On any given day, the Al-Shorfa.com website contains dozens of stories about events in the Middle East, on topics ranging from the death toll in the Syria civil war to Tunisian women being recruited for a “sex jihad” to efforts by the government of Yemen to create a youth peace conference.
The site is part of a network of 10 websites, coordinated through an office in Tampa, that reaches millions around the world each month, providing news and information to people in hard to reach areas.
For this network, the bottom line isn't garnering advertising dollars, but changing attitudes.
Managed by U.S. Special Operations Command, the Trans Regional Web Initiative websites are operated by the Geographic Combatant Commands, who also coordinate with the State Department. They offer an alternative message to the ideology spread by al-Qaida, the Taliban and other violent extremist organizations in the cyber battlespace, say those who run the program.
“This is a cost-effective, synchronized counter-terrorism messaging effort,” says Roger Smith, the TRWI program manager, speaking in a conference room at Socom's headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base. In October, the initiative had nearly four million article reads and just under two million unique visitors. In the online world, where extremists spread their messages, gather recruits and raise money, the initiative is helping “change the narrative,” says Smith.
But the six-year-old program, criticized by some as an expensive propaganda tool for the military, is on the chopping block.
In its $620 billion defense budget bill, the Senate Armed Services Committee — including Florida Sen. Bill Nelson — voted to transfer the nearly $20 million requested to run the TRWI next year to other military support operations at Socom.
At a time when the Pentagon is looking at a potential trillion dollar spending cut over the next decade, the committee's report said that “the costs to operate the websites developed under the TRWI are excessive. The effectiveness of the websites is questionable and the performance metrics do not justify the expense.”
A classified April report by the Government Accountability Office offered other concerns, saying that the initiative “does not include country teams and is not well coordinated with other” military information support operations programs.
Despite these bleak assessments, the initiative has a fan in a high place.
President Barack Obama's administration last month issued a statement asking that money for the program be restored, calling TRWI “the only synchronized online influence effort able to challenge the spread of extremist ideology and propaganda on the Web.”
Last month, Socom issued a solicitation seeking to renew the initiative, which has been run for the past five years by General Dynamics Information Technology. But whether the command will be allowed to pursue a new contract won't be known until Congress votes on the next defense budget. The Senate is scheduled to reconvene tomorrow.
The Trans Regional Web Initiative is a small part of a larger Pentagon effort to influence foreign audiences called Military Information Support Operations. Formally known as psychological operations, MISO “are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals in a manner favorable to the originator's objectives,” according to a 2011 Pentagon report outlining how MISO should work.
Socom leads the development, coordination, and integration of MISO capability across the Department of Defense, according to the report.
The concept for TRWI dates to 1999, says Smith, when U.S. European Command wanted to get its message into Serbia to counter the government of genocidal strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
“They set up a website that aggregated news in an attempt to expose the Serbian population to what the rest of the world was saying,” says Smith.
The website, Southeast European Times, still exists.
In 2004, Eucom teamed with Socom to create a counter-terror website focused on North Africa, where “a huge flow of foreign fighters was coming out of Morocco and Tunisia into Iraq,” says Smith. “That flow is still going into Syria.”
At the time, military leaders saw that if there were similar sites, with “common thematics and messaging, that take advantage of al-Qaida miscues, like, oops, we beheaded the wrong guy, you can truly begin to undermine some of that support,” says Smith, who wrote the initial TRWI concept in 2005 while he was still in the Army.
Al-Shorfa, Arabic for “the balcony,” came online in 2008.
The websites are presented in local languages with identical copy in English, says Smith, using British spelling and language “just to make sure that it is understood there is no intent to ever target American citizens or American readers,” says Smith.
Each one has a disclaimer announcing who runs it.
“Al-Shorfa.com is a web site sponsored by USCENTCOM to highlight movement toward greater regional stability both through bilateral and multilateral cooperative arrangements,” according to the site's “About” section. Content is provided by paid stringers indigenous to the areas they cover, says Smith. They report directly to the contractor.
