Tennessee Rep Pushes for Online Counter for ISIS Propaganda

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischman is pushing legislation that would require the Department of Homeland Security to use testimonials from former extremists and defectors to counter-message the propaganda that groups like ISIS offer up in their recruitment efforts.

by Michael Collins, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn. / May 2, 2016
Congressman Chuck Fleischmann Facebook/Congressman Chuck Fleischmann
Congressman Chuck FleischmannFacebook/Congressman Chuck Fleischmann

(TNS) -- WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann is convinced that crushing terrorist groups like ISIS will not only involve defeating them on the battlefield, it will mean beating them in the propaganda war, too.

"We need to use every tool in our arsenal," the Ooltewah Republican said.

One of the most potent tools in that arsenal, he believes, are the words of people have been involved in these organizations, impressionable men and women who have taken up their cause, observed the groups from the inside, fought alongside their fighters — and then have become disillusioned by what they've seen.

Fleischmann is pushing legislation that would require the Department of Homeland Security to use testimonials from former extremists and defectors to counter-message the propaganda that groups like ISIS offer up in their recruitment efforts.

The legislation, which the House approved Tuesday night on a 322-79 vote, is in part a response to last summer's shootings at two military institutions in Chattanooga that killed five servicemen. The FBI has said the gunman, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, was inspired by foreign terrorist organizations.

No one will ever know for sure what causes people like Abdulazeez, who grew up in a middle-class neighborhood just a few miles from Chattanooga and led a mostly trouble-free life, to buy into the radical ideology that groups like ISIS are peddling, Fleischmann said.

But, "if we can we can prevent one person from going down that horrific path toward ISIS by using a bill like mine and other measures that are available to us, we need to have an all-out war to combat ISIS and their horrible ideology," said Fleischmann, whose congressional district includes Chattanooga.

"ISIS is spewing a very dangerous message to some people who are sadly impressionable and have taken the bait," he said. "We want to make sure that bait is poison."

ISIS runs a sophisticated social media and online network to spread its message and recruit young people to its cause. Besides producing slick videos, the group has also used hip hop music and video games as part of its recruitment tools.

Fleischmann's bill would enable Homeland Security to fight back by using TV, radio, social media — any means available — to circulate the first-hand accounts of former jihadists who can provide insight into "the corruption, the violence, the absolute horrific nature of ISIS," Fleischmann said.

The State Department already is doing some of that counter-messaging in foreign countries. Fleischmann's bill would permit that messaging domestically to reach young Americans who might be susceptible to the terrorists' propaganda.

In the United States, the principal threat of terrorism comes from home-grown, ISIS-inspired actors like Abdulazeez, counterterrorism experts told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in mid-April.

The FBI has said it has open counterterrorism investigations in all 50 states, and most of them are ISIS-related. More than 250 Americans also reportedly have traveled to Iraq and Syria — or have at least tried — to join ISIS fighters.

"Many of these individuals were pulled in by terrorist propaganda," Fleischmann said. "ISIS is luring Americans with empty and false promises that do not reflect the true reality on the ground in places like Syria and Iraq. The true reality centers on fear, suffering and the murder of innocent people throughout the region and around the world."

While Fleischmann's bill passed the House with strong bipartisan support, some Democrats objected because it did not address domestic terrorists who kill Americans and are a threat to the homeland.

"Domestic terror groups, just like foreign terrorist organizations, recruit and spread propaganda through social media and online platforms," said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.

Fleischmann said there's nothing in the bill that would prevent the targeting of domestic terrorists. But he said he didn't explicitly include such language in the legislation because it is "an anti-ISIS bill."

The bill now heads to the Senate, where Fleischmann said he expects it to have support among Republicans and Democrats.

©2016 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.