The Rise of the Digital State


Monday, 16 NOV 2015


The Rise of the Digital State


Operations and Organizational Design

(NOTE TO READER: This article has been updated to include the events in Paris of Friday, 13 November 2015.)

The attacks this past Friday in Paris by ISIS have exemplified the seeming suddenness and surprise that has become so common in the modern global economy. The atrocities by the seven extremist muslims in Paris, and like the Charlie Hedbo terrorists before them, leave us questioning our security and grappling with an understanding of how such breaches in security can happen with such force and organic disposition. One of the Wall Street Journal’s headlines over the weekend typifies the optic from which we are assessing these problems, “Paris Attacks’ Scale Underscores Global Threats: Level of violence raises new questions about open-boarder travel accords throughout Europe.” The ongoing expansion of ISIS is forcing a rethink of current analytic approaches and understanding of 21st Century asymmetric threats. ISIS is a hybrid organization that blends feudal state structures, nation state sovereignty, ideological underpinnings, and social digital alliance and interconnection into a form we have never before experienced on this scale: a global digital state. 

As an organization ISIS represents a new and emerging construct. It is simultaneously part of and outside of current organizational structures, doctrine and thinking. As a Feudal State, ISIS has both a political (albeit theocratic) and economic order that holds land, and leverages fief and fee based wealth extraction to reinforce its position as overlord, reinforced by a loose network of vassals, and systems of homage, legal (Sharia law) and military service of its “tenants.” As a nation state, ISIS has geographic area, and though not recognized by international powers, claims itself to be a sovereign nation of Islam, with political legitimacy given not by politics, but by God himself. Yet ISIS is more than either of these, reaching beyond its own geographic boundaries through social media and digital forums to develop ideologically aligned followers in virtual “homelands” that are dispersed within the geopolitical boundaries of traditional nation states. 

The idea of digital nations is not new. The concept of virtual countries on the Internet was first discussed by a small group of engineers under the leadership of Jon Postel in 1978 (Internet Experiment Notes (IEN) 31 in 1978). This was part of the early work to establish internet protocols by computer scientists seeking to work in an environment outside the restrictions of nation state governance. Then in 2004 in a television advertisement on collaboration, IBM introduced the concept of “digital countries” as a future-think concept of the new possibilities ahead. The concept was little more than idea, but the potential of creating virtual spaces where ideologies, rule of law, economies and language align in virtual non-geographically limited spaces has been a hallmark of First Life and other simulated reality virtual environments. In 2014 the Republic of Estonia began offering “e-residency” in an effort to attract entrepreneurs and others who may do business in Estonia but do not want commit to legal residency and citizenship. For a cost of about $65 USD, e-residents will be issued a digital ID requiring two-factor authentication and allow e-residence access to the countries digital services including online banking, education and healthcare. The traditional concept of nation state is already transforming and will continue to be challenged as we become more digitally interconnected. 

What ISIS has accomplished is to apply the tools of the 21st Century, to develop an ideological state through the power of the virtual space. In an article in Aljazeera America titled, “In search of the digital caliphate,” the reach of the ISIS digital state is discussed in terms of a global migration in search of an elusive Islamic utopia where “Disaffection and perceived social injustice push individuals to leave their countries and travel far…[to join] Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslim brothers from every race, where Sharia is applied and the soldiers of Islam strive to expand the caliphate’s border.” The digital state of ISIS can accomplish this by virtue of its digital reach. Unlike the movements of the past, ISIS can organize, gain ideological following and expand without need for geographical sanctuary. Additionally, a followers commitment to ISIS is grounded in the radical beliefs of Islam ensuring that they will be committed to the rules of ISIS/ radical Islam regardless of where they live. This has given ISIS the ability to develop digital homelands that are dispersed throughout the geo-political boundaries of current nation states. 

The challenge now is how to respond to the growing ISIS threat. Current approaches employed to defeat ISIS are based on outdated C2 (Command and Control) strategies. By focussing on the targeting and the destruction of command nodes and control points, the hope is to degrade the effectiveness of the ISIS threat by limiting its ability to control its forces on the ground and their ability to move, shoot and communicate. These strategies have been developed from nation state models that are defined in part by supply chains and logistics, key terrain and whose territorial and governance expansion is limited by political and ideological factors. ISIS not limited by any of these, in fact, as a digital state they are empowered by the very strategies we employ to defeat them: 

  1. ISIS is not confined by fixed logistics chains with its reliance on captured and acquired equipment and supplies;
  2. ISIS funding is generated asymmetrically, from donations to illicit financial activities that are difficult to impossible to control or even identify;
  3. ISIS operates in regions with limited influence or control from any State government and simultaneously provides an ideological underpinning to unite disparate tribes and groups;
  4. Killing ISIS members provides fuel for additional recruitment as death by the hand of the “infidel” elevates the dead to martyrdom honoring God and the objective of the Caliphate;
  5. C2 strategies do not directly affect ideological underpinnings that stress a “David and Goliath” mindset of defeating great powers from a perceived position of weakness;
  6. Each victory ISIS has reinvigorates the emotional wave and gives ISIS momentum and brand strength to expand alliances and recruitment;
  7. ISIS is fighting a branding, perception and information war first where as Western powers are fighting a threat based war with information and influence secondary;
  8. ISIS information war is tailored towards disenfranchised youth exploiting the growing class and wealth gap in the West;
  9. Western leadership is out of touch with youth needs and vulnerabilities and in doing so are creating space for ISIS to expand its operations;
  10. The ideological alliance that ISIS creates allow them to develop digital homelands that are dispersed throughout the geo-political boundaries of current nation states creating an unending pool of followers that are prepositioned for direct action against any target they choose.

ISIS has created an environment were ideologies, behaviors and emotions have become commodities of exchange. The follower who seeks to avenge their “disaffection and perceived social injustice” through theocratic (if not draconian) structures, is finding alliance to ISIS ; at some level what ISIS is offering is more promising than that helplessness and hopelessness they are currently living in. In order to defeat ISIS the paradigm needs to shift away from the conventions of the lethal targeting of equipment, people, things and places to a framework based on influencing the socio-economic and cultural narratives that are encouraging ideological shifts in alignment toward an extremist Muslim allegiance. This means focusing on changing behavioral and cognitive outcomes of potential recruits. 

Modeling ISIS in this manner will allow for strategies to be developed to not only curtail the emotional wave driving ISIS, but disincentivize allegiance and motivation over time.  Yet like all things in the digital world, this movement is both adaptive and decentralized. While strategies can be devised to address ISIS, the idea of the Digital State is here to stay. Social media and digital interconnectivity has created the space for such concepts to incubate. With all of the benefits that technology has delivered and promises for the future, ISIS is a reminder that not all things we create share a vision of some techno-utopian outcome. It is only a matter of time before a new brand of ISIS, more sophisticated and technologically capable, rises and openly declares itself independent of the geo-political conventions that we seek to uphold. The question we must ask is not how to defeat ISIS, but how our globally inter-reliant world will function without borders with territorial and ideological alliances claimed in a virtual space.