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A 'cyber caliphate' persists

Gurmeet Kanwal, Dec 12 2017, 0:49 IST

In the third week of October, Raqqa, the 'capital' of the Islamic State was liberated by Syrian forces. Earlier, Mosul, the last major Iraqi city held by the IS militia, had been recaptured by Iraqi forces in July 2017. Faluja had been taken back in June 2016. With Raqqa back in Syrian hands, Mosul and Faluja under Iraqi control, the Islamic State has lost most of its territory. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's self-proclaimed 'caliphate' is certainly down, but not out.

The perpetually strife-torn West Asian region has a long history of instability. During the Cold War, the state of turmoil in West Asia used to be an accurate barometer of the world's political climate. The two superpowers used to jockey for power and influence in the oil-rich region through their proxies but were not directly involved in conflict. The advent of the Islamic State in 2014 changed that, and both the United States and Russia have been fighting the caliphate.

The virulently radical Sunni militants of the Islamic State (also called ISIL and Daesh), a break-away faction of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, a powerful, well-equipped and wealthy Jihadi force, till recently had control over oilfields and refineries, a functional smuggling system and a huge cache of small arms and ammunition. 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 square kilometres of Sunni territory straddling the borders of Iraq and Syria.

The militia had been engaged in a vicious fight with the armed forces of Iraq and Syria and the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from the Kurdish belt along the Iraq-Turkey border. It had shown remarkable resilience and demonstrated its ability to defend its gains.

The involvement of external actors in the civil war raging in Syria had complicated the fight against the IS. While the United States extended military support to Iraq, the Russians backed the Syrian regime. After vacillating for long, former US President Barack Obama decided to join the fight in the summer of 2015 by launching air strikes against the IS militia while simultaneously arming anti-Assad forces like the Free Syrian Army with a view to bringing about regime change. The US was joined in this endeavour by Australia, Britain, Canada and France, and five Arab countries (Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates).

In a surprise move, President Putin's Russia joined the fight in September 2015 with the twin aims of defeating the IS and destroying the anti-Assad forces. Initially, the air strikes launched by the Russian air force were directed mainly against the forces opposed to President Assad of Syria - the same militias that were being armed and supported by the US. Iran and its proxy the Hezbollah, the Shia militia based in Lebanon, have been aiding Syria and its armed forces.

Al-Baghdadi had openly proclaimed the intention of IS to expand eastwards to establish the Islamic state of Khorasan that would include Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics, eastern Iran and Pakistan. The final battle, Ghazwa-e-Hind - a term from Islamic mythology - was to be fought to extend the caliphate to India. That wishful thinking has been buried in the desert sands.

However, while the endeavour to establish an Islamic caliphate with all the characteristics of a nation-state has been halted, the organisation survives, and its ideology lives on. A long-term danger arises from the inability of the international community to eliminate the threat posed to their sovereignty by the gradual emergence of a 'cyber caliphate'. The cyber caliphate has no boundaries; it cannot be pushed back or defeated by kinetic means.

Whether one lives in Hyderabad, Lahore, London, Paris or New York, if he owes allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and has a laptop with a broadband connection, he can be in business as a virtual warrior of the caliphate. As more and more people go online and acquire digital identities, the laptop warriors of the caliphate can help to propagate the IS ideology, recruit soldiers to fight for their cause, act as a conduit to convey orders, raise funds locally, collect donations and coordinate logistics.

Targeting gullible youth

The Islamic State has trained hundreds of well-educated followers all over the world to skilfully exploit the social media to radicalise and indoctrinate gullible youth. Leading intelligence agencies readily acknowledge their capacity to exploit the internet and manipulate the social media for their nefarious purposes.

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 social media, the newly inducted collaborators begin to contribute to the propaganda machinery, often in their spare time.

Despite having a very large Muslim population, India has not been seriously affected by the lure of IS, but there is no room for complacency. The long-term threat posed by the cyber caliphate must be taken very seriously. It must be countered by formulating elaborate national-level counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation plans and a detailed perception management strategy. The Jihadi way of life must be effectively delegitimised through information operations. The fightback will be challenging and complex.

There is broad agreement in the international community that the IS variety of radical extremism must be completely eliminated. However, while the political objectives are similar, the methods being used to achieve them lack synergy. Diplomatic moves need to be initiated to coordinate operations and work together to counter the threat posed by the remnants of the Islamic State and its growing cyber avatar.

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

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