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Rodger Bates and Mara Mooney -- ISIS/ISIL and Digital Domain

Rodger Bates and Mara Mooney -- ISIS/ISIL and Digital Domain

Oct 10 2014

Terrorism in the 21stCentury has evolved from a local to a world-wide phenomenon. Cyberspace has transformed the ways that terrorist networks communicate and conduct their activities. The scope and scale of the internet, through web-sites, social media,personal computers and cyber-cafes have successfully eliminated many of the functional barriers which once limited the activities of terrorists. In fact, the democratic autonomy of cyberspace has enhanced the possibilities of current and future terrorists.

Modern terror organizations, such as ISIS/ISIL,place a high priority on the methods of psychological warfare and how to successfully increase fear within their target audiences. Specifically, media technology as a force-multiplier is a frequently invoked tool of terrorists. Terrorists rely on the media to facilitate and enhance their efforts. Previously, the drama of terrorism provided attention, recognition and even claims of legitimacy. Traditionally, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, posters and other print media were the tools of dissemination in the past. In the electronic age, movies, radio and television emerged as favored means of public influence and persuasion. With the emergence of the digital age and the internet, the symbiotic relationship between terrorism and distance learning has reached a new zenith. 

Interestingly, it is a significant paradox that jihadist terrorist groups, such as ISIS and al Qaeda have turned to the internet as their new safe haven. Primarily driven by 14thcentury Islamic ideology, today’s jihadist terrorist groups have turned to 21stCentury information technology as a fundamental component of their war on their enemies both near and far.

Terrorists often post content on the internet on the various forms of social media to stoke anger in marginalized, often younger people who are impressionable, disenfranchised and seeking a cause. For some jihadist groups such as ISIS/ISIL, the dissemination of violent imagery, beheadings and combative messages serve as a popular means to incite action for social, religious and political ends. It is an important tool for recruitment, promoting financial support, intimidation and movement validation. The symbolism and imagery reinforces within-group solidarity and more importantly, provides content for self-radicalization among potential lone-wolf supporters.

While limitations exist on the scale and scope of coordinated efforts that can be executed through online training and coordination, ISIS/ISIL can cause enough damage to capture the public’s attention and create fear internally and externally. Various jihadist ideologues rely upon historical or religious justifications for engaging in a “media battle.” They point to the Prophet Muhammad’s sanctioning of various types of warfare and popular online manuals, such as39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad, which encourages “performing electronic jihad” as “a blessed field” by which to spread news, defend ideas and reach the people through discussions and computer hacking.

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