“Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate” (A book review)



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The Islamic State has presented to the global community a new extent of cruelty and barbarity with enormous and dangerous destabilizing impacts on regional as well as global levels. This jihadist group is associated with beheadings, the burgeoning of sexual slavery, crucifixions, the annihilation of Christian and Yazidi groups. Its strong reliance on online propaganda and focus on digital technology add power and strength to this organization. Given ISIS’s militant capabilities, limitless brutality, pervasive ideological foundation, and territorial outreach (online and ground), this group is an imminent threat to peace and stability not only within the Middle East, but for every member of the world community. Abdel Bari Atwan’s volume seeks to explain ISIS’s success in terms of its approach to social media.

9780520289284This book is a good resource for students, enthusiastic readers, policy makers, academic and professional circles. Being a widely known journalist, Abdel Bari Atwan relies on his informants as a source of information for this book. Conducting numerous interviews and online personal correspondence not only provide insight on the problem but make this study unique.

Abdel Bari Atwan’s book offers answers to the following crucial questions: What is the nature of this jihadi organization? How is its propaganda machine functioning? What are the central principals of the ISIS online strategy? What are its purposes and how does the Islamic State fulfill them using the Internet? What are the reasons behind propagandist campaigns? How are the Islamic States different from their ancestors?   The study presents a big picture of the ISIS phenomenon in a way that has never previously been captured.

Chapter 1 depicts ISIS’s online appearance and strategy. Considering this group as the most dangerous result of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri heritage, the author stresses that   the presence of ISIS in cyberspace and the exploitation of digital communication technologies are behind its successful territorial expansion, worldwide recruitment, and mobilization. Many Islamist groups from the remote areas of our planet, have announced their allegiance to the Islamic State through the internet by posting video messages on popular social networks. Moreover, this overwhelming reliance on the Internet allows ISIS militants to diminish the effectiveness of intelligence services as well as oppositional jihadist groups. Abdel Bari Atwan underlines an interesting paradox between the use of modern technologies and ISIS’s ideological agenda. This jihadist group merges its idea of the return to ancient mores as a society foundation and the use of the most sophisticated theologies to advance this Middle Age societal model. To create and entrench the attractive image of the Islamic State, its cyber teams produce and channel the unstoppable and consistent “stream of information”. A principle of informational consistence is crucial, even in terms of the usage of particular notions such as kufrs (deniers), crusaders, etc.

Chapters 2 through 6 of the work examine the main stages of ISIS’s establishment as an organizational entity and the ideological polarization within the jihadist movement. With the deepening of the ideological disagreement, the influx of radical members to ISIS increased. The upsurge of ISIS’s popularity is directly connected to Baghdadi’s personality, his inherent “boldness, defiance, steadfastness, and reputation as a clever battlefield strategist”. Abdel Bari Atwan explains its first military success by the utterly savage and barbaric content of its online campaign which was full of images and footage of scenes of beheadings, executions, suicide missions, etc. This propaganda had pervasive psychological effects on people and forces that might question ISIS’s power, allowing its militants onward march to take over many territories without resistance.

Chapters 7 and 8 describe the administrative apparatus that governs ISIS held territories. Based on IS informational sources, the author explains the caliphate’s inner institutional system and policymaking mechanisms. The apparatus allows ISIS’s leadership not only to control and manage new territories, including big cities, but to expand its geographical boundaries. Sustainable governance is provided by a wide net of police units, sharia courts, municipal services, gas supplies, and public health and educational facilities. In the eyes of local residents, this strong grip over the previous corrupt and ineffective government looks very promising. As a result, the Islamic State receives considerable public support from the local population.

Chapter 9 examines the main features of ISIS’s recruitment strategy through the phenomenon of foreign fighters (males and females). Drawing om conducted interviews with foreign militants, the author concludes that motivations for traveling to ISIS held areas range “from mundane explanations, speaking of “ordinary life” being “boring” to wanting to fight “like in video games.” Many volunteers, in particular who take entire families, are attracted by economic perspectives and the promise of high wages.   For females, one of the main forces to join ISIS, is Islamophobia, because of the visibility of traditional Muslim garb. Despite the fact that every international conflict raises the fears of foreign fighters, the problem of returning fighters cannot be underestimated. The unique nature of the Islamic State and its ideological appeal makes returning fighters very dangerous for their home states. Abdel Bari Atwan projects more coordinated bombing attacks in the Western countries.

Chapters 10 and 11 explore the role of the United States, Britain, and Saudi Arabia for the burgeoning of the Islamic State. Through a historical perspective, the author evaluates American and Great Britain’s poorly calculated manipulations on the international stage, which ended up with substantial support and resulted in the arming of different regional militant groups.

Finally, the author does an admirable job in clarifying many crucial issues about ISIS’s origin, evolution, and structural hierarchy. However, little attention is given to academic or governmental informational sources. The book falls short on the promise made in the title “Digital Caliphate”: there is no in-depth analysis of ISIS propaganda content and its regional ramifications, online radicalization and methods of online crowdsourcing.


By Julia Sweet

Source: Modern Diplomacy

ISIL International

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