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Inside the app that’s become the Islamic State's biggest propaganda machine

The Telegram messaging app has shut down dozens of Isis-related channels since the Paris terror attacks.

Image: A screenshot of an Isis propagranda video

AN ENCRYPTED MESSAGING app has been the subject of much media coverage over the past fortnight, amid fears that Islamic State members are increasingly using it to communicate with one another.

While it isn’t not clear how exactly the Paris terrorists communicated, Telegram is one of a number of apps that have created difficulties for intelligence agencies more broadly when dealing with terrorism.

Isis doesn’t appear to rely on any one platform to communicate publicly and privately. But experts have noted a troubling shift, in particular, to Telegram, which has been used to recruit people, disseminate propaganda and facilitate private messaging between members.

Some experts have cast doubt on the characterisation of the app’s encryption as nearly impenetrable. But nevertheless, it’s not easy to crack.

Russian origins

Telegram was created by Nikolai and Pavel Durov, the brothers who launched Russia’s biggest social networking site, VKontakte, in 2013.

Russia Zuckerberg Pavel Durov Source: Roman Kulik/AP/Press Association Images

Pavel fled Russia after VKontakte caught the Kremlin’s attention and allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin took control of the social network.

He said he came up with the idea for Telegram when he called his brother during a Swat standoff at his home in St Petersburg. The standoff followed 2011 demonstrations over parliamentary elections.

“I realised I don’t have a safe means of communications” with my brother, Durov told The New York Times. “That’s how Telegram started.”

Pavel claimed in May that Telegram has 62 million monthly active users, according to TechCrunch. He said at a TechCrunch conference earlier this year that the network sees about 12 billion messages sent per day.

Though these numbers are high, other messaging apps like WhatsApp (which was founded in 2009) have several hundred million monthly active users.

Still, Telegram has reached millions of people without outside investors, ads and marketing, Pavel told The Times last year.

The company, which is based in Berlin, operates as a non-profit to avoid commercial and legal pressure.

The app is available to download for free, and a phone number is the only requirement that goes along with signing up.

Channels and private chats

Part of what has made Telegram so appealing to terror groups is the heightened encryption and “channels” that allow users to broadcast to an unlimited number of subscribers.

screen shot 2015-11-17 at 7.15.06 pm A message from the Nashir English channel on Telegram Source: Nashir English/Telegram

Users can also share their contact information easily via usernames and links — if you don’t want a person to know your phone number, for example, you can create a username and send the person a link to the app.

Once the person clicks, it launches the app and opens a chat (or channel) with the username on the link.

The usernames and links make it easy for Isis recruiters to share their Telegram contact information on larger platforms like Twitter without exposing the phone numbers attached to the usernames.

Hassan Hassan, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank and an expert on Isis and Syria, told Business Insider that it’s also easier to fake your phone number on Telegram than on other messaging platforms like WhatsApp.

He said that Isis members “don’t want to be tracked so they use fake numbers”.

“They use these apps so they can send out their messages and communicate securely and without their identities being known.

“They don’t want to be legally tied to a phone number and a pro-jihad Telegram account.”

Hassan explained that Isis members are typically told use a strong virtual private network (or VPN), which can obscure a user’s IP address and protect his or her data, enable the two-step verification feature on Telegram and then link it to an encrypted secure mailbox.

Isis Telegram channels have sent out instructions on how to enable two-step verification:

isis-telegram-shop

Telegram also has a “secret chat” feature that goes the extra mile to protect the messages from being intercepted.

As Telegram’s website explains:

Telegram’s special secret chats use end-to-end encryption, leave no trace on our servers, support self-destructing messages and don’t allow forwarding. About the only thing secret chats don’t have is cloud storage — they can only be accessed on their devices of origin.

And the app’s self-destruct feature allows users to set a time limit on the messages — they’ll automatically delete once a certain amount of time has passed after the recipient opens the message. Users can set messages to delete anywhere from one second to one week after it’s opened.

Combined with Telegram’s prior unwillingness to suspend users who appear to be affiliated with terrorist groups, the app has become a convenient platform for jihadis who want to disseminate their message easily to a large audience and communicate one-on-one without worrying about their messages being easily intercepted by intelligence agencies.

telegram-for-android A screenshot from Telegram's Android app

At the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in September, Pavel was asked specifically about Isis using the app. He said then that privacy took precedence.

“Privacy is ultimately more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism,” Pavel said, according to VentureBeat.

If you look at Isis, yes, there’s a war going on in the Middle East. Ultimately, Isis will find a way to communicate with its cells, and if any means doesn’t feel secure to them, they’ll [find something else]. We shouldn’t feel guilty about it. We’re still doing the right thing, protecting our users’ privacy.

Pavel’s comments illustrate the central struggle of stopping terrorism in the internet age — it’s difficult to give governments enough access to intercept terrorist communications without potentially sacrificing everyone else’s privacy.

Since Pavel’s comments at the TechCrunch conference, however, Telegram seems to have changed its stance.

Last week, the company suspended dozens of Isis-affiliated channels and announced in a statement that it would block terrorist channels.

isis telegram suspended Source: Telegram

Isis propaganda channels

Isis’ Telegram users are very active, sending out hundreds of updates per day — including video, audio, photos, and text statements.

Subscribers can’t post anything in the channels, but subscribing gives users quick and easy access to all of the group’s latest releases.

The propaganda oscillates from bucolic to brutal — photos of sunsets and shops are mixed in with photos of amputations and airstrikes.

Though Isis certainly uses violence to recruit, it also markets its “caliphate” as an Islamic utopia, emphasising the government services, food and other goods that it says are available in its territory in Iraq and Syria.

This method of marketing might especially resonate with those living in war zones who don’t have regular access to basic necessities.

Here’s a look at the wide variety of images that pop up:

isis toyota A photo from an ISIS propaganda channel showing a militant firing a weapon from the back of a truck Source: Telegram

isis perfume A photo that purports to show a perfume shop in Raqqa, Syria Source: Telegram/Nashir

mosul A photo showing a sunset in Mosul, Iraq Source: Telegram/Nashir

Official Isis propaganda channels come across as an exercise in branding – the group dedicates a lot of its messaging to making its territory look like a full-fledged state with a well-functioning and disciplined military.

Recently, Isis Telegram channels posted photos showing militants learning martial arts and engaging in various military exercises.

The group has put a lot of effort into its media strategy, which is highly sophisticated for a terrorist group.

It regularly produces slick videos and a glossy English-language magazine, along with maintaining an active presence on social media for indoctrinating, recruiting and disseminating its messages.

isis karate 15 Source: Telegram

isis karate 9 Source: Telegram

isis 7 Source: Telegram

Many of the group’s Telegram channels have now been blocked, but new ones keep popping up, and their system for attracting followers seems to be similar to the tactics they use on Twitter.

One account gets shut down, and a new one pops up in its place.

When an Isis-affiliated Twitter account gets suspended, the user will often create a new account with a similar handle, noting in their new Twitter bio how many times they’ve been suspended, and then notify a “shoutout” account (which are also often suspended) to mention the new handle and ask other Isis-supporters on Twitter to follow it.

Meanwhile, some of the new Telegram channels that have popped up this week are distributing what looks to be official Isis propaganda in light of the official Isis Telegram channels (all bearing the name “Nashir”) being shut down.

For its part, Isis declared “war” on Telegram after the company started shutting down its channels.

Isis-affiliated channels that hadn’t yet been blocked released this statement:

they started their war on the #islamicState
be very careful and from now on nothing is save to use
they can give away our info
so keep using VPN and
be carefull may Allah protect you

Explainer: Who are Islamic State?

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Business Insider
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