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European and US police seize servers used by IS group propaganda sites

Lex Van Lieshout, AFP | Exterior of the Europol headquarters, the alliance of the European Union police and a multinational research organisation, in The Hague, Netherlands on July 1, 2011.

Police around Europe and North America have seized servers and data from Islamic State propaganda outlets in a multi-country operation aimed at tracking down radicals and crimping the group's ability to spread its violent message.

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The two-day operation was the culmination of efforts started in late 2015, after coordinated IS group attacks that killed 130 people in Paris, according to a statement from European police agency Europol.

Police notably targeted the IS-branded Amaq news agency, as well as al-Bayan radio, and Halumu and Nasher news sites. Amaq spreads information online in at least nine languages and has been used to claim the IS group was behind attacks in multiple countries, from the 2016 nightclub attack in Florida to a deadly supermarket hostage-taking in southern France last month.

While Europol said the operation "punched a big hole in the capability of IS to spread propaganda online and radicalise young people in Europe", it didn't shut down the propaganda altogether.

For example, Nasher continued to share IS group statements and Amaq reports Friday through channels on encrypted messaging network Telegram.

IS group's ability to broadcast jihadist material 'not changed'

"Less than two hours after Europol’s announcement, the IS communications system Amaq broadcast communiqués on fighting against the Syrian army south of Damascus, a video of an attack against the Egyptian army in Sinai and then a more than 18-minute long propaganda video on the fighting in the Damascus region," noted Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24's in-house specialist on jihadist groups.

"So even though IS’s communication has been disrupted and important data has been collected by the services of different countries, its ability to broadcast jihadist material has not changed for the time being," he continued.

The Islamic State group has used sophisticated and ever-changing communications tools to spread its apocalyptic message to disillusioned Muslims living in the West, to persuade them to reject Western ideals of pluralism and tolerance. High-quality videos, complete with thrumming beats and slick editing techniques, have unlimited reach thanks to social networks. Extremists with gentle American accents narrate radio broadcasts aimed at US internet users.

European authorities involved in the operation Wednesday and Thursday said it showed the importance of international cooperation in fighting online radicalisation, which has helped fuel deadly attacks in multiple countries in Europe and the US.

Aim to 'destabilise this apparatus'

The operation was led by Belgian prosecutors and also involved authorities in the US, Canada, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Romania.

It aimed "to destabilise this apparatus by seizing and dismantling servers used to diffuse IS propaganda and to identify and arrest its administrators," the Belgian public prosecutor's office said.

Two prior international police operations, notably targeting Amaq's mobile app and web infrastructure, paved the way for this week's raids. One led by Spain's Civil Guard that seized servers in Panama allowed authorities to identify radicals in 133 countries via their interaction with IS propaganda, according to Europol and a Civil Guard statement.

The operation came as more than 70 countries vowed to bolster efforts to stop financing for IS and al-Qaida. Participants at an international conference in Paris on Thursday promised to improve international coordination and transparency of money flows.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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