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Islamic State retreats online to 'virtual caliphate'

  • Michel MOUTOT

    AFP

Paris | Thu, January 11, 2018 | 06:40 am
Islamic State retreats online to 'virtual caliphate' An Iraqi woman visits the grave of a relative, who was killed during battles with Islamic State (IS) group fighters, at a graveyard in the Iraqi town of Dhuluiyah, 90 kilometres (55 miles) north of Baghdad, on Oct. 10, 2017. The Islamic State group once drew recruits from near and far with promises of paradise but now bodies of jihadists lie in mass graves or at the mercy of wild dogs as its (Agence France-Presse/Sabah Arar)

On the brink of defeat in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State group has been taking refuge in its "virtual caliphate" -- but even online, experts say it is in decline.

Back in 2015, when the jihadists held territory the size of Italy, they also commanded a huge digital presence, flooding the web with slick propaganda lionizing their fighters and romanticising life under their rule.

Today, with many of the top IS leaders either dead or on the run, what remains of the group's once-sophisticated propaganda machine is also a shadow of its former self.

Their media centers destroyed, remaining propagandists find themselves struggling to maintain an internet connection while battling surveillance from international intelligence services.

The extremist group is less and less vocal on the web, largely leaving supporters whom it cannot control to speak in its name.

"It's almost as if someone has pressed the mute button on the Islamic State," said Charlie Winter, a researcher at King's College London who has been studying IS communications for years.

Between November 8 and 9 the group even went completely silent for a full 24 hours in what Winter said was an "unprecedented" break from social media.

In 2015, when IS was ruling over roughly seven million people in Iraq and Syria, its propagandists produced "content from 38 different media offices from West Africa to Afghanistan", Winter said.

But by December, more than three-quarters of these outlets had been "almost totally silenced," he added.

Albert Ford, a researcher at US think-tank New America who has studied the exodus of foreign fighters to join IS, also said the group's media output was "falling off considerably".

"Fewer places to get information, fewer ways to upload it," he said.

- Pushed to the 'dark web' -

Back in March as Iraqi forces were ousting IS from their long-held bastion Mosul, an AFP journalist was able to pick through the wreckage of what was once a radical media center. 

Between the burnt walls of the villa in an upscale part of the city were the remains of computers, printers and broadcasting equipment.

In the months before and since, the US-led military coalition fighting IS has repeatedly announced the deaths of senior IS communications officers, usually in air strikes.

Among them was the top strategist and spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, killed in a US strike in northern Syria in August 2016.

These days IS propagandists mostly use the web to encourage supporters to launch attacks on their own initiative, with the much-weakened group unable to play a direct hand in organizing them.

These calls are often issued via the "deep web", a heavily encrypted part of the internet which is almost impossible to regulate, or the Telegram app.

Winter said he had seen a trend emerging of posts seeking to cultivate a sense of nostalgia among supporters for the height of the group's power. 

By portraying events three years ago a "golden age" stolen by "the enemies of Islam", IS is hoping to convince new recruits that such times could come again if they join the cause, Winter said.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, said the principal danger of IS now lies in what he calls "enabled attackers".

A recruit such as this would have "no previous ties to terrorist organizations," Hoffman said.

"But he is furnished very specific targeting instructions and intelligence in order to better facilitate and ensure the success of his attack."

Such wannabe jihadists need to look no further than the internet for abundant advice that has been available online for years -- and will merely pop up again after any attempt to remove it.

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