractors and military officers assigned to the information operations division at U.S. Central Command's headquarters in Tampa, Florida. It is run by an Alabama-based company called Colsa Corp., which provides specialized computer programs to mine social media accounts of terrorist propaganda.

WebOps is supposed to use Arabic-speaking analysts to sift through social media looking for individuals deemed vulnerable to terrorist recruitment. It's then supposed to contact them using fictionalized identities and urge them not to join organizations like ISIS. The reality, as reported by the Chicago Tribune, is that some of the analysts employed by WebOps lack counter-propaganda experience, cannot speak Arabic fluently, and don't understand Islam well enough to combat ISIS' recruitment efforts.

The Tribune noted that WebOps "experts" often mess up language that is specific to a region or sect of Islam. "People can tell whether you are local, or whether you are Sunni or Shia," a former WebOps worker claimed. And as Fox News put it, "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.'" The mistake has resulted in open ridicule over "Palestinian salad" on social media.

The Associated Press was informed by workers wishing to remain anonymous that data was being manipulated to create the appearance that the counter-propaganda operation was working. "The boss told [one worker] that the scoring reports should show progress, but not too much, so that the metrics would still indicate a dangerous level of militancy online to justify continued funding for WebOps," the Tribune reported.

The government opened bidding on a new counter-propaganda operation worth at least $500 million early last year, but after a few months the Naval Criminal Investigative Services began looking into allegations that corruption was influencing the contract award process. A whistleblower said information operations division officers were being treated to expensive dinners paid for by a contractor, and that there's a heavy drinking culture at the office where classified work takes place. CBS News reported that "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."

The whistleblower also accused Army Col. Victor Garcia, who led the division until July 2016, of using his influence to direct the $500 million contract to a group of vendors that included his close friend's firm. A bid for the contract by the global security company Northrop Grumman was assisted by M&C Saatchi, an advertising agency where Garcia's friend Simon Bergman is an executive.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the whistleblower alleges Garcia informed him that "any team must include Simon Bergman." Northrop won the bid.

Garcia denies any wrongdoing. "Because I was aware of these conflicts of interest, I intentionally kept myself out of that process, with any of these contract processes," he explained to AP.

The bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting found that in 2011, anywhere from $31 billion to $60 billion was lost to waste and fraud during contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.