The Islamic State's Virtual Caliphate

By Hamblet, Mina | Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

The Islamic State's Virtual Caliphate


Hamblet, Mina, Middle East Quarterly


The public outcry attending President Trump's attempted travel ban from seven radical Muslim states, designed to prevent foreign terrorists from entering the country, has diverted attention from the longstanding danger of homegrown jihadis. As early as 2007, the New York Police Department (NYPD) released a 92-page report documenting the extent of al-Qaeda-linked homegrown jihad in Europe and the United States.1 The Obama administration, however, went out of its way to ignore, deny, and whitewash any homegrown terror that smacked of Islamist violence. But a decade later, al-Qaeda has been all but eclipsed by the Islamic State (ISIS), which has skillfully used social media to become the foremost purveyor of jihadist indoctrination in the West, creating a "virtual caliphate," extremely dangerous and easily accessible to vulner-able men and women from a variety of backgrounds in a manner al-Qaeda was never able to a-chieve. Even were all territory now under ISIS control to be retaken, this virtual caliphate could continue to pose a major threat.

Cyber Radicalization

While the NYPD's report noted the Internet "as a driver and enabler for the process of radicalization" for al-Qaeda,2 this was largely limited to the terrorist group's use of chatrooms, which represent only a small portion of the Internet's potential. Indeed, according to a 2011 Rand Institute study, while al-Qaeda "does 99 percent of its work on the Internet," its scope is limited to merely a few cyber platforms, demonstrating its simplistic utilization of the Internet.3 By contrast, ISIS has taken a more advanced approach, targeting and utilizing a number of novel platforms to preach its jihadist ideology, thus blending tradition and technology in a sophisticated manner. Running a $2 billion campaign4 thanks to its oil monopoly in Syria,5 the group expertly commands usage of the cyber community in a multitude of forms: Twitter is by far the platform of choice among forums such as Facebook, Google, Tumblr, Kik, WhatsApp, and more.6 Coupled with its use of more under-the-radar messaging apps such as Telegram (which is encrypted) and Surespot, ISIS is able to maintain a constant and steady presence on the Internet.

Constant accessibility. Not only is ISIS using nontraditional and innovative cyber platforms, but it is also ensuring continuous access to their content. Its supporters have found ways to outmaneuver Twitter's continued closing of jihadist accounts, notably via Bait al-Ansar (literally, the House of Supporters), which allows users to recreate new accounts quickly without having to enter new information.7 In fact, as shown by a 2015 George Washington University study, many jihadists view account suspensions as "badges of honor."8 Twitter campaigns-such as "Hashtag Jihad"-are also utilized to encourage Americans to join the fight in Syria, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) Cyber and Jihad Lab.9 At times in 2015, the U.S. government was battling about 90,000 tweets a day, according to a State Department spokeswoman; and while a militant may be killed, a tweet cannot.10

Highly popular sites are not the only form of jihadist communication. The more covert Russian messaging app, Telegram, which provides almost complete anonymity to its users and relies on client-server/serverclient encryption, dedicates whole channels to ISIS and its ideology. "The Nasheed Gallery," a channel on the app, allows supporters (and potential supporters) to listen to jihadi nasheeds, also known as Islamic songs.11 The songs are a "main factor in reinforcing the group's narrative and attracting new recruits," according to MEMRI.12 This channel and channels similar to it can be accessed anytime, granting potential supporters unlimited access to jihadist ideology.

The radicalization echo chamber. The success of ISIS's Twitter campaign can be attributed to its use of the platform as a "radicalization echo chamber," namely the sharing and spreading of jihadist propaganda for continued consumption by other supporters and, even more importantly, potential supporters. …

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