The Complex

Iraqi Government Takes Its Fight With ISIS Online

Iraqi soldiers may have dropped their weapons, stripped off their uniforms, and fled the Islamist jihadists who have conquered a growing list of cities as they move closer to Baghdad. On the battlefields of cyberspace, by contrast, the Iraqi government is putting up a fierce fight against the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

In the past week, government ministries have blocked Internet access in regions where ISIS has a physical foothold in an attempt to stop the group from spreading propaganda and recruiting followers among Iraq's repressed Sunni minority. The government has also ordered Internet service providers across the country to block all access to certain social media sites, including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, which are ISIS's favorite tools for spreading propaganda and posting photos and videos of their victories over the Iraqi military and their wholesale slaughter of unarmed Shiites -- both sources of tremendous embarrassment for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite.

Baghdad's online offensive appears to be having some effect. As of Tuesday, June 17, daily Internet traffic across Iraq had dropped by roughly a third, said David Belson, editor of the State of the Internet Report, published by web services company Akamai Technologies, which monitors Internet access around the world.

But because Baghdad doesn't have centralized control over the country's telecommunications infrastructure, it cannot enforce a complete cyber-blackout the way government authorities have done in Syria, to block rebel fighters from communicating with each other, and in Egypt, where the government shut down Internet access across the country during citizen uprisings. Iraq is instead awash in Internet service providers, which compete with each other and against other companies in Turkey and Iran. In some portions of the country where ISIS has established strongholds or taken over cities, including in northern Iraq, the group is likely getting online with the help of foreign companies.

"There are providers that the government can take offline, but some, like Newroz [Telecom], the Kurdish provider, is so well connected to Turkey that they don't need Iraq's Internet backbone," said Doug Madory, a senior analyst with Renesys, which has been tracking Internet connectivity in Iraq for the past week.

Although it's unclear whether Iraq is winning its cyberfight with ISIS, the central government has stepped up its offensive. On Sunday, June 15, the Iraqi Ministry of Communications instructed 10 Internet service providers, including one of Iraq's largest, to cut off service in five provinces, including those where ISIS has made its biggest gains, according to a government document posted on the website of the Social Media Exchange, an Internet advocacy group based in Beirut.

"Shut down the Internet totally on these Provinces: Ninawa [Nineveh], Anbar, Saleh El Din [Salahaddin], Kirkuk, Diyalah," the ministry ordered, according to a translation by the advocacy group. The provinces include the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, which ISIS conquered in January, as well as Tikrit and Mosul, which the jihadi group overran and occupied this month.

The order was a modified version of one issued by the ministry on June 13 that also aimed to block Internet access in key ISIS strongholds. The latest directive added more Internet service providers to the list of those subject to government-imposed restrictions, indicating that the central government is increasing pressure on Internet companies to help it fight ISIS. The Communications Ministry also appeared to threaten companies that didn't comply. "There will be a special security committee specialized [to] check that you are following these instructions," the translation of the ministry's order said. "The companies that won't obey will be threatening the security of the country."

The security of the country is already at risk, and there are few tangible signs that the government's online crackdown is having the desired effect of halting ISIS's physical advances or keeping it from spreading propaganda. In recent days, ISIS fighters have moved to within 40 miles of Baghdad. And the blockade of Twitter's website didn't stop an ISIS-linked account from posting on Sunday a photo of a mass execution of captured Iraqi soldiers.

Site-by-site blocking is likely to do little to prevent ISIS from planning new attacks because the militants keep their electronic communications to a bare minimum and instead use human couriers to hand-deliver messages to each other. ISIS uses social media to spread its propaganda, but the group isn't likely to post battlefield plans in a tweet or a status update. Choking off Twitter, in other words, won't deal ISIS a cyber death blow. "These are clandestine organizations. They are practicing good operational security," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism analyst and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who studies ISIS and other al Qaeda-linked groups.

Baghdad is doing all it can to ensure that the group stumbles all the same. The government's cyberoffensive began in earnest early last week. On June 9, the day before Mosul fell to ISIS, analysts noticed a large disruption to Internet service in Iraq, Belson said. It lasted only a few hours, and it was followed by another disruption of similar length on June 12, as the crisis intensified. Several analysts said both disruptions could be traced to actions by the Iraqi government to restrict Internet access. That was followed by official orders to take down service in the regions where ISIS has seized cities.

