News / Middle East

    Why Islamic State Loves Telegram

    Screenshot of Telegram App on iTunes Screenshot of Telegram App on iTunes
    Screenshot of Telegram App on iTunes
    Screenshot of Telegram App on iTunes

    Islamic State militants have returned in explosive numbers to using a heavily encrypted phone messaging and social networking application whose Russian developer came under widespread political and law-enforcement pressure after November's Paris attacks to hinder jihadi use of his hard-to-crack technology.

    Telegram's Pavel Durov consistently refused to block IS and other jihadi groups from using his platform before the Paris attacks but reluctantly blocked 78 IS-related accounts on his Berlin-based secure messaging app after terrorists killed 130 people in the French capital.

    Telegram’s Channels Service, which was launched last September, allows messages to be transmitted to an unlimited number of subscribers and for users to break off into highly encrypted private and group chats. In the last few weeks IS militants and other jihadis have resorted again — but in even larger numbers — to the Telegram app to recruit, spread propaganda and, intelligence officials fear, possibly organize and plot attacks in chats that are invisible and can’t be monitored or decoded.

    According to Steve Stalinsky, executive director of a jihadist monitoring research group based in Washington, Telegram has the potential to surpass Twitter as the messaging tool of choice for Islamic State and al-Qaida groups.

    “The Taliban has created, for the first time, accounts on Telegram just in the past couple of days,” he says.

    American and European officials say they have no final evidence that the Paris attackers used difficult-to-crack encryption technologies to plot their violence but, with the chief planners back in Syria, some form of secure communications would have been needed, they say.

    Much of the national security leadership of the Obama administration is to discuss Friday with Silicon Valley chiefs jihadi use of the Internet to recruit and radicalize people and plot attacks.

    FILE - Pavel Durov.
    FILE - Pavel Durov.

    App founder

    The traffic and use of Telegram, which is based in Germany, is “shocking,” says Stalinsky, who runs the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). The app was developed by the brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov. Pavel Durov, 31, is best known for having founded the social networking site VK, a Russian version of Facebook that earned him the nickname the “Mark Zuckerberg of Russia.” He holds strong libertarian political views and he says he lost control of VK to allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin after he refused to comply with Kremlin orders to provide personal details of VK users, including Maidan protesters in Ukraine, to Russian security agencies.

    Says Stalinsky: “We have been focused on jihadi use of Telegram since October and before the Paris attacks we saw unprecedented growth for an app — it was the biggest development in cyber-jihad since the jihadis started to communicate on Twitter two years ago. Durov came under pressure and grudgingly closed accounts, but they are all back now and there are many more of them. And every day there are even more. It is crazy — on one channel alone overnight last night there were more than 10,000 chats.”

    Telegram is more sophisticated than Twitter, having among other features state-of-the-art built-in encryption technology that Durov’s company boasts is more secure than mass market messengers like WhatsApp.


    On the Telegram channels, which are designed to allow public messages to be sent to large audiences, there is relative anonymity. A channel displays only the total number of its subscribers to other users without disclosing real names. Following and follower lists are public on Twitter, allowing pro-IS accounts to be cross-referenced by checking the accounts they follow and those that follow them.

    Telegram users can forward content from a channel to other Telegram users allowing the dissemination of jihadi content. Content on IS-linked channels include tutorials on making weapons and calls for lone-wolf attacks.

    Messages on the channels are transmitted in a single direction and subscribers can’t send content to a sender. This blocks the possibility — in contrast to Twitter — of counter-messaging — a strategy used by Western governments to push back against extremist propaganda.

    As well as the channels, subscribers can break off into private and group chats of up to 1,000 members. Telegram also offers Secret Chats, which use end-to-end encryption, leave no trace on the Telegram servers and support self-destructing messages,” the company brags.

    FILE - Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
    FILE - Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

    Aiding and abetting

    U.S. and European officials have long complained that high-tech companies are in effect aiding and abetting terrorism.

    Last year, British spy chief Robert Hannigan complained they had become “the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals — precisely because they are highly encrypted.”

    After initial resistance to government complaints, Facebook, Google and Twitter have been readier to co-operate with authorities to remove extremist messages on their sites but have resisted providing a so-called backdoor for governments with encryption keys. Apple has developed keys that the users at each end of the conversation hold and are not possessed by the company itself and its chief executive, Timothy Cook, has argued: “If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it, too.”

    Silicon Valley chiefs say they fear violations of privacy and that their priority is their customers — not national security, an argument that has resonated since disclosures, by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the U.S. National Security Agency, revealed the extent of electronic surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies.

    In the meantime, though, IS and other jihadis remain less hindered as they communicate, recruit and plot. On Telegram, there are several channels now run by IS media groups Nashir, Fursan Al-Raf, and Al-Battar. A group titled the “Supporters of the Islamic State”, whose avatar is of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was established on December 17 and within two days had 500 subscribers.



    You May Like

    Video Democrats Clinton, Kaine Offer 'Very Different Vision' Than Trump

    In a jab at Trump, Clinton says her team wants to 'build bridges, not walls'; Obama Hails Kaine's record; Trump calls Kaine a 'job-killer'

    Turkey Wants Pakistan to Close Down institutions, Businesses Linked to Gulen

    Thousands of Pakistani students are enrolled in Gulen's commercial network of around two dozen institutions operating in Pakistan for over two decades

    AU Passport A Work in Progress

    Who will get the passport and what the benefits are still need to be worked out

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movementi
    July 22, 2016 11:49 AM
    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora