ISIS has not only lost the Iraqi city of Mosul, it’s also losing the cyberspace jihad.
Cyber jihad efforts of the self-described Islamic State are weakening in quantity, quality and effectiveness as “cracks” appear in the terrorist group’s online propaganda machine, a new report argues.
Since 2016, proactive antiterrorist measures by technology companies and intelligence services, massive airstrikes targeting ISIS’ logistical backbone and leading propagandists, and aggressive online counter-propaganda campaigns conducted independently by Internet users have taken their toll on the online capacities of the terrorist group, Miron Lakomy, a Polish cybersecurity and information warfare specialist, and assistant professor of International Relations at the University of Silesia, Poland, argues in a new article published by The University of Leiden’s Perspectives on Terrorism magazine.
Lakomy says that a dramatic reduction in the number and quality of ISIS-produced propaganda videos, complete with uncharacteristic and embarrassing editing and spelling mistakes, highlights “personnel shortages, excessive hastiness or incompetence.”
“The Islamic State nowadays, fails to maintain its former, top-notch level of cyber jihad, as it struggles with serious financial and personnel shortcomings, as well as with the increasingly hostile digital environment,” Lakomy writes.
ISIS propaganda has been a key force behind its efforts to recruit foreign fighters and supporters. The U.S. government estimates more than 40,000 foreign fighters have joined the group.
Lakomy argues that ISIS cyber jihad and recruitment efforts are losing significant ground on the web for offline reasons:
Propaganda production by ISIS propagandists has fallen massively: According to data gathered by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the number of ISIS monthly propaganda productions dropped to 194 in August 2016 from 761 in August 2015.
ISIS is increasingly dependent on photo reports and short battle videos: These recent efforts are “bearing no signs of advanced post production efforts,” unlike the high quality propaganda it spread online in 2014 and 2015. ISIS militants are frequently recycling the same content, as well, since coalition forces began their assault on Mosul.
Audio-only propaganda “has encountered visible setbacks as well”: ISIS’ recent efforts are not as slick as they were a few years ago, and they are not as popular online. The production of these broadcasts is down, too.
The web has become a “much more hostile place for jihadis”: Lakomy says social media companies like Twitter have banned more than 125,000 jihadi accounts and deleted an additional 235,000. In December 2016, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, and YouTube teamed up to develop innovative tools to identify terrorist imagery and videos online faster and have them removed before they spread.
Ordinary Internet users also are fighting back, exposing and ridiculing jihadi terrorists in cyberspace and working to have their messages and accounts deleted quicker. The organization’s propaganda distribution channels have thus been reduced substantially.
10,000 airstrikes on ISIS targets have led to major military defeats and the elimination of key propagandists, like Jihadi John (killed in 2015 drone strike) and ISIS chief spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani: Many ISIS fighters charged with managing the terrorist group’s money and looted oil field assets in Iraq – more than 10,000 fighters over the past 18 months ― have been killed in coalition airstrikes, causing a major decline in the group’s finances. Its revenues have been hit hard, falling to between $520 million and $870 million in 2016 alone, and forcing fighters to take 50-percent pay cuts.
Lakomy says it’s still too early to conclude that ISIS has been “pushed back into the digital underground,” but he argues the results are good so far.
“These first cracks on the online caliphate may be a great and unique chance for Western nations,” Lakomy concludes. “The current situation is a fantastic starting point to develop a worldwide counter-propaganda strategy which will take advantage of the troubles experienced by the Islamic State.”
Andrew McIntosh is an award-winning Seattle-based journalist who specializes in terrorism, national security and aerospace.
This article was originally published on HuffPost Quebec.