Cutting off an entire region's Internet access may keep people from seeing ISIS propaganda or humiliating footage of captured Iraqi tanks and vehicles, as well as horrifying images of slaughtered Shiites and captured soldiers lined up for executions. But such broad online assaults also have a significant potential downside, analysts said. Internet blockades make daily life difficult for ordinary Iraqis, including many of the Sunni minority population that Maliki has long repressed. Sunnis are likely to see online outages as a form of censorship and another example of the central government's willingness to punish their entire population because of the sins of a few.

U.S. President Barack Obama has conditioned any military assistance to Baghdad to help repel ISIS's advance on a political reconciliation between Iraq's Shiite-dominated government and the Sunnis. And on Monday, the administration cautioned Iraq not to limit its citizens' online communications. "While we understand Iraqi concerns about the spread of terrorist activity-related messaging on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, we're strongly urging the Iraqi government to continue to allow Iraqi citizens access to these sites," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he supported Iraq's efforts to block ISIS from spreading propaganda via social media. "I have been deeply critical of attempts by governments, especially China, Egypt, and Syria to engage in systematic censorship of the Internet, or to cut off access altogether as a means of maintaining political control," Schiff said. "But no government should be expected to allow material that deliberately incites violence and depicts a depraved level of brutality. Iraq desperately needs to undergo a process of political and religious reconciliation and Sunni voices must be heard, but snuff videos and calls to murder should not be part of that conversation."

Madory, the Internet traffic analyst, said governments start losing popular support the instant they cut off people's access to the Internet. That may explain why the latest restrictions are focused on regions where ISIS is strongest and appear to be aimed at minimizing broad disruptions and only blocking the services and tools that ISIS is most likely to use. The latest order instructs Internet service providers to "block all access to VPN [virtual private networks] in all Iraq" every day from 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. VPNs allow users to communicate with each other privately and securely, and they could be used by ISIS fighters to evade detection by Iraqi intelligence and security services. But by keeping the curfew limited to hours when businesses are more likely to be closed, the government may avoid annoying Iraqi citizens and business owners who use VPNs for legitimate purposes, analysts said.

The new government effort to block access to certain social media also reflects Baghdad's gradual adoption of a more nuanced approach toward fighting ISIS in cyberspace. Internet service providers have been ordered to block access to the websites for Facebook, YouTube, Viber, and Skype, as well as the social media applications Tango, WeChat, Instagram, and DiDi. Since June 13, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have all reported that users in Iraq have had technical issues accessing the service.

But Iraqis haven't been knocked offline entirely -- at least not outside the five targeted provinces. "Internet traffic across Iraq is still exhibiting its normal peak-use patterns," albeit at reduced levels, "so there are still sites people have access to," Belson said. "It could be news traffic or World Cup traffic that we're seeing, given that most social media has been blocked."

Limiting ISIS's access to social media won't prevent the jihadists from finding quick and easy ways to continue spreading their violent messages and anti-government diatribes, analysts said. One tactic used by activists and rebels in other countries is to post messages in the comments sections of old blog posts or on websites completely unrelated to the group's cause that would attract no official scrutiny.

"Maybe the insurgents will just say, 'Go to the strawberry pie recipe on the America's Test Kitchen website'" to read their updates, Belson said. Then, officials would have to try to block access to that site and wherever ISIS hopped to next. "It's absolutely Whac-A-Mole," Belson said.

This article has been updated.

The Complex

ISIS Uses Mafia Tactics to Fund Its Own Operations Without Help From Persian Gulf Donors

When fighters from the Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham (ISIS) stole tens of millions of dollars from a bank in Mosul earlier this year, it wasn't simply a startling symbol of the collapse of Baghdad's control over Iraq's second-largest city. The brazen theft was instead a stark illustration of one of the most alarming aspects of ISIS's rise: the group's growing ability to fund its own operations through bank heists, extortion, kidnappings, and other tactics more commonly associated with the mob than with violent Islamist extremists.

