US misfires fighting ISIS online, Part II: ‘Do you speak Arabic?’

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This document, photographed in Washington, on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, set the government’s requirements for a $500 million contract to expand the military’s psychological operations campaign against the Islamic State and other extremist groups. Contractors allege that changes in the requirements aided the bid of the eventual winner, defense giant Northrop Grumman. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick

This is Part II of a four-part series on issues plaguing WebOps and the U.S. counterintelligence campaign against the Islamic State. Start here at Part I.

In a large office room filled with cubicles at Central Command, about 120 people, many of them Arabic language specialists, are assigned to fight IS militants on their own turf: The internet.

The WebOps contract is run by Colsa Corp., based in Huntsville, Alabama. A major challenge for Colsa — and contractors working on other national security programs — is finding people who can speak Arabic fluently and can also get security clearances to handle classified material.

US misfires in online fight against Islamic State
Part III: ‘Shouldn’t grade your own homework’
Part IV: ‘Untouchable’

The problem, according to six current and former Colsa employees, is that to engage with operatives of the Islamic State, or their potential recruits, you need to be fluent in language, nuance and Islam — and while Colsa has some Arabic experts, those skills are not widely distributed.

“One of the things about jihadis: They are very good in Arabic,” said one specialist who worked on WebOps.

Another former employee said common translation mistakes he personally witnessed, including the “Palestinian salad” example [translators mixed up the Arabic words for “salad” and “authority”], were the result of the company hiring young people who were faking language abilities.

He mockingly described the conversations between managers and potential hires: “‘Do you speak Arabic?'” he mimicked. “‘Yes. How do you say ‘good morning?’ Oh, you can do that? You are an expert. You are hired.'”

A third specialist said she asked a colleague, who was assigned to analyze material written in Arabic, why he was discarding much of it. While watching a soap opera online, the colleague said the material was irrelevant because it was in Farsi or Urdu. But when she checked, it was indeed Arabic. She has since left WebOps to find more meaningful work, she said.

The WebOps Arabic program focuses on Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but for most of the time Colsa has been running it, it has had no Syrian or Yemeni staff, the AP was told in separate interviews with two current employees and one who left recently.

Engaging in theological discussions on social media with people who are well versed in the Quran is not for beginners. Iraq and Syria are riven with sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, who follow different interpretations of Islam. Multiple workers said that WebOps “experts” often trip up on language that is specific to one sect or region.

“People can tell whether you are local or whether you are Sunni or Shia,” said another former worker, so poorly crafted messages are not effective. He said he left WebOps because he was disgusted with the work.

A number of the workers complained to AP that a large group on staff from Morocco, in North Africa, were often ignorant of Middle Eastern history and culture — or even the difference between groups the U.S. considers terrorist organizations. The group was so dominant that colleagues jokingly referred to them as “the Moroccan mafia.”

A lot of them “don’t know the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas,” said the employee who left to find more meaningful work. Hezbollah is an Iran-backed Shiite group based in Lebanon. Hamas, based in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, is the Palestinian branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.

Cathy Dickens, a vice president for business management and corporate ethics at Colsa Corp., referred questions to CENTCOM, which declined comment.

This is the second in a four-part series on issues plaguing WebOps and the U.S. counterintelligence campaign against the Islamic State.