Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on May 23 an interagency team successfully hacked al-Qaida advertisements on websites in Yemen. (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)
TAMPA, Fla. — The U.S. State Department recently targeted advertisements placed by al-Qaida on websites in Yemen, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference here.
Clinton said that al-Qaida “began an advertising campaign on key tribal websites bragging about killing Americans and trying to recruit new supporters.” But within 48 hours, she said, “our team plastered the same sites with altered versions of the ads that showed the toll al-Qaida attacks have taken on the Yemeni people.”
Clinton generated some laughs when she concluded that “we can tell our efforts are starting to have an impact because extremists are publicly venting their frustration and asking supporters not to believe everything they read on the Internet.”
Clinton said that the operation was conducted by an interagency team called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which is housed at the State Department and staffed by experts from the intelligence community, the Defense Department and special operations forces.
The operation is evidence that the department has realized that “we need to do a better job contesting the online space, media websites and forums where al-Qaida and its affiliates spread propaganda and recruit followers,” she said.
The team, dubbed the Digital Outreach Team and has members who are fluent in Urdu, Arabic and Somali, “is already patrolling the Web and using social media and other tools to expose al-Qaida’s contradictions and abuses, including its continuing brutal attacks on Muslim civilians,” Clinton said.
This interagency arrangement is just one example of a growing relationship between the State Department and special operations forces on a variety of counterterrorism missions, which includes the recent deployment of special operations forces to Central and East Africa to assist local forces in tracking down Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Clinton said staffers from the State Department’s new bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations were on the ground a few months before the troops arrived, “building relationships in local communities. Because of their work, village chiefs and other leaders are actively encouraging defections from the Lord’s Resistance Army.”
During the past few weeks, this civilian team and the special operations forces have also worked together to help one community establish its own radio station that is now broadcasting messages encouraging Kony’s soldiers to come home, Clinton said.
Looking across the scope of these programs, “you can begin to see the potential when soldiers and diplomats live in the same camps and eat the same MREs. This is smart power in action,” she said.