The US state department's YouTube 'digital jihad'

Screen grab from the US Department of State's Twitter page "Think Again Turn Away" 20 September 2014 Image copyright AP
Image caption A tweet from the state department's counter-terrorism account

As the US government rolled out its military response to Islamic State over the summer, its diplomatic arm ramped up another war - confronting the extremist group on the digital battleground.

The fledgling English cell of a state department counterterrorism operation began posting on YouTube to confront increasingly sophisticated propaganda from the militants.

Washington is a latecomer to an information war even it acknowledges it is not best placed to fight.

"What we are doing in English - overt, adversarial, counter-terrorism engagement by the US government - has never been done before," says the project's coordinator, Ambassador Alberto Fernandez.

"We still see this very much as a pilot project and an experiment: we are learning to pilot the plane while we are building the plane."

Setting up the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) in 2011 was already a radical break from the polite culture of public diplomacy embedded in the state department.

The CSCC targeted al-Qaeda and other extremist groups in Arabic, mostly on Twitter. Gradually, it added messaging in Urdu, then Somali and, less than a year ago, English, using the hashtag #thinkagainturnaway.

By this time the State Department's web warriors had established a presence in the Arabic twitter sphere. But the rise of Islamic State increased the stakes, with production skills unprecedented in jihadist propaganda, aggressively targeting Western recruits.

After stampeding into Iraq in June, the group began to issue expertly crafted videos enhanced by the skills and languages of foreign members and studio facilities in captured cities.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Islamic State has used social media to draw support and recruit fighters

The following month the CSCC began posting English language videos on YouTube. But although it's on the cutting edge of government intervention, the unit is handicapped at contesting the virtual space flooded by extremist messaging.

First of all, there's the size of the operation.

This "start-up" as Mr Fernandez calls it, has 23 staff members, with only two of them working on English content.

Islamic State, on the other hand, has far more resources and is supported by legions of volunteers who re-message its propaganda 24 hours a day - "knights of the uploading"- it calls them.

At home the digital counter-messaging is a low priority on the list of counter-terrorism efforts, compared to intelligence gathering, law-enforcement or military operations.

"It's penny to the dollar compared to Tomahawks," says William McCants, a former government official who helped set up the programme and is now a fellow with the Brookings Institution.

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Media captionIn 60 seconds: What does Islamic State want?

"This digital operation is really the frontline for messaging against the Islamic State… and the lack of a large amount of resources cripples them, it means fighting with one hand behind their back."

Getting the message right is another challenge.

The CSCC's aim is to convince "fence sitters" who are following extremist propaganda to "think again" and "turn away" from a decision to join violent groups.

Its most notorious attempt so far was a parody recruitment video using graphic images from IS material.

That got nearly a million views after it was picked up by the Western media and critics slammed it for poor taste.

The CSCC argues that it has to "get down in the mud and engage where arguments are being made" but its other material has proven less controversial.

Image caption Alberto Fernandez says IS uses more than religious appeals to recruit

Their messages focus on exposing what officials call the hypocrisies and inconsistencies in IS propaganda, and the death and destruction in its campaigns.

"Islamic State kills Muslims" is a popular theme, as is the rejection of the group by Muslim scholars.

But it's not just about religion, acknowledges Mr Fernandez, "it's about the narcissism of youth, the quest for meaning and immediacy" and the search for camaraderie and adventure.

In that way, the state department simply doesn't have the same power of message as Islamic State, which uses the personal testimony of foreign recruits to advertise its "five-star jihad".

Counter-testimony from disappointed and disillusioned returnees might resonate with potential recruits, says Mr McCants, but there is not much out there, at least not in English.

The CSCC occasionally links to it, but does not produce videos with counter-testimony themselves, he says.

"There's a danger to them gathering it themselves, because anybody they put on camera would be seen as a tool of the state department.'

But the pro-ISIS testimony goes beyond the group's own social media.

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Media captionThe BBC's Paul Wood is one of the first western journalists to gain access to Kobane

"ISIS have taken this role of protecting the innocent Muslims," an Australian combat medic who calls himself Abu Ousama recently told the British photojournalist Tam Hussein.

He belonged to a Syrian militia independent of Islamic State. But he supported its goals and accepted its beheadings of foreign hostages, especially with the onset of US-led airstrikes.

"What is the difference between a missile that hits into a house which kills 15 kids, compared to a man dying, getting cut by his throat?" he said.

There is evidence the airstrike campaign has played a role in radicalising fighters who were initially mobilised by the desire to protect the Syrian people from the violence of the Syrian government.

Amidst expressions of outrage, a Dutch fighter called Yilmaz recently told the US broadcaster CBS the US strikes could well provoke retaliation in the West.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption CSSC says it has to "get down in the mud and engage where arguments are being made"

In earlier interviews he'd dismissed any notion of returning home to carry out attacks.

It's unclear what impact US policy has on the "fence sitters". In fact it's hard to measure whether the counter-IS messaging is having any impact at all.

Regardless, says Mr Fernandez, there is a need to be in the game, because "there is a Mount Everest of radicalising material out there in social media and a hillock, a foothill of counter radicalising material".

He sees this as a "steady and aggressive presentation of an alternative world view".

Mr Fernandez hopes CSSC's efforts will eventually be bolstered by the participation of like-minded voices from civil society and faith-based organisations that in many ways "can do much better than us".

It's also one that may get more complicated as the airstrike campaign continues.