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Marketing to Extremists: Waging War in Cyberspace

This article was originally published by the Small Wars Journal on 9 July 2017.

Online, the Islamic State is a technologically savvy, sophisticated, and nimble organization that learns from its mistakes and from the actions of the Western intelligence services and NGOs that have sought to counter it. It is no secret that past and current efforts to reach potential terrorists before they can become radicalized and committed to a path of jihad and terrorism have proved inadequate. To use the language of online marketers, countering ISIS’s online activities will require quality content disseminated on a massive scale, with careful product placement. Placing counter-messaging products into platforms and forums that extremists frequent will increase the chances of potential terrorist recruits coming into contact with narratives outside of ISIS’ control.

ISIS’s cyber efforts have paid off; the FBI told Congress in July 2016 that “the message of radicalization spreads faster than we imagined just a few years ago.”[i] The number of foreigners who have been inspired by the Islamic State’s online propaganda to travel to Syria and Iraq (or elsewhere) and participate in the fighting is unclear, but most estimates place the tally at more than 20,000. Others have been set on the path of radicalization by ISIS’s online propaganda and have become “lone wolf” attackers in the United States or in Europe.[ii] Demographically speaking, the people who ISIS is most interested in targeting for recruitment came of age in the twenty-first century as “digital natives”; they have lived their entire lives surrounded by ubiquitous online communications and have embraced it in technologically sophisticated ways.[iii] ISIS knows how to appeal to these potential jihadis. Reaching them with counter-messages will require a sophisticated and multi-faceted approach.

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ISIS’s Global Campaign Remains Intact

Image courtesy of Surian Soosay/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published by the Institute for the Study War on 12 July 2017.

ISIS’s first attack in Iran punctuated two stark realities: the group’s annual Ramadan campaign is alive while the US-led anti-ISIS campaign is on a path to failure. ISIS surges attacks every year during Ramadan in order to gain or increase momentum in its global campaign to maintain its declared caliphate, expand across the Muslim world, and win an apocalyptic war with the West. ISIS has conducted successful attacks in three new countries this year – the United Kingdom, the Philippines, and Iran – and will likely pull off more before the Muslim holy month is over. The jihadist group has sustained a global insurgency despite the considerable military pressure it faces in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS has been waging its global campaign in four separate “rings” since 2014. First, ISIS is defending and attempting to remain in and expand its territorial control in its “core terrain” in Syria and Iraq. Second, ISIS seeks to weaken the Middle East’s power centers of Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Third, ISIS is expanding in other Muslim majority countries through attack networks and, when possible, ground operations. Fourth, ISIS is conducting spectacular attacks in the non-Muslim majority world, or the “far abroad,” in order to polarize those communities and radicalize their minority Muslim populations. ISIS’s Ramadan surges set conditions in these rings, varying its main effort based on its circumstances and the capabilities in Iraq and Syria and of its networks abroad.

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The Islamic State’s Internal Rifts and Social Media Ban

Image courtesy of wiredforlego/Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This article was originally published by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) on 21 June 2017.

An important part of the Islamic State’s meteoric rise to power in Syria and Iraq was due at least in part to its creative use of social media tools to distribute propaganda and recruit new members. The group’s well-documented social media skills have attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters to join the fight. As documented by the CTC weeks before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi established the caliphate in Mosul, the Islamic State propaganda machine also served a critical role in psychological operations during the group’s blitzkrieg advance into northwestern Iraq in June of 2014.

It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the group has issued an official ban on social media for all of its soldiers. In a document (see below) produced by the Islamic State’s Delegated Committee a few weeks ago and disseminated via Islamic State distribution channels more recently, the group’s order to all of its soldiers stated: “effective from the date of this notification, using social networking sites is entirely and completely forbidden. Whoever violates this exposes himself to questioning and accountability.” The order was published by the group in both Arabic and English.

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ISIS’s Global Attack Network: November 13, 2015 – November 9, 2016

Corpse Fortress

Courtesy Metal Chris/Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

This article was originally published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on 9 November 2016.

ISIS has organized a number of external attacks worldwide in the past year, some of which have been thwarted. ISIS’s global network is still operating and is poised to continue conducting external attacks in late 2016. The U.S. must recognize that the campaign to recapture Mosul and Raqqa will not defeat ISIS. Rather, any military success in Iraq and Syria must be the first phase of a campaign to counter ISIS globally, whether through military or non-military means.

Overview

ISIS has been planning an external attack from Raqqa, Syria. The U.S. and its partners in the counter-ISIS coalition are assisting the major operations to recover Raqqa and Mosul, ISIS’s main urban hubs. ISIS is conducting  counter-offensives inside Iraq to divert Coalition attention from these main efforts. Similarly, ISIS will direct its global network to launch additional counter-offensives across its global footprint. Coalition partner nations face a high risk of attacks by ISIS on their homelands and their populations abroad while the offensives to recapture Mosul and Raqqa progress. The attack threat emanating from Raqqa highlights that ISIS-linked militants across the world still receive direction from ISIS in core terrain.

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The Polarizing Effect of Islamic State Aggression on the Global Jihadist Movement

Torn billboard

Courtesy wwwuppertal/Flickr

This article was originally published by the Combating Terrorism Center on 27 July 2016.

The Islamic State will struggle to hold onto the governments it builds and the territory it captures outside of Syria and Iraq because it antagonizes local jihadist competitors and powerful non-Muslim states. The Islamic State could soften its antagonism toward these entities for the sake of expediency, but then it would no longer be able to recruit followers as the uncompromising champion of the global jihadist ideal.

Since it announced its caliphate in the summer of 2014, the Islamic State has taken on 17 affiliates or “governorates” that operate in 12 countries outside of Syria and Iraq. Many of the governorates were preexisting jihadist groups or factions that joined the Islamic State because they identified with its antagonism toward local jihadist competitors and its unyielding animosity toward non-Muslim nations. Yet this hostility subsequently limits the group’s ability to build governments or take territory beyond the confines of Syria and Iraq. In most countries where the Islamic State has planted its flag, its aggression prompted powerful local jihadist rivals[a] or international foes to check its advances. The Islamic State could soften its antagonism to one or the other for the sake of convenience, but this would compromise its recruiting ability and tarnish its reputation as the uncompromising champion of the global jihadist ideal.

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