The Islamic State and Virtual Jihad
Cyberspace is the ideal platform for terrorists because, unlike conventional warfare, barriers to entry into cyberspace are much lower—the price of entry is an Internet connection. The surreptitious use of the Internet to advance terrorist group objectives has created a new brand of Holy War – “Virtual Jihad” – which gains thousands of new adherents each day. For terrorist organizations, a clear benefit of cyberspace is its ability to readily radicalize individuals from a distance and at any time, utilizing the Internet and superior social media intelligence to gain attention and remain relevant globally.
Cyberspace offers potential jihadists the opportunity to receive instruction and training on topics ranging from data mining to psychological warfare. The use of the Dark Web and encryption programs allow terrorist groups to effectively communicate in secret. Although terrorist organizations have been adept at utilizing the Internet to spread propaganda and provide instructions for attacks, their ability to launch offensive attacks via computer networks had previously been limited. Cyberattacks attributed to terrorists have largely consisted of unsophisticated tactics such as e-mail bombings of ideological foes, DDoS attacks, or defacing of websites. Even when such attacks have been successfully deployed, the damage inflicted has been limited, largely because global intelligence agencies actively monitor their websites, conduct analyses to determine potential terrorist plots, and render some of the domains inaccessible to the public. That has now changed.
A Virtual Caliphate
Long after the current collection of terrorist groups have ceased to be a major threat from a physical perspective, they will remain omnipresent in cyberspace, promoting a virtual caliphate from their safe haven behind computer keyboards around the world. Islamic extremists are natural candidates to transition to the virtual world because it offers them automatic citizenship beyond the nation-state. Decades of violent conflict, border disputes, and shifting refugee populations have left millions of Muslims without a clear national identity – a virtual caliphate offers refuge, free from terrestrial constraints, which can be accessed from anywhere in the world.
Since the Islamic State (IS) was founded, its leaders have deftly and continually rewritten the narrative by which they could claim that the group’s desired caliphate exists, where it is located, and who its adherents are. Unconstrained by the absence of a definitive Quranic guideline for what constitutes a caliphate, the IS created its own self-promoting doctrine. The group expanded its caliphate narrative to include a wide range of options for participation: membership included everyone from the passive observer reading a blog or curiously following a Twitter feed, to the keyboard jihadist editing Rumiyah or hacking a website, to the real-world operators attacking a nightclub or running down holiday celebrants with a delivery truck. The IS has successfully exploited the sociopolitical environment and young adults’ obsession with technology to establish a growing community of devotees in the ungoverned territory of cyberspace, ensuring its ability to continue to coordinate and inspire violence well into the future.
This notion of a virtual caliphate clashes with traditional notions of statehood and governance, but it is not the first attempt that has been made to create a virtual state. In 2014, Estonia took the unprecedented step of offering any person in the world a chance to become an Estonian ‘e-resident’, in an attempt to create a ‘digital nation’ for global citizens by offering to provide government-issued digital identification to anyone in the world, and enable non-Estonians access to Estonian services such as company formation, banking, payment processing, and taxation. Doing so would allow Estonia to continue operating as a state even if its physical territory were ever seized. By harnessing the millions of people who form its social network, the IS expanded its community of e-citizens to promulgate its radical ideology and direct attacks across the globe well before the collapse of its physical caliphate.
The IS has also capitalized on the world’s evolving propensity to integrate online activities with real world activities. Social media has had an incredible multiplying effect on radical messaging, and the IS has had great success publishing online, which has resonated particularly well with disenfranchised Muslims and youths, inspiring some to act on inspiration and guidance received online. The IS has exploited their search for meaningful identity by promising to restore their dignity and might so that they may find personal fulfillment and purpose.
The virtual world is in some ways more compelling than the real world, because storylines can be artfully crafted to be maximally appealing, while omitting anything that may be perceived of as negative. A promise is much easier to make online, as is the vision of fulfilling aspirations. The IS has created virtual messaging that is wildly at odds with the reality of life as an IS fighter on the ground. Cyberspace has enabled the IS to turn tactical defeats on the battlefield into glorious martyrdom operations that highlight the bravery and commitment of its fighters. The loss of territory and the deaths of key leaders have served to feed propaganda efforts that are used to prove the resiliency of the caliphate.
In the face of the force-multiplying impact of the IS’s adaptive narrative, even concerted efforts by Muslim clerics have largely failed to undermine IS’s caliphate narrative. While the vast majority of the world’s estimated 1.6 billion Muslims are not IS supporters (perhaps just a fraction of one percent, although no one can say for certain), the group’s ability to engage virtually with large swaths of this population drives varying degrees of participation in the virtual caliphate, including non-supporters, passive observers, benign fans, “keyboard jihadists”, and real-world actors. This diverse range of participants helps to ensure that the notion of a virtual caliphate will endure long after the current crop of IS leaders are gone. The IS has found its own salvation via the Internet, particularly since it has already passed the peak of its real-world power.
*Daniel Wagner is the founder of Country Risk Solutions, managing director of Risk Cooperative, and author of the new book “Virtual Terror”. Giuseppe Del Vecchio is a research analyst with CRS.
Interview with Daniel Wagner
Why is it important for people to better understand the threat that cyber terrorism represents, and why should we be worried about it?
The nature of terrorism has changed. It is not longer simply a group wanting to promote its political objectives and blowing something up. Today, it is about stealing information, interfering in people’s lives, and creating a climate of fear. Terrorism is now also generated online, in a lawless world where there are no boundaries. That is why it is everyone’s problem, and why we should be worried about it.
You’re an expert in achieving global risk agility for businesses, do the same ideas ever apply to risk taking in everyday life?
Risk agility is all about anticipating risks – both seen and unseen – and crafting an approach to addressing risk in a proactive, deliberate, consistent, and sustainable manner. Such an approach translates into our personal lives, especially when you consider that such phenomena as climate change, cyber risk, and terrorism loom in the background and impact all of us, whether we realize it or not.
What is political risk insurance, and how can it make conducting business internationally less risky?
PRI is all about removing non-commercial risk from commercial transactions by transferring such risk to insurers. Examples includes the risks of expropriation, currency convertibility, political violence, and breach of contract. Most businesses do not realize that such insurance is available for trade, investment and lending transactions all over the world. Taking out PRI makes capital acquisition less costly and more readily available, as well as making the risks of doing business globally significantly lower.
What makes your keynote presentations unique?
With three decades of experience in the private and public sectors, I not only have a wealth of experience to share, but a lot of stories to tell. Audiences have told me they particularly enjoy those stories. My presentation style is relaxed and engaging, in no small part due to how interesting the topics I speak about are. Whether it is cyber risk, country risk, or achieving risk agility, I drive home their applicability in today’s world.
Do you have a favorite speaking engagement that stands out from your career?
I have traveled all over the world and made presentations in dozens of countries. The most noteworthy presentations have tended to be in some of the more exotic locations I have visited. Among the most interesting and memorable was when I spoke to a group of tribal chiefs in Papua New Guinea. I have had the great privilege of having met some fascinating people in my career, and I always enjoy presenting to unique groups of people in unusual places.