Editor's Note: ISIS “virtual caliphate”: Danger in Our Communities is a three-part series that discusses the transition of ISIS after the end of the so-called physical “caliphate” into a shadowy “virtual caliphate” that now focuses its efforts on directing, enabling and inspiring violence in our jurisdictions. During the series, examples of this activity and solutions for law enforcement officers will be showcased and highlighted. To read part 1, click here.
“Virtual Caliphate” Defined
In the past, the term “virtual caliphate” was used to describe the complex online propaganda and messaging apparatus of ISIS via social media and encrypted communications platforms supporting the recruitment of followers to migrate to the so-called physical “caliphate” as well as cultivate homegrown supporters in global locations. ISIS leadership dedicated a lot of resources to official news agencies and cyber capability that empowered the brand to become one of the most known and identifiable international terrorist names. Through propaganda, the ISIS ideology reaches every doorstep in America and unfortunately is entering more homes. ISIS moved beyond a terrorist group to also a mass movement ideology.
As ISIS territory has been lost, the definition of a “virtual caliphate” takes an even more operational connotation. At the height of ISIS recruitment of foreign supporters, the main propaganda message was come migrate to our territory and build an “idealistic” society. The current message promoted to global followers is to stay at home and “kill where you live." With this updated message and other activity, ISIS is setting itself up to enhance the “virtual caliphate” as a frontline “weapon” in a global terror campaign waged by supporters inspired and remotely enabled by seasoned ISIS operatives.
ISIS Messaging Continues Despite Setbacks
The output of official ISIS propaganda severely declined during the last few months of 2017, only to rebound in early 2018. The major disseminators of ISIS propaganda have switched from official news agencies to “the organization’s increasingly important legion of online supporters-cum-volunteer media operatives, which it refers to as the Munasirun." These Munasir networks not only continue amplifying the message but also categorize the historical content of ISIS propaganda. As the article notes, “they are creating a clearinghouse something akin to a greatest hits album for the Islamic State’s ‘golden years’.” This creates a mindset encouraging new and existing global ISIS followers to become nostalgic and justify creating violence in their communities as revenge for losses to US and Coalition forces.
The current message promoted to global followers is to stay at home and “kill where you live."
With this updated message and other activity,
ISIS is setting itself up to enhance the “virtual caliphate” as a frontline “weapon”
in a global terror campaign waged by supporters
inspired and remotely enabled by seasoned ISIS operatives.
These Munasir have also increased unofficial media production including videos, but there is evidence this type content is being regulated by official ISIS media operatives. In reference to the impact of volunteer networks on terrorist plots and attacks, Munasir are playing a role in providing a stream of tactical guidance for those inspired to conduct attacks. These networks provide online existing information including bomb-making to making poison, along with back issues of ISIS Dabiq and Rumiyah webzines as well as Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP) Inspire. All these reference materials showcase and instruct a host of tactics that are being used by homegrown terrorists including in the United States. ISIS deadly messaging into our communities has not dissipated.
ISIS “Virtual Lessons” for Group Cohesion
With the loss of territory that allowed shaping of the mindset of its pseudo-state “citizens”, the virtual online realm is being enabled to provide lessons to ISIS global followers on cohesion and ISIS identity. Invite only sessions on encrypted channels include discussions on ISIS ideology with quizzes to test the follower’s knowledge. Influential ISIS members, in encrypted chats, “lead regular ‘virtual durus’ (lessons) that advocate self-categorization and group rivalry.
The online participant is taught that ISIS is superior to other jihadi groups, which entrenches the ideology and group allegiance. This dangerous method of defining the “virtual caliphate," assists the group in preventing the decline of ISIS’ appeal even after the loss of territory. In these sessions, ISIS affiliates around the world are highlighted to supporters as a projection of strength.
ISIS Virtual Planning and Advising
For Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice professionals, the long-term ISIS protocol of enabling homegrown attacks is an immediate and ongoing concern. In the past, ISIS overseas external operations operatives were planning with and advising at least 20 percent of the homegrown ISIS-related suspects in the US. As the ISIS “virtual caliphate” re-organizes the capability of its external operations, expect this virtual attack model to increase globally. In March (2018), an ISIS supporter of Cuban nationality was in communication with ISIS personalities in Spain and Morocco relative to a bomb plot against US diplomats in Bogota Colombia.
The most deadly and concerning subgroup inside ISIS is called the Emni. They were tasked with recruiting foreign fighters and others to build the worldwide attack capability of ISIS beginning in 2014. This branch is responsible for some of the most successful and complex attacks by ISIS including Paris attack November 2015. As reported in The National Interest article “How is ISIS Able to Commit Acts of Terror as It Loses Territory," information from ISIS defectors in 2017 states the Emni moved its headquarters from Syria to Libya. There are reports that the Manchester concert attacker met with Emni operatives in Libya. As stated in the article, “If the Emni’s relocation to Libya is confirmed, it will allow highly trained ISIS operatives to plot attacks at Europe’s doorstep."
English speaking Emni operatives based in any global location, can increase the impact of terrorist attacks in any US community. All that is needed is internet connectivity, secured encrypted communications and willing US followers. These seasoned terrorist operatives are already remotely cultivating US ISIS supporters via secured online methods. Planning, instruction on target selection and tactics for attacks are shared with recommendations. Encouragement and guidance on the ISIS mindset is given. The clearinghouse of ISIS information categorized by Munasir provides a volume of “How to Manuals” in which these Emni virtual “mentors” can use in training US supporters for attacks. A popular ISIS video is a masked instructor in a kitchen giving a step-by-step demonstration on creating an explosive device.
As ISIS focuses its worldwide efforts on utilizing all aspects of the “virtual caliphate”, recruiting US supporters and mentoring on ideology while promoting a variety of attack plans is a serious threat. It is important to remember that these US ISIS followers are in all sized communities within all 50 US states.
- The ISIS messaging continues to be absorbed and embraced by Americans in a cross-section of communities.
- It is important for law enforcement and criminal justice professionals to network with fusion centers and other intelligence organizations to gather updated information and insight on the ISIS propaganda and messaging reaching daily into all our jurisdictions.
In this blog article series, we explore and discuss several aspects of ISIS “virtual caliphate” activity, including the growing and enduring threat in US jurisdictions. Our investigation begins looking at the current movement of ISIS locally and globally. We further discuss elements of “virtual caliphate” activity that facilitates ISIS group cohesion beyond controlling a physical pseudo-state. Most importantly, we examine the impact of the “virtual caliphate” message on violence in U.S. hometowns and ways jurisdictions can confront the danger.