In Search of the Virtual Caliphate: Convenient Fallacy, Dangerous Distraction


At this crucial point in the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, as it hemorrhages territory across Syria and Iraq, the latest analytical fad in the study of this movement may be leading policymakers to repeat the mistakes of a mere decade ago. The term “virtual caliphate” has grown in popularity as a way to describe the future trajectory of the Islamic State. More than just a catchy sound bite, it has emerged as a way to conceptualize how the Islamic State will recalibrate its efforts in the wake of territorial losses. And so, the notion of a virtual caliphate appears to be shaping strategic-policy debate and development. For example, Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, co-authored the report #Virtual Caliphate: Defeating ISIL on the Physical Battlefield is Not Enough with Lt. Col. Christina Bembenek, Charles Hans, Jeffery Mouton, and Amanda Spencer. This is how the authors describe the virtual caliphate:

Following even a decisive defeat in Iraq and Syria, ISIL will likely retreat into a virtual safe haven – a “virtual caliphate” – from which it will continue to coordinate and inspire external attacks as well as build a support base until the group has capability to reclaim physical territory. This virtual caliphate is a distorted version of the historic Islamic caliphate: It is a stratified community of Muslims who are led by a caliph (currently Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), aspire to participate in a state governed by sharia, and are located in the global territory of cyberspace.

The virtual caliphate emerges from this description as much more than just a cute phrase to highlight that the Islamic State will use the internet to spread its propaganda and build networks. The claim is that cyberspace will become the primary means by which the Islamic State will seek to remain relevant by transferring its efforts online (even if only temporarily). Having written extensively on the history and strategic logic of the Islamic State’s strategic communications, the idea that the Islamic State will retreat to a virtual caliphate makes us extremely uneasy. This concept obscures more than it explains. Our fear is that it is informing strategic and policy decisions more likely to hamper than enhance efforts to defeat the Islamic State.

So why has it become so popular to talk about the Islamic State as the soon-to-be virtual caliphate? To start, the concept serves a convenient (if strategically broken) purpose: It facilitates the belief that the fight against the Islamic State is almost over; that, at a fundamental (if not complete) level, the Islamic State’s loss of territorial control across Iraq and Syria equals defeat.

This is wrong for two reasons. First, the Islamic State’s definition of defeat is fundamentally different from that of the coalition commanded by Votel. This has crucial strategic and operational implications for both sides. The final collapse of the contiguous territory controlled by the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq may seem like victory for the coalition. For the group, however, it simply marks a transition point back to the earlier phases of its strategy: insurgency and gangsterism, where it is perhaps most comfortable.

Second, the Islamic State’s propaganda campaign — focused as much on local supporters as global aspirants — is deployed towards achieving what are ultimately real world objectives. It works as part lighted mirror, part magnifying glass. Without these events and its militants (both directed and supposedly “inspired”) around the world raiding, assassinating, extorting, and (on occasion) attempting to govern, there is simply nothing to promote. The fact that anyone can make a video and post it online has blinded analysts to the fact that propaganda of the deed still requires the deed.

Very Different Definitions of Defeat

In their report on the virtual caliphate, Votel and his co-authors asserted that the Islamic State’s expulsion from Mosul and Raqqa represents a partial victory because “ISIL will likely retreat to a virtual safe haven.” While the notion of a “virtual safe haven” is catchy and, crucially, not new, it is unclear exactly how such a retreat into cyberspace would occur in practice. Regardless, as is so often the case, the Islamic State is not only keen to tell us exactly what constitutes defeat but to also allow its actions to demonstrate that description in practice. The late Mohammad al-Adnani’s 2015 speech clearly defined what “defeat” meant for the Islamic State:

[D]o you think America, that victory is by killing one leader or another? Were you victorious when you killed Abu Musab, Abu Hamzah, Abu ‘Umar, or Usama? Would you be victorious if you were to kill ash-Shishani, Abu Bakr, Abu Zayd, or Abu ‘Amr? No. Indeed, victory is the defeat of one’s opponent…were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and were in the desert without any city or land? And would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa or even take all of the cities and we were to return to our initial condition? Certainly not! True Defeat is the loss of willpower and desire to fight. America will be victorious and the mujahideen will be defeated in only one situation…if you were able to remove the Quran from the Muslim’s hearts.

The longevity of the Islamic State movement suggests that its conception of defeat is more than just rhetorical flourish. In fact, it reflects the alignment of its strategic intent and operations.

Since the establishment of the so-called caliphate, the Islamic State has lost an estimated 73 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and 65 percent of its territory in Syria, with Raqqa likely to fall in months. It has lost dozens of senior leaders and tens of thousands of foot soldiers. When it loses remaining territories in Hawijah and the Euphrates River Valley on both sides of the border, this will affect its military capabilities in how it continues to fight. As Adnani’s 2015 speech attests, Islamic State leaders have always understood that the caliphate’s days may be numbered. But the group’s creed of perpetual war and its methodology of phased politico-military stages mean that territorial control may be a useful indicator of operational success or failure, but not necessarily a useful strategic measure. For the Islamic State, to survive is to avoid defeat, and to survive it must transition up and down the phases of its campaign strategy. So how will the Islamic State look on the ground in the future?

