Op-Ed: How a ‘digital surge’ can help beat Islamic State
Islamic State is the first terrorist group to control territory in both the digital and physical worlds. It has been particularly effective at using its digital operations to enable its physical ones — most notably, recruiting fighters online to perpetuate attacks such as those in Paris and Beirut, but also undermining its enemies’ morale in Syria and Iraq using social media. In 2014 and early 2015, Islamic State’s fighters were regularly outnumbered 10 to 1 on the battlefield, yet their online reputations were so inflated that opposing armies were reportedly terrified to face them.
To wage a digital counterinsurgency, we need to understand the structure of this enemy’s digital army.
Engaging on the digital front is integral to defeating Islamic State. Its digital operations are so extensive that the multinational coalition against Islamic State should launch a comprehensive, digital counterinsurgency.
Call it a digital surge. Like a military surge, which involves sharp increase in troops and weaponry on the ground, a digital surge would boost the number and scope of initiatives that target each of this enemy’s online tactics.
Right now, most analyses of the digital Islamic State go only as far as explaining that it leverages social media platforms. Yet listing apps — Kik, Wickr or Telegram — isn’t illuminating; it’s analogous to saying Islamic State has fighters in cities such as Mosul, Raqqah or Dair Alzour. Such specificity fails to explain how the group maintains control over its territory, or how it could be deposed.
To wage a digital counterinsurgency, we need to understand the structure of this enemy’s digital army. Unlike Al Qaeda’s cluster of isolated cells, Islamic State is centralized. Its hierarchy, in fact, resembles a corporate pyramid: Leaders set its ideological agenda, a managerial layer oversees implementation, and a large body of “employees” does the heavy lifting.
Online, this hierarchy consists of four types of digital fighters. At the top sits a digital central command, which gives orders and provides resources to create videos, images and other propaganda. This content is then distributed by a network of digital “lieutenants.” Radical sympathizers who help these lieutenants, though they are not directly affiliated with Islamic State, represent the third type of digital fighter.
Recapturing this digital territory requires targeting each of these types of digital soldiers. Accounts belonging to the digital “central command” should be identified and suspended, just as we would capture militants in the physical world.
Next, deter the digital lieutenants and their sympathizers. Law enforcement has had some success identifying would-be perpetrators of terrorist attacks using their public activity on social media. As such news stories emerge, being an active supporter of Islamic State online will become more personally risky. Without the lieutenants’ direction and sympathizers’ man-hours, the bots become drastically less effective and don’t pop up again as readily after technology companies remove them.
We can also divert potential fighters’ attention away from Islamic State propaganda with counter-narratives crafted to strategically address different audiences. For example, disaffected youth might be dissuaded from radicalization by initiatives that provide a sense of belonging, and that highlight how other young people have suffered on Islamic State’s battlefield.
The point is that we need multiple concurrent offensives to retake and hold the digital battleground.
Though a new concept, surging in the digital realm would be far less costly or risky than a military surge. Islamic State is already at a disadvantage: It does not own the platforms. And the values of the tech companies that build these platforms and the vast majority of people who use them are diametrically opposed to Islamic State’s ideology of violence.
If successful, however, a digital surge will drive Islamic State into the online equivalent of a remote cave: the so-called Dark Web that is not indexed by mainstream search engines. When its propaganda becomes difficult to find, the organization will struggle to spread its message or lure new recruits.
Although Islamic State has carried out deadly attacks across the physical world, it has yet to produce similarly devastating cyberattacks. If we get ahead of its digital capabilities, we also may be able to prevent it from using digital tools to cause widespread devastation. Indeed, learning how to combat terrorism online today is vital to reducing the terrorist threats of the future.
Jared Cohen is the founder and director of Google Ideas and an advisor to the executive chairman of Alphabet Inc.
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