x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Taking aim at militant propaganda: US seeks to counter extremist message

Public affairs section of American Embassy in Pakistan creates a new unit to undermine extremism with help of local moderates.

Religious students attend class at an Islamic seminary in Okara, Pakistan. The US sees the area as particularly important in its fight against militancy.
Religious students attend class at an Islamic seminary in Okara, Pakistan. The US sees the area as particularly important in its fight against militancy.

OKARA, PAKISTAN // Sultan Mehmood Gujar was a solid supporter of Islamist militants fighting in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India and even donated money to them, until he attended an innovative 40-day lecture series by a moderate cleric aimed at countering violent extremism.

The course, given to the public at an Islamic school in an area of Pakistan known for being a hotbed of militancy, had a profound effect on the 46-year-old property dealer, convincing him the militants were wrong to claim they were waging holy war, or jihad, justified by the Quran.

"I was shocked to discover that what the militants were doing was against Islam," said Mr Gujar, sitting on the floor at the madrassa in Okara city where the lectures were delivered. "Now I call them terrorists, not jihadis."

Fazal ur Rehman, the cleric who runs the 400-student madrassa, recorded each of the 2-hour lectures he and others gave this past summer and would like to distribute the DVDs to reach a wider audience. But he lacks the money.

The US has created a new unit in Pakistan that aims to leverage such grassroots efforts by working with local moderates to counter violent extremism - the first of its kind set up by an American Embassy anywhere in the world, according to US officials here. The existence of the unit has never before been reported.

Mr Rehman and other clerics attempting to challenge extremism in Pakistan recently met with US Ambassador Cameron Munter in Islamabad, though the 50-year-old Mr Rehman says he has not yet received support from the Americans.

Okara has special significance because it is near the village of Ajmal Kasab, home of the only surviving gunman from the 2008 attacks on Mumbai that killed more than 160 people.

The US chose Pakistan as the site for its new venture because it is home to a vast network of Islamist militants who have been fighting US-led troops in neighbouring Afghanistan for more than a decade.

The three-person unit in the US Embassy public-affairs section was established in July. It plans to work with local partners, including moderate religious leaders, to project their counter-extremist messages and push back against the militants' extensive propaganda machine, said US officials.

It will use TV shows, documentaries, radio programmes and posters. It also intends to ramp up exchange programmes for religious leaders and public outreach to conservative Muslims who previously had little contact with American officials.

"There are a lot of courageous voices speaking out against extremism here in Pakistan," said Tom Miller, the head of public affairs at the US Embassy. "Our job is to find out how we can amplify those narratives."

The unit has just begun ramping up operations, said officials. It was funded with an initial budget of US$5 million (Dh18.4m) that officials hope will grow. Officials declined to provide details on specific programmes they are funding or plan to fund, for fear that publicly acknowledging US involvement would discredit their partners.

That's a major worry in this country where anti-American sentiment is rampant. Any cleric known to be taking US help is likely to be shunned by many. There are other challenges as well. Many among clerics and the public who are considered moderates have mixed views - they often oppose the killing of innocent civilians in Pakistan, but support jihad against US forces in Afghanistan or against neighbouring India. Further complicating the situation is alleged Pakistani government support for some militant groups.

Also, the militants are likely to strike back, as indicated by a recent trip the US ambassador made to a madrassa in Faisalabad city to attend a meeting of moderate religious leaders who denounced suicide bombings and other violence.

Militants responded the next day by calling the Muslim cleric who hosted the event, Yasin Zafar, and warning he could be killed.

The most intensive component of the new US initiative will be a media campaign focused on raising awareness about civilians harmed by militant attacks, said Mr Miller, the embassy public affairs chief. "We are trying to discredit these acts and take away the narrative that the militants are some kind of ideological heroes," said Mr Miller.

Surveys have shown that despite varying levels of support for militant groups within Pakistan, a majority of citizens oppose attacks that target civilians. Militants in Pakistan often deny responsibility for civilian casualties.

Mr Rehman, the cleric who conducted the 40 days of lectures, said he was powerless to compete with the extremists.

"The militants have arms, are trained and have the resources to distribute their literature in bulk quantities," said Mr Rehman. "We are very limited in our ability to distribute material to counter it."