IS May Sustain Virtual Caliphate After Battlefield Losses, Experts Say

With the Islamic State group almost defeated on the ground in Iraq and Syria and its territorial hold dramatically reduced, the terror group and its sympathizers continue to demonstrate their ability to weaponize the internet in an effort to radicalize, recruit and inspire acts of terrorism in the region and around the world.

Experts charge that the terror group’s ability to produce and distribute new propaganda has been significantly diminished, particularly after it recently lost the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, its self-proclaimed capital and media headquarters.

But they warn that the circulation of its old media content and easy access to it on social media platforms indicates that the virtual caliphate will live on in cyberspace for some time, even as IS’s physical control ends.

“Right now we have such a huge problem on the surface web — and [it’s] really easy to access literally tens of thousands of videos that are fed to you, one after the other, [and] that are leading to radicalization,” Hany Farid, a computer science professor at Dartmouth College and adviser for the group Counter Extremism Project (CEP) in Washington, said Monday.

Little headway

Speaking at a panel discussion about the rights and responsibilities of social media platforms in an age of global extremism at the Washington-based Newseum, Farid said the social media giants Facebook, Google and Twitter have tried to get radical Islamist content off the internet, but significant, game-changing results have yet to be seen.

Farid said social media companies are facing increasing pressure from governments and counterterrorism advocates to remove content that fuels extremism.

Earlier this year, Facebook announced it had developed new artificial intelligence programs to identify extremist posts and had hired thousands of people to monitor content that could be suspected of inciting violence.

Twitter also reported that it had suspended nearly 300,000 terrorism-related accounts in the first half of the year.

YouTube on Monday said Alphabet’s Google in recent months had expanded its crackdown on extremism-related content. The new policy, Reuters reported, will affect videos that feature people and groups that have been designated as terrorists by the U.S. or British governments.

The New York Times reported that the new policy has led YouTube to remove hundreds of videos of the slain jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki lecturing on the history of Islam, recorded long before he joined al-Qaida and encouraged violence against the U.S.

The World Economic Forum’s human rights council issued a report last month, warning tech companies that they might risk tougher regulations by governments to limit freedom of speech if they do not stem the publishing of violent content by Islamic State and the spread of misinformation.

IS digital propaganda has reportedly motivated more than 30,000 people to journey thousands of miles to join IS, according to a report published by Wired, a magazine published in print and online editions that focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy and politics.

An ongoing struggle

Experts say measures to restrict cyberspace for terrorist activities could prove helpful, but they warn it cannot completely prevent terror groups from spreading their propaganda online and that it will be a struggle for some time.

According to Fran Townsend, the former U.S. homeland security adviser, terrorist groups are constantly evolving on the internet as the new security measures force them onto platforms that are harder to track, such as encrypted services like WhatsApp and Telegram and file-sharing platforms like Google Drive.

She said last month’s New York City attacker, Sayfullo Saipov, used Telegram to evade U.S counterterrorism authorities.

“This guy was on Telegram in ISIS chat rooms. He went looking for them, he was able to find them, and he was able to communicate on an encrypted app that evaded law enforcement,” Townsend said during Monday’s panel on extremism at the Newseum.

U.S. officials said Saipov viewed 90 IS propaganda videos online, and more than 4,000 extremism related images were found on his cellphones, including instructions on how to carry out vehicular attacks.

As the crackdown increases on online jihadi propaganda, experts warn the desperate terror groups and their lone wolf online activists and sympathizers could aggressively retaliate.

Last week, about 800 school websites across the United States were attacked by pro-IS hackers. The hack, which lasted for two hours, redirected visitors to IS propaganda video and images of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Similar attacks were also reported in Europe, including last week’s hacking of MiX Megapil, a private radio station in Sweden where a pro-IS song was played for about 30 minutes.

A global response

Experts maintain that to counter online extremism and terrorism, there is a need for a coordinated international response as social media platforms continue to cross national borders and jurisdictions.

Last month, Facebook, Twitter, Google and the Group of Seven advanced economies joined forces against jihadi online propaganda and vowed to remove the content from the web within two hours of its being uploaded.

“Our European colleagues — little late to this game, by the way — have come into it in a big way,” Townsend said.

She said the U.S-led West had given more attention to physical warfare against IS at the expense of the war in cyberspace.

“We have been very proficient in fighting this in physical space. … But we were late in the game viewing the internet,” she said.

Townsend added that the complexity of the problem requires action even at the local level.

“The general public can be a force multiplier,” she said, adding, “As you’re scrolling through your feed and you see something … it literally takes 50 seconds for you to hit a button and tell Twitter, ‘This should not be here and it’s not appropriate content.’ And it will make a difference.”

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