The decimation of Isis on Telegram is big, but it has consequences

The Islamic State’s online propaganda network has been dealt a major blow. How and where it recovers will create new challenges for law enforcement

There was a time, not so long ago, when all the major social media platforms were inundated with Islamic State content. Videos, memes, news releases, and speeches were posted to platforms such as Twitter with little hinderance. Dozens if not hundreds of people involved in the fight on the ground in Syria or Iraq were able to freely broadcast their news and propaganda.

Then, in 2015, this started to change. Facebook, Google and Twitter expressed a commitment to get jihadist terrorist groups off of their platforms. Focusing in particular on the Islamic State, they worked both together and with governments to share resources and strategies that would stop jihadists from being able to promote violence and recruit on their platforms. It worked, to an extent, but Islamic State simply shifted its strategy, setting up its distribution network on Telegram instead.

And so the battle continued. Working out of Europol’s offices at The Hague in the Netherlands, the European Union’s Internet Referral Unit, or IRU, has launched several disruption-focused cyber-campaigns against the Islamic State since 2015. Most have been limited in scope and impact, leaving the group’s media networks unaffected at worst and able to regenerate immediately at best.

But its most recent campaign, which was deployed last weekend, was fundamentally different. It resolutely trashed the Islamic State’s presence on Telegram, not to mention most of its major munasir (supporter) groups. Not only was the targeting of its disruption operation sound, the pressure was sustained. Over one three-day period, for example, more than 250 channels belonging to the Nashir News Agency, a content distribution network at the heart of the Islamic State’s dissemination infrastructure, were knocked and subsequently kept offline. The same can be said for outfits such as Caliphate News 24 and the Nasikh Agency and most other major groups run by Islamic State supporters.

This latest operation went far beyond the IRU’s usual remit, resulting in a comprehensive decimation of many of the Islamic State’s most important online networks. The Islamic State’s online community is now hanging onto its favourite haunt by a thread. But, as its successful shift to Telegram has shown, it can recover from such losses.

So when the Belgian Public Prosecutor claims that the Islamic State is “not present on the internet any more” in the aftermath of the Europol operation, he wasn’t telling the truth. Not only are the group’s supporters alive and kicking (if not well) on mainstream platforms such as Twitter, they continue to retain a robust shell network on Telegram. The Nashir News Agency was still up and running, albeit in a limited capacity; so too was Caliphate News 24 and the Nasikh Agency, as well as most if not all of the major munasir “foundations.” There has been no noticeable decline in dispatches and photo-reports from the Islamic State’s media headquarters. It is clear that the group and its supporters have been preparing, at least on some level, for this day.

So, even though Europol’s latest action did destabilise the Islamic State online—making it unfathomably harder for even networked supporters to access its content, let alone those who are new to the jihadist cause – it didn’t spell the group’s end. The fact is that the group and its supporters remain on Telegram and, while they do not seem to be rushing en masse to any other platforms just yet, they seem to be gearing up for a platform migration. Having experimented with a whole host of platforms in recent years, including, Baaz, TikTok, Threema and even Google+, it looks like their next move will be to TamTam, where Isis has planted a firm flag in recent days.

Should Islamic State abandon Telegram in earnest, there would be a raft of negative consequences. It would likely have strategic effect, forcing it to change how it makes and distributes its media and engages in global outreach, but so too would it leave the intelligence community worse off.

The Islamic State was more-or-less contained on Telegram before last week. Its networks were thoroughly infiltrated and its content disseminators hiding in plain sight. In short, it was a problem, but a problem law enforcement had a handle on. However, in light of this latest disruption, something that Telegram now appears to have taken into its own hands, suspending the accounts not just of Islamic State supporters but many analysts too, the likelihood of the group migrating onto some other, obscurer, less surveillable platform has dramatically increased. Should that happen, it will take quite some time to rebuild past intelligence capabilities.

The negative implications of this are significant. It could mean that governments will be left in the dark about what the Islamic State is saying and doing online, particularly as it morphs into a new, post-territorial insurgency in the wake of the loss of its physical caliphate and appointment of its new caliph.

Yet the last week has yielded a net benefit to security practitioners – the Islamic State’s online network is much diminished, something it will struggle to recover from for some time. But happens next – and how easily researchers and law enforcement are able to respond to it – remains an unknown quantity. We are now worryingly close to new and unstable waters.

Credit : Getty Images / Gokhan Sahin / Stringer

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