Total victory over ISIS means crushing its online stronghold

Total victory over ISIS means crushing its online stronghold
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Last week, the Syrian Democratic Forces celebrated victory over the Islamic State in Raqqa, the terror organization’s capital and last territorial stronghold inside Syria. (The Pentagon has since clarified that about 90 percent of Raqqa was reclaimed.)

Without territory in the Middle East, ISIS no longer has any legitimate claims to statehood. This reality is as true for ISIS as it is for any other governing body in the world today. The loosening of ISIS’s grip on Raqqa and the transfer back under control of the Syrian Democratic Forces have been widely and rightly celebrated here in the United States. It represents a tremendous military victory for the forces of good in the world.

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There’s just one hitch: The battlefield is no longer on the ground inside Iraq and Syria, but online and in cyberspace. ISIS’s original vision of itself as a “caliphate” is about to be consigned to the ash heap of history, but its vision is proving to be remarkably adaptive. ISIS may have failed in its bid for statehood, but it has succeeded in establishing its citizenry in its people. ISIS’s people number in the tens of thousands and ardently adhere to the organization’s violent and radical political ideology. Their homes may be spread across the globe, but their capital city is alive and well, thriving on the internet.

Raqqa may no longer be accessible to ISIS followers by air, land or sea, but its virtual derivative is now just one click away, on websites that will always welcome them with open arms. Raqqa had been a symbol of ISIS’s rise since it first appeared on the scene in 2014 with a slew of military victories that established its foothold in the Middle East. At its zenith, ISIS laid claim to 31,000 fighters.

Over the past year, however, ISIS ceded most of its territorial gains in both countries thanks to the U.S.-led coalition’s military campaigns. President Trump’s administration deserves significant credit for these victories, as he has claimed many times, but so too does President Obama.

Raqqa served as ISIS’s capital, its operational hub and administrative headquarters. From here ISIS exerted control over hundreds of thousands of people, with its influence stretching deep into the Middle East and parts of Africa. From Raqqa, ISIS orchestrated not just the gruesome aspects of its rule, such as beheadings, amputations and mass executions but the practical aspects of its administrative state as well. To many people living inside Iraq and Syria, ISIS is better known for its provision of goods and services, such as currency and passports, than it is for its reign of terror.

Raqqa is also where ISIS’s social media wing produced its now infamous, and notably sophisticated, video content that galvanized the group’s followers and terrified the rest of the world. The battle for Raqqa had raged for over four months before the fight was won this week. Every day, the conflict thrust the forces of good (the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, itself a motley assortment of Kurdish Peshmerga and Arab soldiers) and evil (ISIS foot soldiers) against one another on the battlefield.

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At no point was it obvious to anyone that the former would ultimately prevail, but we have now definitively won the ground war. While we were busy taking the fight with ISIS where its fighters live, exerting our military might against them in the Middle East, its leadership was forging new platforms online for recruitment, education, training and command and control operations.

ISIS recruiters can instantaneously establish contact with Syrian families trapped inside Raqqa’s internment camps and disgruntled French teenagers trapped in basements at home with equal ease. ISIS soldiers, followers and sympathizers can connect with one another on social media groups and websites, and disseminate deadly ideas and plans in a nanosecond.

The United States now faces the daunting reality that the battlefield has migrated. It’s no longer on the ground in Iraq and Syria or anywhere else in the world, but on the internet. ISIS-inspired attackers have carried out successful attacks in the United States, Canada, Britain, Bangladesh, France, Germany and Spain, to name but a few countries. If current recruitment rates continue unabated, we are surely in store for many more similarly styled attacks over the coming months and years.

So while the fall of Raqqa earlier this week is undeniably a good news story, we cannot rest easy in the knowledge of this defeat, because the terms of our engagement with ISIS are shifting beneath our feet like quicksand. The Trump administration's attention, energy and resources must now be focused on combating ISIS’s radical ideology online, where it lives. Denying ISIS a territorial stronghold is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for our own victory.

Gillian Turner served as an adviser to the National Security Council during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. She is now a Fox News contributor. You can follow her on Twitter @GillianHTurner.