Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Virtual Caliphate: ISIS's Information Warfare

By Harleen Gambhir

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) poses an evolving threat to the U.S., its allies, and its broader interests. Its approach to information warfare has represented a key component of its overall strategy, including during the period it has faced sustained pressure. ISIS has suffered significant setbacks on the ground, yet has demonstrated the ability to adapt.

ISIS will likely maintain the capacity to align its military and information operations (IO) in the coming years. Continuing conflicts and the plodding effort to address the underlying conditions where it has taken root will likely help ISIS retain physical sanctuary and command and control capability in Iraq, Syria, and North Africa, even if it loses control of major cities.

ISIS’s IO campaign has supported multiple objectives, including control over territory, coercion of populations, and recruitment. This campaign has enabled ISIS’s survival and execution of international terror attacks. It may ultimately usher in a “Virtual Caliphate” – a radicalized community organized online – that empowers the global Salafi-jihadi movement and that could operate independently of ISIS.

This “Virtual Caliphate,” the emergence of which becomes more likely the longer ISIS’s physical caliphate exists, would represent a unique challenge to American national security. Other hostile actors, beyond ISIS and the global Salafi-jihadi movement, are also adopting elements of a broader IO campaign, highlighting the requirement for the U.S. to formulate a determined response.

The U.S. possesses inherent advantages, including material resources, military strength and convening power, with which to confront this evolving threat. It also has challenges to overcome, including the lack of a government-wide strategy – supported by the necessary resources and proper bureaucratic organization – to counter enemy IO.

The U.S. should continue to counter ISIS and other enemies in this arena by focusing on rolling them back on the ground, degrading their technical capabilities and other means they employ to reach their intended audiences, and helping facilitate the emergence of compelling counter-narratives amenable to American interests.  

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