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Canada Fighting the Islamic State on the information battlefield

Fighters from the Islamic State group marching in Raqqa, Syria.

Uncredited/AP

It must be a sign of the times. A year and a half ago, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration hired a former editor of Time Magazine. They put him to work in Washington and told him a big part of the job was to wage a war of words against the "hashtag jihadis."

Since then, Richard Stengel says he has set to work hiring and building coalitions with Muslims and Arabic speakers. He says it is these people whose voices are worth amplifying, being uniquely positioned to counter the pull of the Islamic State on social media.

Known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, this violent group of fanatics controls swaths of Iraq and Syria. And their potential acolytes abroad are being urged to strike a blow where they stand, if they can't come join the Islamic State.

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"Their message is that the 'caliphate' is a land of milk of honey. We counter that with it's a mess, and there's no electricity or plumbing, and you're not going to find a husband or wife," says Mr. Stengel, a U.S. State Department undersecretary for public diplomacy.

His job includes waging a propaganda war. He has been put in charge of a U.S. Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which is involved in a partnership with the United Arab Emirates to build a "regional hub for counter-Daesh messaging."

Mr. Stengel spoke to The Globe by telephone on the eve of a meeting between the U.S. and its allies in Quebec City. On Wednesday, officials from Canada and the United States, as well as European and Arab countries in the military coalition fighting against Islamic State, will meet to talk strategy.

Do we get out this war by dropping bombs on people? Or do we get out of it by persuading people?

There's a military-kinetic battlefield. And there's an information battlefield. Much more so than any time in history, they're linked up and complementary. ISIL has been very sophisticated in using both. I'm fighting on the information battlefield. … All of our intelligence studies suggest there are between 500 and 2,000 of these … I call them hashtag jihadis. Young men who are in the region, mostly Iraq and Syria, oversupplying the market with pro-ISIL messaging.

Is the 'Think Again, Turn Away' Twitter feed under your umbrella?

Yes. We have a new head of it [at the CSCC] who is an expert in the Koran and who is fluent in Arabic. We've moved away from the snarky tone, to a fact-based refutation of the propaganda.

What kind of traction does this get with the extremist crowd?

It's not going to be U.S. government messaging – or Canadian government messaging, or even Jordanian or Saudi Arabian government messaging – that will win the day. What it will be is the voices of real people, real Muslims, the 1.6 billion around the world.

But the jihadist narrative, if you want to call it that, has had 1,400 years to marinate. What's a bureaucrat going to do?

It's a fair question. I think we need to try. And we are trying. Do I think I'm the best messenger? No. But do I think a former fighter from ISIL who has come back and said it's not what it's cracked up to be … ? Those will be the ones that win the day.

Do you hire Muslim scholars? Or people with backgrounds in intelligence?

The people who populate the digital outreach team at CSCC are native speakers who are very much ideologically opposed to ISIL, but who understand the messaging – and frankly the appeal. The people we have are experts who have skin in the game.

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You're going to meet with your Canadian counterparts. Have you seen anything from us?

A number of months ago the Canadians talked about wanting to help in terms of social-media analytics.

You came out of Time Magazine. How does that equip you for the job?

When I was editor of Time, my mantra was "We explain America to the world and the world to America." Truth telling is a great part of public diplomacy.

ISIS propaganda is horrible and apocalyptic but as a motivational tool, it appears to be working.

But it's not like they are taking nice young men who were playing videogames in their basement and suddenly turning them into jihadis.

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They are tapping a market that already exists. They are not creating a new market. And it's young Muslim men who do not have jobs, who are disconnected from their communities, who are not necessarily educated, who feel a great sense of grievance. They are tapping into that grievance. You have to provide opportunities for these young men.

In another context, Prime Minister Stephen Harper came up with the line "I don't want to commit sociology." It sounds like you're committing sociology.

I like committing sociology.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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