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Defeating the Islamic State's 'virtual caliphate'

The Islamic State is on the verge of defeat in both Syria and Iraq. [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 October, 2017

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The Islamic State group is on the verge of defeat in both Syria and Iraq, but experts warn that a "virtual caliphate" could be much harder to conquer.

The Islamic State group is on the verge of defeat in both Syria and Iraq, but experts warn that a "virtual caliphate" could be much harder to conquer.

The extremist group has seen the territory it controls dwindle considerably since it seized large swathes of Iraq and neighbouring Syria in 2014.

Successive defeats this year in Tal Afar, and most recently in Hawija, have dealt a huge blow to the Islamic State group, which lost its Iraqi 'capital' of Mosul in July.

In Syria, the group has lost most of its bastion of Raqqa, while its other stronghold of Deir az-Zour is under siege from two separate offensives by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syrian regime and Russian forces.

But the propaganda machine built by the extremist group will continue to exist in the hidden corners of the dark web, inciting sympathisers to action, officials warn.

"Defeating ISIL on the physical battlefield is not enough," General Joseph Votel, the top commander for US military forces in the Middle East, said in a paper earlier this year.

The propaganda machine built by the extremist group will continue to exist in the hidden corners of the dark web, inciting sympathisers to action


The Islamic State group's loss of almost all its territory in Iraq and in Syria has damaged its online communication efforts, following a boom in propaganda operations in 2014-2015.

He described this online network as "a distorted version of the historic Islamic caliphate: it is a stratified community of Muslims who are led by a caliph (currently Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), aspire to participate in a state governed by sharia, and are located in the global territory of cyberspace."

"Following even a decisive defeat in Iraq and Syria, ISIL will likely retreat to a virtual safe haven - a virtual caliphate - from which it will continue to coordinate and inspire external attacks as well as build a support base until the group has the capability to reclaim physical territory," said Votel. 

But it has not put an end to it completely. 

The IS "news agency" and propaganda machine Amaq continues to claim responsibility for attacks and incite further violence.  

Most recently, it claimed that Stephen Paddock, the gunman who massacred 58 people in Las Vegas on Sunday, was an IS "soldier" – a claim met with widespread scepticism.

One theory is that the Islamic State is seeking to keep up publicity efforts to maintain relevance with its sympathisers and continue recruitment efforts, even as it faces military defeats on the ground.

'Hiding in the deep web'

The Islamic State will likely work to persuade its followers that the idea of a caliphate is more important than its physical presence, researcher Charlie Winter, who wrote a report on IS's web presence for British think tank Quilliam, said.

"Censoring the internet is not going to work," he told AFP.

"Policy makers are focusing their attention on the wrong part of the internet, and that's problematic given that it's going to be a phenomenon to be dealt with in the next few years. 

Read more: The final days of the caliphate in Iraq

"Terrorists are now hiding in the deep web using encryption. 

"There will always be a safe place for them on the internet regardless of what politicians like to say."

Internet providers and major online players are beginning to put in place measures to disrupt IS's exploitation of the web after coming under pressure from authorities.

"But despite the increased vigilance of authorities and social networks the Islamic State has demonstrated significant resilience due to its flexibilty and ability to adapt when facing the suppression of online jihadist content," French researchers Laurence Binder and Raphael Gluck say.

"It manages to still disseminate sufficiently to reach a pool of sympathisers and recruits."

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