DOD shutters two 'influence' websites covering Africa.


Two websites run by the Defense Department to disseminate U.S. government-approved news in the Horn of Africa and the Maghreb region of North Africa are out of business. 

They were taken off-line on or around Feb. 10, more than a year after being defunded by appropriations legislation. 

Sabahionline.com and Magharebia.com were operated under contract by General Dynamics and published in English and local languages. They delivered regional news along with sports and lifestyle content, and hosted message boards for readers. It appears that the sites are permanently shuttered, though their domain registrations remain active. 

The websites served as “information tools used to fight misinformation and inaccurate information provided by extremist websites,” Benjamin Benson, an AFRICOM spokesperson, told FCW. “The Internet is a big place, and we are one of many websites out there. The sites’ aims were to provide moderate voices in contrast to the numerous violent extremist websites.”

The two sites fell under a program called the Trans Regional Web Initiative (TRWI) run by the Special Operations Command. Related websites covering Iraq (Mawtani.com), the Gulf States (al-Shorfa.com) and central Asia, including Pakistan and Afghanistan (Centralasiaonline.com) are still up and running, supported by the U.S. Central Command. A site covering many of the former Soviet republics in southeastern Europe (SETimes.com) is backed by the U.S. European Command. All the sites are operated by General Dynamics. 

The TRWI program is a subset of a larger initiative dubbed Military Information Support Operations — a less threatening name for what used to go under the heading of psychological operations. According to a Pentagon memo, the program’s purpose is to “influence the perceptions, attitudes, and subsequent behavior of selected foreign audiences as part of approved MISO programs in support of [U.S. government] policy and military objectives, plans, and operations.” 

Some MISO efforts, such as the websites, are attributed to the U.S. government, while some have a more opaque connection to U.S. actors. They include campaigns that use leaflets, text message blasts and other media.

Magharebia went online in March 2008, and Sabahionline was launched in February 2012. Magharebia drew an average of 6,500 daily visitors and 10,000 articles read per day, while Sabahiaonline averaged 1,400 daily visitors and 8,000 articles read per day, according to the spokesperson. The sites established social media followings on Facebook and Twitter. 

Benson said that Sabahionline content was “instrumental in sowing discord” inside Somali terror group al-Shabaab and inside the Muslim Youth Center, a Kenyan organization that recruits Shabaab members. “The MYC and Al-Shabaab operatives like Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki have, over the course of Sabahi’s existence, engaged in Twitter battles using Sabahi content to support their points. In the course of this, their followers, many of whom are Al-Shabaab militants and sympathizers themselves, have been repeatedly exposed to Sabahi messaging,” Benson said. 

Some critics are not convinced of the value of this kind of engagement. The TRWI program came under fire in Congress and in a nonpublic report by the Government Accountability Office for being ineffectual and wasting money. The program was ordered closed in Section 344 of the fiscal 2014 defense authorization act. 

The joint explanatory statementfrom the House and Senate Armed Services committees accompanying the final bill noted that “we remain skeptical of the effectiveness of the websites established under the TRWI and believe that available resources may better be used to support tactical and operational military information support activities.” 

Lawmakers said agencies outside the military might be better suited to manage such activities. 

However, a Pentagon memo issued by the undersecretary of Defense for policy that was cited in contracting documents authorized a shift of TRWI websites from Special Operations Command to regional commands. The memo asserts that “the termination of SOCOM’s TRWI program in response to Section 344 does not preclude commanders from conducting military information support operations on the Internet, nor does Section 344 prohibit all use of the Internet for MISO, such as those in support of commanders’ counterterrorism, security, and stability objectives.” 

The documents were posted to justify a sole-source extensionof General Dynamics’ work on the sites. Officials cautioned against letting General Dynamics’ contract lapse on schedule in September 2014 because they were concerned that the sites would lose their audiences and Google News would stop aggregating their content if publication stopped to allow for a new procurement. 

Those concerns resulted in General Dynamics being given a contract extension with a ceiling of $6.9 million and the promise of a new request for proposals to be issued in November 2014. That RFP never materialized, and General Dynamics was awarded $1.86 million to wrap up work on the sites.

While there are no plans to reopen the two sites, AFRICOM is “exploring other ways and means to mitigate the gap coverage that the websites provided,” Benson said. 

This article was updated with comment from AFRICOM on Feb. 18.

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