Is It Time for a Counterinsurgency Approach to the Cyber War Against ISIS?

Seen here, is the screenshot of the hacked Youtube page of U.S. Central Command, on Jan. 12, 2015.

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Seen here, is the screenshot of the hacked Youtube page of U.S. Central Command, on Jan. 12, 2015.

What's missing in policy discussions about ISIS is a sense of an overarching strategic framework for countering the group in cyberspace.

In countering the violent extremism of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), understanding and responding to ISIS’ online activities have become important challenges. Two recent reports add to this debate. In Cyber Jihad, Dr. Christina Schori Liang of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy examines the unprecedented ways in which ISIS uses Internet applications to spread propaganda, create support networks, and contribute to the radicalization of individuals. In The ISIS Twitter Census, J. M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan of Brookings provide data on Twitter use by ISIS supporters, who utilized approximately 46,000 Twitter accounts but whose “social media success can be attributed to a relatively small group of hyperactive users, numbering between 500 and 2,000 accounts[.]”

In terms of what should be done, Liang argues that “hard security tools cannot reduce the wellspring of violent extremism” and that strategies must address “underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism” by supporting “local, community-level initiatives aimed at strengthening resilience against violent extremist agendas.” Such “root cause” strategies often have trouble gaining traction because people disagree about what the root causes of terrorist activities are and, even where agreement exists, how to prioritize them in policy responses. Root causes of ISIS extremism could involve many things, including a so-called identity crisis among Muslim youth, the failure of governments in the Middle East and elsewhere to respect human rights, and ISIS’ seizure of territory through military force in Syria and Iraq. While Berger and Morgan believe their data reveal that suspending Twitter accounts “limited the ISIS network’s ability to grow and spread,” they do not support more suspensions. They favor a multistakeholder process to address “the complex issues raised by the problem of extremist use of social media” and emphasize the need for generating and analyzing more data. But, whether better policy-ready data can be produced in a timely manner is not clear, raising questions what the multistakeholder process does in the meantime.

Supporting a root causes approach, wanting better data, and seeking inclusive decision-making are not, in themselves, objectionable. These ideas appear in various proposals to counter violent extremism. What is missing across different efforts in this policy space is an overarching strategic framework for countering ISIS in cyberspace. Here, thinking about counterinsurgency (COIN) operations can prove valuable because COIN is an intelligence-driven activity requiring “whole-of-society” cooperation that meets the needs of local populations affected by insurgent violence. The integrated parts of the COIN strategy were captured in the phrase “clear, hold, and build.” In many ways, the fight against ISIS represents a COIN campaign against an extremist insurgency. Countries are attempting to clear territory in Iraq of ISIS forces, hold those gains, and rebuild governance. Given the dangers associated with ISIS’ online activities, perhaps it is time to apply “clear, hold, and build” specifically to countering ISIS extremism in cyberspace.

The “clear” objective requires reducing ISIS’ profile in cyberspace. As it has done physically in Syria and Iraq, ISIS has planted its black flag in the virtual world, claiming cyberspace for its violent views. Providers of social media have already started to act against ISIS’ use of their services, and more aggressive efforts by a “clear coalition” of government and private-sector actors are needed to make cyberspace more difficult for the ISIS to exploit. Risks to civil liberties should be mitigated through familiar principles, including transparency in “clear” actions and oversight by government and civil society entities.

The “hold” objective involves steps to bring online voices from communities adversely affected by ISIS’ violence and ideology. This objective connects with widespread support for facilitating counter-extremist narratives promulgated through online means. Where possible, efforts of the “hold alliance” should be widely disseminated in order to mainstream the breadth and intensity of the rejection of ISIS. As COIN experience teaches, holding the line against the return of insurgent influence works best when communities with the most at stake populate the front lines of the struggle.

The “build” objective seeks to stabilize cyberspace as a means for productive deliberations on challenges facing societies damaged by ISIS. The online activities of ISIS have made cyberspace more important to terrorism and extremism than has previously been the case, which creates dangers for the Internet that go beyond “cyber jihad.” The “build community” faces the challenge of minimizing the possibility that cyberspace can, again, become so prominent in the cancer of extremist radicalization and violence. In COIN strategy, the “build” component often proves the most difficult because it requires sustained commitment to tackle hard problems, including root causes of conflict. In this sense, the “build” objective connects to the role the Internet should play in fostering political, economic, and social development.

Cyber Jihad and The ISIS Twitter Census form part of an emerging body of information, analysis, and advocacy supporting a more robust campaign—a “cyber surge”—against ISIS’ online activities. Such a campaign will not be the decisive factor in defeating ISIS, but ISIS’ abuse of social media makes imperative the need to harness the current proliferation of data, findings, and ideas into a more organized strategic undertaking aimed at actively defending cyberspace against ISIS extremism.

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