The ground battle for the Islamic State is not looking good and hasn’t for a while.
With ISIS troops on the run, the Western allies will likely have to deal with the next push of the notorious militant group in a very different arena.
If ISIS starts to be ineffective on the kinetic battlefield, they may shift gears to focus more on their cyberwar, a battle the group has been waging through proxies such as the United Cyber Caliphate (UCC) and Cyber Caliphate Army (CCA).
It has long been pointed out that ISIS does not maintain the most tech-savvy cyber warriors.
In a recent report delivered at a cybersecurity conference in Kentucky, one researcher gave a presentation explaining how ISIS's cyber operations are not even as “capable as many cybercriminal groups.”
ISIS hacker hallmarks tend to be defacing websites, by using rudimentary techniques to break into some web-facing databases. Some Islamic State-affiliated groups have also reportedly begun to create their own basic malware.
But defacing a website hardly qualifies as a high impact hack. More like “cyber-graffiti” than an actual attack.
The question then becomes why do ISIS followers invest in the cyber arena at all?
The answer to this lies in what the militant group is trying to accomplish through these cyber campaigns, and indeed what the broad strategy of the group is as a whole.
ISIS’s long-term strategy is to gain appeal amongst the Muslim masses, in Islamic countries but even more so in Western ones. The primary danger that ISIS poses to the West has never been- nor will it ever likely be- that a Caliphate army will march down the streets of a major Western capital. ISIS wants to arouse it’s fifth column fighters, the young Muslims, both men and women, of London, Brussels, and Paris, and get them to do their dirty work for them in rogue attacks.
Yes, big planned out attacks, like the 2015 Paris attacks and the Brussels airport bombing the following year, are devastating, but the real mayhem is produced by the little guys; the lone wolves that are nearly impossible to identify ahead of time.
To a certain degree, the whole ground war of ISIS in the Middle East and in other areas around the globe, can be seen as a type of propaganda display.
Yes, ISIS followers do have dreams of establishing a grand Caliphate with actual territory. However, the processes of bringing that Caliphate to actualization has a dual function. When sympathetic Muslims see victories of Islamic State warriors on the battlefield, and the social media campaigns promoting those victories, it runs the risk of spurring them to action. Defeats also can be flipped by the clever militant propagandists to push the need for action to bolster the group by taking revenge on the Western enemy.
Indeed the cyber arena is key to ISIS’s long-term goals. Whether or not a given breach is detrimental is almost insignificant; when a governmental organization of a country hostile to ISIS gets hacked, it makes the militants look good.
Consider the case of Algeria for instance, a country that’s been fighting to keep ISIS out of its borders, and until today suffers attacks at the hands of militants.
Over the course of 2016, 12 million attempted attacks, an average of 32,000 attempts a day, took place against the country’s Ministry of National Defense. Many of these were likely at the hands of ISIS groups seeking to diversify their targeting of an enemy government with low-sophistication cyberattacks. These attacks maintain the image of the undying struggle of ISIS. While individual fighters may be defeated by Western military hardware, the ideals of the fight continue to be pushed forward by the prestige these hacks represent for followers of ISIS.
This is why the cyber war against ISIS, and indeed all radical Muslim groups, should not be underestimated in its importance. The ground war against the Islamic State may be going well, but this is not a reason to take a breather from the cyber front. On the contrary, continued losses on the real-world battlefield may only add to the emphasis the group puts on the cyber one, leading to the development of new tactics, procedures, and tools for targeting its enemies, and sparking active support from would be soldiers in the West.