Daesh and the Internet: History, Dilemmas, and Solutions.

Photo from: http://www.20minutes.fr/monde/daesh/1746383-20151208-entreprises-europeennes-fournissent-elles-acces-internet-daesh

There is a common misconception about tackling the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, but I shall refer to them as Daesh).  For some, extremism is inexplicably linked to theology, and it is hence the onus of mosques or the Islamic Community to tackle it.  This is highly dubious.  Scripture reflects upon the moral inclination of an individual, not a religious community, let alone an entire religion (especially one of 1.6 billion people).  It is an individual issue, not a religious one.

The types of individuals to carry out terrorist attacks are often isolated from their faith groups as well as society as a whole.  They are vulnerable outcasts with little hope, that have found an online community that purport to give them a meaning.  This community has been nicknamed ‘The Online Caliphate.’

Malcolm Nance, former US Head of Defence and expert in terrorism and counter-terrorism, argued that the most recent high-profile attacker in New York is ‘most likely to have been radicalised virtually’ (Channel 4 News 1/11/2017).  The internet is a vehicle Daesh to propagate their narrative, converting some and compelling others to action, providing a potential source of income, and a means to coordinate attacks (Moreng, 2016; Charles, 2014).

Military setbacks in Raqqa and Qaryatayn, might symbolise the decline of the so-called Islamic State’s conventional war to establish a state on the ground.  This does not necessarily mean peace.  Divisions continue in the red-raw post-conflict environment between proponents and opponents, former combatants and civilians.  It is nearly impossible, after all, to break the vicious circle of hate.

Furthermore, with little hope to achieve political goals on the battlefield, it is highly likely that Daesh will be driven online towards an unprecedented facilitator for global guerrilla terrorism: the internet.  They are likely to use their ‘Online Caliphate’ to shift conventional conflict into coordinating increased attacks globally through the internet.

This blog outlines a brief history of Daesh’s use of the internet, as well as the dilemmas tackling it present.

Gang tactics and paedophilic grooming with Hollywood production.

Recruitment over the internet remains a key aim for Daesh, yet the emphasis appears to be changing (Blaker, 2015).  High-production value, Hollywood-style, propaganda videos glamorise the brutal ideology they espouse (Blaker, 2015).  Shared on Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram messenger, exploiting hashtags and trends, they target vulnerable and disillusioned Muslim youths (Blaker, 2015; Moreng, 2016).

Violence is a key leitmotiv, yet they often offer more positive images of life in the Caliphate – the opening of schools, for example (Blaker, 2015).  They create a sense of identity, offering youths a sense of belonging, promoting camaraderie, moral purpose, heroism, and the making of friends (Blaker, 2015).  The videos are designed to create a sense of awe and collective purpose for alienated individuals.

Sometimes agents directly contact vulnerable youths to persuade them to join the cause.  Lisa Blaker uses two useful analogies to understand this type of radicalisation.  For men, she argues the tactics used and the appeal of the cause is similar to that of urban gangs.  For women, she draws comparisons with Paedophile gangs that groom teenage girls, gaining their trust, and persuading them to leave their parents (Blaker, 2015).

Daesh’s cause has gradually changed, however.  At their zenith, they aimed to persuade people to join the fighting in the Middle East (Moreng, 2016), yet, since their various military setbacks, it aims more to recruit fighters to take up arms in their respective countries.

What this might lead us to ask: is what can be done to produce an environment where individuals feel they have a stake in their own and community’s future?

*This is a key question I’d like to tackle in a later blog about youth engagement (in the meantime though check out some of the many blog posts by my good friend Joe Stockley).

 

Propaganda to coordination.

Daesh have shifted emphasis away from marketing the Caliphate, to coordinating an offensive campaign across the globe.

