'Annoying' But Deadly? The Debate Over Killing ISIS's 'Twitter Tough Guys'

Some CT officials, experts say targeting propagandists is a waste.

ByABC News
September 8, 2015, 11:38 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C.— -- A year into the U.S. strategy to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, a debate has erupted among some counter-terrorism officials and experts over the value of hunting down the extremist group’s propagandists and “Twitter tough guys” alongside the most senior leaders in Syria and Iraq.

In recent weeks the American government hailed the targeted killings in airstrikes of both the important number two leader of ISIS, a longtime veteran jihadi named Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali, as well as social media taunter Junaid Hussain, who some officials called a “senior” propagandist in ISIS -- though he was only nine years old when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.

Hussain’s claim to jihadi fame was his suspected role in leading the “cyber caliphate” from Raqqa, Syria, where, among other things, the young Briton tweeted a call to attack a “draw the prophet” contest in Garland, Texas, and circulated online the personal information culled from public records about random U.S. military members as a "kill list."

“A Twitter tough guy. You can't convince me that he wasn't a s--t target,” one counter-terrorism official familiar with operations against ISIS told ABC News. Calling Hussain, 21, a “senior” member of ISIS, as some officials in Washington did when he was killed two weeks ago in the airstrike, would be like the Taliban announcing the capture of Army Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl by calling him a high-level U.S. military member who was a key to ground force operations conducted against them, the official said dismissively.

The hunt for ISIS leaders and the air and ground attacks against them is led by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command with a hand from the CIA, under the direction of the Obama White House. ABC News has previously reported that one JSOC team has been tasked with hunting for ISIS video executioner Mohammed Emwazi, known in the media as Jihadi John.

“Wasting time on guys like him is how the big guys keep operating. The U.S. should be smoking leadership, not low level guys to appease the public,” complained the counter-terrorism official, who spent time on the ground in Iraq over the years.

Some officials strongly defend the current strategy of placing bull’s-eyes on both top tier ISIS leaders as well as propagandists such as Emwazi and Hussain and another ISIS figure on Twitter, Abu Rahin Aziz, who was killed by an airstrike immediately after tweeting calls in July to stage U.S. homeland attacks on Independence Day.

“We are the angel of death. This war is a propaganda war too. Why only limit it to military leaders? Should we be ignoring the propagandists that speak English and are tech savvy who know how to reach westerners?” a senior counter-terrorism official knowledgeable about the counter-ISIS strategy told ABC News. “I don't see why you would want to curtail either targeting strategy. This is also a war of ideas.”

Low-Hanging Fruit?

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, who was chief of operations in Baghdad during the U.S. “surge” strategy in 2007-2008 said ISIS is “beating our brains out on social media,” which is a “huge competitive advantage.”

“But you don’t attack that capability by only killing a spokesman,” he said. “You go after the servers, block the traffic, set up false networks, etcetera — you attack their network.”

Barbero, a frequent visitor to Iraq, said there has been a dearth of good intelligence on ISIS leadership targets, leading to an inefficient focus on low-hanging fruit such as the social media operatives and ISIS’s grunt fighters in pickup trucks. “If you have insufficient intel on the network, you attack what you can,” he said.

“Junaid Hussain was a Twitter noisemaker and a hack hacker. He wasn't a first disseminator on anything important, as far as I can tell. Nothing at all in his profile leads me to think he'd be close to the inner circle of leadership,” said “ISIS: The State of Terror” author J.M. Berger, who tracks jihadists online.

Hussain tweeted a call to attack the Garland event and gave a shout-out to, among many others, Elton Simpson, one of the two gunmen who tried to carry out a strike there but was killed by police. Officials have not publicly said yet whether Hussain and Simpson had any private communications before the gunfight.

“I have no problem with taking Hussain off the playing field. I’m not sure he was a ‘high-value target’ so much as a stalking horse for the real players,” Berger said. “He was annoying as hell but there's little evidence in open sources to support the idea he was any kind of mastermind. Obviously, if we ever see his private communications, they may tell a different story.”

