Jeff Seldin – Voice of America
Islamic State media operatives appear to be flailing about in cyberspace, still trying to recover more than a week after tens of thousands of their messaging accounts were targeted by European officials.
Unlike some past efforts to hamper the terror group's propaganda efforts, which dealt only temporary setbacks, the latest takedown seems to be having a lasting impact, counterterrorism officials and analysts say.
"For the time being, for as far as we know, IS is not present on the internet anymore," Eric Van Der Sypt, a spokesman for the Belgian prosecutor's office, said during a news conference at The Hague last week. "We will see how fast — if ever — they will regain service."
Only so far, the results of the operation by Europol and the European Union's Internet Referral Unit working with online service providers such as Telegram, Twitter, Google and Instagram seem to be bearing out the optimistic assessment.
U.S. officials say the crackdown on Telegram, long a favorite for IS operatives and supporters, has been especially effective.
"Telegram removed over 43,000 terrorist-related bots and channels, the highest monthly total since Telegram began providing such data in September 2016," a senior U.S. counterterrorism official told VOA of the effort in November.
Additionally, the official said, attempts by IS to reestablish or re-create its Telegram accounts have not gone well.
"Telegram has expanded and strengthened its terrorist content detection and removal efforts on public channels and groups in the immediate aftermath of Europol's recent action to disrupt ISIS's online activities," the official said, using another acronym for the terror group.
Nor does it appear that IS is having much success moving its propaganda and messaging to other platforms.
"They are going here, there and everywhere," said Raphael Gluck, co-founder of Jihadoscope, a company that monitors online activity by Islamist extremists. "They are lost in the desert right now."
Over the past week, officials and experts have followed as IS media operatives have sought out alternative messaging platforms, including Russia-based TamTam, Brazil-based Rocket Chat and Hoop Messenger from Canada.
Of these, TamTam saw what appeared to have been the biggest surge in new accounts and groups from IS operatives and supporters. But analysts described the company's response as massive.
Amarnath Amarasingam, a terrorism researcher at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, said that of the 165 IS channels and groups he found on TamTam between November 29 and December 2, only 37 were still operating December 3.
Multiple attempts by VOA to speak to TamTam directly were unsuccessful. But the company told Amarasingam on Twitter that it was "strongly against the presence of any sort of content by terrorist organizations on our platform."
In other tweets, the messaging platform encouraged experts and users to report any IS or terrorist-linked activity.
Analysts caution that the sustained crackdown by governments and service providers is only part of the story. The other part, they say, is Islamic State's response.
"Judging by what they are doing on TamTam, and what they tried on Rocket Chat, there doesn't seem to be much innovation going on at present," Amarasingam said.
Instead, it appears the terror group, long credited with helping pioneer the use of social media to grow its ranks, is struggling to adapt.
"ISIS is at a loss since losing Telegram. They wish they could go back," Gluck said. "At the tail end of the mass migration [to TamTam], they're just linking back to good old Telegram."
For now, analysts say, IS operatives are doing their best to create new accounts and groups on Telegram, as well as on familiar social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, as fast as they can, trying to pump out as much information and propaganda as possible before the accounts are removed.
"ISIS and its supporters are trying all kinds of messaging platforms right now, seeing what works, what does and doesn't get blocked, and what is sustainable for them," said Chelsea Daymon, a terrorism and security researcher at American University in Washington. "There's still a good amount of activity on Rocket Chat, which some supporters are saying is the platform they are going to lay low on until things settle down."
For now, thanks to the European-led takedowns, Daymon and others see the start of long-awaited progress in the battle against IS's so-called virtual caliphate.
"It shows a sustained objective, which is what will have potentially positive long-term results," she said.