“We don't want a guy getting editing assignments in Iraq from a major at Centcom,” says Smith. “We feel we would put their life at great harm by doing that. We try not to put a military linkage down to the stringer.”
In the case of Al-Shorfa and other TRWI sites in the CENTCOM region, officials at the command have frequent, daily communication managing all aspects of website operations, including coordinated editorial guidance.
Those Centcom officials also conduct frequent coordination with other offices in the command, like the public affairs office and the country desk officers, and with external agencies like the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, says Smith.
Not surprisingly, there are tight limits on what gets published.
Information about the situation in Syria, for instance, has strict parameters according to Centcom. Like all information on TRWI sites, it is from an allied, not U.S. perspective.
Al-Shorfa provides hard news coverage of developments on Arab League and U.N. positions on events in Syria, points out the dangers of sectarian rhetoric, outside sources exploiting the revolution, and extremists scaring off international community,
The site also encourages humanitarian efforts and takes a position that political transition in Syria should be led by the Syrian people and supported by the international community.
Two years ago, a scathing story in the journal Foreign Policy blasted the initiative for “whitewashing” abuses by the Uzbek government, a close ally that the military increasingly relies upon for transportation with the ongoing troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“It is not Centcom's mission to be the human rights watch,” Smith says when asked about criticism of the Central Asia Online site. “We talk about roles and missions here. This is a counter-terror website.”
Smith acknowledges that MISO efforts could become ineffective if the intended audience dismisses the sites. In doing so, he also addresses a critique of the GAO report about the coordination with the State Department. A portion of the report is available at cryptome.org, an anti-secrecy website. GAO officials confirmed that they produced a classified report but would not comment on its contents.
“We are very much concerned,” he says of the message being blunted. “That's why we coordinate very closely with the (State Department's) Bureau of Near East Affairs. That coordination is very, very intense. Ultimately, this defaults to the State Department because that is U.S. government policy.”
The State Department, says Smith, has the ultimate say in those matters.
“If the State Department says do not cover, or do not cover in this manner, then the combatant commands comply.”
Smith says TRWI's costs are not excessive and that there are metrics to support success.
”The average cost per article read is 51 cents,” says Smith. In addition, about 400 to 500 articles a month are reposted on other websites, some considered unfriendly to U.S. and allied interests, says Smith.
Another measure of success, says Smith, is that readers provided just under a half million words a month in comments across the enterprise, helping engage the audience and sparking debates.
Comprehensive reader surveys developed by Socom social scientists show that the sites are having an effect, says Smith.
More than half the readers responding to a survey about Al-Shorfa “said something they read on the website changed their attitude or perception about a particular topic,” says Smith. And 83 percent “said something they read on the website increased their knowledge and awareness of a topic.”
There also is anecdotal evidence, Smith says.
Information on the sites has caused jihadi leaders to argue among themselves, says Smith.
“They were saying, 'look, I am telling you, this extreme violence is not helping our cause,'” says Smith. “They were debating and arguing with each other. If we can get supporters questioning what and why and how they are doing things, then we are having an effect that is very, very difficult — particularly in places where we do not have anybody on the ground — to obtain.”
Nelson, who said there was no discussion about TRWI in the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he supports efforts by the military to provide facts.
“It seems to me the truth is what ought to be put out to foreign countries if they not getting the truth,” says Nelson,
In its letter to the committee, the White House said the Pentagon already “addressed many of the concerns raised in the Committee report by demonstrating that the TRWI is the most cost-effective means for reaching audiences which affect achievement of” military objectives.
The elimination of funding for TRWI would force the Department of Defense and Socom, responsible for synchronizing planning of global operations against terrorist networks, to withdraw from an important battlespace, says Smith.
“You start ceding aspects of the web to the adversary,” says Smith. “You are not there overtly challenging their message.”