The Amn Al-Kharji wing of Daesh’s are virtual planners that coordinate attacks (Moreng, 2016).  Abu Suleyman Al-Firansi, director of Daesh’s external operations, coordinates Daesh’s bloodiest attacks on the West, through the internet, from Syria (Moreng, 2016).  This group increasingly discourage travel to Syria, arguing that people can make a greater impact in their respective countries, with Daesh’s planner Rachid Kassim declared ‘Tear up your tickets for Turkey, paradise is at your feat.’ (Moreng, 2016)

Radicalised individuals are often isolated and inexperienced in committing an attack.  How Amn Al-Kharji overcome this is twofold:

First, through the internet, they share how-to guides to inspire and instruct (Moreng, 2016).  Two women were arrested near Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris after having followed a guide recommending them to ‘fill a vehicle with gas bottles’ and set it alight (Moreng, 2016).

Second, they directly coordinate attacks.  It is believed they coordinated the meeting of the St-Etienne attackers two days previously (Moreng, 2016).  Although there is increased monitoring of Facebook and Twitter, encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp are the preferred medium for coordination.  With increasingly bleak prospects on the battlefield, it is reasonable to assume that attacks coordinated online will be the preferred norm.

 

Satellite dependency: Europe’s dirty secret.

Daesh depends largely on satellite technology to spread their message and coordinate attacks across the internet (Kwasniewski, 2015).  Conventional wireless internet only exists to a limited degree.  Spreading the internet, particularly in Syria, was seen as a vital means to engage Syrians in the struggle against the Assad regime, or, in Iraq, in support of the central democratic government (Kwasniewski, 2015).  The pre-existing infrastructure has been limitedly exploited by Daesh: Emirs – Daesh’s local leaders – determine who has access to the internet and for what purpose (Kwasniewski, 2015).  The most unconnected parts of the world where Daesh are fighting can now be connected (Kwasniewski, 2015).  With lacking telecommunications, however, it remains woefully unconnected.  Hence, there is a massive demand for Satellite technology inside Syria.

A dwindling satellite market inside the EU has resulted in satellite companies such as Eutelstat, Avanti Communications, and SES expanding distribution into the more profitable Turkish markets (Kwasniewski, 2015).  In 2015 there were 11,000 registered satellite users, an increase of 500 from the previous year, yet between 2013 and 2014 Neustadt-based Sat Internet Services flooded around 6,000 dishes into Turkey (Kwasniewski, 2015).  Where has the surplus of 5,500 dishes gone?  GPS data showing Satellite usage in areas such as Raqqa, Al-Bab, Mosul, and Aleppo, suggest that this surplus does not stay in Turkey, but are bought by Daesh in Antakya on the Turkish-Syrian border.  Daesh, then, dominate the pre-existing internet infrastructure but also seek to expand internet usage further by buying satellites provided by European companies from across the border in Turkey.

Satellite technology is expensive, but, due to the wealth wrought by capturing the oil fields in Northern Syria and Iraq, Daesh are often considered the ‘World’s richest terror group’ (Charles, 2014).  This, however, is not Daesh’s online source of revenue.  Cryptocurrencies are likely a key means for sponsors to discretely fund Daesh’s campaign.  Governments block Daesh’ financial transactions, with private donors likely deterred by the traceability of transactions. Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are a means around this (Charles, 2014).

Bitcoin is legal currency but untraceable.  A Bitcoin Wallet refers to how Bitcoins are stored and their transactions recorded, with Daesh likely favouring a ‘Dark Wallet’ which has greater privacy, often used by criminal organisations to money launder, pay for child pornography, and sell weapons (Charles, 2014).  Daesh have requested Cryptocurrency payments in propaganda videos, making it entirely likely that they receive a large proportion of funding via the internet (Charles, 2014).  Daesh occupied countries, however, don’t have the capability to convert Bitcoins to conventional, physical, currency.  Yet, like with the Satellite technology, it is plausible that they do so in nearby countries with such capabilities like Turkey or Dubai (Charles, 2014).

 

Dilemmas of the internet.

