Al Qaeda gaining strength as terror fight focuses on ISIS

Crime report by EU's Internet Referral Unit highlights the continuing online danger from ISIS but says growing threat from resilient Al Qaeda has gone under the radar

ISIS used the appointment of Mohammad Al Mawla as its leader to post online propaganda. AFP
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Tackling extremist online terrorist messages must remain a priority for security services as ISIS continues to pose a threat, according to an EU crime report.

The EU Internet Referral Unit (IRU) report for 2019 said that Al Qaeda had gained followers because counter-terrorism efforts were focused on ISIS.

"Propaganda disseminated online by both ISIS and Al Qaeda – although less readily accessible thanks to disruptive action carried out jointly by EU member states and the EU IRU – continues to inspire and incite lone attacks by individuals who have no physical connections to either group," the report said.

"Combating the terrorist groups' media reach, limiting their ability to carry out attacks, and attributing online terrorist offences through heightened international co-operation should therefore remain a priority."

The report, which was published by the European crime agency Europol, said ISIS launched a media campaign and sent 15 videos from June to September last year. They showed fighters renewing their allegiance to former leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

A second media campaign was co-ordinated in the aftermath of the declaration of Amir Mohammed Al Mawla as the group's new leader and included endorsements from ISIS provinces.

Al Mawla replaced Al Baghdadi after his death in a raid by US Special Forces in October.

The US Department of State placed Al Mawla on its Specially Designated Global Terrorist list with a $10 million (Dh36.7m) bounty.

ISIS also released short mobile phone videos of women and children in Syria's Al Hol camp, a displacement and refugee centre for families from ISIS-controlled areas, pledging allegiance to the group.

A campaign by Europol last November resulted in the removal of thousands of ISIS messages and accounts on social media network Telegram.

“The takedown action co-ordinated by EU member states and Europol resulted in an extensive eradication of pro-ISIS accounts, channels and groups from Telegram,” it said.

“Official as well as supportive ISIS media outlets and groups are still struggling to rebuild their networks online, with efforts continuing across several platforms.”

The report revealed said Al Baghdadi's death had little effect on the group's ability to draw followers and said its "emphasis on being a state" could undermine its credibility.

"Its propaganda has attempted to show that it remains a threat, albeit a de-territorialised one but one that could regroup in the future," the report said.

“Furthermore, Al Baghdadi’s death did not deal a significant blow to the group. More than Al Baghdadi, it is the idea of the caliphate that will continue to attract potential sympathisers. However, ISIS’s emphasis on being a state along with its continued inability to realise territorial governance could undermine its credibility in the long run.”

The report urged nations to be aware of the Al Qaeda threat and said the terrorist group had become more resilient.

"While counter-terrorism attention was focused on ISIS, Al Qaeda was patiently strengthening its network of affiliates, from West Africa to South-East Asia," it said.

“Al Qaeda’s ability to ingratiate itself locally has made the organisation more resilient. Furthermore, Ayman Al Zawahiri’s leadership, which many have termed uncharismatic, lends Al Qaeda the benefit of continuity.”

However, it said, competition between the groups could undermine them.

“The future of Al Qaeda and ISIS will be largely defined by the competition between the two. One key question is whether this competition will evolve towards more confrontation or whether some alliances will be forged – at least in some regions, such as have been reported in West Africa,” it said.

“One of the reasons for this competition, which has been played out on social media, is due to the similarity in ideology and ultimate objectives.”

Europol's concentrated action last November resulted in "a significant portion of key actors within the ISIS network on Telegram" being "pushed away from the platform".

Telegram said 5,055 terrorist accounts and bots were removed from its platform during the operation.