Taking on the ‘Digital Caliphate’ in our Fight Against ISIS

5 minutes read time
Reflection of men looking at laptop screens.
Reflection of men looking into laptop screens.

Taking on the ‘Digital Caliphate’ in our Fight Against ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has not only undermined stability in Iraq, Syria, and the region but also posed a threat to international peace and security more broadly.  We continue to see a new twist in ISIS’s strategy: the weaponization of fear. ISIS’s communicators around the world spend their days at keyboards interacting with a would-be terrorist, methodically feeding a recruit’s deranged desire to develop local networks or carry out attacks in their own countries. As we have seen from attacks in Nice, Berlin, Orlando, and San Bernardino, the internet is ISIS’s best weapon for turning a recruit into a self-radicalized attacker.  No longer is ISIS wooing people primarily to Syria and Iraq, but increasingly to the “Digital Caliphate.” 

Understanding ISIS’ Virtual Safe Haven

As ISIS loses more ground on the physical battlefield, it is ensuring it can maintain influence in the battlefield of ideas. The call to travel to the so-called “caliphate” in order to support ISIS has been reduced. These gains have forced ISIS to alter and accelerate their messaging tactics.

Today, the group’s messengers tell supporters more and more, “Stay where you are. Wage war in ISIS’s name wherever you live.” Their brand is shifting from that of an ideological organization seeking territory to an umbrella brand for grievance, psychopathy, and hate. Instead of recruiting for territory and a bountiful utopia, ISIS is promoting a clandestine, de-centralized, international insurgency for marginalized and impressionable youth. 

Meanwhile, foreign terrorist fighters are seeking to escape the battlefield and return to their home countries, from which they could potentially develop local networks or launch attacks. The audience for this adapting narrative is no longer the group, but the individual. Combined with ISIS’s presence on encrypted social media platforms and the dark web, these trends are a double-edged sword: ISIS is reaching fewer people in these less public spaces, but their noxious siren call is easier to heed. Halting their ability to leverage these public spaces is crucial to defeating ISIS. 

Another concern is ISIS moving to online havens. ISIS spokespeople are using the dark web and encrypted applications to communicate with individual sympathetic users. The dark web is an often preferred platform for terrorist groups because the technology makes it difficult to navigate, allows for full encryption, and can make some accounts nearly impossible to access. It is also completely anonymous and allows users to hide their IP addresses, even as they are accessing a worldwide network of computers, including financial services. 

These challenges substantially increase the difficulty in identifying and tracking the inspired, self-radicalized attacker, as we have seen in Nice, Dhaka, Medina, Kabul, Ansbach, and most recently in London. This presents one of the biggest challenges to protect the United States and others around the world. How to counter these violent extremists’ anonymous use of the internet is a core focus in the fight to defeat ISIS, particularly for law enforcement and those working on counter-messaging strategies -- both in government and the private sector.

Fighting ISIS on the Information Battlefield

The U.S. government, the Global Coalition, and the private sector are making it increasingly difficult for ISIS to spread its poisonous ideology to vulnerable audiences. For example, Twitter has suspended more than 635,000 ISIS-related or affiliated accounts that have been shown to abuse their platform between mid-2015 and the end of 2016. 

The U.S. government is also working to employ a range of new analytic tools, and working with allies to prevent further online recruitment and protect the homeland. At the same time, the Global Coalition’s Twitter accounts in Arabic, French, and English continue to increase their number of followers, as we remain focused on stopping ISIS' online presence.  

Building resistance to violent extremist propaganda and countering the use of the internet for terrorist purposes are vital to efforts to defeat ISIS. Our efforts thus far have shown progress. The good news is counter-ISIS content is now more prevalent online, and pro-ISIS content is declining in open forum social media channels. ISIS is a terrorist group that is increasingly struggling in the face of an more organized and sophisticated set of initiatives by the Global Coalition. The United States will continue to coordinate the local, regional, and global efforts to defeat ISIS communications online and break its brand.

As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined for the Global Coalition at the group’s Ministerial on March 22 in Washington, D.C., “We must break ISIS’s ability to spread its message and recruit new followers online.  A ‘digital caliphate’ must not flourish in the place of a physical one.” He added, “We must fight ISIS online as aggressively as we would on the ground.”

About the Author: Dr. Haroon Ullah serves on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.

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