While ISIS loses territory, many experts argue that the group is building a “virtual caliphate” online. Counterterrorism is now a battle for hearts and minds, rather than a pure military faceoff.
Westminster attack – 4 killed, London, UK, 22 March 2017; Saint Petersburg Metro bombing – 14 killed, Saint Petersburg, Russia, 3 April 2017; Palm Sunday attack – 45 known dead, Alexandria and Tanta, Egypt, 9 April 2017. These dates and cities, and the acts that connect them by global terrorism, have become commonplace in the modern age.
ISIS’s ability to mobilize upwards of 30,000 foreign fighters to leave their home countries and join its ranks in Iraq and Syria from 2014-2016 is a fact that once stunned terrorism practitioners and academics studying the macabre group’s rise to power. Those statistics are now overshadowed by the group’s evolution into something of a virtual caliphate, permeating the underground channels of the deep web and preying on the vulnerable.
The nature of ISIS's growth and unprecedented influence calls into question whether the counterterrorism policy challenges of today lie at the heart of the global military coalition and the intelligence community, or the increased influence of the internet and the expanded power of public citizens, both as a collective and as individuals.
The answer is simple, but not easy: hard power tactics are indeed necessary, but counterterrorism is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds. Only a combined approach stands a chance to succeed.
The ability to understand and circumvent technological threats that come with the boundless deep web and the social media landscape are paramount to effectively combatting today's terrorism threat. Undermining and, ultimately, eradicating the extremist ideology that ISIS proliferates online remains a foremost challenge as "new terrorism" seeks to exploit both the security vulnerabilities of technology and media platforms, and the human insecurities created and exacerbated by social media through virtual global connectivity.
Exploitation of modern technology and new media strategies have afforded groups like ISIS avenues for effective indoctrination and recruitment. Research conducted by New America Foundation, a Washington DC-based think tank, cites a substantial increase in the percentage of extremists being radicalized online beginning in 2011 – corresponding with the so-called Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war – a trend that peaked in 2014, 2015 and continues into 2017.
President Obama’s vast expansion of the U.S. drone program will be one of his administration’s enduring legacies and considered by many to be his greatest cause for criticism. According to the New York Times and verified by three NGOs, President George W. Bush ordered approximately 50 drone strikes that killed 296 terrorists; whereas, by the start of his final year in office, President Obama had authorized 506 strikes, killing 3,040 suspected terrorists. President Trump is expected to expand the U.S. drone program even further, including plans to lessen limitations regulating drone strikes and the removal of language that requires "near certainty" of no civilian deaths.
Despite high profile ‘targeted kills’, culminating with the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki and Osama bin Laden, many experts consider the fight against terrorism “a war of ideas." Director of West Point’s Counterterrorism Center, Lt. Col. Bryan Price maintains, “This war of ideas cannot be won by bombing an ideology.” Osama Bin Laden’s death in 2011 and the forthcoming evolution of Al Qaeda in Iraq as the genesis of ISIS has proven that ideology is not easily defeated.
Just as terror is a tactic, targeted killing of purported combatants is also tactical. It offers no antidote to those who emerge in place of those killed or in the achievement of more strategic aims relative to terrorism. One former Pakistani diplomat and Chairman of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington described the drone program as a “massive failure of strategy”, claiming that “drones have simply become one more element of the violence in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, not a way to reduce violence at all.”
The chief criticisms against the current U.S. military strategy are cited as lack of transparency in governance regulations, unverified targets and casualties, and questions of intelligence. What often goes under-considered, at least in public discourse, are the ethical controversies of operations in undeclared war zones and the potentially severe backlash for and by civilians in communities where drones hover overhead, ready to strike at any moment. This inherent, persistent environment of fear creates undoubtable animosity toward the state, distrust of the United States and hopelessness for local citizens. Drone strikes are often used as part of the recruitment narrative by extremist organizations, and serve as instigators for radicalization and government disenfranchisement.
Today, ISIS’s hold on territory continues to weaken, including its loss of key cities such as Ramadi, Fallujah, Palmyra and Mosul; however, many experts argue that the literal disintegration of territory forces the group online and underground to a so-called “virtual caliphate” of sorts. Michael Weiss, author of ISIS, The Army of Terror, describes “ISIS 2.0” as being more about the people who are loosely connected by an ideology and a common goal, than about the territory that the group controls.
The current ISIS narrative has evolved from leaders calling for foreign fighters to join its ranks in Iraq and Syria, to its current directive at would-be recruits to stay within their home countries and fight "the infidels" with whatever means is at their disposal. This message is proliferated through ISIS’s sophisticated media arm via technology platforms that average citizens use daily. It is reinforced through the viral spread of Hollywood-style videos portraying authentic violence and video game-like user interface that are meant to radicalize and mobilize aspirants to violence.
Finally, there has been much speculation among academics as to the role of Samuel Huntington’s "clash of civilizations" theory in the growing tensions between East and West – tensions most easily recognizable in the paradoxes between terrorism and democracy. One theory that has been under-considered in the current geopolitical climate is that of inter-civilizational conflict. This conflict is represented in the current return to nationalism, conservatism, even white supremacy, within many Western countries and suggests that this discord between hyper-nationalism and liberalism in the face of a foe like terrorism will eventually undermine liberal democracy as we know it today.
Divisive rhetoric and ideas have proven themselves victors in two preeminent Western government elections already: the UK’s decision to depart from the EU, and in the persistent political tensions between liberal democratic elites and blue collar conservatives in the U.S., with the latter turning out in unprecedented numbers from America's heartland to elect Donald Trump. The unorthodox rhetoric and controversies on display during these two highly publicized elections exemplify the role of technology and the shifting power of citizens in the current geopolitical climate, along with East-West tensions, and most importantly, intra-state tensions in the West.
It is important to note, however, that in a world in which the citizen is simultaneously empowered with a voice and influenced in unprecedented ways by technology and media, policymakers should reconsider the approach to counterterrorism and the weight given to traditional versus alternative policy options, which place greater importance on winning the hearts and minds of citizens and promoting inclusive state culture.
Christy Grace Provines is a Co-Founder of The 'MPOWER Project, an NGO dedicated to combatting violent extremism through messaging and media, and also serves as the Director of External and Government Relations for The Foundation for Post Conflict Development.