More so than al-Qaeda or the Taliban, Daesh (or ISIS, ISIL, the IS, etc.) operates as a distributed network. Through social media, supporters appeal to young people around the world on an individual basis, patiently gaining their trust and stoking their discontent. The personal details of this process are fascinating, and the organizational implications perhaps even more so.
In an interactive feature (“The Islamic State’s suspected inroads into America”) The Washington Post counts over 70 people in the US who have been charged in connection to ISIS. One of the 22 convicted so far is 17-year-old Ali Shukri Amin, who ran the popular and prolific pro-ISIS Twitter account @AmreekiWitness and helped a friend travel to Syria to join the cause. The Department of State has used their own Twitter account, @ThinkAgain_DOS, to engage pro-ISIS accounts such as Ali’s. However, according to Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group and an expert in online jihadi behaviour, these efforts are often counterproductive (“The State Department’s Twitter War With ISIS Is Embarrassing” – Time Magazine):
Of course, the State Department’s intent here is to hijack the audience of accounts like Amreeki Witness in order to address the moderate Muslims on the fence regarding jihad—their real target audience. However, these exchanges, as illustrated by the overwhelming response from Amreeki Witness as compared to that of Think Again Turn Away, frequently backfire by providing jihadists legitimacy and a stage on which to project their messages.
Hillary Clinton has encouraged Silicon Valley tech companies to get to work “disrupting ISIS,” and fellow presidential hopeful Donald Trump has mused about enlisting Bill Gates to help in “closing that internet up in some ways.” These comments betray a severe lack of understanding regarding basic network technologies, and suggest that the US government will continue to chase their tail in efforts to counter this decentralized threat.
Writing for The Washington Post, Greg Miller and Souad Mekhennet detail how ISIS media operations have eclipsed their military operations in terms of complexity, coordination, sophistication, and status (“Inside the surreal world of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine”). Videos, tweets, and other media can be manipulated in much the same way that wartime maps always have been, as considered by Dietmar Offenhuber in “A Dummy’s Guide to Mapping Daesh” on Medium. ISIS’s capabilities in shaping this media culture have been underestimated. Rather than an organization, ISIS is better characterized as a movement or—according to Scott Atran, director of research in anthropology at the CNRS, Institut Jean Nicod – École Normale Supérieure, and a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford—a revolution (“ISIS is a revolution” in Aeon):
Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalisation. Individuals radicalise to find a firm identity in a flattened world. In this new reality, vertical lines of communication between the generations are replaced by horizontal peer-to-peer attachments that can cut across the globe.
Stephen M. Walt, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, clarifies that ISIS “winning” does not necessarily entail the full realization of their far-fetched ambitions for establishing a worldwide caliphate. The networked nature of terrorist organizations has been acknowledged, and the implications for military response has been considered, but Walt argues that ISIS’s demonstrated staying power must force the global community to consider it in a context greater than that of warfare, and shift to a policy of containment (“What Should We Do if the Islamic State Wins?" in Foreign Policy):
To be accepted into the community of nations, however, radical or revolutionary movements eventually have to abandon some (if not all) of their most ferocious practices. As Kenneth Waltz pointed out more than 30 years ago, eventually all radical states become “socialized into the system.”
But make no mistake: This process of “socialization” does not happen automatically. Radical states don’t learn that beastly behavior is costly unless other states join forces to impose the necessary penalties. If the Islamic State manages to cling to power, consolidate its position, and create a genuine de facto state in what was previously part of Iraq and Syria, then other states will need to work together to teach it the facts of life in the international system. And because the Islamic State is not in fact that powerful, preventing it from expanding or increasing its power and imposing costs for its abhorrent behavior should not be all that hard
General (Ret.) Stan McChrystal has advised that “it takes a network to defeat a network,” but perhaps the dichotomy of complete victory and defeat is itself an antiquated notion in a world of nebulous networks.