Get Ready to Fight ISIS's "Virtual Caliphate"

Image: Iraqi soldiers learn urban operations tactics​. DVIDS/U.S. Army.

The next big battle won’t be fought with guns.

2016 continues to see young Muslims inspired by radicalism commit terrorist attacks across the globe. In Orlando, forty-nine were killed and fifty-three more injured at the hands of Omar Mateen, a single gunman who pledged allegiance to ISIS. In the Philippines, at least eighteen soldiers were killed and fifty-two injured in clashes with Abu Sayyaf militants. In Indonesia, eight were killed and twenty-four injured in several explosions directed by ISIS. The events, though unique in scale, felt eerily familiar for the United States and the rest of the world. They are a continuation of ISIS’s rhetoric falling on receptive ears, with social media often being the tool used in the recruitment process aimed at reaching even the lowest-end user, as seen by Orlando’s lone-wolf attack.

In fact, as ISIS loses territory and is driven off the battlefield, it is likely to further turn to social media to groom future lone wolves to carry out attacks at home. Look no further than ISIS’s official spokesperson and senior leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s statement that “The smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would do if you were with us.” Indeed, ISIS is evolving into a “virtual caliphate.”

Extremist groups today are particularly skilled at social media. The radical activity online includes Hollywood-quality videos that glorify violence, and offer a sense of brotherhood and belonging in hopes of reaching young Muslims who may be disillusioned with their current social position. These groups boast a social media presence that releases ninety thousand tweets and other media responses every single day. Social media may not be the decisive factor in the decision to radicalize and travel to the Syrian battlefields or downtown Jakarta, but the nature of terrorism requires only few to inflict large-scale damage and death to many.

A systematic and coordinated response to the narrative that groups like ISIS are trying to promote through social media is necessary in order to combat further radicalization and recruitment efforts. This counter-narrative can serve to glorify the successes of anti-extremist military operations, highlight the failures and embarrassments of ISIS, and expose the fallacies of radical ideology.


The Impact of Social Media

In Asia, the manipulation of social media and the spread of radical rhetoric are furthering the causes of extremist groups throughout the region. Anti-Vietnamese sentiments in Cambodia, which date back thousands of years to the Khmer Empire, have recently flared up again. Facebook is being used to fan xenophobia, where photos and even border treaties are being falsely edited online to draw further racist sentiments. In China, a country home to more than three hundred million social media accounts, more than ten million online signatures were gathered for a petition to oppose Japan’s United Nations Security Council bid in 2005, a result of rising anti-Japanese sentiment.

What is particularly concerning is the manipulation of social media by extremist groups that operate in the name of Islam. Southeast Asia is home to the largest population of Muslims in the world, claiming more than 220 million Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia alone. This massive population, alongside an increasing internet-penetration rate (mostly through smartphones) and access to social media, provides fertile ground for extremist groups like ISIS to spread their message. While it is important to note that the vast majority of Muslims in Southeast Asia oppose the use of violence in the name of Islam and are against radical groups like ISIS, there remains a significant minority that may sympathize with such extremism. 2013 Pew Research findings state that 27 percent of Muslims in Malaysia think that attacks on civilians are sometimes or often justified, while Indonesians felt favorably toward the extremist groups Al Qaeda and the Taliban at 23 percent and 21 percent, respectively. These figures suggest that Southeast Asia allows ISIS the space to operate and to effectively radicalize at least those few needed to engage in acts of terrorism.

The stakes are high in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world, and the battle for hearts and minds will determine the effectiveness of recruitment campaigns. The virtual battlefield is a critical starting point, a space where extremism can falter to reason and reality.

The Muslim world overwhelmingly opposes extremist ideology and terrorism, putting ISIS in a minority. And an advantage in numbers, resources and capabilities means creating an anti-ISIS counter-narrative could be an easy win for the international community.