- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
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.