When Europol announced last week that it had effectively dismantled the Islamic State’s main online network, a number of experts warned that the group would simply move to another platform.
It only took five days for ISIS to prove them right.
On November 30, an account on the unknown Russian messaging app TamTam claimed credit for the London Bridge attack in which two people were stabbed to death by 28-year-old terrorist Usman Khan. That account is linked to ISIS’s Nashir news agency.
TamTam is virtually unknown outside of Russia, but over the space of just a few days, thousands of accounts and channels dedicated to spreading ISIS propaganda appeared, spewing out thousands of messages in the space of a few hours.
“There was extreme activity on TamTam,” Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a member of the board of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, told VICE News. “You could go to bed being linked to 20 channels and wake up with over 1,000 notifications on TamTam.”
By Tuesday, however, TamTam had deleted hundreds of accounts flagged by ISIS watchers who raised concerns about the group’s activities on the platform. But just as before, ISIS has numerous other places to go online and as law enforcement continues to play whack-a-mole, experts fear ISIS may revive plans to build their own communications tools, making it much harder for experts to track what they are saying online.
“It is reasonable to assume that the Islamic State will resume its efforts in developing tools that can reduce the group’s dependence on social media platforms and chat apps to reach a global audience of prospective supporters,” said Michael S. Smith II, a terrorism analyst who helped U.S. government agencies track the group’s migration to Telegram in 2015.
Islamic State moved to Telegram after being kicked off other more mainstream apps such as Twitter and Facebook. Over the last four years, they have built up a dedicated network to disseminate their propaganda material and communicate with supporters.
At the same time, because ISIS was largely focused on Telegram, academics and law enforcement were also able to thoroughly infiltrate these channels and keep a close watch on what was being said online to track any potential new threats or attacks.
But last week, the EU’s Internet Referral Unit announced a thorough takedown of almost all of the main ISIS channels and accounts on Telegram. So comprehensive was the takedown that Eric van der Sypt, Belgium’s federal prosecutor, felt empowered to make the bold claim that “ISIS is not present on the internet anymore.”
But the rapid setup on TamTam shows that ISIS was prepared to move swiftly from one platform to another: it used TamTam to claim the London Bridge attack even before it did so on one of its few remaining Telegram channels.
TamTam is owned by Mail.ru, a Russian internet giant whose majority shareholder is Yuri Miller, a close aide to Vladimir Putin who also has links to Jared Kushner.
TamTam told VICE News that it is “strongly against the presence of any sort of content by terrorist organizations on our platform,” and called on all users to “clear up the platform from inappropriate content” by reporting channels or accounts.
The company would not say how many accounts or channels it has removed, but Amarnath Amarasingam, a research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks violent extremism, highlighted the aggressive nature of the account deletion on Tuesday morning:
But there are dozens of more online options available to ISIS, and in the last week, supporters have been testing out new platforms that could provide a long-term home for the group.
“They will definitely try to move their public presence to some more stable platform,” Amarasingam told VICE News. “I don't see them ever really giving up and going home. The number of platforms they have experimented with in the last week alone is pretty staggering, and it's actually pretty interesting to watch supporters debate the strengths and weaknesses of certain platforms - in terms of security, ease of use and so on.”
But ultimately, Smith says, the Telegram takedown could make ISIS take another look at developing their own technology.
When Twitter and other de-platformed ISIS back in 2014, the group’s propagandists spent two years “trying to develop various tools that could reduce their dependence on popular social media and file-sharing platforms,” Smith said.
These tools included browser add-ons for FireFox and Google Chrome that would auto-direct users to each new web address for websites managed by Islamic State’s Amaq news service, Nashir News, and Halummu, which promotes English-language versions of the group’s official propaganda.
The group also developed several versions of an Android app that streamlined distribution of Amaq-branded propaganda directly to Islamic State members’ and supporters’ smartphones.
In forcing ISIS off Telegram and from mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter, law enforcement agencies have dealt a significant blow to the group’s ability to coordinate effectively online. But such disruption also comes with problems.
“The negative implications of this are significant,” Amarasingam said in a recent Wired article co-written with ISIS expert Charlie Winter. “It could mean that governments will be left in the dark about what the Islamic State is saying and doing online, particularly as it morphs into a new, post-territorial insurgency in the wake of the loss of its physical caliphate and appointment of its new caliph.”
Cover: Tributes placed by the southern end of London Bridge in London, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019. London Bridge reopened to cars and pedestrians Monday, three days after a man previously convicted of terrorism offenses stabbed two people to death and injured three others before being shot dead by police. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)