Fighting Islamic State in Cyberspace

Unlike many jihadist groups, Islamic State has embraced the Internet as a great propaganda mechanism and recruitment tool. The West must act to counter this online threat.

Daniel Cohen
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An image posted on an Islamic State website, reputedly showing captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, June 2014.
An image posted on an Islamic State website, reputedly showing captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, June 2014. Credit: AP
Daniel Cohen

Islamic State has raised the use of cyberspace as a weapon to advance its murderous agenda to the status of an art form. The frequency of mentions of IS (formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in the media has grown virally from one hour to the next.

Even today, the number of mentions it attracts on Google is eight times greater than that of the veteran Al-Qaida group. In the world of IS, existence determines consciousness. Everything is here and now. The vision for the future can wait. That is how IS realized the aspiration held for many years by Al-Qaida and the other Salafist groups to institute an Islamic regime ruled by sharia (Islamic) law.

IS uses an extremely effective public relations and propaganda mechanism in cyberspace. Its talent in PR and marketing is just as good as that of companies in the business world. It publishes online magazines; produces and distributes high-quality videos (the well-edited film of the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley, for example) that allow for international coverage; and sells merchandise online containing its logo.

The young members of IS write and share their posts on social media. This extroverted approach is an excellent fit for IS’s current strategy – preparing for global acts of terror by recruiting foreign operatives and creating new terror cells throughout the world.

Just last July, IS recruited some 6,500 new terrorist operatives in Iraq and Syria – many of them citizens of Western countries – to its combat ranks. For the new recruits, Islamic State is an emotional anchor, a source of identity and pride in an alienated and unstable world, with weakened connections to country and nationality. Its solution is a unique combination of radical traditional ideology and pragmatic action. When this is packaged in the modern methods that cyberspace makes possible, it is no wonder that IS has such compelling sex appeal.

IS’s next strategic goals can be analyzed according to three stages of development. The first stage is entrenching itself and establishing a state. The second stage is regional expansion, even as it begins the third stage: The export and spread of terrorism on a global scale.

The first stage, then, was the establishment of the Islamic State, which spreads out over roughly 200,000 square kilometers (77,220 square miles, which is about a third of Iraq’s territory and a third of Syria’s) and boasts a population of nearly 10 million people.

What sets IS apart is its practical approach to establishing that state. Its vision differs substantially from that of Al-Qaida, with its long-term vision of establishing a pan-global Islamic state. In the second stage – that of regional expansion – IS does not recognize the authority of geographic borders, even if its original name referred to specific territorial definitions (Iraq and al-Sham – the Levant). Its expansionist aspirations may be seen in its symbol, which contains a map of the united territories of Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.

Although the stage of global expansion is just beginning, Islamic State is using cyberspace to maximum effect. This method is deeply entrenched in the radical Salafist movement, whose members see participation in violent struggle against “the enemies of Islam” – both in their own countries and outside their borders – as their duty and goal.

While most of the jihadist terrorist groups operate in a secret and compartmentalized manner, IS operates in an extrovert manner, so as to become a focus of attraction and identity for oppressed Muslim populations the world over. This attraction translates into the recruitment of operatives and the branding of IS as the spearhead of global jihad. This gives it the image of a “femme fatale,” working its enchantment on those who are willing to go out and fight in its name, as well as those who are searching for an identity in an age of the weakening nation-state.

The virtual sphere allows IS to attract armed Islamists the world over to the battlefields of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This situation intensifies the fear in the radicals’ home countries that they will attack the moment they return. This method of operation indicates that the next stage in IS’s development – assuming that intervention by the United States with an international coalition does not stop it first – is a strategic change in which the West in general, and the United States in particular, are portrayed as its main adversary. So, together with political control over territory and regional expansion, IS could shortly become a key player in global jihad, intensifying the threat of terrorism in many countries worldwide.

While military action against Islamic State by the Americans and its allies is hesitant and at this stage lacks clear goals, cyberspace could actually create opportunities for effective action.

While it may be difficult to restrict IS’s Internet activity due to issues of free expression and individual liberty, a possible solution could be found in the form of an international agreement limiting the publication of video clips of the “beheading” type – at least on large sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Also, enforcement activity could be considered in certain cases against end-users who keep lots of these videos for recruitment and propaganda purposes.

An international alliance stemming from the realization that IS poses a terrible threat to countries’ national security would greatly reduce Islamic State’s ability to use cyberspace to sow demoralization and fear, or recruit terrorist operatives.

Daniel Cohen is the coordinator of the Military and Strategic Affairs Program and the Cyber Warfare Program at the Institute for National Security Studies.

Fighters of the Islamic State waving the group's flag from a damaged display of a government fighter jet following the battle for the Tabqa air base, in Raqqa, Syria.Credit: AP
A still from a a video purportedly showing the execution of U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff by a masked Islamic State fighter, Sept. 2, 2014.Credit: Reuters

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