ISIS Loses Physical Territory But the ‘Virtual Caliphate’ Remains


There is no question that ISIS has suffered significant territorial defeats. The loss of territory brings with it a concomitant decrease in the funding (i.e., taxes and oil sales) that bankrolls savagery in the name of Allah. However, the biggest threat ISIS poses to the West at home is its well-known online propaganda efforts, the “Virtual Caliphate” that infects the internet. It is here that ISIS calls Muslims to launch attacks such as the recent jihadi truck slaughter in New York City. Thankfully, at least in the short term, the caliphate’s disarray on the battlefield has had a detrimental impact on the “Virtual Caliphate.” However, it is too soon celebrate the demise of ISIS’ online propaganda machine. As long as their digital shadow looms over the internet, there will remain among us the cowardly dogs eager to wreak havoc in the name of Islam.

From The BBC:

Is Islamic State losing control of its ‘virtual caliphate’?

Territory matters to IS, but it is not the be-all and end-all for a group that has long had a remarkably strong online presence.

However, there is lots that is wrong with the idea that it can simply retreat into a “virtual caliphate” and hope to be as powerful as it ever was.

IS will not go away, but nor will it thrive like it has done these past few years – not least because its official propagandists are in tatters.


There are three big factors that led to this state of affairs.

First is IS’s territorial setbacks: it is nigh on impossible to make propaganda about “normal” civilian life if normal civilians are few and far between.

And, even if they were to be found, there is the issue that IS propaganda takes a lot of polishing.

As the group has lost control of its strongholds in Syria and Iraq – along with the media hubs they housed – it has lost the ability to edit and produce propaganda on the industrial scale it once managed.

It is likely that some hubs still exist near the border between Syria and Iraq, but they are becoming fewer and further between by the day.

Increasingly, IS seems to be relying on places outside of its heartlands to keep up the propaganda flow: its Sinai and Afghan affiliates have been disproportionately vocal of late.

Second is IS’s reduced manpower.

Alongside IS fighters, media operatives have long been in the sights of the coalition and its allies.

Its spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani and information minister Abu Muhammed al-Furqan were killed last year.

Countless other mid- to high-level propaganda officials, cameramen, editors and producers have been targeted by coalition air strikes.

These mounting losses have inevitably had an impact on the operation as a whole.

Third, the internet is not quite the “safe space” it once was.

Whether it is down to coalition cyber-offensives, or self-regulation by internet service providers, IS can no longer use big social-media platforms and file-sharing spaces like it once could.

The sum of all this is a gradual, but undeniable, volte-face in IS’s propaganda.

This is important, and not just because it means IS is no longer able to be as internationally prominent as it once was.

Propaganda is a litmus test for organisational health, and that its brand has disintegrated in this way does not spell success for the group’s insurgent prospects in Syria and Iraq, at least in the short to medium term.

While this is certainly something to be optimistic about, it is not all good news.

IS may be less productive than ever, but the quality and ambition of its propaganda remains head and shoulders above that of its rivals.

Indeed, in spite of the pressures the group is facing on the ground in Syria and Iraq, the trickle of instructional materials on how to plan terror attacks still emerging online could prove extremely dangerous.

Another threat comes from its supporters, who still swap recipes for homemade explosives and handcrafted poison in their droves.

The problem hasn’t gone away, it’s just changed.

It is far too early to talk about the end of IS – either in Iraq and Syria, or as a “virtual caliphate” – but nor should we ignore the fact that it is reeling.

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