Gaining momentum

IS Cyber Caliphate

In a dramatic publicity stunt in January 2015, the Twitter and YouTube accounts of the US Central Military Command (CENTCOM) were hacked by a group that claimed to represent the Islamic State. To humiliate the users, the hackers scrawled “I love you ISIS” across the pages – the digital equivalent of graffiti. Though no sensitive information was lost, the attack was an embarrassment for CENTCOM and the Pentagon.

The Islamic State (IS, ISIS or Daesh), a group with an ultra-radical, virulent ideology and immense faith in medieval barbarity, had launched a triumphant march across Iraq and Syria only a few years ago. In a frenzy of bloodshed and destruction, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s vicious storm troopers ‘liberated’ Faluja, Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq and Bosra, Yarmouk and Palmyra in Syria in quick succession in 2014-15.

At the zenith of its power, the IS militia numbered 20,000-30,000, ruled over approximately 10 million people and controlled almost 95,000 sq km of Sunni territory straddling the border between Iraq and Syria. And, it was inching forward in the Kurdish areas on Iraq’s border with Turkey.

In recent battles in Mosul and Aleppo, IS has suffered severe losses at the hands of the Iraqi army and the multinational coalition supporting it. Though it has retreated geographically, its cyber counterpart is becoming stronger by the day. As more and more people go online and acquire digital identities, the virtual soldiers of the Cyber Caliphate are waiting for them — waiting to bombard them with their propaganda, waiting to gain their sympathy, waiting to recruit them for the cause, waiting to defraud non-sympathisers financially and waiting to exploit them through blackmail.

Whether one lives in Hyderabad, Lahore, London, Paris or New York, if s/he owes allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Caliph, and has a laptop with a broadband connection, s/he can be in business as a virtual warrior of the Caliphate. The Cyber Caliphate has no boundaries; it cannot be pushed back by physical means. Each laptop warrior can spend time propagating the IS ideology, recruiting soldiers to fight for the cause, act as a conduit to convey orders, raise funds locally, collect donations and coordinate logistics.

Cyberspace provides a level playing field to all adversaries in this mega media age. Nation states, extremist organisations and well-trained individuals have equal access to emerging cyberwar technologies as these are mainly driven by software. The IS has trained hundreds of well-educated followers to skillfully exploit the social media to radicalise, indoctrinate and recruit new warriors. Leading intelligence agencies readily acknowledge their capacity to exploit the internet and manipulate the social media for their nefarious purposes.

Cybercrime will be the next step as there is a deep nexus between terrorist networks and criminal gangs. Another dangerous development with long-term repercussions is the use of hacking techniques to their advantages. “ISIS has been recruiting hackers for some time now. Some are virtual collaborators from a distance, but others have been recruited to emigrate to Syria,” writes J M Berger, co-author of Isis: The State of Terror. “Activity targeting the west is just part of their portfolio. They’re also responsible for maintaining internet access in ISIS territories, for instance, and for instructing members on security.”

The attack on the Twitter and You­Tube pages of CENTCOM did not result in the loss of any classified information; nor did it damage any command and control networks. Perhaps, the aim was limited to garnering some publicity. However, it sent a clear message of the capacity and the intent of IS: we have the capability and we are coming for you.

Hundreds of computer savvy young people, some of them qualified engineers, have been enticed to come on board by the sophisticated indoctrination techniques employed by IS. After a few quick tutorials on handling the social media, the newly inducted collaborators begin to contribute to the propaganda machinery, often in their spare time.

Playing with sentiments

The vulnerable sections of the Muslim population are especially targeted by playing with their sentiments. They are told that Islam is in danger and that the Muslims are being exploited. It is impressed on the prospective candidates that it is a sacred duty to take revenge, to wage a global jihad.

The concept of a grand Caliphate governed by Sharia law is explained to them. They are promised a better life ahead. The more gullible ones among the youth fall prey to the machinations and sign up to travel to Iraq-Syria to join the IS. Many others, who are motivated, pledge their allegiance to the Caliph and agree to contribute to the cause from their homes. And, the Cyber Caliphate continues to grow.


Gabriella Blum, author of The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones, asks, “Why haven’t we seen more or worse? Is it a matter of lack of capability, a lack of motivation, or just constricted imagination? Probably a combination of the three. But at least the first factor — capability and access to materials and knowhow — is growing rapidly. This is bound to affect the incidence and magnitude of attacks that will utilise new technologies.”

India has not been grievously affected by the lure of IS, but there is no room for complacence. The long-term threat posed by the Cyber Caliphate must be taken very seriously. However, an ideology cannot be defeated by kinetic means and the fightback will be challenging and complex.

It must be countered by formulating an elaborate national-level counter-radicalisation plan and a detailed perception management strategy. The jihadi way of life must be effectively delegitimised through information operations.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi)