Could an Islamic State ‘virtual caliphate’ be defeated?
Islamic State may soon be defeated in Iraq and Syria but a “virtual caliphate” could be harder to conquer, experts and officials have warned.
The extremist propaganda machine will continue to exist in hidden corners of the dark web, inciting sympathisers to action, they say.
“Defeating [IS] on the physical battlefield is not enough,” General Joseph Votel, the top commander for US military forces in the Middle East, warned in a paper earlier this year.
“Following even a decisive defeat in Iraq and Syria, [IS] will probably retreat to a virtual safe haven – a virtual caliphate – from which it will continue to coordinate and inspire external attacks as well as build a support base until the group has the capability to reclaim physical territory,” said Votel.
He described this online network as “a distorted version of the historic Islamic caliphate: it is a stratified community of Muslims who are led by a caliph (currently Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), aspire to participate in a state governed by sharia, and are located in the global territory of cyberspace.”
Islamic State’s loss of almost all its territory in Iraq and in Syria has damaged its online communication efforts, following a boom in propaganda operations in 2014-2015.
But it has not put an end to it.
The IS “news agency” and propaganda machine Amaq continues to claim responsibility for attacks and incite further violence.
Most recently, it claimed that Stephen Paddock, the gunman who massacred 58 people in Las Vegas on Sunday, was an IS “soldier” – an assertion met with widespread scepticism.
One theory is that IS is seeking to keep up publicity efforts to maintain relevance with its sympathisers and continue to recruit support, even as it faces military defeat on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
Researcher Charlie Winter, who wrote a report on IS’s web presence for British think tank Quilliam, says the group will work to persuade followers that the idea of a caliphate is more important that its physical presence.
Winter insists “censoring the internet is not going to work”.
“Policymakers are focusing their attention on the wrong part of the internet, and that’s problematic given that it’s going to be a phenomenon to be dealt with in the next few years,” he said. “Terrorists are now hiding in the deep web using encryption ... There will always be a safe place for them on the internet regardless of what politicians like to say.”