Iraq is trying to persuade satellite firms to halt Internet service in areas under Daesh rule, seeking to deal a major blow to the group’s potent propaganda machine, which relies heavily on social media to inspire followers.
Social media apps such as Twitter and Telegram are scrambling to limit Daesh’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 supposed caliphate.
Mobile networks are largely inoperable in the Daesh-held swaths of Iraq, areas which also have little fixed-line broadband infrastructure. Terrorists 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 Daesh control often shifts; and a complex web of middlemen makes it tough to pinpoint who is selling militants internet capacity.
To connect to the web via a satellite requires a V-sat terminal — a small dish receiver and a modem — and an internet subscription.
Daesh 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 Daesh-held northern city of Mosul, V-sat units can be bought for about $2,000 to $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 Daesh-controlled areas, adding that he had received positive signals from them, but that “the process is complicated.”
Highlighting the complicated task, Reuters traced an IP address of a Daesh militant in Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in Syria, which showed he was accessing the internet using YahClick, the consumer broadband brand of Abu Dhabi state-owned Yahsat, both a satellite owner and provider of end-user connectivity.
Yahsat would not directly comment on whether Daesh had used its services but said it complied with all laws and regulations and is cooperating with the ministry’s request. 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.
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.
V-sat units are potentially portable, transmit their location and 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 advertisements it could deliver to any Iraqi city, including Mosul. “The resellers are the people who know the clients and where the end users are located,” said Kamal Arjundas, assistant director at the company.
Even if Iraq cuts off Daesh from satellite internet, the group can remain online through illegal networks set up by businessmen. 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 km to eventually reach end users in Daesh-controlled areas.