If past is prologue, after a period of reorganization “in the desert”, the group will marshal its resources and seek to again influence receptive populations — a job that will be much easier once its coalition adversaries drift apart or begin to look past Islamic State to future fights. Certainly, the Islamic State will rely on its still-coherent cadre of netizens to network, recruit, and reenergize its demoralized base. Central Command understands this well and uses special operations task forces to disrupt these efforts. These actions will be necessary for some time, but they will not be sufficient to decidedly defeat the Islamic State.

The key to defeating the Islamic State in a more permanent sense requires the group’s expulsion from all of its remaining territory. This will need to be followed by measures to prevent it from not only controlling territory but deploying a combination of guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and propaganda to destabilize target communities in the future. The prolonged absence of a physical caliphate is how the Islamic State’s utopian dream eventually loses the power of its allure. After all, the establishment of a caliphate requires the satisfaction of certain requirements of jurisprudence and method (manhaj) — a point which further negates the notion of a “virtual caliphate” in any substantive sense. What would remain is a caliph without a caliphate, and the acknowledgment of those previously enamoured Sunni populations of the complete disaster that followed their brief flirtation with the Islamic State. It is this vacuum, very much in the real world, in which the slow and gradual decline in the Islamic State’s hopes for attaining a more permanent caliphate takes place. An Islamic State that is physically prevented from regaining territory, not just in Iraq and Syria but elsewhere, leads to a political and military end-state for this campaign that prevents an Islamic State 3.0. Contrast this with Central Command’s idea that ISIL will now transition into a virtual caliphate to wait out permanent defeat and remerge from the rabbit hole intact and ready to fight. Such a neat sequential description defies the lessons of history, the synergistic nature of the Islamic State’s politico-military and propaganda efforts, and a growing body of evidence.

Narrowing “Say-Do” Gaps and Propaganda of the Deed

Just as it is useful to consider what constitutes defeat from the Islamic State’s perspective and how that then translates strategically and operationally, it is equally useful to consider what the Islamic State’s messaging suggests about its strategic intent. The Islamic State’s “Inside the Khilafah” video series offers important insights into how the Islamic State’s propaganda machine intends to “light the path” out of its present bust, maximize the movement’s chances of survival and, ultimately, lay the foundations for another boom. The first video, released in late July, takes the viewer to Raqqa’s markets to extol the strengths of the Islamic State’s currency. A black-clad militant on the frontlines then asserts the Islamic State continues to wage

a war of creed in order to safeguard the religion, a military war in order to protect the honour of Muslims and an economic war in order to preserve the wealth of the Muslims.

As the anashid repeats the word baqiya (remaining), the militant declares: “And this is what we profess before Allah — our everlasting enmity towards the enemies of the religion.” The central message is clear: The Islamic State will remain.

In early August, Al-Hayat released a second video, again from Raqqa, this time featuring a Western foreign fighter: “Abu Adam from Australia.” With a mix of Arabic and English, he sits amid the rubble of a partially destroyed building calling on Islamic State supporters to “hasten to the aid of your brothers in Raqqa.” For those unable to travel to Raqqa, he offers alternatives: “go aid your brothers in the fight against the crusader government in the Philippines” or “make the lands of the Crusaders your battlefield.” The video ends with the militant suggesting options for “Just Terror” attacks to ensure “the defenders of the Cross have no confidence of safety.” The key message here is that the Islamic State’s incitement of supporters to action at home or abroad continues.

The third video took the viewer to the front lines of the Battle for Marawi in the Philippines. With raw battle footage dominating its almost seven-minute duration, the English-speaking voiceover explains how its militants in “East Asia” were enjoying battlefield successes as reward for applying the Islamic State’s manhaj (methodology). Local militants feature throughout, calling for supporters to come to “Marawi — Land of Hijrah and Jihad.” A map of the world appears with nine locations across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia highlighted as places where America will “bleed to death at the hands of the believers.” More than transnational, the Islamic State frames its struggle as transgenerational, symbolized by images of elderly and adolescent fighters. The message is obvious: The Islamic State continues to expand.

Earlier this week, the fourth video in the series was released. The spokesman on this occasion was “Abu ‘Uqayl from Singapore” who declared “O mujahidin in East Asia, you have raised the structure of the Khilafah, brought joy to the hearts of the believers, and angered the enemies of Allah.” Even though its apparent successes in the Philippines are far from its heartlands, the Islamic State’s propagandists are seemingly keen to frame any victory in any corner of the world as evidence of the caliphate’s steadfastness. To these ends, “Abu ‘Uqayl” reminds “the believers in the four corners of the world, hijrah and jihad will not cease until the Hour.” And for the true believers, the Islamic State offers many options for achieving “one of two great outcomes — victory or shahadah.” “Join the ranks of the mujahidin in East Asia and inflict black days upon the Crusaders. Otherwise, make your way to Sham, Khurasan, Yemen, West Africa, or Libya.” The Islamic State thus uses the fourth instalment of “Inside the Khilafah” to champion a single overarching message: The caliphate remains, it is expanding, but its survival depends on inciting.

