Islamic State retreats online to "virtual caliphate"


On the brink of defeat in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State group has been taking refuge in its "virtual caliphate", but even online, experts say it is in decline.

Back in 2015, when the jihadists held territory the size of Italy, they also commanded a huge digital presence, flooding the web with slick propaganda, lionising their fighters and romanticising life under their rule.

Today, with many of the top IS leaders either dead or on the run, what remains of the group's once-sophisticated propaganda machine is also a shadow of its former self.

Their media centres destroyed, remaining propagandists find themselves struggling to maintain an internet connection while battling surveillance from international intelligence services.

The jihadist group is less and less vocal on the web, largely leaving supporters whom it cannot control to speak in its name.

"It's almost as if someone has pressed the mute button on the Islamic State," said Charlie Winter, a researcher at King's College London who has been studying IS communications for years.

Between 8 and 9 November, the group even went completely silent for a full 24 hours in what Winter said was an "unprecedented" break from social media.

In 2015, when IS was ruling over roughly seven million people in Iraq and Syria, its propagandists produced "content from 38 different media offices from West Africa to Afghanistan", Winter said.

But by December, more than three quarters of these outlets had been "almost totally silenced," he added.

Albert Ford, a researcher at US think-tank New America who has studied the exodus of foreign fighters to join IS, also said the group's media output was "falling off considerably".

"Fewer places to get information, fewer ways to upload it," he said.

These days, IS propagandists mostly use the web to encourage supporters to launch attacks on their own initiative, with the much-weakened group unable to play a direct hand in organising them.

These calls are often issued via the "deep web", a heavily encrypted part of the internet which is almost impossible to regulate, or the Telegram app. (AFP)

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