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Countering ISIS online

Countering ISIS online

When you look at the global response to the threat of ISIS, a glaring gap is the cyber domain.

The internet has been critical to the terrorist group's success. It allows it to communicate unfiltered to the rest of the world, for onward mass dissemination by the media. It helps the group radicalise and recruit fighters and financiers. It also allows recruits to organise and network in the field and maintain ties when they return to their countries of origin.

For these and other reasons, ISIS's command of cyberspace needs to be aggressively contested, as I argued in this recent paper.

Yet some counter-propaganda efforts have been shown to have questionable impact, and others risk making things worse. There are, however, multiple ways to combat ISIS online, including:

  • Structural disruption: current efforts to hinder ISIS communications online are rudimentary. Twitter began deactivating ISIS accounts in September last year, but as my Brookings colleague JM Berger recently showed, this hasn't worked because it failed to grasp how ISIS is using Twitter. A more informed approach would make it much harder for ISIS to communicate and recruit.
  • Targeted counter-propaganda: in a brilliant piece in The Atlantic, Graham Wood makes the case that the key to understanding ISIS is discerning its interpretation of Islam. This includes the revival of what ISIS calls '"the Prophetic methodology," which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.' It is readily apparent that ISIS's ideology is bankrupt, but the centrality of its archaic interpretation of Islam makes it even more important (and easier) to highlight its hypocrisy. The State Department has started, but there is scope for a much more targeted local response and to join up efforts.
  • Regional cooperation: Australia is not alone in needing to combat ISIS online. The State Department has already announced a partnership with the UAE to combat ISIS online and others are keen to join forces.

In June last year, TIME dubbed Australia 'the biggest per capita contributor of foreign jihadists to ISIS'. Given this, and the fact ISIS and its members continue to exploit the internet almost unchallenged, it makes sense for Australia to make a modest investment in an ICT offensive to complement other efforts. The Government's announcement of $18 million to do just this is right on point. It is critical that it be implemented effectively, that it draws on top tier technical and area expertise, and that it leverages existing resources, including the emerging efforts of other countries.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State.

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