The Cable

Cyber Jihadists, State Department Now In Full-Blown Twitter War

Since 2011, the State Department has sponsored a Digital Outreach Team tasked with countering al Qaeda propaganda on the Internet. In its brief existence, it's difficult to quantify the team's progress (and easy to laugh at its failures), but there's one thing it is doing successfully: Making the right enemies.

The Digital Outreach Team (DOT) is part of the larger Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, an interagency center housed at the State Department with a presidential mandate to subvert al Qaeda's online outreach efforts (full disclosure: I helped set up the DOT's current operations while at the State Department). The Center and the DOT venture on Twitter is relatively new and until now elicited little more than scorn from jihadi tweeters. But this month, it started to make some serious waves.  

On July 17, a prominent jihadi on Twitter, Mu`awiya al-Qahtani (M_Al_Saqr), established a new Twitter account @Al_Bttaar whose mission is a mirror image of the Digital Outreach Team's. Whereas the DOT aims to counter jihadi propaganda and discredit its promulgators using social media, @Al_Bttaar aims to spread that propaganda and silence its detractors. Now, there is reason to believe the @Al_Bttaar initiative is a direct response to the DOT’s activities: not only is it patterned after the DOT, its opening salvo was directed against one of the DOT’s tweeters, Tariq Ramzi (@dsdotar).

The DOT first provoked complaints from jihadis after crashing mainstream forums and casting their form of radical Islam in a negative light.  The day after @Al_Bttaar’s inaugural tweets, the group organized its first Twitter “raid,” an effort to take down the State Department's account. The method was pretty simple: Just click the “report” button multiple times until a Twitter administrator removes the account.

Five minutes after passing out the instructions, the administrator posted the address of @dsdotar. Although there was spotty information during the attack on how it was going, @Al_Bttaar announced the following day that it had failed. The administrator attributed the failure to the lack of participation -- only 150 people reported the enemy account, short of the goal of 400 -- and to the fact that people had followed the account before reporting it. (In a moment of internal bickering: one of the group’s followers noted that it was the administrator’s themselves who had recommended following the account.)

@Al_Bttaar has since moved on to conduct several attacks against other Twitter users, all of whom are Arabs who have displeased them in one way or the other.Few of them have been successful but that has not dampened the group’s enthusiasm or that of its now 1,570 followers. In one of its latest tweets, it promises even more action in the days to come.

So far, @Al_Bttaar’s efforts on Twitter are pretty small scale, which could also be said of the DOT’s activities. Part of the reason is resources: there are not many jihadis or counter-jihadis. But another reason is that both sides realize that this influence game is not about swaying large numbers of people but rather persuading just a few to join or turn away. Seen in this light, @Al_Bttaar’s antics probably have less to do with actually silencing its enemies than it does with attracting enthusiastic new followers who like its aggressive approach.

Will McCants is an analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses and a former State Department senior advisor for countering violent extremism.

The Cable

Liberal Democrats Move to Torpedo Iran Sanctions Bill

With the House of Representatives expected to vote on a tough Iran sanctions bill on Wednesday, a cohort of liberal Democrats are staging a last-ditch effort to stop it.

In a letter obtained by The Cable, Reps. Jim McDermott, John Conyers, Keith Ellison and Jim McGovern urge the House leadership to delay the vote on the bill which they fear could jeopardize the Obama administration's renewed effort to engage Iran's newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani on the country's nuclear program.

The dispute highlights the wide gulf on Iran policy between Congress and the White House. On the one side, you have the Obama administration easing sanctions on Iran last week and planning to engage with Rouhani, a relative moderate, on the nuclear issue in September. On the other side, the Republican-controlled House wants to squeeze Iran's oil exports to a trickle in a bill expected to pass with ease. That bill could then move to the Senate Banking Committee in September.

"We believe that it would be counterproductive and irresponsible to vote on this measure before Iran's new president is inaugurated on August 4, 2013," reads the letter. "A diplomatic solution remains the best possible means for ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, and the House of Representatives should not preempt a potential opportunity to secure such an outcome with another sanctions bill."

An aide for Ellison is currently collecting signatures for the letter with a deadline of Tuesday at noon. "Regardless of whether your boss supports [the bill], it could not come at a worse time," reads a note by Senior Legislative Assistant Stephen Lassiter. "Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned on improving relations with the West, takes office in two weeks."

