Inside Europol's Online War Against ISIS
At the EU's law enforcement agency, a team of 30 spend their days trawling through gruesome videos, in a bid to have extremist propaganda taken offline.
ISIS fighters. Image via an ISIS propaganda video
In January I travelled to Europol's heavily fortified HQ in The Hague to interview members of the EU's Internet Referral Unit (IRU), an innocuous-sounding name for a group that spends most of its time trawling the internet for beheadings, bomb-making manuals, hysterical incitements and all the rest of it.
Despite the recent collapse of ISIS's "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq, the IRU is still busy. And, in any case, ISIS has far from gone away. Just a few months ago its Sinai faction released a new 23-minute video, and around the same time ISIS's media centre al-Hayat – famed for its "slick" English-language videos – released a clip showing what appeared to be a woman fighting in frontline combat.
The IRU was established by Europol – the law enforcement agency of the EU – in July of 2015. Its main business is to spot jihadist online material and then flag this to the relevant internet service provider for removal – although it doesn’t have any legal power to compel the internet providers to follow its requests. Mind you, according to a July 2016 Europol press release, in the first year of the IRU's operation, 91 percent of the total content referred – over 11,000 pieces of material across some 31 online platforms in eight languages – was removed following requests from the IRU.
The IRU is a small operation, with around 30 members. I spoke with four of them to find out what they do and how they cope with the stress of watching copious amounts of jihadist propaganda. For security reasons they cannot be identified by their real names – I can't even tell you where they're from or how old they are – so I've used pseudonymous first names throughout.
What is an average day like at the IRU? Usually, it starts with an alert of web-links to check. The material on them is then assessed, and if it's deemed referable a referral will be made. The assessment, along with the relevant content, is then uploaded to the "Check-the-Web Portal", Europol's giant digital library of jihadist online propaganda.
What kind of content does the IRU flag? The priority, *Anna explained to me, is anything that threatens violence against European countries and civilians. But the IRU also refers non-violent extremist material, which, in the case of ISIS, can be anything from a photo report of an old dude picking grapes to a video describing the structure of the caliphate. Not all the internet platforms the IRU works with are down to censor this kind of stuff – and some, Anna told me, only suspend graphically violent material. I gently suggested that these companies may have a point, and that "extreme" ideas should be protected under the principle of free speech, but Anna was adamant: it's all pernicious, because it's all part of the same recruitment drive.
What the IRU doesn't flag is non-jihadist propaganda. According to *Celine: "We don’t go out of the terrorist organisations that were listed by the EU, and we don't go for material produced by terrorist organisations that are not calling for violent jihad… Not left, not right, no other kind of terrorism, only violent jihad." This will no doubt be seen as controversial by those who think the counter-terrorism efforts of western governments, especially those of the Trump administration, are disproportionately focused on Muslims.
The IRU has good relationships with most of the internet companies it works with, but Telegram – ISIS's preferred secure messaging app – isn't one of them. Anna told me that the company rarely responds to referral emails. In September of 2015, Telegram's founder and CEO, Pavel Durov, reportedly mocked calls to remove ISIS channels from the app: "I propose banning words. There's evidence that they’re being used by terrorists to communicate," he said in a post on the Russian social networking site VKontakte.
On the 18th of November, 2015, just days after the Paris attacks – and following mounting political pressure from western governments – Telegram removed 78 pro-ISIS channels from its platform. This was a departure from its previous hands-off approach, and in response ISIS supporters declared war on Telegram. But they didn’t leave the platform; they just stopped using its public channels, and moved to private ones instead, which are harder to monitor. This, Anna said, has made the IRU's job a lot more difficult, because you need an invitation to join a private channel, or to be added by the person who created it.
As part of an ongoing research study on the attractions and repulsions of violent images, I've spent the last year interviewing people who take voyeuristic delight in viewing the very worst of what the internet has to offer: videos of beheadings, torture, suicides and other things I cannot possibly mention here.
Like a first love, they all fondly remember their first gore video: the one that made them cringe and want to look away, all the while beckoning them to look ever closer; the one that enraptured them and made them search for more. And everyone has their favourite: the most shocking and sickening video they have ever seen; the one that delivered the all-elusive cringe they felt on watching their beloved, unforgettable first.
At the IRU, it's the same, minus the amorality. All the operatives I spoke with could recall the first atrocity video they saw on the job, and within a heartbeat they could all name the video that most shocked and sickened them.
"I don't know if you can make a hierarchy in the most disturbing stuff," said Celine, "but for me the worst are the ones with the children. When you see a kid of two years old with a gun, executing someone in a playground in Syria, this is insane, disgusting, horrible."
*Nicolas, the only male member of the team I spoke with, mentioned the same video: "Actually, the most shocking video is this tiny kid in the playpen. They give him a gun and let him shoot someone in the head. When you see kids it's always hard, because they're victims too."
For Anna, the one ISIS video she can't forget is of a beheading of a Russian intelligence agent: "This is a video I remember because you see his face, and there are tears running from his eyes, he's speaking really calm, he doesn’t seem nervous – and then they execute him. But they show it in detail."
And for *Layla, the worst of the worst is a video of a mass beheading of Syrian Army troops. "It made me sick, literally – I threw up," she said. "Everybody in that video is trapped, the prisoners, but also the foreign fighters because you see their faces, they can’t go back, it’s over for them. Everybody’s trapped, except the guy ["Jihadi John"] in the balaclava."
