How the anonymous worldwide internet made ISIS international

Guest post by SARWET ABDULLA MOHAMMED,Australia / University of Southern Queensland, Humanities and Communication

Since the revolution in technology and ISIS many things in different fields have been changed. Communications is one of the fields which have been developed. As a consequence the internet has come to have an impact on human life, particularly on communications from a distance. The beginning of the internet was in 1969, so then is also the beginning of building a world which is called the ‘Global Village’. The characteristics of the internet are likely to be the main cause of growing this new technology quickly and having an impact on all aspects of everyday life. For instance, sending information fast causes us to use the internet as an alternative to post mail. Multimedia is likely to be the main reason to use the internet instead of other channels like newspapers, radio, and television. In terms of the military, it is clear that at the beginning the internet was used for military purposes in the age of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union in 1957 sent the first satellite into space. Then the USA felt insecure in the field of military information, particularly in gathering, saving and protecting this information. Developing this new communications technology quickly and using it in different ways should raise two important points. Using the internet helps people and groups with various purposes. For example, terrorists can use it to attack others and make threats against them, because the internet has many special characteristics. Gabriel Weimann (2005, p. 386) states that the nature of the internet its ‘international character and chaotic structure, the simple access, and the anonymity all furnish terrorist organizations with an ideal arena for action’. This paper will argue that the internet as a modern way to create communication between two senders from two distant places is likely to play a great role in the transformation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) issue from a local problem to an international problem. First, the paper will focus on the internet and its characteristics. In the second section it will briefly describe ISIS history and their main purpose. Finally, it will argue that the internet could convert this group of terrorists into an international issue.

The Internet and its characteristics

At the beginning the internet was made for a military purpose when (Ryan 2010) the Soviet Union had created the first world’s intercontinental ballistic missile (r-7 rocket) in 1957. Then, in October 1957 Soviets also sent the first satellite into space. Therefore, this progress of the Soviet Union caused the United States to feel fear, so they also started a new communication process to link computers and information together in order to protect that information from Soviet attacks. This process started in 1958 and they were able to find a way to make a link between four computers when in 1968 ‘Eberhardt Rechtin, signed off on an initial project to build a four-nodes network joining computers at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), UC Santa Barbara, UCLA and the University of Utah’ (Ryan 2010, p.29). After many tests and spending much American government money (Ryan 2010, p.30) ‘on 29 October 1969 at 10.30 p.m., they could make their first attempt to communicate with each other over 350 miles of leased telephone line. This was the first ARPANET transmission’. After twenty years of development and use by academic researchers, this new technology quickly expanded and changed from the military aspect to other aspects such as economic, education, social, and health. Thus, the number of internet users increased daily. Also, because of its characteristics it could attract many different groups including [like liberals, democrats, and] terrorists. For instance, terrorist groups began to utilize this technology for various purposes such as propaganda, communication with their supporters, creating public awareness and building sympathy, and even to execute operations. Gabriel Weimann (2006) estimated that the number of terrorist websites was about 4,800. The internet has many characteristics which seem to be most important for terrorist groups during their activities. Gabriel (2006. p. 624) states that ‘the commutative power of the Net is an essential weapon in the group’s extensive campaign against the West’. Weimann (2006, p. 624) mentions some of these characteristics:

• Easy access;
• Little or no regulation, censorship, or other forms of
government control;
• Potentially huge audiences spread throughout the world;
• Anonymity of communication;
• Fast flow of information;
• Inexpensive development and maintenance of a web
presence;
• A multimedia environment (the ability to combine text,
graphics, audio, and video and to allow users to
download films, songs, books, posters, and so forth)
• Interactive medium; and
• The ability to shape coverage in the traditional mass
media, which increasingly use the Internet as a source
for stories.

These characteristics could be the main points which promote the terrorism issue from a local case to an international case and create a threat for every country’s security. Because of this, Ban Ki-moon Secretary-General of the United Nations says ‘the Internet is a prime example of how terrorists can behave in a truly transnational way; in response, States need to think and function in an equally transnational manner’ (United Nations office on Drugs and Crime, Vienna 2012, p. iii).

