The Virtual Caliphate


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On February 14, the Iraqi military announced that a wave of airstrikes directed at ISIS on February 11 in Anbar province near the border with Syria had killed 77 extremists, including 13 senior commanders. One of the airstrikes also targeted the terror group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — but officials were unable to verify if he was at the location at the time of the attack and if so, whether he had escaped or had been injured or killed.

This wasn’t the first time there has been tantalizing speculation that the reclusive leader of ISIS has been seriously wounded or killed. For example, a British newspaper reported in June 2016 that Baghdadi had had been killed during a coalition bombing raid in Raqqa, Syria.

Baghdadi news surfaced again on March 1 when the U.K.’s Daily Mail reported about an alleged farewell address Baghdadi allegedly delivered through ISIS affiliated preachers, admitting defeat in Iraq and ordering the remaining militants in Mosul to either run and hide, return to their home countries and carry out attacks, or blow themselves up, promising those who chose the latter “72 women in heaven.”

While Baghdadi’s death or capture would certainly be a huge symbolic achievement for coalition forces, Baghdadi, who has spoken rarely, has never been ISIS’s inspirational leader and the reason why so many thousands have been willing to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. From the time a few hundred ISIS fighters first swept across the desert and captured Mosul in 2014, the group’s success owed as much to marketing and media savvy as to battlefield victories. ISIS continues to produce  slick propaganda videos, most horrendously violent. The videos, and relentless hate-filled messaging, continues to be broadcast day and night over the Internet and on social media platforms in many languages, and is echoed by thousands of supporters and recruiters. This 21st Century media machine has always been ISIS’s backbone and why it was able to entice more than 30,000 men and women from 100 countries, including America, to join. 

ISIS may be eventually driven from Mosul, and its Syrian stronghold, Raqqa, but the group is evolving. Recent attacks have been carried out by ISIS affiliates in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Sinai Peninsula, Yemen, Somalia, India, Bangladesh and other parts of Asia. And beginning in late 2014, ISIS senior leaders like former official spokesperson Abu Mohammad al-Adnani have been hinting that rather than traveling to Syria and Iraq, followers could bring glory to the Caliphate by also carrying out attacks in their home countries.

And they have responded. A series of what were initially thought to be “lone-wolf” attacks were determined to be guided and directed by ISIS recruiters and propagandists like Rachid Kassim, who was targeted in early February by a U.S. airstrike near Mosul. French authorities have connected Kassim to numerous terror incidents, including the murder of a police officer and his wife in Magnanville France on June 13, 2016; the murder of an elderly priest in Normandy on July 26, 2016; and the attempt by three French women to detonate a car filled with explosives outside the Notre Dame cathedral in September 2016.

And Kassim was only one ISIS recruiter. Many more remain, as does ISIS’s ability to produce propaganda videos and other incitement content in many languages and broadcast it over the Internet and social media platforms in search of potential conscripts to radicalization and terror around the world.

While most Internet and social media platforms ostensibly prohibit violence and promotion of terrorism, removing content is a slow and mechanical process that most often is triggered bv a user complaint. And taking down something does not prevent it from being uploaded again.

In June 2016, the Counter Extremism Project unveiled a response to the weaponization of the Internet and social media platforms by ISIS and other extremist groups. In partnership with Dartmouth College Computer Science Professor Dr. Hany Farid, the world’s foremost authority on “hashing” technology, the CEP announced eGLYPH, software capable of detecting and efficiently and permanently removing extremist images, videos and audio messages that have been pre-determined to violate the terms of service of Internet and social media companies.

The same type of software developed by Dr. Farid almost 10 years ago is widely used today around the world to instantly identify and remove graphic images of child exploitation. Remarkably, the Internet and social media companies resisted adopting the child exploitation software when it was unveiled. Likewise, despite its promise to shut down a great amount of the raw material that leads to radicalizing and recruiting new terrorists, no Internet or social media company has yet stepped forward and agreed to adopt the eGLYPH software.

We cannot pretend that the Internet and social media is not a place where terrorists are recruiting, radicalizing and glorifying violence with real consequences. The dead bodies strewn on the streets of Paris, Brussels and in other places say otherwise.