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December 12, 2019

Dealing with digital IS

Opinion

December 12, 2019

This year (2019) has been a bad one for the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group. After losing the self-declared physical caliphate in March and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in October, the IS suffered another setback in late November when its social media operations were disrupted.

Europol, European Union’s law-enforcement unit, in coordination with nine social media companies such as Telegram, Twitter, Google, Instagram and Facebook, cracked down on the IS’ online distribution network. Following these crackdowns, the IS-linked media disseminator, Nashir News Agency, and its mirror channels stopped distributing IS content online.

This is the most comprehensive crackdown against the IS since it revolutionized the use of social media platforms for propaganda dissemination, online recruitment and radicalization. The largest purge was carried out by Telegram, the most favourite instant messaging and broadcasting application for IS operatives and supporter; Telegram took down more than 43,000 bots and channels in one day.

The IS’ efforts to re-establish or re-create its accounts and channels have been equally unsuccessful. Telegram carried out two similar albeit less intensive clampdowns against the IS’ online network in April and December 2018 as well. The April crackdown was a joint Europol-Telegram operation, while the December purge was Telegram’s own undertaking.

Clearly, the IS was caught off-guard as it was not expecting such a large-scale crackdown. The group did not have a backup plan as well. Hence, it is not surprising that the IS is struggling to adapt to the rapidly evolving social media environment.

In the aftermath of the Christchurch Mosque mass-shooting in New Zealand and the IS-led church bombings in Sri Lanka, Western governments increased pressure on social media companies to remove extremist content and accounts from their platforms. Subsequently, various social media companies hired more than 18,000 data interpreters, linguists and terrorism experts to identify, analyze and remove extremist content as well as accounts and channels affiliated with violent extremist organizations.

The IS’ official reaction to the social media purges came on November 24 in its weekly Arabic magazine ‘Al-Naba’. The magazine’s editorial noted, “It is only a matter of time until IS media activists find alternative platforms. The IS media apparatus, like Jihad itself, will remain until the day of judgement.”

More broadly, two types of reactions have come from the IS’ online operatives and supporters on the Europol-Telegram clampdown. Some of them have advocated resilience and perseverance to maintain their presence in Telegram. They have upheld that Khilafat (caliphate) cannot be deleted and that the IS message will continue to spread. However, the overwhelming majority of the IS’ online community has suggested migration to (alternative) decentralized platforms.

The IS is struggling to find viable alternative social media platforms. Telegram offered the IS a centralized venue to network, recruit and disseminate extremist content. Features like media sharing, individual chats, reposting from other channels and users harmonized various IS sub-groups under one banner. Though the IS’ central media remains strong – producing reports, videos and infographics – its visibility has been significantly low.

As of now, the IS’ online operatives and supporters are running from one social media platform to another to resuscitate their presence and assess what works for them. Experts believe that it will take IS supporters and operatives several months to establish their networks on new platforms. The majority of IS supporters have migrated from Telegram to other social media platforms such as TamTam, Rocket Chat, Hoop Messenger, Threema, Conversation and Riot. However, the IS has faced an immediate pushback from these social media platforms as well.

Publicity is the lifeblood of all terrorist groups. Through violent attacks, terrorist movements draw attention to their ideological causes and attract disaffected youth. The information warfare battled through ideas and narratives is more important for such groups than the physical battle. So, the disruption of the IS’ online propaganda network is undoubtedly unprecedented and a major breakthrough.

Though the long-term consequences of Europol’s recent crackdown will only become clearer with time, three immediate impacts are quite obvious. First, the IS will create backup plans to pre-empt future clampdowns. Second, the IS might create its own servers and messaging apps to avoid future disruptions of its online media operations. Third, the group might move to the more secretive dark web where its detection and disruption might become more difficult. Following the purge, the IS warned Telegram that its crackdown would backfire driving the jihadists underground where authorities would not be able to see what they were doing.

Similar to pervious crackdowns against the IS’ online network, the recent measures are temporary and are unlikely to have a lasting impact unless coordinated approaches between governments and social media companies are not sustained. Moreover, this cat-and-mouse chase will continue in the absence of a robust counter-ideological narrative against the IS-espoused caliphate discourse.

The writer is a research fellow at theS Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Email: [email protected]