ISIL’s Online Offensive: Challenges in Countering ISIL in Cyberspace

The US-led campaign against ISIL is going well in neither the terrestrial nor cyber realms. ISIL’s successful offensives against Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria in late May triggered controversies that the Paris meeting of the anti-ISIL coalition in early June did little to resolve. The State Department followed this bad news with an unflattering post-Paris assessment of US and coalition efforts against ISIL’s online offensive. The New York Times described this document as painting a “dismal picture of the efforts by the Obama administration and its foreign allies to combat the Islamic State’s message machine, portraying a fractured coalition that cannot get its own message straight.” This perspective reinforced a Washington Post article from early May about problems with US counter-militant messaging in the Bush and Obama administrations.

Countering ISIL’s use of the Internet, especially social media, has clearly confounded the United States and its partners. For more than a decade, policymaking on countering online extremism has emphasized “counter-narrative” approaches more than “counter-content” tactics that block or remove communications from the Internet. Counter-narrative strategies are considered more legitimate because they foster speech rather than censorship. Counter-narrative approaches are also believed to be more effective against online propaganda and radicalization. Responses to ISIL’s online activities follow this pattern, focusing on counter-narratives. However, ISIL proved more strategic, sophisticated, and successful online than previous terrorist groups. The scale and intensity of ISIL’s use of social media has created new interest in content-based countermeasures.

Two new publications issued this week analyze the problems ISIL’s online activities create and offer recommendations to improve countermeasures. In a Council on Foreign Relations Cyber Brief, I focus on challenges the US government and tech companies face in taking down online content associated with ISIL without compromising commitments to free speech. In a Wikistrat report, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr argue that ISIL is “winning its propaganda war” against Western powers and advise the United States on how to strengthen online counter-messaging activities. These contributions raise hard questions about the effectiveness, legitimacy, and strategic importance of efforts to counter ISIL’s online offensive.

In terms of counter-narrative strategies, Gartenstein-Ross and Barr argue that the United States has failed “to wrest control of the narrative” from ISIL for three reasons. First, US efforts have fallen behind ISIL’s “high octane, rapid-fire social media apparatus.” Second, the United States has conflated ISIL with the broader jihadist movement. Third, US strategy has failed to concentrate counter-messaging on ISIL’s exaggerated claims of its “victory and expansion” and on its “governance failures and struggles to function as a state.”

Compounding this ineffectiveness is a legitimacy deficit that arises when the US government is the driving force behind counter-narrative efforts aimed at young Muslims. Many experts have argued that legitimate counter-narrative strategies depend on anti-extremist messages coming from affected communities (including former ISIL members), not governments. The imperative for the US government to act against ISIL online produces the need, to steal from Liddell Hart, for an “indirect approach” to counter-narrative strategy. For example, Gartenstein-Ross and Barr recommend that the US government should aim to create “a snowball effect” against ISIL online propaganda by providing factual information (including through selective declassification of information) that others, especially members of civil society, can use in their own counter-narrative efforts.

The ineffectiveness of the counter-narrative strategies Gartenstein-Ross and Barr critique has produced growing pressure for measures targeting the content of online communications. ISIL’s online onslaught has led to increased removal or blocking of content by governments and companies. However, the effectiveness of content-based measures is not clear. Of equal concern is that the legitimacy of content-based measures is suspect under free speech principles supported by liberal democracies. These legitimacy concerns can be addressed through increased transparency and accountability for content-based countermeasures sought by the US government and taken by US companies.

In my Cyber Brief, I recommend adoption of a presidential policy directive that identifies when the US government would request a company implement online content-based measures to counter terrorism and extremism — requests that should be subject to oversight by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Similarly, companies that control online content should specifically explain their policies for using content-based measures against terrorist and extremist communications and establish independent reviews of their use of such measures.

Although countering ISIL’s online activities is considered integral to the overall effort to defeat this group, questions about the strategic importance of online countermeasures emerge from both papers. Gartenstein-Ross and Barr’s recommendations hinge on being able to attack “the image of strength and momentum” that fuels ISIL’s online propaganda. With ISIL online propaganda re-fueled by Ramadi and Palmyra and its resilience against US and coalition attacks, the counter-narrative approach Gartenstein-Ross and Barr recommend will have more difficulty being effective. When counter-narrative strategies appear to falter, interest in content-based measures increases, which underscores the importance of focusing more attention on this aspect of countering ISIL in cyberspace.

ISIL’s battlefield gains — and the damage these setbacks inflicted on US and coalition credibility — create a context in which the effectiveness and legitimacy of both kinds of online countermeasures ultimately depend on a transformed military situation. As I put it in my paper, “the Islamic State is more a ‘boots on the ground’ than ‘bytes on the net’ problem.” Unfortunately, how the United States and the coalition achieve this transformation is proving even more confounding than what to do about ISIL’s online prowess. 

About the Author(s)

David Fidler

James Louis Calamaras Professor of Law at Maurer School of Law at Indiana University and Senior Fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research