In addition to delaying a vote, the lawmakers are also requesting a last-minute tweak to its language."As marked up in Committee, H.R.850 places significant restrictions on the President's authority to waive sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions," reads the letter. "We therefore urge that the President's full waiver authorities that were weakened or removed in Committee to be reinstated in the bill."

A spokesperson for House Speaker John Boehner did not respond to request for comment on the letter. 

While the smart money is on the sanctions bill passing, many in Congress are curious about how close the vote will be. That uncertainty stems from a surprisingly successful bipartisan letter signed by nearly a third of the House in June calling for a diplomatic solution to the conflict over Iran's nuclear program. "As Members of Congress who share your unequivocal commitment to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, we urge you to pursue the potential opportunity presented by Iran's recent presidential election by reinvigorating U.S. efforts to secure a negotiated nuclear agreement," read the letter. spearheaded by Reps. Charles Dent (R-PA) and David Price (D-NC).

The openness to rapprochement coincided with increasingly hawkish overtures by other members of Congress. Last Tuesday, at a meeting of Christians United for Israel, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) vowed to introduce legislation seeking the authorization for use of force against the Islamic country unless it reins in its nuclear program. "The only way to convince Iran to halt their nuclear program is to make it clear we will take it out," he said.

Of course, Washington elites don't all see eye-to-eye on the wisdom of delaying tougher sanctions. "For diplomacy to have any chance of succeeding, it must be coupled with the threat of increased sanctions," Robert McNally, former White House energy advisor to President George W. Bush told Reuters on Sunday. Meanwhile, on Thursday, Lawrence Wilkerson, a former chief of staff to Colin Powell, and General Joseph Hoar, a former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, penned a piece in The Hill saying "the House must not snuff out hopes for Iranian moderation before Rouhini even gets a chance."

You can read the sanctions petition in full below:

July XX, 2013

Dear Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor, Leader Pelosi, and Democratic Whip Hoyer,

We write to express concern with the timing of H.R.850, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013.  While some of us have cosponsored this legislation prior to markup by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on May 22, 2013, we believe voting on this bill at this time and in its current form would be counterproductive to U.S. efforts to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

As marked up in Committee, H.R.850 places significant restrictions on the President's authority to waive sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions. In doing so, the bill threatens to fracture the unprecedented international coalition working to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and further weakens U.S. diplomatic efforts by constraining the President's authority to utilize sanctions as leverage at the negotiating table. We therefore urge that the President's full waiver authorities that were weakened or removed in Committee to be reinstated in the bill. This includes restoring the President's national security waiver for sanctions related to weapons of mass destruction or other military capabilities, which was eliminated via an amendment sponsored by Representative Ros-Lehtinen.  It also include restoring the President's full authority to temporarily waive oil sanctions for countries that are cooperating with the sanctions -- a critical authority to maintain the unprecedented international coalition working to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran but which was severely limited in Committee by manager's amendment.  

Additionally, we urge that this bill make U.S. policy on sanctions crystal clear to ensure the strongest possible diplomatic effort at the negotiating table by including the following language:

"Statement of Policy -- It shall be the policy of the United States to utilize sanctions on Iran as diplomatic leverage in negotiations and to calibrate such sanctions to elicit verifiable concessions from Iran that have a material impact on its ability to develop a nuclear weapon."

Finally, we believe that it would be counterproductive and irresponsible to vote on this measure before Iran's new president is inaugurated on August 4, 2013.  A diplomatic solution remains the best possible means for ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, and the House of Representatives should not preempt a potential opportunity to secure such an outcome with another sanctions bill. While we have no illusions about the nature of Iran's government, Iran's president-elect has sent several positive signals that must not be rejected out of hand.  Returning these signals with a vote on more sanctions can only serve to undermine potential forces for moderation in Iran and empower hardliners who were defeated in recent elections.

We want to be very clear: we are not calling for sanctions to be lifted unilaterally. Iran must first agree to take verifiable steps that satisfy international concerns about the nature of its nuclear program and ensure Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.  However, it is critical that the President's ability to ease sanctions in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions is fully intact, international unity is not fractured by a new sanctions vote, and new opportunities for diplomatic success are not undermined through preemptive action by Congress.

We look forward to discussing these suggestions with you further.

Sincerely,