18 January 2017

* CNAS Releases Report by CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph Votel on Defeating the Virtual Caliphate

By The Center for a New American Security

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Middle East Security Program today released a new report by United States Central Command Commander General Joseph L. Votel and a number of contributing authors, “#Virtual Caliphate: Defeating ISIL on the Battlefield Is Not Enough.” In the report, Gen. Votel makes the case that even after it loses its territory, ISIL will still retain a virtual safe haven, and that it is critical to pursue a long-term strategy to defeat ISIL online, as well as on the physical battlefield.

“The brutal attack on the Berlin Christmas market is just the latest example of ISIL’s ability to inspire and embolden its disillusioned sympathizers and supporters,” said Gen. Votel. “Our military and Coalition partners are successfully dismantling ISIL’s physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but it will require dedicated U.S. interagency collaboration and international political, economic, information, and law enforcement efforts to prevail against the ‘virtual caliphate’.”

Many policymakers, intelligence analysts, and academics believe expelling the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from Mosul and Raqqah is the key to the terrorist group’s defeat and the destruction of its self-declared caliphate. This is only partially correct. Following even a decisive defeat in Iraq and Syria, ISIL will likely retreat to a virtual safe haven – a “virtual caliphate” – from which it will continue to coordinate and inspire external attacks as well as build a support base until the group has the capability to reclaim physical territory. This virtual caliphate is a distorted version of the historic Islamic caliphate: It is a stratified community of Muslims who are led by a caliph (currently Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), aspire to participate in a state governed by sharia, and are located in the global territory of cyberspace.

Several aspects of the current sociopolitical environment create a fertile atmosphere for a virtual caliphate. Decades of border disputes, violent conflict, and shifting refugee populations have left millions of Muslims without a clear national identity. ISIL’s virtual caliphate offers them citizenship free from terrestrial constraints, which can be accessed from anywhere in the world. Disaffected Muslims seeking community and purpose can find these in ISIL’s caliphate. ISIL’s alluring and dynamic caliphate narrative is steeped in religion and history and promises the restoration of dignity and might. Members need not commit violent acts or immigrate to a distant land to join the caliphate; they need only to favor the idea of an Islamic state governed by sharia and click “like” to express their support and membership in the virtual caliphate. Moreover, the ubiquity of technology in daily life and the insatiable need to be online at all times make it easy, even natural, for virtual caliphate members to operate and exist comfortably in the cyber domain.

ISIL has exploited the environment and the flexibility of the internet to continually rewrite the caliphate’s rules and narrative to suit its goals and current situation. Unconstrained due to a lack of clear Quranic guidelines for a caliphate, ISIL creates and broadcasts its own self-promoting doctrine. After initially calling caliphate members in 2014 to serve as mujahedeen in Iraq and Syria, ISIL leaders reversed course in 2016 and encouraged fighters to carry out attacks in their home countries. ISIL also has expanded its caliphate narrative to include a wide range of options for participation: membership includes 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.

As we defeat ISIL on the physical battlefield, we must ensure we are postured to prevail on the virtual battlefield as well. ISIL’s virtual caliphate has progressed beyond strictly propaganda or recruitment efforts. It is about more than the proliferation of ideas; it is about the proliferation of action and of violence. With a carefully crafted and dynamic narrative, ISIL has exploited the sociopolitical environment and young adults’ obsession with technology to establish a growing community in the ungoverned territory of cyberspace. In this way, ISIL has ensured its ability to continue coordinating and inspiring violence, even as the United States and our coalition partners seek to expel it from physical strongholds in Mosul and Raqqah. Regardless of ISIL’s capacity to legitimize a purely virtual caliphate, the group’s proven ability to exploit the evolving virtual realm demands a comprehensive response that focuses on the multiple factors whose confluence forms the virtual caliphate.

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