Digital Counterinsurgency

How to Marginalize the Islamic State Online

Fangirls: two women charged with plotting ISIS-inspired attacks in New York, April, 2015. JANE ROSENBERG / AP PHOTO

The Islamic State, or ISIS, is the first terrorist group to hold both physical and digital territory: in addition to the swaths of land it controls in Iraq and Syria, it dominates pockets of the Internet with relative impunity. But it will hardly be the last. Although there are still some fringe terrorist groups in the western Sahel or other rural areas that do not supplement their violence digitally, it is only a matter of time before they also go online. In fact, the next prominent terrorist organization will be more likely to have extensive digital operations than control physical ground.

Although the military battle against ISIS is undeniably a top priority, the importance of the digital front should not be underestimated. The group has relied extensively on the Internet to market its poisonous ideology and recruit would-be terrorists. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, the territory controlled by ISIS now ranks as the place with the highest number of foreign fighters since Afghanistan in the 1980s, with recent estimates putting the total number of foreign recruits at around 20,000, nearly 4,000 of whom hail from Western countries. Many of these recruits made initial contact with ISIS and its ideology via the Internet. Other followers, meanwhile, are inspired by the group’s online propaganda to carry out terrorist attacks without traveling to the Middle East. 

ISIS also relies on the digital sphere to wage psychological warfare, which directly contributes to its physical success. For example, before the group captured the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, it rolled out an extensive online campaign with text, images, and videos that threatened the city’s residents with unparalleled death and destruction. Such intimidation makes it easier to bring populations under ISIS' control and reduces the likelihood of a local revolt.

Foiling ISIS' efforts on the Internet will thus make the group less successful on the battlefield. To date, however, most digital efforts against ISIS have been too limited,

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