"My job," Layla added, "is to look at that knowing that I couldn’t do anything."
If you're going to do this line of work, it's pretty clear what you need. You need a high tolerance for blood and gore, and an equally high tolerance for boredom and bullshit: most ISIS videos, for all their widely touted "slickness" and narrative skill, are monotonous and annoying, often with ridiculously portentous voice-overs.
Back in 2014, when ISIS videos felt trailblazing and hair-raising, I must confess to a shameful feeling of exhilaration every time a new major release was announced – but that feeling soon faded, and now I can barely watch the stuff. "We have to watch it, all the way through," said Celine when I alluded to the temptation to hit the fast-forward button.
What else do you need? You need to be battle-hardened from a daily grind of real-life violence, so that its online incarnation doesn’t look quite so horrifying. "For me," Anna confided, "I'm coming from law enforcement, so I've seen some stuff already… Let's say I had a tough job before." Celine echoed this: "I was already exposed to the violence of jihadi terrorist organisations." She recalled the immediate aftermath of a horrific suicide attack she had witnessed prior to joining the IRU. "This was way more difficult than watching the videos."
You need to be able to compartmentalise, so that the day-job doesn't bleed over into the life-job. "I'm just trying to delete this the moment I see the image," Anna said, referring to ISIS beheading videos, adding, "I’m not taking this home with me." Or, as Celine put it, "I know how to close the door."
Crucially, you also need a sense of humour: you need to be able to laugh at the humourless jihadi be-headers and blowhards. "I do make black humour, but it depends on who I’m with," Nicolas said, without going into detail. Layla gave me the details, of which I can only report the following:
"There was another video in which a foreign fighter was being interviewed, and a guy walking in the background suddenly fell into a hole – it was Monty-Pythonesque," she said, laughing. "We watched that many times."
Celine relayed a similar story: "There were two guys claiming an attack, but they still needed to kill two people… We were disturbed by the beheading and the nonsense of the narrative. I was sitting next to my colleague and he said, 'But the guy [one of the ISIS executioners] has mascara on, no?' We then started joking about how you need to be fresh and young when you do the jihad. This is stupid, but it helps."
Members of the IRU also use a range of distancing techniques to shield themselves from the abyss they're looking into. One such technique is to routinise the work of watching, so that it becomes a mechanical, programmed operation, where the focus is on the segmented detail of the video rather than on the cruelty and suffering depicted in it. "I have to put on my professional hat," Celine told me. "I need to be precise: we are collecting evidence – it is important to pay attention to the detail, the camera they used, the way it was filmed, where it was filmed, the behaviour of the person acting, the clothes, every detail has an importance."
Similarly, Nicolas said: "I know how the video will end, but the gory part of the video I'm not interested in. I look at it not as a voyeur – I'm not a voyeur. What I'm looking for is: what's his discourse? What's the message he wants to deliver? So I focus more as an investigator, and not as a person getting affected by what I'm watching. So, from the beginning, can I identify a person? Can I identify an environment behind? Who's the hostage? And I do abstraction… I never put a face on the dead body."
Nicolas said he learned this last technique from a surgeon he knew in his previous job as a cop. "If you put a face on the body, you will get affected."
Another technique is to apply what Layla called "filters". For videos, Layla said, "you can watch it first without the sound, and then you can listen to it without watching it, so you don’t associate the images with the sound". Does this work? Not for beheadings: "The sound-effects are very good, the gurgling and everything."
In a recent survey on ISIS videos I carried out with the criminologist Jack Cunliffe, we found that 57 percent of our 3,000 respondents had seen an ISIS video before, beyond clips shown on TV and in online news material. Of this group, 46 percent said they had seen more than ten ISIS videos. This may well say more about the selection biases of our sample than about young adults' exposure to ISIS – or it may not. Either way, it's a remarkable statistic. And what cannot be doubted, despite the recent pushback from social media companies, is the ubiquity and accessibility of ISIS-related content on the internet.
One survey respondent, an American-Muslim woman in her early twenties who contacted me about the survey, told me:
"They've [ISIS] really upgraded nasheeds. It's not your father's nasheed music. It's not boring, like those al-Qaeda propaganda vids, or really any Arabic political videos. That German nasheed was fire. Twerk-able. Milly Rock-able. Overall, all of their videos seem surreal. I have a hard time believing they're some crazy-ass terrorist group. It looks like an action film. It was hard for me to be scared, even though some were graphic. Sometimes I had to remind myself that this is real, created by a real terrorist group."
The German nasheed she was referring to was the soundtrack to a graphically violent 2015 ISIS video calling for jihadist attacks on western cities. Has this woman become desensitised, a passive consumer of the pornography of pain? Or is ISIS-staged violence so preposterously monstrous and slickly-produced that, for western audiences, it doesn't look properly real?
For counter-terrorism experts and policy-makers, the most urgent question about ISIS videos is whether they are radicalising. But a no less important issue is the spiritual cost they incur on the countless number of people who come into contact with them. It is probably incalculable.
"We have faith in what we do," Nicolas said. But, for all the IRU's efforts, the tide of jihadi-snuff culture can’t be stopped. And, for the rest of us, it may already be too late.
*Names have been changed.
@simonrcottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent, UK.