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The cyber caliphate 

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When it comes to maintaining land, ISIS has not had a good year. A series of defeats has left the terrorist group without a state, geographically speaking — having lost 98% of the land it once controlled. Raqqa was captured by Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters (backed by the U.S.) and Mosul was retaken in July 2017. However, in the digital world, ISIS is as strong as ever and their influence is growing.

Due to the ubiquitous influence of the Internet, ISIS is brazenly dominating the digital world. For those who thought that expelling ISIS from its physical land was the key to eliminating their threat, a reassessment of the situation may be needed. In the wake of losing land, a new emphasis is being placed on cyber attacks. There’s never been a time in history where such a small number of people can have such a great influence, using the Internet is their main weapon. They can reach anyone in the world.

ISIS is using the Internet to raise funds, recruit, and spread propaganda, attack websites and spread malware all while simultaneously carrying out its conventional terrorist tactics. The Internet is allowing the scattered ISIS foot soldiers to re-group, continue to coordinate attacks and maintain logistics in the absence of a state.

ISIS' new identity is being formed using a relatively simple encrypted cyber domains. The Deep Web is used to host communication platforms. ISIS meets in chat rooms and conduct forums that cannot be easily penetrated by law enforcement and use the back channels to purchase weapons and sell drugs. The virtual world will always exist, no matter how much land is won or lost. The group is proving the need for land is not a necessity for its jihad.

Senator Ron Johnson, the chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee warns that even though the United States achieved major victories in the past year, it’s way too early to open the champagne bottles.

“It is good that we by large have taken away the physical caliphate, [but] we have in no way, shape or form denied then the cyber caliphate. That may be a more persistent, long-term threat,” he says.

ISIS has a large and growing pool of recruits. Conflicts in the Middle East, along with political uncertainties and nationalist rhetoric in Europe and America, has produced alienated youth, malnourished and orphaned refugees, and disgruntled people throughout the world. And most of them, no matter how desperate their situation, have access to computers.

But more countermeasures are on the way.

In June of 2017, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism was formed by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube. The purpose is to structure, organize and collaborate to combat cyber terrorism. They decided on three ways to accomplish their goal: technological solutions, research and sharing knowledge.

The US Cyber Command is also expanding their force from 700 to 6000 military and civilian employees. The Cyber Command will use tools such as subverted satellites, disrupted microwave relays, and data dragnets to combat cyber terrorism. The Command’s purpose is to make digital cyber war of equal importance as land, air, sea and space war.

While America has the capabilities to combat cyber terrorism, the cutting-edge technology we use will be nullified as long as the turmoil and political climate in Europe, the Middle East and America persist. Global unrest is producing and endless supply of potential terrorist recruits and there's no technology, no matter how advanced, capable of putting a muzzle on worldwide digital communication. At some point, we may have to actually sit down and talk to each other face-to-face. That would be a great start.

Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at thruss09@gmail.com, and his photography at thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com.

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