About the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is a terrorist group which uses Islamic background in order to achieve their aims. ISIS is the abbreviation for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the last ‘S’ of ‘ISIS’ comes from the Arabic word ‘al-Sham’, meaning Levant, Syria or occasionally Damascus, depending on the circumstances. Patrick Cockburn (2014) explains that ‘ISIS has taken over from the al-Qaeda organization founded by Osama bin Laden as the most powerful and effective extreme jihadi group in the world’. < http://www.independent.co.uk>. In June 2014, Isis controlled the northern city of Mosul, and then they wanted to move towards Baghdad, but could get no nearer than 40 km to Baghdad. According to a BBC report (29 June 2015) the director of the US National Counterterrorism Center explained that ISIS could overrun a big area similar in size to the UK, or about 210,000 sq km. The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross believes that more than 10 million people are living in territory under ISIS control. In addition, more than 22,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries are fighting for this group. According to the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) and the New York-based Soufan Group ’75 percent of ISIS fighters are from nearby Arab countries, while about a quarter of the foreign fighters are from the West’. Generally, now ISIS could gather between ‘20,000 and 32,000 fighters’ in Iraq and Syria’. In terms of aims ISIS seeks to eradicate obstacles to restoring God’s rule on the Earth and to defend the Muslim community, or umma, against infidels and apostates’. < http://www.bbc.com/>.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the wealthy Gulf States are those countries which appear to support ISIS. A journalist’s report published on the BBC website (1 September 2014) claimed that ISIS has received funds from donors and advocates, particularly in the wealthy Gulf States. It is clear that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have funded groups that have strongly Islamist credentials because they believe that the Syrian president could soon fall. ISIS can also obtain money internally, because they can export about 9,000 barrels of oil per day at prices ranging from $25-$45 (£15-£27). < http://www.bbc.com/>. Indeed, they have another way to obtain several million dollars per month such as robbing, looting, and extortion, and conducting business in ISIS territory under the guise of providing services or “protection”. < http://www.bbc.com/>.

The internet and ISIS

Many scholars believe that the media is an essential thread in the tapestry of terrorism, which means terrorism without the media seems not to have the ability to achieve their objectives. Schmid and de Graaf (2011) believe that in the last two decades communication is for terrorism like a heart for the human body. The Internet as a modern new technology channel seems to be the most important way to create communication in the 21st century. After 11 September 2001 the internet became the first source to get and share information for both the public and terrorist groups, because after 9/11 many Americans wanted to find information about Arabs and Muslims, as they could not travel thousands of miles just to understand what is Arab and Muslim and what are the differences between them, and what are their perspectives on world events (Seib and Jambek 2011). Terrorist groups like ISIS use the internet for different purposes and in the end it transforms these groups from a local issue to an international issue. It is clear that Al-Qaeda at the beginning showed themselves as a local group which was fighting against Russia, but they were able to change their aims and reach through using the internet, because this modern technology could create global villages through its characteristics. Gabriel Weimann (2011, p.769) argues that ‘the internet communications have become the main communication system among Al-Qaeda around the world, because it is safer, easier, and more anonymous if they take the right precautions’. It means that these features could give a great chance to Al-Qaeda to show themselves as global group. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant usually use the internet and social media like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to post some information and statements to explain something which is related to Muslim daily life around the world. For example, on 22 September 2015 (two days before Eid al-Adha) ISIS posted a statement which asked Muslims to not behead a sheep in front of other sheep. Obviously, they shared this information in order to create a link between all members around the world. Gabriel (2011) mentioned that today Muslim people do not need to visit a sheik (cleric) for religious instruction because of the age of information which has opened up a new way for them to acquire such knowledge.

There are several characteristics of the internet which help terrorist groups to create the biggest possible network of links and communications around the world. In the rest of this section we will try to mention the most important elements of the internet which ISIS can use for transforming their effectiveness and exchanging information between the leadership and members and others outside their organization.

Links to other sites

One of the more important and useful features of the internet’s webpages includes finding other websites through one site. It means that the sites when posting information or a statement can at the same time add many different links to sites which have posted the same information or have more detail about this or other subjects. For instance, the Al-Muslmeen Army in Iraq has 17 links which help users to find like-minded users and make connection with other organizations (Seib and Janbek 2011). Naturally, ISIS uses the same technique when posting a video or image on their facebook or twitter page. They usually post the same picture about their activities on facebook and also mention another website which is important for getting more detail about ISIS and other activities.

