'A Knife Fight in Cyberspace': Nations and Private Sector Recruit Young People to Counter ISIS Online

Hackathons and Workshops to Bring People Together

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Retired general John Allen, the former presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, speaks during the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Tex.
Retired general John Allen, the former presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, speaks during the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Tex. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The international terrorist organization variously known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh is the first group to effectively wage war on both the digital and physical fronts.

Now a collection of countries and private companies are working to engage young people around the world to counter ISIS messaging online, retired general John Allen told attendees at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Tex.

Mr. Allen, also the former special presidential envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, has commanded troops in Afghanistan and developed policy in Southeast Asia. He joined PricewaterhouseCoopers shortly after retiring in 2013, where he works as a strategic advisor for its public sector, and became a distinguished fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

Ad Age caught up with Mr. Allen following his talk at SXSW on Saturday.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

If you had to put a number on it, how many people has ISIS recruited through digital?

I can't put a number on it. I'm sure it is in the hundreds, if not in the thousands. There have been so many foreign fighters who have travelled through the battle stations. If they weren't fully recruited, they were at least contacted through the information space through the internet.

Others are now recruiting talent to combat ISIS on social media. What kind of characteristics are they looking for?

They are kids that are largely living in the regions that are affected. These are people who are tech savvy, who are very comfortable working in social media and who do not hold with the beliefs of ISIL. They are willing to tweet on our behalf, they are willing to do what we call engage in digital engagement on behalf of deploying the counter narrative that the Daesh is an illegitimate organization and that its ideology and doctrine are not consistent with the faith of Islam.

So, nobody is going out and actually hiring these individuals, they are just going out and finding them online?

Let me be broader. The various countries that have determined that they want to have some form of a cyber capability, they are certainly engaged in recruiting, they are certainly engaged in finding the best and the brightest who can become part of organizations within their government that can engage in contesting the information sphere. Not just with ISIL though, but with any of these organizations that would seek to penetrate the computer networks to those particular countries. So yes, they are recruiting, but it is a broader recrutement.

In regards to the Twitters, the Googles, the Facebooks. Are they doing anything on this front to combat ISIS?

They are. For example, they are sponsoring workshops or occasions where kids come together to design content to be deployed on various platforms, content that can counter the ISIL methods. What we are seeing is that organizations, as well as our government, are attempting to spur broad interest and capabilities within the youth in these countries. First of all, this is done to get them occupied and get them to do something constructive. And second, it's done to have them be part of the solution to defeat the Daesh's hateful message and narrative.

Google Ideas, for example, is a great source of inspiration and support. Apple has done some work. Facebook has done some work. You will find think tanks in the region that are engaged in the cultural development; they're the ones that have done workshops and seminars called hackathons. They have been very helpful in bringing together interested people to go into cyberspace and take on the Daesh online.

So, these hackathons are designed to find talent and guide that talent to fight ISIL online?

I'd put it a different way. They are running hackathons to provide a platform for an interested community of similarly minded people to share ideas on content and also share ideas on the means by which influence cyberspace. And that is what is really valuable. Creating networks of people who are similarly minded, who are tech savvy and are willing to step into the arena and take on the bad ideals of ISIL.

You mentioned content creation. What kind of narrative is being told?

It is positive. It is a narrative that puts the family back in the center of the universe of the individual's kids. It is content that tries to paint the true picture of Islam, which is a faith of peace and understanding. Remember, Islam was the basis for some of the greatest advancements of our time for mathematics, science and medicine. Islam is a faith with tremendous tradition. It is attacking the narrative that Islam is militarized and this is what the enemy is attempted to do in regards to Islam. It has militarized the difference between being Shiite and being Sunni, with the idea of using that for political ends, not religious ends, but political.

What these kids are attempting to do is steer the conversation of Islam in cyberspace back into one of faith of peace and moderation. These kids are in a knife fight in cyberspace.

The king of Jordan and his people, as well as the Emirates, have been very helpful in this process. But also, corporate America. And this is gaining momentum. The leadership of the United States are on this whole culture of countering violent extremism and the information sphere has begun to bring the community of interested players, country by country, entity by entity together.

Remember, you don't have to be Muslim to be at risk. The stability of major regions of the world are at risk. If we don't get after this militarization of Islam and steer the faith back into the direction it has been for centuries, you know, there is a lot of stability that will be lost. And with the loss of stability comes the loss of a lot of other things.

The west has some of the most witty and talented people who work in social media –

Yes we do.

So, how are we losing the battle on social media to ISIS? Because from my perspective, it doesn't look like we are winning.

Do not put it that way. Here is a better way of putting it: When are we going to start winning, not why are we losing. Because what is happening here is we are turning the momentum against ISIL in the physical spectrum, we are turning the momentum against ISIL in the financial spectrum and we are now far better organized than we were a year ago. Remember, we took these guys head on from a standing start and it has taken us a full year to get organized to do this. And so it is not so much why are losing, it's the function of why we aren't winning faster. We are winning. I do believe that.

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