Nour Fourat / Reuters A pro-ISIS billboard in eastern Raqqa, Syria, October 2014.

Winning the Cyberwar Against ISIS

Why the West Should Rethink Its Strategy

Despite the efforts of the United States and its allies to fight the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), the group remains a formidable danger. It holds territory in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, and Syria and directs cells in Bangladesh, Egypt, France, the North Caucasus, and Yemen. ISIS operatives have conducted terrorist attacks in Europe—including one in November 2015 in Paris that killed 130 people—and lone wolves inspired by its propaganda have committed violence throughout the West.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, like that of former President Barack Obama, has publicly committed itself to defeating ISIS using conventional military means. This approach has its benefits, but it ignores a significant part of the threat posed by ISIS. The group is strong not only on the battlefield but also in cyberspace, where it uses sophisticated techniques to communicate with sympathizers, spread propaganda, and recruit new members all around the world. As one ISIS defector told The Washington Post in 2015, “The media people are more important than the soldiers.”

Yet U.S. efforts to monitor ISIS’ use of social media—and counter its online propaganda—have thus far been tentative, hesitant, and amateurish. Responsibility for countermessaging has shifted among various organizations, including the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications and the military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) WebOps team. But these entities do not appear to share lessons learned or even operate with a cohesive strategy. To defeat ISIS in cyberspace, an entirely new strategic approach is needed: one that emphasizes close coordination, flexibility, and adaptability. To defeat ISIS in cyberspace, an entirely new strategic approach is needed: one that emphasizes close coordination, flexibility, and adaptability.

TERRORISM AS THEATER

In his seminal 1974 article “International Terrorism: A New Kind of Warfare,” Brian Jenkins, an analyst at the RAND corporation, noted that “terrorism is theater.” Terrorist attacks, according to Jenkins, are not mindless but instead “are often carefully choreographed to attract the attention of the electronic media and the international press.”

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