BOOK REVIEW: ‘Virtual Caliphate’

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VIRTUAL CALIPHATE: EXPOSING THE ISLAMIST STATE ON THE INTERNET
By Yaakov Lappin
Potomac Books, $26.95, 208 pages

The widespread use of the Internet by extremist Islamist organizations and their sympathizers is well-known. For example, the appearance on such websites of announcements and speeches by terrorist leaders and ideologues and the avid rapture with which individuals around the world are radicalized in their forums and chat rooms into becoming religious extremists and terrorists are widely reported.

As Yaakov Lappin’s insightfully comprehensive “Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet” points out, “These, however, are snippets of a much larger phenomenon.” When viewed from a higher, birds-eye level, a structure can be discerned that points to a “new and revolutionary way” in which “an online state has been formed for the purposes of eventually creating a geographical state” in the form of an Islamic caliphate with worldwide reach.

The last Islamic caliphate was dismantled after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, but Mr. Lappin, a journalist for the Israeli newspaper Jerusalem Post, argues, “Today, countless websites are dedicated to its reestablishment,” at least in cyberspace, by terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and its associates.

“Virtual clerics preach jihad in order to make that state real. Online training camps have been formed to teach soldiers how to make bombs or fire a rocket. Online planners are mapping out the state’s tax laws and constitution.” The outlines of the virtual caliphate’s emerging “government,” Mr. Lappin notes, consist of “ministries” of war, foreign affairs, finance, and morality.

How did the virtual caliphate emerge? Mr. Lappin traces its beginnings to the rapid growth of electronic communications that enabled al Qaeda and its affiliates to make up for the loss of their territorial safe haven in Afghanistan after the defeat and expulsion of their Taliban patrons from Kabul in late 2001 in retribution against them for the horrific attacks of Sept. 11.

What are the virtual cali-phate’s component parts? They are held together by “thousands of interconnected computers, chat rooms, and servers on the Internet, which are held together by a common purpose. The multitude of online jihadis use cutting edge technology to plot terrorist attacks and share blueprints for the caliphate.”

It is in such a “virtual” state where they can safely spread their extremist ideology to a mostly young audience who are urged to dislodge themselves from their societies, since the current world order is morally unjust and corrupt because it is “not being ruled as it should be, according to a strict interpretation of Islamic law.”

One might take issue with Mr. Lappin’s assertion that the rulers of such a virtual caliphate face a serious predicament because “they have no place to call home” since they have “failed to establish full control of any territory at this time.” They have, in fact, succeeded in establishing at least partial control of territories in the ungoverned regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, which has enabled them so far to carry out their political and military warfare, whether on the ground or in cyberspace, despite intensive military and intelligence countermeasures by the United States and its local government allies.

Especially pertinent to the current political crisis in Egypt is Mr. Lappin’s discussion of the ideological debates and feuds in cyberspace between al Qaeda and its affiliates and the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood. Both incorporate in their ideology Sayyid Qutb’s notion that the Muslim world will remain in a state of jahiliya (“age of darkness”) until it embraces a regime of strict religious observance.

They diverge, however, about whether to launch military jihad against their apostate adversaries now, which is al Qaeda’s approach, or later, which the Muslim Brotherhood believes should occur only when a properly religiously observant popular base is already secured in a given country - as has already occurred in the Gaza Strip. There, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot, has been implementing a harsh theocratic regime since taking over in 2006.

Although not covered in Mr. Lappin’s book, with the imminent collapse of the Hosni Mubarak regime it now appears that the Muslim Brotherhood may finally succeed in implementing its theocratic program in Egypt. How can the virtual caliphate be countered and defeated, given that all technological countermeasures may not be in place today to track and shut down all the numerous websites (the exact number is unknown) constituting the virtual caliphate?

Mr. Lappin proposes a new strategy that recognizes that the battle against online jihadi presence is part of the physical war against them. Second, as advocated by Maria Alvanou, a Greek counterterrorism expert, a new international legal regime is required to counter such entities that exist in a virtual sphere. Third, new multilingual search technologies are required to monitor the Internet for online terrorist activity that would identify the connections among extremist websites, uncover their camouflaged communications, especially those that are related to potential plots, and detect the identities and locations of their participants.

Finally, according to Gabriel Weimann, a noted Israeli expert on terrorism and the Internet, an “alternative online stage” needs to be created that would rival the Islamist message by providing “a voice of peace, an alternative to death and suicide.”

Mr. Lappin’s “Virtual Caliphate” is essential reading for all those interested in understanding and countering the threats posed by extremist Islamists on the Internet.

Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at Virginia Tech (National Capital Region), in Alexandria, Va.

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