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Jihadist terrorists seize on incidents of violence to promote their messages online.

Photo illustration by iStock; Security Management

International Attacks Stalled, But Online Terror Propaganda Continued to Spread in 2021

The Islamic State (IS) did not claim responsibility for any terror attacks on European Union soil in 2021, but its supporters did capitalize on violent incidents to promote the IS cause, according to a new Europol report.

The report, Online Jihadist Propaganda, was released this week, and it reviews the major trends and developments in propaganda released by prominent Sunni jihadist organizations—IS and al Qaeda, as well as their offshoots—between 1 January and 31 December 2021.

“The review distinguishes between narratives promulgated by official media outlets of terrorist groups and those disseminated by their supporter networks,” according to the report. “In particular, issues of the IS weekly magazine al-Naba’, released in 2021, were used to determine IS’s strategic direction. In the context of the decrease in official IS publications, al-Naba’ sheds light on IS’s goals and motivations and the group’s perception of global dynamics.”

IS Narratives

Most of the material reviewed from 2021 showed that IS propaganda “reflected the group’s reliance on local jihadist insurgiencies to display force and remain relevant,” the report explained. “The bulk of IS official propaganda releases portrayed the actions of regional militants who co-opted the IS brand and fought to seize territories under its banners. Their efforts were applauded by an otherwise invisible leadership.”

For instance, IS propaganda praised militants in West Africa and Central Africa for seizing land and implementing sharia law. IS also pushed back against Western narratives that it was experiencing a “resurgence.” Instead, the terrorist group said it had never retreated and continued to expand its reach outside of Iraq and Syria into Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Egypt.

“In parallel, IS sought to underscore the weakness of democratic governments by commenting on the invasion of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on 6 January 2021,” Europol reports. “In al-Naba’, IS gloated about the U.S.’s preoccupation with internal dissent as it would lead (in IS’s view) to a reduce military pressure on Muslim countries where U.S. military forces are deployed.”

IS also boasted about attacks that inflicted economic harm or destroyed critical infrastructure, even if those attacks were not carried out by its adherents.

“Attacks against power and electricity towers, oil tankers, and energy plants were consistently claimed by the group’s affiliates across different areas of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and the Philippines,” Europol said. “Through al-Naba’, IS reminded its supporters of the importance of targeting critical infrastructure to destabilize the enemy.”

Due to lack of resources and deletion campaigns that removed IS presence on Telegram, the group established a foothold on an open-source instant messaging application called Element during 2021 in addition to maintaining websites on the Surface and Dark Webs.

“Instructions on how to create accounts and configure rooms on the homeserver of Element were circulated online by the Electronic Horizons Foundation, whose self-assigned mission is to provide IS supporters with operational security (OpSec) advice,” the report explained. “Horizons continued to provide OpSec advice in multiple languages, including Arabic, English, and French.”

The terrorist group also directed its supporters to attempt to reestablish a digital presence on Instagram, Facebook, and Tam Tam—which all saw a resurgence of pro-IS accounts during the review period.

The review period ended prior to the death of IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who was killed in a raid by U.S. military forces in February 2022.

Al Qaeda Narratives

Unlike IS, al Qaeda’s (AQ’s) propaganda network remained fairly consistent during 2021 with the group framing the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan as a “triumph for global jihad,” Europol reports. “AQ and its affiliates were emboldened and appeared to perceive the Western drawdown of forces worldwide as a major upturn in the jihadist struggle.”

AQ’s propaganda was mainly focused on local grievances while also sharing its viewpoints on global issues, including waging war against the United States and Western nations and supporting Palestine. As part of this effort, AQ portrayed the United States as a country in decline in its official outlet Al-Sahab through editorials on the country’s problems with racism and the 6 January 2021 Capitol riot.

“The same editorial was repurposed by AQ in a vide entitled ‘America burns,’ issued on the occasion of the celebration of Eid al-Adha on 20 July 2021,” Europol explained. “In line with the editorial, the video elaborated on what AQ termed ‘the five conernerstones of America’s coffin,’ namely the coronavirus pandemic, political divisions, racism, a declining economy, and the attacks by the ‘mujahidin’. The video also included an excerpt from an older video of Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which the AQ leader elaborated on the issue of racism in the United States and quoted Malcolm X.”

AQ and its affiliate, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), based in the Sahel and operating mainly out of Mali, also used propaganda to focus on perceived wrongdoings and failures of France in response to its occupation of Mali.

“The group framed its attacks against France as a continuation of its ‘blessed campaign’ to defend the Prophet Muhammad, protect Muslims in Mali, and ‘avenge the innocent people killed by the French killing machine,’” according to eht report. “Through its official media foundation al-Zallaqua, JNIM continued to denounce the ‘occupying French forces.’ In a 14-minute video, entitled ‘if they kill you, kill them,’ the group once again lambasted France and its president Macron for justifying the republication of the depictions of the Prophet Muhammed.”

Meanwhile, AQ affiliate al-Shabab al-Mujahidin Movement (al-Shabab) on the Horn of Africa increased its military operations against Somalia and Kenya in 2021 as well as its propaganda highlighting these attacks on government buildings, employees, and a UN-funded airport in Somalia.

“Al-Shabab was able to capitalize on Somalia’s simmering political instability ahead of repeatedly delayed parliamentary and presidential elections to create upheaval,” Europol reports. “The group was also emboldened by the disengagement of Western powers, as the U.S. withdrew its troops supporting Somalia’s counter terror efforts in January 2021…. The staggering number of attacks carried out in 2021 identified al-Shabab as one of AQ’s most powerful affiliates and on that displayed increased operational capabilities.”

The affiliate used propaganda to highlight many of the same issues as other AQ groups, but also to spread COVID-19 disinformation related to the AstraZeneca vaccination.

“Al-Shabab urged Muslims in Somalia to reject this vaccine, in order to prevent risks to their health and lives,” Europol reports. “The group also expressed their condolences for Muslims who died due to the COVID-19 pandemic and urged those who live in Mogadishu to stay away from ‘the Western crusaders’ living in the Halane base camp and TurkSom military base, describing them as ‘the main source of coronavirus reaching Somalia.’”

In the Arabian Peninsula, AQ affiliate AQAP focused on using propaganda to encourage Yemenis to fight against Shia, berate Western countries for supporting the Houthis, and more. AQAP also published “Inspire Guide” after a four-year break, dedicating its sixth issue to a supermarket shooting in the U.S. state of Colorado on 22 March 2021.

“The 14-page document provided an overview of the life of the Syria-born perpetrator, who moved to the U.S. with his parents at an early age,” Europol reports. “The author of the magazine quoted posts from the perpetrator’s social media accounts, adding that in 2017 the perpetrator physically attacked an American student who insulted him because of his name and for being a Muslim. The publication also included a series of instructions for planning a terrorist attack, highlighting the importance of choosing a location where targeted crowds could not easily hide or escape. AQAP also underscored the importance of creating a media message for the operation, emphasizing that it ‘multiplies its impact many times over.’”

As part of this effort, the author also gave instructions on how to film attacks and distribute them via social media.

“Messages by both [IS and AQ] were magnified and repurposed into new threats by their network of supporters, who continue to call for terrorist attacks in the EU,” Europol concluded. “IS and AQ supporter networks displayed increased technical capabilities in their propaganda dissemination efforts. Understanding the technical complexity of the phenomenon, limiting the online accessibility of the terrorist messaging, and identifying key players in the dissemination of online jihadist propaganda should remain a priority in international counter terrorism efforts.”