In its early years ISIS -- like the Taliban and other Sunni militants -- received most of its funding from wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and other Persian Gulf countries. Extremists in those U.S. ally states continue to send money to ISIS, but American counterterrorism officials believe that the group now finances the bulk of its recruitment, weapons purchases, and attacks without outside help. In other words, even if the United States and its allies somehow stopped the flow of money from the Persian Gulf to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, it would be too late to prevent ISIS from banking enough money to fight on for years.

"The overwhelming majority of their money comes from criminal activities like bank heists, extortion, robberies, and smuggling," said one U.S. counterterrorism official. "They're getting some money from outside donors, but that pales in comparison to their self-funding."

The exact amount of money in ISIS's possession is the subject of intense debate among Western intelligence officials. At the high end, some analysts estimate that the group may have access to at least $500 million in cash drawn from bank robberies, oil smuggling, and old-fashioned extortion and protection rackets. Other analysts believe the number is far lower, with one official putting it at between $100 million and $200 million. Those numbers are moving higher as the group conquers more cities on its seemingly inexorable drive toward Baghdad and is able to loot the local private and government banks. On Monday, ISIS fighters took the strategically important town of Tal Afar, adding to the territory under its direct control.  

Calculating the true size of ISIS's coffers is complicated by the lack of U.S. intelligence assets in the areas the group controls in Syria and Iraq and by the difficulty of sorting through the group's sophisticated propaganda efforts. In closed-door briefings on Capitol Hill, senior officials from the intelligence community dismissed the initial reports that ISIS may have stolen more than $400 million from the bank in Mosul and said those figures were highly exaggerated. "We're talking tens of millions from Mosul, not hundreds of millions," one official said.

Either way, ISIS is one of the best-funded extremist organizations in the world. The group's immense cash holdings, meanwhile, don't paint a full picture of the group's resources. The Iraqi military has largely collapsed since ISIS launched its surprise offensive earlier this year, allowing an array of major cities -- including several within striking distance of Baghdad -- to fall into the hands of the insurgents. The fleeing Iraqi troops left behind enormous quantities of American-donated armored vehicles, weapons, ammunition, and other military supplies. All of that is now in the hands of ISIS fighters.

Juan Zarate, a former assistant Treasury secretary who led the department's crackdown on terrorism financing, said ISIS was carrying out significant amounts of smuggling operations, extortion, kidnapping, and other run-of-the-mill crimes in the growing swaths of Syria and Iraq that it controls. Foreign donors, he added, were stepping up their support for the group because of its successes against the hated secular government of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and the equally unpopular Western-backed, Shiite-dominated Maliki government.

"It's the worst of all worlds: external funding from wealthy outside donors, state sponsorship from across the Persian Gulf, and the ability to raise large amounts of money locally," Zarate said.

ISIS's ability to self-fund its operations comes from its willingness to blend traditional criminal techniques like kidnapping with the lucrative smuggling opportunities that come from controlling oil-rich swaths of land.   

A recent research note from the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that even before the group's conquest of Mosul, ISIS "extorted taxes from businesses small and large, netting upwards of $8 million a month, according to some estimates."

An April report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, citing the work of Syrian journalist Malik al-Abdeh, said that rival rebel groups had taken control of Syrian oil fields in Hasakah and the Euphrates Valley. The report said that six refineries in the border town of Tal Abyad were being used to produce diesel and gasoline that was then smuggled into Turkey. All told, the report estimated, the groups could be raking in $50 million per month in oil revenues.

ISIS's success at funding its own operations is indicative of a broader trend. Extremist groups throughout much of the world, particularly Africa, are beginning to reduce their dependence on outside donors. In a speech earlier this month, David Cohen, the undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the success of Western interdiction efforts meant that terror groups were increasingly reliant on kidnapping to fund their operations. "Aside from state sponsorship of terrorism, ransom payments are the greatest source of terrorist funding today," he said.

In the case of ISIS, Western intelligence and counterterrorism officials believe that the group is using the money to pay its fighters, buy more weaponry, and bribe Sunni tribal leaders to either openly or tacitly support their offensive against Maliki. Zarate said the group's bulging coffers meant that ISIS's leaders now have the resources, if they chose to use them, to begin setting up training camps or command-and-control infrastructure in the areas they control and to look for ways to extend their fight to other regions and countries.

"This kind of money allows them to start thinking bigger and broader, and about a long-term strategy for where they want to go," Zarate said. "That begins to give them reach, which is really dangerous."

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