2020 Was Critical In The Evolution Of Islamic State And Al Qaeda, Particularly Online: Europol

August 25, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Two weeks ago, Europol published its third annual report on Online Jihadist Propaganda. One of the key findings of that report was that 2020 was a critical moment in the evolution of Islamic State and Al Qaeda and both jihadist terror groups had to adapt to shifting realities to survive and stay relevant. But, just because these terror groups had to deal with the same challenges as the rest of us in the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, it does not by any means indicate that the threats the world faces from them has shrunk. On the contrary, the risk of online jihadist propaganda being translated into offline violence remains high, Europol says in its report.

Propaganda from both Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda continues to call for lone actor attacks by individuals who have no physical connections to either group. Why does that matter? In another report published June, for instance, the Europol noted that the number of completed jihadist attacks in Europe (EU, Switzerland, and the UK) in 2020 more than doubled in comparison with the number in the EU (including the UK) in 2019. The one common factor between all the completed jihadist terror attacks was they were carried out by lone actors, while disrupted plots mainly involved multiple suspects.

Even in its June report, the Europol had repeatedly stressed that the Covid-19 pandemic altered just one key aspect of terrorists’ modi operandi, and that was a shift in much of the communication between members and supporters of these groups to online channels. In today’s piece, we examine some of the main findings of the Europol’s 2020 review of online jihadist terrorism — prepared by the European Counter Terrorism Centre’s European Union Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU) — when it comes to IS and Al Qaeda.

Islamic State’s 2020 In Brief

IS entered 2020 at a time when it was dealing with new leadership and rampant insurgent activity in its traditional heartlands, while also endeavoring to maintain its unparalleled global reach. The group is currently focused on attempting a resurgence in Iraq and expanding its international presence by further empowering its global network of affiliates. Online productions by the group showed a spike in activity in the self-proclaimed IS provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk, Anbar, North Baghdad and Salahuddin in Iraq.

The threat posed by IS still looms large as it continues to direct a dispersed network of affiliates that stand ready to answer its call, both online and offline, the Europol report says. The jihadist terror group’s new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, appears to be even more elusive than his predecessor, the report adds. He is yet to appear in propaganda or to release an audio statement, and his vision for the group has been imparted by IS spokesperson Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, who has delivered three audio speeches in 2020.

In one of the audio speeches, the IS spokesperson stressed that while the group had been declared defeated by two U.S. presidents, it was in reality expanding to many new countries and regions. The group’s propaganda has highlighted the importance of Africa, in particular, to the overall IS ‘project.’ It capitalized on the military advances of affiliated local insurgencies in Africa to show it still can seize and retain territory.

Freeing of prisoners remained a matter of priority for IS. For instance, in late 2020 IS launched a new campaign called “Answer the call,” whose aim was to free Muslim prisoners worldwide. IS provinces around the world responded to that by launching a string of attacks against various targets. Notably, among those, was its Central Africa province. IS Central Africa fighters reportedly freed hundreds of prisoners following a raid on the Kangbayi prison in Beni, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The jihadist group’s “Answer the call” media campaign was a “source of inspiration for IS supporters and supporting media outlets,” Europol says. Supporters used hashtags related to the campaign to disseminate their Supporter-Generated Content (SGC) productions on platforms like Telegram and others.

When it comes to its online presence, IS has been successful mainly because of its supporter (or munasir) networks. These have offset limited media production capabilities since its military defeat and territorial loss in Iraq and Syria, which, in turn, led to the loss of infrastructure and personnel. As a result, official IS propaganda continued to dwindle in 2020. 

The jihadist group’s online presence suffered a setback when EU Member States and Europol coordinated an action targeting its online networks in November 2019. The action dealt a blow to its highly organized propaganda distribution and authentication processes that characterized IS’s networks on Telegram, which has “provided a stable home for the group’s media arm since 2016,” Europol says. Since the action was undertaken, IS media outlets and its online supporters have tried to rebuild their networks on Telegram, while decentralizing their presence across multiple online platforms, including Rocket.Chat, Hoop Messenger, Tam Tam, Element (formerly Riot), and Conversations.im.

Lately, the group and its supporters have also ramped up their circumvention measures in a bid to regain digital ground on Telegram and other mainstream platforms. The disruption of its networks also led to a rebranding effect for IS, with supporters starting to dilute the IS brand image in favor of less recognizable textual and visual features to avoid detection. IS-aligned media outlets that specialize in cybersecurity, privacy, and encrypted communications remained committed to their mission of providing online security awareness to IS supporters. One media outlet even started a virtual weekly meeting to provide answers on technical and security-related questions.

How Al Qaeda Evolved In 2020

Al Qaeda, responsible for the 9/11 attacks, was a highly hierarchical, centralized organization, whose leadership exuded authority and projected a unity of purpose across its branches, the Europol report says. But nearly 20 years since 9/11, its overall strategy now involves devolving operational decision-making from the core to its regional affiliates while the overarching goals are still set by the group’s central leadership. It’s delegation strategy, though, has led to some of its affiliates acting independently to pursue their local interests, which at times may be even at odds with its guidance.

Through 2020, Al Qaeda had to deal with a series of blows and losses of significant leaders. That aside, it has been able to construct a new narrative around a rejection of brutality and a prohibition on killing innocent Muslims. The result? It has now portrayed itself as “less extremist” jihadist organization, in contrast with IS.

The action taken by EU Member States and Europol against IS in November 2019 had an impact on Al Qaeda’s online presence too. With IS adopting a multi-platform approach to propaganda dissemination, Al Qaeda had followed suit by expanding its presence too on alternative platforms. Official Al Qaeda and supporting media outlets boast of an active presence on Geo News, a self-hosted instance of the open source communication platform Rocket.Chat. The terrorist group also became early adopters of a new Twitter-like platform called Chirpwire.

Thabat News Agency, a media outlet, also surfaced in 2020 as one that reported on Al Qaeda and its affiliates’ battlefield operations. Combining “a sleek graphic style with savvy use of hashtags,” the media outlet gradually diversified its propaganda products to include a weekly magazine. The magazine, Europol says, appears to mimic IS’s al-Naba’ digital newsletter. Thabat News Agency also launched several versions of an Android app that was advertised as “the strongest and fastest jihadi news service.”

Even as IS and Al Qaeda fight to stay relevant, they are still on a collision course as their “rivalry is likely to further intensify and play out on the battlefield as well as online,” Europol says. AQ and IS continue to strive for online resilience and to show high levels of adaptability to online environments made more hostile by joint disruption efforts, it adds.

The latest point of contention between the two appears to be Al Qaeda’s perceived willingness to engage in negotiations with local governments of countries in which it has a presence, a leaf it appears to have taken from the Taliban’s playbook. Meanwhile, lightning-fast changes in Afghanistan with the rise of the Taliban are making President Joe Biden’s administration confront the prospect of a resurgent Al Qaeda, just when the U.S. is trying to stem violent extremism at home and cyberattacks from Russia and China.

You can access the full Europol report here.