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The Islamic State: From Physical Caliphate to Virtual Jihad

Cyberspace is the ideal platform for terrorists because, unlike conventional warfare, barriers to entry into cyberspace are much lower—the price of entry is an Internet connection. The surreptitious use of the Internet to advance terrorist group objectives has created a new brand of Holy War – “Virtual Jihad” – which gains thousands of new adherents each day. Long after the current collection of terrorist groups have ceased to be a major threat from a physical perspective, they will remain omnipresent in cyberspace, promoting a virtual caliphate from their safe haven behind computer keyboards around the world. Islamic extremists are natural candidates to transition to the virtual world because it offers them automatic citizenship beyond the nation-state.

Since the Islamic State (IS) was founded, its leaders have deftly and continually rewritten the narrative by which they could claim that the group’s desired caliphate exists, where it is located, and who its adherents are. Unconstrained by the absence of a definitive Quranic guideline for what constitutes a caliphate, the IS created its own self-promoting doctrine. The group expanded its caliphate narrative to include a wide range of options for participation: membership included everyone from the passive observer reading a blog or curiously following a Twitter feed, to the keyboard jihadist editing Rumiyah or hacking a website, to the real-world operators attacking a nightclub or running down holiday celebrants with a delivery truck. The IS has successfully exploited the sociopolitical environment and young adults’ obsession with technology to establish a growing community of devotees in the ungoverned territory of cyberspace, ensuring its ability to continue to coordinate and inspire violence well into the future.

The IS has also capitalized on the world’s evolving propensity to integrate online activities with real world activities. Social media has had an incredible multiplying effect on radical messaging, and the IS has had great success publishing online, which has resonated particularly well with disenfranchised Muslims and youths, inspiring some to act on inspiration and guidance received online. The IS has exploited their search for meaningful identity by promising to restore their dignity and might so that they may find personal fulfillment and purpose.

The virtual world is in some ways more compelling than the real world, because storylines can be artfully crafted to be maximally appealing, while omitting anything that may be perceived of as negative. A promise is much easier to make online, as is the vision of fulfilling aspirations. The IS has created virtual messaging that is wildly at odds with the reality of life as an IS fighter on the ground. Cyberspace has enabled the IS to turn tactical defeats on the battlefield into glorious martyrdom operations that highlight the bravery and commitment of its fighters. The loss of territory and the deaths of key leaders have served to feed propaganda efforts that are used to prove the resiliency of the caliphate.

In the face of the force-multiplying impact of the IS’s adaptive narrative, even concerted efforts by Muslim clerics have largely failed to undermine IS’s caliphate narrative. The group’s ability to engage virtually with large swaths of this population drives varying degrees of participation in the virtual caliphate, including non-supporters, passive observers, benign fans, “keyboard jihadists,” and real-world actors. This diverse range of participants helps to ensure that the notion of a virtual caliphate will endure long after the current crop of IS leaders are gone. The IS has found its own salvation via the Internet, particularly since it has already passed the peak of its real-world power.

Since all that is required to be a virtual planner is an Internet connection and good encryption, they can operate from anywhere, although being geographically dispersed carries heightened risk of detection in some nations. The virtual planner model has revolutionized jihadist external operations. The IS has taken advantage of recent advances in online communications and encryption to engineer a process by which the group’s top operatives can directly guide lone attackers, playing a central role in the conceptualization, target selection, timing, and execution of future attacks. Virtual planners offer operatives the same services once provided by strictly physical networks: seamlessly executing the group’s guiding strategy and maximizing the impact and propaganda value of attacks waged in its name, while avoiding many of the risks typically associated with physically training operatives – such as the risk of being tailed or the chance an operative might get caught re-entering his or her home country.

Virtual planners have been integrated into the group’s geographical command structure and function much like theater commanders but in the cyber realm. The IS’s virtual planners are also assigned areas of responsibility according to their nationality and linguistic skills, and are tasked with actively recruiting and handling attackers from these areas. The decision to assign virtual planners to geographic areas with which they are familiar allows them to rely on contacts involved in a given domicile.

The advancement of Internet-based communication and explosion of social media have enabled the planner to have greater reach to a larger audience than ever before. By building an “intimate” relationship with a potential attacker, the virtual planner provides encouragement and validation, addressing the individual’s doubts and hesitations while generating confidence and a strong desire to carry out an attack. Virtual planners can replicate the same social pressures that exist with in-person cells. Individuals can simply wander into searchable online networks, rather than having to be identified with and socialized by in-person networks that must act covertly. Unlike with physical networks, the virtual planner model does not risk the capture or punishment of the network’s key operatives.

Individuals inspired by the IS can directly reach out to virtual planners for guidance and assistance in carrying out attacks. In addition to recruitment and operational guidance, virtual planners can bring disparate individuals and cells together to form larger attack networks. The IS’s virtual planners allow the group to effectively seize ownership over what would previously have been considered lone wolf attacks. By creating a bridge between potential militants and the organization, virtual planners empower lone actors to fulfill the IS’s objectives while requiring minimal resources from the organization. Virtual planners transform these individuals into ambassadors for the IS’s global brand, becoming soldiers who can advance its strategic aims. Virtual planners help maximize the psychological and reputational impact of violence committed in the IS’s name, further enticing other potential devotees to join its cause.

The success of the virtual planner model underscores jihadist groups’ ongoing process of organizational learning but has its own disadvantages, such as the inability to provide in-person training or be optimally nimble during an attack to modify plans as circumstances may change. Cells directed by virtual planners are also at greater risk of being detected by Signals Intelligence, despite advances in end-to-end encryption. Nonetheless, the virtual planner approach is a low-cost, high-reward strategy with enormous destructive potential, especially as the IS and other terrorist groups continue to develop and refine the model.

Adaptations to jihadists’ modes of operation have continually outpaced states’ ability to effectively counter them, and will likely continue to do so. Virtual Jihad has not only gained prominence and credibility as a wholly legitimate alternative to traditional conceptions of jihad but has also progressively outpaced physical jihad. While physical jihad continues to hold aspirational appeal to a great many actors, Virtual Jihad has supplanted traditional notions of jihad for a new generation of adherents who are either unwilling or unable to engage in physical violence themselves. The rise of the Virtual Jihadist has assumed an important (perhaps irreplaceable) role in rejuvenating the concept of jihad and facilitating the dissemination of its “counterculture” narrative to new audiences. The IS has turned Virtual Jihad into an art form, which has ensured that its messaging will continue to reach adherents all over the world for many years to come.