A surge of videos emerging from across the Islamic State’s propaganda apparatus in the last two months have echoed these themes, as has the group’s flagship multilingual magazine Rumiyah. Its recently released 13th issue epitomizes the aforementioned dynamics. As always, Rumiyah opens with the words of a past legend — in this case Abu Hamzah Al-Muhajir, the military leader and partner to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi who helped guide the group through its 2007 to 2008 bust: “O muwahiddin, rejoice, for by Allah we will not rest from our jihad except beneath the olive trees of Rumiyah.” From the foreword that frames terrorist attacks in the West as acts of reciprocity, an infographic highlighting Islamic State casualties of “more than 2000 wounded” and “more than 1000 killed” in the battle of Raqqa, and articles heralding successes in East Asia, the picture that emerges from Rumiyah’s pages is one of an ongoing and bloody struggle being fought by the truest of the true believers — and that faith in victory will be rewarded in this life or the next.

Overall, the Islamic State’s message for friends and enemies in recent months has been simple: We remain, we are still expanding, and we will never stop inciting. This strategy may seem absurd to those who have monitored the group since 2014, but its wider history offers vital context. The Islamic State’s history is defined by booms and busts, so its present predicament is neither new nor a reason for the group to panic. After all, the Islamic State may be weaker now compared to its 2014 to 2015 boom, but it is considerably better-placed now than after its 2007-2008 bust. Besides, far from being ashamed of its boom-bust history, the Islamic State is proud of it. Indeed, its propaganda frequently cites its periods of hardship as reminders of the secondary importance of material benefit in a struggle that is fundamentally divine.

To accomplish this narrative consistency despite its mixed fortunes, the Islamic State has deployed a “hedging” strategy in its propaganda effort which imbues its campaign with strategic elasticity. What this means is that during periods of boom, Islamic State messaging tends to prioritize themes of statehood, conventional politico-military activities (e.g. bureaucratized governance, deployment of artillery), calls to foreign fighters, and “building the ranks.” In contrast, during its periods of bust, its messaging tends to emphasize themes of struggle and sacrifice, unconventional politico-military activities (e.g. informal governance functions, guerrilla warfare), purification of its ranks, and, now, “just terror.”

The Islamic State’s deployment of hedging has significant implications for understanding its propaganda strategy. First, emphasising certain themes during certain periods is a way to amplify the effects of its actions in the field while infusing its messages with a sense of consistency and familiarity despite its mixed fortunes. Second, by not completely abandoning “bust themes” during periods of boom (and vice versa), the Islamic State propagandists are perpetually prepared to pivot as strategic conditions change, whether for better or worse. Third, the Islamic State’s hedging of messaging themes facilitates propaganda that promotes its unwavering commitment to the Prophetic manhaj — its phased strategy of revolutionary warfare. In doing so, the Islamic State is perpetually prepared to deploy messaging designed to not only narrow the perceived disparity between its words and actions (“say-do” gap) but transform those actions into powerful examples of propaganda of the deed in the eyes of friends and enemies alike. As Al-Adnani declared in his final speech:

And victory is that we live in the might of our religion or die upon it. It is the same, whether Allah blesses us with consolidation or we move into the bare, open desert, displaced and pursued.

The “Virtual Caliphate” Trip

The Islamic State’s decline has policymakers framing its future in terms of a “virtual caliphate,” where faceless men direct remote control terror attacks that are more opportunistic than strategic. This view, consistent with other misinterpretations of this group since 2014, misses the fact that the Islamic State’s skilful use of online propaganda is a “virtual” means to “real world” ends and not the other way around. And so the Islamic State will exist in different forms in different places. The loss of Raqqa will mark the Islamic State’s theater-wide transition from conventional units back into clandestine cells ranging across Syria and Iraq’s under-governed spaces. Their mission will be simple: to stay alive and build their strength for future opportunities. In the darkest corners of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, Islamic State militants will look to keep the dream alive and, for the more ambitious, potentially catapult their struggle to the forefront of the global jihad. The Islamic State’s propaganda machine will be responsible for transforming mere survival — a remarkably modest definition of not being defeated — into a glorious struggle toward looming success in the eyes of friends and foes alike. If policymakers and strategists insist on focusing on the virtual caliphate and calibrating their efforts accordingly, their time spent tilting at windmills and inspecting rabbit holes will not be well spent. Instead, these well-meaning people may inadvertently contribute to precisely the conditions the Islamic State requires to survive: adversaries that underestimate and misinterpret it.


Haroro J. Ingram is a research fellow with the Department of International Relations in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University in Canberra. Craig Whiteside is an associate professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College Monterey, located at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. Both are associate fellows at the International Centre for Counterterrorism — The Hague (ICCT), and are currently researching the role of leadership transitions in the evolution of extremist organizations.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Josephine Carlson