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Image: picture alliance/ZUMA Press/Medyan Dairieh

Cyber strategies against terror

Kyle Matthews and May White-Vilmouth, Montreal
May 28, 2015

"Islamic State" is not only a threat on the battlefield, but also on the Internet, writes Kyle Matthews from the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies.


The infamous "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS or IS) has proven its success both on the battlefield, with its recent capture of the city of Ramadi in Iraq, and in cyberspace, due to its mastery of social media and modern digital technology.

Not only has the group made public the horrific footage of the mass executions carried out by its jihadist fighters, it has turned the Internet into a “digital battleground” where it posts propaganda to indoctrinate individuals, promote hatred, recruit new foot soldiers, fundraise and plan mass casualty attacks.

The world's most well-known coalition of religious fanatics is using digital technology in many innovative ways. Take, for example, how it created an Android Phone App “the Dawn of Glad Tidings”, which builds up a user database that churns out flash news items and horrific imagery. ISIS also produces online guidebooks like the ‘Hijrah' (Holy Emigration) providing tips to people on how to get into Syria undetected. Last but not least, it controls an estimated 46,000 active Twitter accounts. It appears that online jihadists are always one step ahead of governments in cyberspace, using alternate platforms that western intelligence agencies have trouble monitoring, such as the Russian version of Facebook, known as VKontakte.

Newly formed non-governmental groups and private citizens, upset at the slow response of national governments in countering "IS" and other jihadists groups online, have taken the issue into their own hands. This has turned into what one could call a “cyber-war”, in which “hacktivists” have launched “online coups” against "IS" cyber presence. Among these is “Anonymous”, a group of loosely connected worldwide hackers, which in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks launched a campaign entitled “OpIceISIS”, aiming at “destroying ISIS through ideological means rather than physical actions”. So far, Anonymous has identified 9,200 "IS" affiliated Twitter accounts and taken down numerous websites.

Kyle Matthews The Will to Intervene Projekt
Kyle Matthews: 'Jihadists are one step ahead of governments in cyberspace'Image: privat

A group of former U.S. government officials and scholars have unified to launch an organized campaign to mount a belated online response to religious extremists. The Counter-Extremism Project has recently put pressure on Twitter and its CEO Jack Dorsey, urging the social media giant to make its platform a hostile place for terrorists and launched an online petition to bring public attention to how the world's most popular micro-blogging site is being used as a weapon of war.

The formation of these groups is illustrative of an increasingly shared global concern regarding "IS", its gains on the “digital battleground” and its growing number of supporters. From a policy perspective, it painfully underlines how governments have failed to devise a cyber-strategy to confront transnational terrorist groups.

The underlying question is where do we go from here? It is abundantly clear that governments have a responsibility to support individuals and organizations who are eager to put in place projects and establish a truly global counter-movement to challenge "Islamic State's" digital dominance.

A possible first step in achieving this could be the generating of a strong counter-narrative, built of Muslim voices. Notably of respected religious leaders, relatives suffering from a lost family member, and those who left "IS", disillusioned by the group's barbarity. This would shine the light on the reality of everyday life under the “caliphate” and work on preventing the recruitment of future young men and women by shattering the romanticized image I"S" has built for itself. Perhaps this could be one of the most meaningful policy responses to supporting terrorism prevention and de-radicalization efforts.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali Muslim-born women's rights activist recently argued: “Instead of censorship, let's challenge the ideas of the extremists.” She explained that “the failure [...] is in presenting an alternate narrative for the would-be extremist's passions: The message that should be promoted is liberalism's promise of individual freedom and self-determination.”

Policy-makers of the world, take note.

Kyle Matthews is the Senior Deputy Director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) and will presenting his research at Deutsche Welle's upcoming Global Media Forum . May White-Vilmouth is a student at McGill University and a Research Fellow at MIGS.

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