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Is State Dept. hacking Al Qaeda? Not quite, but propaganda war is fierce.

Despite early reports, a State Department program to shoot down Al Qaeda propaganda online is not a hack. But the efforts are having an impact, Secretary Clinton says.

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"There was no hacking involved at all," says William McCants, a jihadi research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a research and development center serving the Navy. "They [the State Department team] overtly message on non-jihadi forums that anybody can sign up for. They represent themselves as a member of the US government. By law they have to identify themselves."

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The State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications was set up about a year and a half ago with the goal of doing better at countering Al Qaeda propaganda and recruiting efforts that occur on public forums across the Internet, says Dr. McCants, a leading researcher on jihadism, who was a special adviser in helping set up the digital part of the center, which is located at the State Department offices but includes representatives of many other branches of the US government.

Daniel Benjamin, coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department who won Clinton's backing, was an early backer of the center, he says. President Obama in September issued a directive formally establishing the center and laying out its mission.

"The challenge was that for so long the US government wasn't really doing any messaging against Al Qaeda," McCants says. "Whenever one of their statements went out, nothing was said – which makes sense at a high level since you don't want to dignify it with response. But there was also a feeling that we were missing a chance to meet Al Qaeda at a tactical level as it tries to target their propaganda at populations they want to recruit. Now we've got digital engagement set up to go into places where Al Qaeda is pushing their message and to push back against it."

In the specific instance mentioned by Clinton, Al Qaeda supporters apparently posted a picture that purported to be one of coffins holding US servicemen – draped with American flags and prepared to be loaded onto a cargo airplane, according to McCants and another researcher, both of whom had seen the picture. The message bragged about how many Americans Al Qaeda had killed.

What the State Department did was to run a counter message with a similar picture – but with the coffins draped with Yemeni flags and noting how many Yemenis the terrorist group had killed – the flags apparently Photoshopped onto the picture.

"The actual picture that was posted first on the Yemeni website had coffins with American flags over it – looked like being put into jet," says Aaron Y. Zelin, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "What they did was to change it so that it was Yemeni flags draped over the coffins. I'm not sure when they posted it. But I saw it when I was at their offices – they showed it to me."


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