EU police deal 'severe blow' to IS online propaganda

AFP and Caravanserai

A screenshot from an IS video shows a group member performing 'digital jihad'. [File]

A screenshot from an IS video shows a group member performing 'digital jihad'. [File]

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- European police said Monday (November 25) they had dealt a "severe blow" to the web propaganda of the "Islamic State" (IS), stopping the spread of thousands of items glorifying terrorism.

The European Union's police agency, Europol, said it had suppressed 26,000 IS-related pieces of content, including videos and social media accounts, during the November 21-24 operation.

Europol co-ordinated the operation, kicked off by a Belgian police investigation into IS propaganda agency Amaq.

The insurgent group, which once controlled vast swathes of land in Syria and Iraq, had lost most of its territory by early 2019 but continued to pump out propaganda online.

'Enormous efforts' vs. IS

The operation expended "enormous efforts" to take down "everything" related to IS propaganda including Amaq, Eric van Der Sypt of the Belgian prosecutor's office told a news conference in The Hague.

As well as taking down content, police arrested a man in Spain suspected of being one of the "main distributors" of IS online propaganda.

Van Der Sypt said IS had not expected the attack and it would require "considerable effort" to rebuild its operations after such a "severe blow".

Belgian agents were also involved in a concerted effort to tackle Amaq last year, but Van Der Sypt admitted they had been surprised by how quickly it had rebuilt.

He told AFP earlier on Monday: "We've knocked them down for the moment... but we're not naive. A first cyber-attack in 2018 didn't stop them from bouncing back."

IS messaging in disarray

IS's media machine is grappling with management disarray and deep inconsistencies in its messaging efforts in the aftermath of the group's defeats in Iraq and Syria.

These inconsistencies were especially apparent following the October 27th death of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Al-Baghdadi's death exposed how various branches of IS, like its Khorasan branch in Afghanistan, are coordinating effectively with IS "central".

The lack of co-ordination among the group's different branches and social media platforms signals that the problems facing IS's media machine today are long-term, experts say.

"IS today faces a multitude of problems that prevent it from reviving its media machine," said Raad Jassim al-Kaabi, who works as a media professor at the University of Baghdad.

These include the lack of attractive and persuasive content "as the group no longer has the ability to carry out large-scale operations worth mentioning", he said.

Additionally, mass media production requires huge financial resources that are not available to IS, since it has lost most of its revenue streams, he said.

Another issue facing IS's media production is the shortfall in media experts and the tightening restrictions on social media accounts and platforms promoting extremist content.

IS is struggling with its target audience, said al-Kaabi, as the group has "lost people's trust, especially those who lived under its rule and experienced firsthand its terrorism and bloodshed".

"It is impossible for IS to persuade these people or repair its image in front of them because they now know full well the truth about the group," he said.

IS-linked social media accounts have also resorted to releasing old material, including videos, that date back to the time the group controlled cities in Iraq and Syria, said intelligence expert Fadel Abu Ragheef.

The group suffers from disarray and disorganisation in the management of its media, "as evidenced by the lack of co-ordination and control over the type and quality of videos and other releases disseminated via IS-affiliated accounts", he said.

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