By Matt Smith
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 & 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 & extolling the virtues of living in a caliphate.
p> 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 moreover 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 & vetting end users, the territory under Islamic State's often shifts, & 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 & 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 & a modem – & 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 approximately $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, yet "the process is complicated & needs more time & procedures."
Abu Dhabi state-owned Yahsat, both a satellite owner & 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, yet said it complied with all laws & regulations. It has no official presence in Syria.
An unloaded Twitter website is seen on a phone without an internet connection, in front of a display …
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, yet other companies moreover sell the brand there.
"Anybody can become a reseller. It's very informal & 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.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
Satellites owners such as Britain's Avanti, France's Eutelsat & Yahsat cover most of the Middle East.
These sell capacity to other companies, such as Abu Dhabi's Wafa Technical Systems & Britain's Bentley Walker, which then use this capacity to sell services & equipment to businesses & consumers. Like Yahsat, these firms rely on in-country partners to distribute & sell their products.
"In usual 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 & regulations where it operates.
V-sat units, which are potentially portable, transmit their location & so should be traceable. But no one in the industry seems willing to take on the responsibility to vet users.
Wafa & rival Bentley Walker, who buy satellite capacity & sell V-sat units, say they are unaware of who is ultimately using their services.
Wafa, which has approximately 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 & 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 & those of other companies such as YahClick.
Denyer declined to identify the company's Iraqi partners, citing political & commercial concerns, & after did not respond when asked whether Islamic State could be using his company's products & services.
Wafa's Arjundas moreover declined to identify its Iraqi partners & did not respond when asked approximately the militant group.
'TWO HOPS TO MOSUL'
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 & 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 approximately 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 & sell it on for $500, it's satisfactory business."
Baghdad & 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, yet it is complex to enforce.
There are many microwave dishes pointing in all directions in Iraq. The vast networks that mostly provide Internet connectivity to civilian homes & 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 & 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 & 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 & Stephen Kalin in Baghdad & Eric Auchard; Editing by William Maclean, Yara Bayoumy & Pravin Char)
Technology & ElectronicsBusinessIraqsatellite Internet