Chat Rooms

Chat rooms are websites or parts of websites which have been provided on the internet which users can use as a conference room to discuss and exchange ideas on a subject of common interest, usually in real time. One important characteristic of this new technology is that many users can participate in one room where everyone has his or her own microphone to engage in speaking and listening. Gabriel Weimann (2010, p. 46) states that ‘chat rooms and electronic forums enable terrorist groups to communication with members and supporters all over the world, to recruit new followers and to share information at little risk of identification by authorities’. It is clear that terrorists cannot create discussions with others about their ideas and aims explicitly, so they need to find another way to do that. That is why they use internet chat rooms for this purpose. In addition, today terrorist members use another way to contact people individually like facebook, for two main reasons. First, facebook is the most popular social networking website, According to The Statistics Portal (2015) timeline of the number of active facebook users from 2008 to 2015 worldwide, in 2015 the number of active facebook users reached 1.49 billion per month. < http://www.statista.com/>. Thus, facebook has become a popular social medium. ISIS usually uses facebook to create contact with members and explain their ideas to those new members who want to get involved and participate in this group. Through facebook chat they can give people more detail very easily.

Sharing information

Other characteristics of the internet which are more useful for ISIS in order to become an international actor include sharing and posting information about different aspects of the organization. As Gabriel Weimann (2005, p. 386) states, all terrorist websites contain detailed information about several different subjects like the ‘history of the organization and biographies of its leader, founders, heroes, commander, or revered personalities, information on the political and ideological aims of the organization, and up-to-date news’. Naturally, sharing background information is the most important step to create communication with people who want to join those groups. Therefore, ISIS through this technique can make contact with many people to ask them to join the group in different countries.

Financial support

Nowadays, many businesses, companies and individuals use the internet to transfer funds and money, for two main reasons. First, many international banks have branches in many different countries. Second, transferring money through this approach is very easy and safe. However, after 9/11 transferring money through the internet became the best way for terrorist groups and they could use this new technology for funding their purposes and receiving money sent by their members. According to Treasury undersecretary David Cohen, ISIS try to use the international financial system and access those branches of banks which are located in Syria and Iraq. Business Insider website (24 March 2015) explains that the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in their report demonstrates ‘[ISIS’] continued ability to receive money transferred to nearby areas or to designated individuals, whether through bank-issued electronic funds transfers (EFTs) or alternative money transfer systems’. < http://www.businessinsider.com/>. It is clear that ISIS could use electronic means to launder the money which they asked the members to send them. For example, Bill Blakemore shared news on the ABC News website about an internet message which insurgents in Iraq posted asking for munitions, volunteers and financial support. In addition, Matthew Levitt (2014) states that the Netherlands reportedly ‘found similar indications that foreign terrorist fighters were using debit cards linked to their national bank accounts when withdrawing money from ATMs alongside those areas where ISIS operates’. < http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/>. This means ISIS fighters use electronic bank services to launder money. This process which ISIS is doing through the internet and the international banking system has caused the Treasury Department (Levitt 2015) to ask bilaterally governments around the world ‘to cut ISIS off from the international financial system’. Thus, we can see that ISIS could make problems for many countries through their money laundering activities by using the internet and new technology.

Using different languages

Sharing and posting statements on websites and using different languages is another way ISIS has been transformed into an international issue. Language options are another characteristic of the internet which allows users to choose the language they use. The terrorist groups use this facility to be sure that their posts are read by many people. Weimann (2011) states that the terrorist groups use numerous languages to describe ideas and aims. ISIS also uses the same technique to attract more readers and have an effect on them.

Conclusion

The internet can be the popular channel which Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) can use to have an impact on others by sharing and posting their ideas and activities. This new technology has many characteristics which have caused ISIS to become an international issue instead of a local one. When this terrorist group requires members in different countries to support it and send money and more munitions to them, the process makes these countries create an alliance to fight against this group. It means that ISIS has been transformed from a local problem to an international one. This paper has argued that the terrorist group that goes under the name of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant through using internet seems to have become an international issue. At the beginning the essay explained the internet characteristics which play a great role in the process of transformation. Then it has focused on ISIS’ use of the internet. This group uses the internet and social networks widely in order to achieve their purposes. For example, through chat rooms can make links between members and then in these chat rooms describe and discuss their aims. ISIS also uses the internet to transfer money from one country to another which is close to their territories. In addition, this group tries translating those activities and statements into other languages. Thus, they can gather members and exchange the maximum amount of information with all countries. If governments want to control ISIS activities, they should focus more on the internet and prevent those websites which have links with this group and post terrorists’ ideas.

List of References

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