A U.S. Department of Defense program to counter Islamist radicalization efforts is fell into difficulty because of the lack of skills of those tasked with running the program, according to former employees who have gone public.
The DoD says the program, subcontracted and comprising 120 staff members, fights radicalization online “through regular engagement, in-language, with regional target audiences online, using factual information consistent with our approved narratives.”
Yet according to ex-staff of the WebOps program, many employees could not speak Arabic properly, frequently mixing up words or even mistaking Arabic messages for other languages like Farsi or Urdu.
The agents would use keywords to identify which social media users were likely to be at risk of radicalization. However once in touch with someone who was at risk, staff of the deradicalization program made errors like mixing up the words for “salad” and “authority,” thus undermining their credibility.
As embarrassing, staff lacked awareness of the differences between the myriad Islamist groups. One ex-member said many employees “don’t know the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas.”
The program was subcontracted to the private corporation Colsa Corp. Former employees allege the company, which runs its own in-house internal assessment of the success of the program, encouraged them to indicate progress regardless of whether or not progress was taking place, in order to maintain funding.
A lack of language skills has long inhibited U.S. counter-radicalization efforts. After 9/11, intelligence sources said, less than a dozen CIA field agents spoke Arabic. In 2006 just 33 FBI agents had even limited familiarity with Arabic. That year, the House Select Committee on Intelligence concluded U.S. human intelligence – ie, the condition of its spying apparatus in terms of personnel, as being in “an entirely unacceptable state of affairs.”
In 2009, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence warned that the necessary organizational familiarity with the key languages of Pashto, Dari and Urdu for the government “remains essentially nonexistent.”
If the U.S. is serious about winning the “war on terror” then language fluency within the departments charged with waging that war needs to be brought up to the required standard.