The Islamic State’s Imagined Community

27th May 2021

A new report by ISD and the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at the United States Military Academy at West Point offers a preliminary survey and analysis of one of the largest known online repositories of Islamic State materials, which was initially identified, accessed and documented by ISD. 

This Dispatch outlines a real-world case study involving the archive, and provides top-line policy considerations for stakeholders concerned by the proliferation of digital archives sympathetic to violent extremist groups.

* Given sensitivities concerning the inadvertent promotion or glorification of terrorist material in pursuit of research, the authors chose to use the pseudonym “Cloud Caliphate” for the repository rather than broadcast the domain name.

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From a sociological standpoint, whether used by extremist groups or non-violent movements, digital archives can help foster real and imagined identities. Arjun Appadurai suggests the archive represents a “collective will to remember” rather than a benign collection of the extant traces of history.

For Islamic State supporters, the creation and curation of the “Cloud Caliphate” is a process of delineating the ideological and territorial parameters of what it means to be a supporter or member of the Islamic State. The ideologues, scholars and territories included in the “Cloud Caliphate” repository (outlined in Part 1 of this series) are not incidental but, like any national archive, can demarcate what is important to the group. However, the archive itself is not solely used for national ends. It also contains instructional content – such as for hijacking planes – which offers tactical guidance rather than cultivating a sense of comradeship.

Ultimately, the cache arguably acts as an ever-evolving repository of cultural productions that communicate what the Islamic State is about, who champions its ideas and narratives, and separates the group’s enemies from its adherents.

Linkages to a Real-World Case

According to website analysis tools, thousands of people accessed the cache each month during the researchers’ period of analysis: these people might include administrators, Islamic State supporters, researchers, journalists, and possibly law enforcement and intelligence personnel.

The case of Muhammed al-Azhari, a 23-year-old American in Tampa, Florida, charged in May 2020 with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State, provides an interesting example of how Islamic State supporters accessed and possibly used the “Cloud Caliphate.”

While living in Saudi Arabia in 2015, al-Azhari was allegedly convicted “of possession of extremist propaganda, holding extremist views, and attempting to join a terrorist organisation, namely, Jaysh al-Islam.” Court documents explain that al-Azhari eventually returned to the US and eventually settled in Tampa in 2019, working at a Home Depot. During al-Azhari’s time in Tampa, the FBI became aware that he acquired at least three firearms. Al-Azhari allegedly attempted to modify those weapons and unlawfully acquire others to carry out a mass shooting similar to Omar Mateen’s 2016 attack on an Orlando nightclub.

Court filings indicate that the FBI discovered al-Azhari’s access to the “Cloud Caliphate” repository in 2020 while conducting a court-authorised search of al-Azhari’s electronic devices. According to the court documents, prosecutors provided evidence that al-Azhari accessed the cache and “consumed [Islamic State] propaganda and news, and made a video on his phone play-acting a terrorist scene.”

Although the court filings do not explain how else al-Azhari might have used the archive, the “Cloud Caliphate” does not appear to have played a definitive role in al-Azhari’s radicalisation process. Instead, it is possible that al-Azhari accessed ideological material or content offering tactical instruction in the cache’s military science folder. Al-Azhari’s use of the “Cloud Caliphate” is consistent with scholarship suggesting that the internet does not serve as a “virtual training camp” so much as it does a compilation of “resource-banks maintained and accessed largely by self-radicalised sympathisers.”

Policy considerations

Violent extremists’ efforts to collect and share content they deem meaningful will persist and evolve in response to any measures that governments or service providers impose. The expulsion of violent extremist archives and users who support or maintain them is neither possible nor necessary.

However, several courses of action may progressively weaken the influence of digital repositories like the “Cloud Caliphate,” minimising their potential effects on the pro-Islamic State community. Motivated by the strategy of “marginalising” violent extremism online, the following considerations emphasise proportionality, pragmatism and respect for human rights and the rule of law. A more in-depth discussion of these considerations are provided in ISD and CTC’s original report.

Relevant stakeholders must look for opportunities to identify, document, and study accessible repositories and take stock of the methods used to build, promote and maintain such resources.

While respecting human rights and the rule of law, relevant stakeholders should look for opportunities to identify and disrupt individuals creating, administering, supporting, or using the resources for criminal, terrorism-related activities.

Stakeholders concerned with violent extremist exploitation of website services to develop repositories like the “Cloud Caliphate” must remember this problem is not new, and it brushes up against matters involving speech, internet governance, and broader criminal abuse of the Domain Name System.

Relevant stakeholders, including service providers and organisations like the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism and Tech Against Terrorism, should continue exploring ways to marginalise the influence of sources like the “Cloud Caliphate” by focusing on the networks and tools that enable them to reach new users.

Particularly in the face of continued efforts to combat the Islamic State online, digital archives appear to play an increasingly common role in preserving materials while sympathisers shuffle around different messaging and social media platforms. Researchers, practitioners, and policymakers alike must remain vigilant about the resurgence of this traditional but effective mode of operating. As Islamic State supporters promote links to such archives with newer tactics that optimise content dissemination online, repositories like the “Cloud Caliphate” may be more accessible and influential than earlier digital libraries.

Although stakeholders within the counterterrorism community may have differing views on how to respond to such resources, there should be some recognition of  the role digital archives play in fostering a shared sense of identity in a global movement. Realising the potential of repositories like the “Cloud Caliphate” should, for better or worse, inform the development of mitigation tools.

 

This is the second in a two-part series providing an overview of new analysis by ISD and CTC, which focuses on Islamic State(IS)-affiliated content stored on digital archives, and the method of creating hubs of information to preserve such materials. 

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