The U.S. rarely announces its special operations successes or failures against ISIS, but it did so August 18 in the case of the death of ISIS deputy leader Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali. At the time, White House National Security Council spokesperson Ned Price said that strike would “adversely impact [ISIS]’s operations given that his influence spanned [ISIS]’s finance, media, operations, and logistics.”

“This is the kind of thing that's worth the resources,” said the counter-terrorism official, as opposed to the money and effort being poured into the hunt for those like Hussain, Emwazi and the other ISIS mouthpieces.

'More Than a Mere Propagandist'

While the White House declined to comment for this report on the targeting of propagandists in general, a senior administration official defended the targeting of Hussain specifically.

“We’ve been clear that Junaid Hussain was more than a mere propagandist. He was a key recruiter of Westerners and sought to direct attacks in the United States, specifically targeting U.S. military personnel and other government officials,” the official said.

Seamus Hughes of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, which tracks ISIS’s social media gadflies and propagandists as well as recruiters and foreign fighters, agreed that Hussain deserved targeting because he had put U.S. troops’ personal information online with a call to assassinate them.

“There is always going to be another more important target, but his removal from the battlefield is a win for the good guys,” said Hughes, a former Senate investigator who recently left the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center.

None of the troops whose names were publicized by ISIS were attacked, however. If anything, the “kill list” served as a wakeup call to those in Special Operations and elsewhere in the military working on counter-terrorism operations to limit or sanitize their personal social media presence.

Other experts defended the broader strategy of taking high-profile propagandists and recruiters off the battlefield, as they could be more central to the fight than the public realizes.

After all, Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaki transitioned from being a Washington-based Muslim imam and pundit to becoming the mouthpiece for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and then, officials say, the group’s external operations chief before the CIA killed him with a drone in 2011.

“Shoot your mouth off all you want. Eventually we are going to kill you,” the senior counter-terrorism official said.

The targeting of English-speaking mouthpieces also achieves America’s primary tactical, operational and strategic objectives at the same time, argues former top Obama Pentagon official Wendy Anderson. It's tactical because it keeps people moving, and when they move they leave a trail and make mistakes, she said. It's operational in that they must be replaced, which causes ISIS to communicate, move and replace someone. The strategic objective is disrupting their public message which reaches disenfranchised youth who are flowing to the battlefield from around the globe.

“So the English-speaking ISIS guy that is removed, in a drone strike for example, could equal a thousand potential fighters who never self-radicalize and leave home,” said Anderson, who was a top aide and advisor to the current and former Secretaries of Defense.

Those involved in the widespread propaganda and recruiting strategy by ISIS -- waged effectively through social media -- have been targeted since the U.S. launched stepped up airstrikes in Iraq and Syria one year ago this month. While the “provincial” media teams ISIS has in occupied areas of the two countries have churned out dozens of short execution videos this year to demonstrate the self-declared Islamic State “caliphate” is carrying out Shariah law, there has not been a Jihad John beheading video in months and few of the long-form documentary-style videos with sophisticated graphics and messages have been released since last year.

The flow of foreign fighters continues to enter occupied territory, experts say, and ISIS may finally be directing plots inside western countries. On Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said his government had killed a British subject in Syria who was directing plots inside the U.K. After the slaughter of British tourists on a Tunisian beach this year, Cameron loosened restrictions on Special Air Service commandos for hunter-killer operations inside Syria, one official told ABC News.

But for all the debate over who exactly the U.S.-led coalition is killing, Ali Khedery, the longest-serving American diplomat in Baghdad, who also worked closely with JSOC, said tactical airstrikes – whether they hit ISIS propagandists or leaders -- are masquerading as strategy in the absence of a real plan to destroy ISIS over the long term.

“Do not mistake tactics for strategy. We killed Osama bin Laden. I honestly don't think it had much effect on al Qaeda. We killed [al Qaeda-Iraq leader] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Guess what? It didn't matter,” Khedery said. “Taking out individuals in these organizations does not erode its ability to operate. You cannot destroy an ideology with drone strikes. Special operations or other covert action are critical enablers in a broad strategy that must continuously drive towards good governance, since bad governance is the root cause of ISIS's rise."