Research associate, Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab
Executive Director, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies
The Western world is confronted by a security threat that is metastasizing before our very eyes and claiming new victims on an almost daily basis.
On Wednesday, the Royal Canadian Mountain Police shot and killed a man in the town of Strathroy who was reported to be on his way to commit a suicide bomb attack in Ontario. Last weekend it was a machete attack against two police officers in Liege, Belgium. In July, two men attacked a church in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, France, taking hostages and murdering a Catholic priest. And just a few days before that, a Syrian asylum-seeker in Ansbach, Germany, detonated a suicide vest at the entrance of a music festival. The police found a self-recorded video on his mobile phone in which he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
These violent acts follow other recent incidents this summer, including an ISIS supporter who used an axe to attack civilians on a train in Wurzburg, Germany, and the deadly truck attack in Nice that left scores dead. In North America, the mass killing at Pulse nightclub in Orlando reminds us that this is not just a European problem.
The attacks in Liege, Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, Ansbach, Wurzburg, Nice and Orlando all share one common characteristic. They have all been committed by either a small group of individuals or “lone wolf” attackers with no known affiliation to ISIS, yet all claim to be acting in its name or in support of its ideology.
The conflict with ISIS has gone global. No longer is there need to physically join the organization – anyone, anywhere, can now endorse its narrative and actively get involved in global jihad and asymmetric war. The conflict is now shifting from a localized, territorially concentrated, on-the-ground battle to a global, decentralized, “everywhere war.” The catalyzer of this shift? ISIS’ “cyber jihad,” an online strategy whose effects are now materializing in the real world.
Cyber jihad finds its roots in the early 2000s. In its 39 Principles of Jihad al-Qaeda urged its followers to recruit fighters through forums, text messaging and electronic communications. Al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric, was a pioneer of the practice, actively uploading YouTube videos to spread his extremist message in the mid-2000s. A decade later, ISIS has exploited this practice to its fullest. It now has numerous media outlets fully dedicated to the production of extremely slick propaganda material in several languages that permits it to recruit a high amount of fighters online.
Much concern was raised after the group was able to conduct cyberattacks on the Twitter account of the U.S. Central Command in January 2015 and the French channel TV5 Monde a few months later. The attacks forced governments to focus on protecting critical infrastructure. However, as the recent attacks in Germany, France and the U.S. show, the biggest threat presented by ISIS’ cyber jihad has so far been its capacity to inspire “lone wolf” attacks far away from Syria and Iraq.
Derek Gregory, a geography professor at the University of British Columbia, argued in a 2011 essay that the landscape of war is changing. The “everywhere war,” as he calls it, is the neo-liberalization of armed conflict, which no longer is the monopoly of the state. Emily Fekete from Oklahoma State University builds on Gregory’s observation to argue that cyber-warfare now co-exists with traditional warfare, allowing for more and more actors to engage in conflict and broadening the scope of what constitutes an act of war.
Policymakers must understand that ISIS is not only a terrorist organization; it has now become an idea. It is available in open source, broadcasted across national borders via Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Telegram and SnapChat, infecting the minds of many. The group has also become more sophisticated in using encryption technology to evade eavesdropping by Western intelligence agencies
As we are shifting towards the “everywhere war,” jihad has become “do it yourself.” Individuals only need to watch a few videos, get a grasp of ISIS’ main message, and formulate their own way of waging war against the “enemy,” whether that be by blowing themselves up at a music festival, using an axe to attack civilians on a train, renting a truck to drive into a crowd and kill scores of people, or unleashing their anger and hate on a gay nightclub. All of this in their own community – no need to physically travel to the battlefield in Syria or Iraq. The group’s ideology is easy to grasp, adopt and apply.
The solution to the “everywhere war” will not come from a constant state of emergency and reinforced security measures. It is tremendously important for political leaders to grasp the strategic importance of ISIS’ online efforts and take immediate action. The last month has witnessed an unusually high frequency of “lone wolf” attacks in the West, which will only inspire others to commit violent acts if we do not take appropriate action to foster counter-narratives and augment our ability to disrupt their online communications.
The truth is that policymakers, military leaders, and intelligence officials in Canada and across the world are struggling to catch up. Very few governments have mounted any serious response to ISIS’ use and transformation of social media platforms into a weapon of war. Only the United States has begun to deploy “cyber bombs” to disrupt the group’s capabilities in Syria and Iraq. More needs to be done.
The time has come for Western countries to unite their abilities and mobilize far more human, financial and technical resources to deal with the problem at hand. Monitoring jihadists online is not enough. It might be worthwhile looking into the tactics used by the hacking collective known as Anonymous, and the ropes it’s pulling to harm the group. Teams must be established within governments to work much more closely with tech companies and civil society groups to begin forcefully taking back the Internet and exposing, disrupting and prosecuting online jihadists, while also creating counter narrative campaigns to get to the root of the problem, which is ideology.
Adopting a defeatist attitude and accepting that this is now the “new normal” is not the way forward.