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Revisiting the Ecosystem of Islamic State’s ‘Virtual Caliphate’

Revisiting the Ecosystem of Islamic State’s ‘Virtual Caliphate’
21st October 2020 Dr. Michael Krona
Dr. Michael Krona
In Insights

The current ‘post-caliphate’ era of Islamic State (IS) has been widely discussed in recent years, following the organisation’s loss of territory and administrative control. Prospects for IS to survive, transform, and regain prominence again can, to some extent, be evaluated through the significant amount of online supporters; who are willing to amplify the IS brand and contribute to exposure, outreach, and development of new recruitment methods. However, what is the current state of the IS online communities, and in which direction are they heading?

A quick search for academic contributions that focuses on the digital and social media aspects of IS – both in outreach and supporter network dynamics – provides a wealth of publications. The ‘virtual caliphate’ is defined as the mediatised version of the 2014 self-declared caliphate project. The online communities are consistent, persistent, and still attract a vast number of supporters today. Propaganda production and distribution, religious narratives, emerging and maintained ideological discourses through conversations among supporters, and as structures and hierarchies in the online communities are all included in the digital realm and ecosystem of the ‘virtual caliphate’. For years, it has served as a lens through which the physical caliphate – primarily Iraq and Syria – could be recognised and understood. However, since the destruction of the administrative and territorial state in 2018, the virtual universe surrounding and amplifying the caliphate has deviated from its original path. In the current post-caliphate era, the multitude of online spheres demonstrates a lack of direction entwined with common ground fragmentation.

From a media and communication studies horizon, there is often a keen interest in ascribing media platforms specific values in themselves, thereby simply framing a terrorist organisation like IS as an almost ahistorical entity driven by technology and social media. This approach is not only factually wrong but also severely misleading in any contribution to a nuanced, useful, and comprehensive understanding of contemporary terrorism. There is a myriad of human factors and behaviours involved in the actual utilisation of technology. It is vital to recognise the interplay between what technology offers the human intervention, an interplay which constitutes the actual ecosystem of the ‘virtual caliphate’.

In terms of IS reformation and transformation from a state project into a global social movement using more or less sophisticated guerilla tactics in its modus operandi, a transformation of identity-building for supporters worldwide associates themselves with the organisation has also occurred. From its physical passports and defining the belonging to a nowadays identity formed mainly online and exercised through various means. The role of media participation is essential in this transformation, and the utilisation of many encrypted applications and platforms for the online communities connected to the organisation is essential in our understanding of how this identity process is being formed. The former passports and documents connected to the formation of IS have been replaced with a participatory media culture in which supporters worldwide self-identify with the ideologically driven online community of IS through co-production of propaganda and active engagement forming discourses.

During the physical caliphate’s peak, research studies have sought to understand how a virtual caliphate emerged as an amplified version of the state project through the lens of propaganda concluding, how central narratives and dimensions of the online community predominantly reflected or mirrored the territorial state. Nevertheless, when we evaluate and revisit today’s virtual caliphate, there are reasons to approach it as a separate entity. In essence, a parallel caliphate, in which the values, ideology, and religion shape a new community. Online spaces are no longer merely amplifying the brand of IS; instead, with a more robust agency, IS participants are taking the original concept of the ‘Islamic State’ and forming independent entities. While we maintain a perspective on the online communities as simultaneously essential factors for its ongoing advancement, there is much more highlighting required in order to evaluate the qualitative role of the online universe and ask the question: how has the ecosystem and discourses of the virtual caliphate transformed since the state project was dissolved in its original form?

In order to reach a viable and conclusive answer to this question, it is imperative to consider empirical indications on which the argument for this transformation of the virtual caliphate is built:

a) The fragmentation of platforms utilised

While life under the caliphate was amplified through centralised communication practices and on a limited number of platforms, with a strong media industry behind the organisation producing coherent propaganda narratives, the current phase is one of de-centralisation. Recent studies show how terrorist organisations, not least IS, are active on various digital platforms. Telegram was the main content application; however, almost a year ago, the organisation and its supporters have replaced it with smaller and more niched platforms since the Europol takedown. As a result, the strategy of originating from one central hub (Telegram) for uploading content and then via invites and links directing users from other platforms to focus on this hub has been substituted by a more de-centralised structure spanning over a large number of platforms. This spread is, by all means, a result of increased activity, creativity, and persistence among supporters and not necessarily the will of or directed from the leadership of IS. The rapid increase of moving across a vast number of platforms has additional consequences for the possibility to detect and remove users in the short term and new challenges for intelligence communities and law enforcement agencies to track and monitor movement in hostile digital environments.

