DUBAI (Reuters) - Iraq is trying to persuade satellite firms to halt Internet services in areas under Islamic State’s rule, seeking to deal a major blow to the group’s potent propaganda machine which relies heavily on social media to inspire its followers to wage jihad.
Social media apps like Twitter and Telegram are scrambling to limit Islamic State’s cyber-activities. So far that has proven to be a cat-and-mouse-game, with the group re-emerging through other accounts with videos showing beheadings and extolling the virtues of living in a caliphate.
For Iraq then, the key is to stop the militant group from accessing the web at all - a feat, which if achieved, could sever a significant part of a propaganda campaign that has inspired deadly attacks in the West.
Mobile networks are largely inoperable in the Islamic State-held swathes of Iraq, areas which also have little fixed-line broadband infrastructure. Militants instead use satellite dishes to connect to the web, or illicit microwave dishes that hook them into broadband networks in government-held areas, three telecoms industry sources told Reuters.
There are many challenges for the Iraqi authorities: within the satellite Internet industry, no one assumes responsibility for identifying and vetting end users, the territory under Islamic State’s often shifts, and a complex web of middlemen makes it tough to pinpoint who is selling militants Internet capacity.
The group has control over or operates in parts of western Iraq and northern and central Syria which have a population of up to 5 million people, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, most of them in Iraq.
To connect to the web via a satellite, all that is required is a V-sat terminal - a small dish receiver and a modem - and an Internet subscription.
Islamic State uses “the V-sat system to access the Internet in areas it controls,” an Iraqi communications ministry official told Reuters. “What’s still difficult for us is controlling V-sat receivers which connect directly to satellites providing Internet services that cover Iraq.”
In the IS-held northern city of Mosul, V-sat units can be bought for about $2,000-$3,000 at a sprawling electronics market near the university.
The official said Iraq was in talks with satellite companies covering Iraq to halt Internet services to IS-controlled areas, adding that he had received “positive signals” from them, but “the process is complicated and needs more time and procedures.”
Abu Dhabi state-owned Yahsat, both a satellite owner and provider of end-user connectivity through its consumer broadband brand YahClick, is the only company so far to cooperate with the ministry’s request, the official said.
Highlighting the complicated task, Reuters traced an IP address of an Islamic State fighter in Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in Syria, which showed he was accessing the Internet using YahClick.
Yahsat would not directly comment on whether Islamic State had used its services, but said it complied with all laws and regulations. It has no official presence in Syria.
The company, among the biggest providers of satellite Internet in Iraq, relies on local agents to sell YahClick; three are listed on its website for Iraq, but other companies also sell the brand there.
“Anybody can become a reseller. It’s very informal and wholesalers probably want to keep it that way,” said the second industry source, who like the others declined to be named because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
Satellites owners such as Britain’s Avanti, France’s Eutelsat and Yahsat cover most of the Middle East.
These sell capacity to other companies, such as Abu Dhabi’s Wafa Technical Systems and Britain’s Bentley Walker, which then use this capacity to sell services and equipment to businesses and consumers. Like Yahsat, these firms rely on in-country partners to distribute and sell their products.
“In common with all satellite operators, Avanti does not maintain identity or accurate location detail on end user customers,” a company spokesman said, adding the firm complied with all laws and regulations where it operates.
V-sat units, which are potentially portable, transmit their location and so should be traceable. But no one in the industry seems willing to take on the responsibility to vet users.
Wafa and rival Bentley Walker, who buy satellite capacity and sell V-sat units, say they are unaware of who is ultimately using their services.
Wafa, which has about 2,500 V-sat units in Iraq, said in online adverts it could deliver to any Iraqi city including Mosul. “The re-sellers are the people who know the clients and where the end users are located,” said Kamal Arjundas, assistant director at the company.
Customers of Bentley Walker can still use its services even if the V-sat unit is in an area beyond state control, said sales manager Neil Denyer. As of July last year, the firm said its service covered over 1,500 sites in northern Iraq.
The company says it is Europe’s largest re-seller of satellite Internet equipment. It sells its own FreedomSat brand and those of other companies such as YahClick.
Denyer declined to identify the company’s Iraqi partners, citing political and commercial concerns, and later did not respond when asked whether Islamic State could be using his company’s products and services.
Wafa’s Arjundas also declined to identify its Iraqi partners and did not respond when asked about the militant group.
Even if Iraq cuts off Islamic State from satellite Internet, the group can remain online through illegal networks set up by businessmen in towns such as Kirkuk, Arbil and Duhok.
These entrepreneurs buy data capacity from fixed broadband providers, passing through many middlemen first. They connect this to microwave dishes, which have a range of about 40 kilometers to eventually reach end users in IS-controlled areas, said the three industry sources.
“It’s two hops via microwave dishes to Mosul,” said the third industry source.
“Their activities have very little chance of being detected. If you can buy a certain amount of capacity for $100 in Arbil and sell it on for $500, it’s good business.”
Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that rules over an autonomous area of northern Iraq have banned the sale of Internet capacity that could end up in Islamic State hands, but it is hard to enforce.
There are many microwave dishes pointing in all directions in Iraq. The vast networks that mostly provide Internet connectivity to civilian homes and businesses make it difficult to establish who is using them.
“If you close one (of the businesses) down, they reappear under another disguise in a matter of days. They’re very difficult to identify,” said the first industry source.
“It would take enormous resources, knowledge and competency which Baghdad or the KRG don’t have,” said the third source.
A moral quandary is whether IS-held areas should be denied Internet access thereby cutting off civilians living there, said Rafaello Pantucci, of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute think-tank. Some have used the Internet to relate the abuses they have suffered.
“Would cutting off such communications have a major impact in disrupting and degrading Islamic State’s operations, or would it mostly just make the lives of people living under Islamic State even more difficult?”
Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Stephen Kalin in Baghdad and Eric Auchard; Editing by William Maclean, Yara Bayoumy and Pravin Char