The problem of Bitcoin is symptomatic of the wider question faced on the internet.  It is not controlled legally by any country, and indeed, where criminal activity takes place in one country that affects another, whose jurisdiction this falls under isn’t clear cut.  This is just one problem with the argument for greater surveillance to stop Daesh.

Another is the extent to which we are willing to sacrifice our online freedom to be able to stop the terrorist threat.  Are we willing for people to search through our internet history – our fears, hopes, insecurities, along with the everyday banalities – as well as online conversations, to try to stop terrorist attacks?  This question was asked to us, a class of International Relations masters students, and the group was split exactly 50/50 for and against.

Some argue for censorship, yet I believe this is a slippery slope that sets a dangerous precedent.  The material that I viewed several months ago to write the essay that this has been adapted from is horrific in places, and shouldn’t have to be seen by anyone.  By censoring, however, it sets a slippery slope of a government dictating what is right and wrong, which in some countries is a slippery slope towards a type of dictatorship that makes Orwell’s 1984 look like a farcical underestimation.

A solution to this might be more effective counter-propaganda.  The current form can often prove divisive, perpetuating a broad ‘Us v Them’ dichotomy, but the benefits of effective counter-terrorism are well documented.  If counter-propaganda, as has been suggested by P2P, uses effective marketing techniques to emphasise Daesh’s hypocrisy, atrocities, and the true stories behind the violence, to potential and existing combatants, this is likely to be highly successful.

 

Terrorism feeds off terror.

Terrorism is an effective form of political bargaining because it feeds off the pressure governments are put under by its terrorised population.  In this case, the internet is a tinder matchbox continually ignited by an insignificant terrorist spark.

How to create fear?  You are more likely to be killed by your television, a cow, or an elevators (as well as many other inordinate objects) than a terrorist attack.  If the news reported every instance someone was killed by a Cow, our view of them would inevitably be skewed.

The vast majority of people get their news from the internet, and a terror attack gives an organisation the necessary coverage to spread fear. This creates the perfect ecosystem in which Daesh can breed fear, and hence wield political leverage.  By allowing them to do so, we let them win.  What we can do is to understand that while these attacks are tragic on an individual scale, they are relatively insignificant, and we cannot allow them to affect us.  Daesh’s use of the internet is unprecedented, and it is likely, like a dying animal’s last kick, that it will use it increasingly to coordinate attacks.

Donald Trump’s heavy-handed reaction to the most recent New York attack cows to the fear that terrorists seek to create.  With the internet, as with anything else, we cannot allow terrorism to affect how we behave, how we view a religion, and ultimately, who we are.

 

  • George Penn
  • Twitter handle: Gtcpenn67

 

This is an adaptation of a short essay written for my ‘Digital Technology and Global Politics’ master’s module at Cardiff University.  Invaluable feedback was provided by Dr Madeline Carr who ran the module with Dr Andrea Calderaro.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank both for leading such a fantastic module.

 

Bibliography

Blaker, L., 2015. The Islamic State’s Use of Online Social Media. The Journal of the Military Cyber Professionals Association, 1(1), pp. 1-9.

Callimachi, R., 2016. How a Secretive Branch of ISIS Built a Global Network of Killers. The New York Times, 3 August.

Charles, B., 2014. ISIS. Are they Using Bitcoins to Fund Criminal Activities?. [Online]
Available at: https://securityintelligence.com/isis-are-they-using-bitcoins-to-fund-criminal-activities/
[Accessed 27 February 2016].

Hoffman, B., 2006. The Use of the Internet By Islamic Extremistss. Rand Corporation , 4 May.

Kwasniewski, N., 2015. European Satellites: How Islamic State Takes Its Terror To the Web. SPIEGEL online, 4 December.

Moreng, B., 2016. ISIS’ Virtual Puppeteers: How They Recruit and Train ‘Lone Wolves’. Foreign Affairs, 1 March, p. Web.

 

 

 

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