As the physical territory of Islamic State shrinks in Iraq and Syria – and along with it any appeal for Muslims to join a collapsing caliphate – the militant group has relied more and more on its appeal in digital territory. IS has stepped up its online messaging, hoping to incite more do-it-yourself terrorists in distant lands, such as the French-Tunisian man who drove a truck down a promenade of people in Nice, France.
The main tool of IS is now the Internet, a global transmitter that allows it to “inspire sympathizers and adherents anywhere, turning lost souls into soulless killers,” as Lisa Monaco, President Obama’s top adviser for counterterrorism, puts it.
In cyberspace, terrorist groups can both call for violence and make sure the world sees images of their violence. During a few recent terrorist attacks, for example, shooters have used social media to broadcast their mayhem.
As Margaret Thatcher said in 1985, terrorists thrive on the “oxygen of publicity on which they depend.”
To prevent more “lone wolf” attacks, the world must fight IS on this new digital front, such as on Twitter and even on dating apps, as has been the case. IS maintains dozens of digital-media offices. It pays its cyberworkers more than its soldiers. Despite Twitter’s best attempts to shut down any accounts associated with IS, thousands of new ones keep showing up.
Many government agencies around the world are searching for IS online. Yet one alternative to playing whack-a-mole on social media is to flood the Internet with different narratives.
Many lone wolves have bought into IS’s message that Muslims have been humiliated and marginalized, and that they can be heroes by killing “infidels.” To counter that, the United States and other countries are using tech-savvy students and disaffected IS fighters to tell tales of the group’s corruption and its hypocrisy in killing other Muslims. Other efforts include Muslims telling about their practice and understanding of Islam as a religion of peace.
These alternative narratives help “make sure that the voices of tolerance, the voices of reason, the voices of humanity are there at least to compete with the extremists,” says Alberto Fernandez, vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute. The effort is similar to enticing gang members to leave a gang.
As the IS caliphate fades as a lure for recruitment, the Internet has become a battleground to claim the high moral ground against the jihadist message. “The only lasting answer to hateful ideologies,” says Ms. Monaco, “are better ideas.”