Responding to Cyber Jihad in Iraq: How to Implement Effective Counter Narrative Policies

10 April 2016

As the Internet creates a parallel cyber life and becomes involved in everyone’s lives, many traditional concepts have evolved. This includes the concept of “cyber jihad” with its dark face. It has strongly emerged through social media and websites to foster and advertise acts of terror and to prove that the terrorist groups are highly efficient in utilizing Internet and making resilient propaganda. This is true not only nowadays but even in past years, as historical evidence shows. For example, during the events of September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda relied on the Internet for strategic planning for the whole operation. This has continued onward to the launch of the enormous “cyber jihad” campaigns adopted by ISIS in the current period.

The terrorist cyberwar is not limited to spreading radical thoughts and acts. It also affords great ease of communication and networking among leaders and followers, facilitates financial investment from their supporters through mobile payment systems, and assists in recruiting young people to be physically engaged in terrorism or to be involved in what are called “cyber militias.”

The role of militants in such “cyber militias” is to lead multi-faceted cyberwars, beginning with the propagation and sharing of tweets, HD videos, and hashtags; moving toward studying the psychological behaviors and preferences of their potential victims online; and finally continuing down to the determination of locations, weak points, and gaps to attack their enemies. Furthermore, extremists have accessed the electronic game world to attract children and young people by inventing cyber “battlegrounds” and training them in cyber fighting.

As the extremists attempt to establish their empire and win the war on the ground, they also strive to win the cyberwar. This is shown by the establishment of the Afaaq Electronic Foundation, launched in January 2016, which is dedicated to raising security awareness among extremists by publishing tutorials about safer Internet navigation and better usage of proxy services and data circumvention tools. On the other side of this relentless cyberwar triggered by extremists, we witness many endeavors to counteract them, working mainly on strategies to attack the terrorists rather than countering their ideology and approaches.

“#OpParis” is a campaign that was created by the hacker group Anonymous after the Paris attacks in November 2015. It claimed to block radical websites by distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. But without operating in a well-coordinated fashion and without sufficient counterterrorism experience, this campaign may have aggravated the issue by attacking innocent websites and disrupting the more purposeful war against extreme cyber thoughts and behaviors.  

Moreover, the nonprofessional and uninformed way of attacking may have helped ISIS in other ways, by bringing them more attention or even prompting them to turn to the “dark web” to protect their identities and content from further “hacktivism,” thus complicating their pursuit and eradication. So in order to win the battle and protect our community, we must be armed sufficiently, first with knowledge and adequate Internet literacy, secondly through effective strategic planning and coordinated approaches of governments, ISPs, ICT specialists, ethical hackers, and civil society activists who work together to establish effective anti-cyberterrorism systems to uproot extreme ideologies and safeguard our Internet ecosystem.

In addition, by bringing together experts with backgrounds in communication, Islam, criminology, sociology, psychology, security issues, political affairs, rehabilitation and reintegration, social and economic affairs and cultural identity, one should be able to draft different sets of counter-messages, which could function as another database, from which non-state actors, in their capacity as credible messengers, can pull the information needed to craft their own authentic messages again cyber-jihad. Furthermore, these local credible messengers could be assisted by technical and creative training to deliver their messages by using the various media outlets in a manner that appeals to the targeted groups.

Politicians and government in Iraq should be able then to responding to Cyber Jihad using a new narrative on public mass media directors, bear an enhanced responsibility to consider carefully their actions and the possible consequences that these may have on the increase or decrease of this threat. Public and commercial mass media, in particular, run the risk of being used by jihadist organizations to disseminate further their extremist propaganda, and thus unintentionally contribute to the strategic goals of these organizations.

A taboo still appears to exist on raising these issues, which should be overcome by conducting a public debate and exchange of points of view and considerations, as well as possible solutions that involves communities, NGO and public authorities to strengthening the resilience of the Iraqi society.

Ms. Nawras Mahir, Internet Policy Analyst, IGMENA author