b) Emphasis on religion rather than IS ideological doctrines

In conversations on encrypted and minor platforms such as Hoop Messenger and Rocket Chat, supporters often emphasise religion’s role in deeds, rather than taking action as a duty towards IS. As was more prevalent before, IS central propaganda production, not least in publication flagships such as Rumiyah or Dabiq, underscored the concepts of obligation and duty towards Islamic State, rather than God. While the caliphate was the originator of narratives consistently amplified online, there is currently a diverse plethora of religious justifications in the emerging discourses generated by collective supporter communities. Ongoing crowdfunding- and donation campaigns to free imprisoned women and children from detention camps are in several aspects argued for through scripture, hence the duty to help fellow Muslims, rather than referencing a possible re-emergence of IS. This is by no means a rule without exception. However, indications suggest that campaigns like these and other forms of media content and strategies deriving from supporters are increasingly based on individual approaches to scripture and religion, rather than ideological framework and incentives proposed by the leadership of IS.

c) Outsourced production of propaganda

Media collectives with no formal affiliation to IS appear to be growing in numbers and influence. As groups like Al-Battar, Asawirti Media and Muntasir Media have independent network structures and presence on various platforms. Their production activity increasingly goes beyond remediating official IS propaganda and instead raises the level of engagement among supporters within these collectives. During the previous two years, we have witnessed propaganda content being specifically created for a targeted audience. The propaganda ranges from posters that encourage supporters to carry out attacks against domestic soft targets, to sophisticated videos and those of more amateurish nature in which the message naturally stems from the idea of the caliphate but takes new directions with singular themes of, for instance, retaliation, instructions for attacks, or merely creating an enhanced user experience of watching beheadings. Regardless of content, the fact that IS central media wings produce significantly fewer videos than in previous years has seemingly generated a void. Media collectives and online supporters fill this void by creating propaganda with a focus on a specific purpose that is crafted with the online community in mind, rather than achieving maximum exposure. 

d) Migration from open to encrypted platforms

In 2016 there was a significant relocation of content and communication practices from open social media platforms to primarily Telegram. The strategy of using encrypted communication spaces has since expanded further. The risks of becoming isolated on smaller platforms have been calculated against the advantages concerning security and privacy – an aspect that should not be underestimated. Pro-IS hacking groups such as Caliphate Cyber Shield and Electronic Horizons Foundation are increasingly providing supporters online with advice and instructions on how to avoid detection from law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which further amplifies the need for closed and protected jihadi communities. Nevertheless, the significant increase of experimentation with smaller encrypted platforms, and recently the use of Dark Web spaces, implies a defragmented nature and complexities within both the online jihadosphere and, in particularly the virtual caliphate. The core amplifying function of the former state project has transformed into a huge number of enclosed online environments in which individual supporters find belonging and can actively engage in smaller and niched communities, and as a result, contribute to further ideological incubation and online radicalisation.

e) Collective identity through participatory media

When IS released a doctrine on being a media ‘mujahid’ during the caliphate’s initial phases, they provided supporters with ideological arguments of the importance of taking part in the information warfare and relatively clear instructions on how this should be done. For like-minded individuals consuming propaganda, the advice was relatively straightforward: to amplify IS’s brand and its media content generated from the recognised media wings. However, as years have passed and transformed the organisation of IS, so has the role of the distant supporter online. The main difference is the increased engagement and collaborative media practices among supporters, which have led to new forms of identity formation and expression. If redistributing official propaganda was an essential task before, the participatory engagement with content and ideology has recently replaced this feature and created more autonomous supporters and independent entities of the virtual caliphate. An empirical observation illustrating new forms of identification with IS is that leadership references are not as standard as before. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was often referred to, glorified, and emphasised in many discussions among supporter networks. After he died in 2019, followed by the appointment of a new caliph, supporters’ interpretation of the cause and warfare seem to be more independent from the organisation’s leadership and instead subject to individual accounts and new markers in the identity formation processes.

Ash Shaff Media is a noteworthy example of collective identity building based on nationality, rather than the organisation of IS. Primarily on Telegram, the un-affiliated Ash Shaff Media has offered news updates through national editions and channels in English, French, Spanish, Swedish, Italian and other languages. With a mix of content between regular news updates concerning IS and references to ongoing events and debates in the respective country, community members can relate more to cultural and national specificity and proximity, rather than ideas of the global caliphate with strong authority leadership.

In summary, there is a growing body of empirical evidence suggesting a rapidly changing form of the original virtual caliphate. It has become more dynamic because it is fragmented with multiple unaffiliated media groups and collectives in the digital realm. Both individual and collective identity processes – mainly through increased participation and engagement with content – are in play with new markers for community building and belonging. A considerable decentralisation of digital platforms and a reduced influence of IS leadership on the discourses emerging in many online spaces have further emancipated the virtual communities from the administrative body.

This development poses fundamental problems for IS as an administrative body and even more questions on the online communities’ future role within terrorist organisations. There is, without a doubt, a greater need than ever before to widen the analytical scope when striving to study and understand a terrorist organisation like IS, when its online community – its virtual caliphate – increasingly appears to become independent from its roots and form an identity on its own.