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Social media response to Islamic State must be more agile: Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull gave a speech to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that focused on global security and trade. Brad Hunter/PMO

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called for the campaign against Islamic State (IS) to considerably improve its use of social media, declaring “the cybersphere demands reactions as rapid as the kinetic battlefield”.

Delivering a speech in Washington focusing on security, Turnbull said IS’s use of technology and social media in particular was “very sophisticated and agile” and required faster responses.

Turnbull said it was clear to him, after visiting Iraq on his way to Washington, “that the Iraqi government and other anti-ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, another name for IS] forces are not reacting quickly enough to contradict ISIL’s online messages which have been used both to recruit new fighters and demoralise those who oppose them, and we should help them with this.

"ISIL claims must be mocked and disproved as soon as they are made.”

Australia was working with its partners in Southeast Asia to improve the effectiveness of the online counter-narrative, Turnbull said.

“I was pleased to see heightened co-operation here in Washington between the government and the private sector telcos, software developers, and social media platforms to that end.” He looked forward to further progressing co-operation in this field during his coming meeting with US President Barack Obama.

The security speech, to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, is the first of two major addresses Turnbull will give during his two-day visit to Washington. The other will be to a business audience, with innovation one of its central themes.

Turnbull said the destruction of IS required military action that included “boots on the ground”.

“But they must be the right boots on the right ground,” he said. An enduring victory must be won and owned by the people of Iraq and Syria.

The recent retaking of Ramadi was a good example. “Led by the Iraqis themselves, assisted by the coalition’s respective air and special forces, it was not just a blow to ISIL, but an example of the right combination.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had thanked him for the role Australian advisers played in supporting the retaking of Ramadi. “But it was politically vitally important for him that the retaking of that city was done and seen to be done by the Iraqi army and, in particular, their counter-terrorism service which is their elite units.”

It is understood that in his meeting with Turnbull, al-Abadi expressed a strong view that a greater role by coalition forces “beyond the wire” would not be supported by the Iraqi people.

Turnbull said the biggest challenge was finding a political settlement in Syria and stressed the need for “creative pragmatism”.

“The enmities are so deep, the wrongs so shocking, that every option should be on the table – from an institutionalised power-sharing to some form of partition. This is a time for creative pragmatism and a recognition that difficult compromises will be required, particularly to avoid the sectarian aspect of this struggle spreading more widely across the region.

"It is above all a time for all parties – our US-led coalition, the Sunni states of the region, Iran and Russia – to get on the same page and bring this war to an end.”

Turnbull also emphasised the balance to be struck in talking about IS and Islam – an issue that has been strongly debated within Australia, especially within conservative circles.

“We should not be so delicate as to say ISIL and its ilk have ‘got nothing to do with Islam’. But neither should we tag all Muslims or their religion with responsibility for the crimes of a tiny terrorist minority. This is precisely what the extremists want us to do.” He noted that in Australia leading Islamic groups had spoken out strongly against IS.

Last week the government indicated that it had rejected an American request, sent to all coalition countries, for a greater contribution to the fight against IS. Turnbull at the weekend described it as a “form letter”.

Taking questions in Iraq, he said: “We were not asked for any specific additional commitment”.

“It was literally a form letter sent in exactly the same terms to 40 defence ministers,” he said. “They were not seeking combat troops on the ground, it was a general shopping list.”

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