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Europol razes IS propaganda network online

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Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, has announced a major takedown of a propaganda machine supporting so-called Islamic State (IS), which used messaging app Telegram to spread radical content.

According to a press release, the EU Internet Referral Unit of Europol joined forces with Eurojust (the EU agency dealing with justice in criminal affairs), 12 member states and nine digital services companies in the latest attack on IS online propaganda.

Europol has previously coordinated the attacks of online IS propaganda networks, including a major effort in April 2018 which took down the main web infrastructure used by IS to radicalise new members. The April 2018 raid forced the terrorist group to turn to social media and messaging platforms to spread propaganda, leading EU member states and agencies to focus on these terrorist networks.

In this effort, the EU actors were mainly focused on tackling propaganda spread via messaging app Telegram. Europol noted that Telegram had put considerable work into identifying the individuals spreading terrorist propaganda, including by boosting and expanding manual reporting tools to allow users to flag up violent content, and with an automated content-detection system.

According to Europol, the recent action removed “a significant portion of key actors within the IS network on Telegram”.

While 200-300 accounts are taken down in a typical day, 2,076 “terrorist accounts and bots” were removed on 22 November and a further 2,959 on 23 November, according to Telegram. The EU actors focused on the distribution network of Nashir News Agency, which publishes official IS propaganda. Europol stated that the action led to the referral of over 26,000 pieces of IS propaganda. Spanish authorities also arrested one individual suspected to be at the heart of the IS propaganda operation.

“This process is based on the referral by Europol of branded terrorist propaganda to online service providers who are responsible for evaluating it to establish any potential breach of their terms of service, to ensure that the rule of law is implemented and freedom of speech is safeguarded,” a Europol statement said.

Although a small number of other accounts attempted to multiply and continued to promote IS propaganda after the takedown, they were quickly removed, along with the accounts of angry and outspoken supporters. The action also affected Telegram accounts associated with al-Qaeda and other radical jihadist movements.

Although Nashir News Agency has not been entirely vanquished from the online space, its visibility has been severely impacted by the action. It is likely that the people behind this propaganda will seek to regenerate their Telegram networks, as well as experiment with using other platforms, such as RocketChat.

According to the BBC, pro-IS group Quraysh has issued a warning to Telegram that its clampdown will drive supporters underground, where it could prove more challenging to monitor and remove them.

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