Telegram And Its Refusal To Take Action Against ISIS And Other Jihadi Accounts
The November 13, 2015 Paris attacks relaunched the debate about Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadi use of encryption technology and apps, with particular attention, and unprecedentedly negative media coverage, directed at Telegram, which these groups and individuals now heavily favor. Much of this negative reporting about Telegram came as a result of the MEMRI report Jihadis Shift To Using Secure Communication App Telegram's Channels Service, by MEMRI JTTM research fellow M. Khayat, released two weeks previously and heavily cited in the media.
Telegram developer Pavel Durov, who previously had consistently refused to remove ISIS and other jihadi groups and channels from the platform, grudgingly tweeted on November 18, "This week we blocked 78 ISIS-related channels across 12 languages."
Jihadi accounts on Twitter shared news of the blocks (see MEMRI report )
On November 19, 2015, he tweeted, including to the MEMRI Twitter account, that "groups are not channels. And we've been against ISIS public content since forever (see our FAQ)."
MEMRI then sent a series of tweets to Durov highlighting how ISIS and Al-Qaeda have embraced Telegram:
In an interview following Durov's announcement that Telegram was shutting down groups, MEMRI Executive Director Steven Stalinsky explained to The Washington Times how ISIS was using Telegram and predicted that even if ISIS-connected groups were removed, they would not be gone for long and would very quickly be back. This turned out to be exactly what happened - ISIS and Al-Qaeda groups and accounts, notably Nashir, Fursan Al-Raf, CyberCaliphate, Al-Battar, and Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) - announced shortly thereafter that they had returned to Telegram. Stalinsky said: "We are sure there are lots of private encrypted discussions happening that are just not public but continue... It's positive he [Durov] removed the accounts, but he did it as a temporary thing so as not to get bad press and pressure."
Durov's claim that Telegram "has been against ISIS public content since forever" does not reflect the reality of how the group continues to use the service freely.
Telegram Offers Jihadis Many Options For Communicating - Including Privacy And Encryption
Telegram offers a number of different options for regular, secret, and encrypted communications, including groups, "supergroups," and channels. Telegram explains these options in its FAQ on its website (telegram.org/faq) as follows:
"Telegram groups are ideal for sharing stuff with friends and family or collaboration in small teams, they can have up to 200 members and by default everyone can add new people and edit the name and group photo. If your group grows to a very large community, you can upgrade it into a more centralized supergroup. Supergroups can have up to 1,000 members and have a unified history, deleted messages will disappear for everyone. Channels are a tool for broadcasting public messages to large audiences. In fact, a channel can have an unlimited amount of members. When you post in a channel, the message is signed with the channel's name and photo and not your own."
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The following report dissects a private ISIS-affiliated group on Telegram, including the options available to members: invitations to join the group, private and secret chats, encrypted conversations complete with encryption key, and profile pages of members of the group.
TELEGRAM MESSAGE TO USERS ABOUT GROUPS
"Supporters Of The Islamic State" Group On Telegram
The Telegram group titled "Supporters of the Islamic State," which disseminates Islamic State (ISIS) propaganda, was created December 17, 2015, and within two days had nearly 500 members. This group is not a regular Telegram account; it is a group which offers privacy and encrypted communications. As part of this group, these members can conduct private conversations with each other or with a small group of other members, and can remain completely invisible to anyone who is not part of the group.
The page for the Supporters of the Islamic State group shows information on its nearly 500 members. The avatars of many of the members include the black ISIS flag and other ISIS symbols (see "Supporters of the Islamic State Group - Member Profiles" section below).
GROUP PAGE FOR SUPPORTERS OF THE ISLAMIC STATE
TO JOIN CHAT/GROUP
BOX THAT APPEARS WHEN USER CLICKS ON INVITATION TO JOIN CHAT/GROUP
SECRET CHAT FEATURE
Members can invite other members, whether individuals or groups, to participate in a temporary secret chat; these temporary chats are frequently short-lived. Any member of the group can initiate a secret chat with any other member or members by clicking on "Start Secret Chat."
PROFILE PAGE FEATURES "START SECRET CHAT" BUTTON
STAND-BY SCREEN FOR A SECRET CHAT WINDOW
The dialogue box that appears when a group member invites another to a secret chat explains: "You have invited [other member] to join a secret chat.
· "Use end-to-end encryption
· "Leave no trace on our servers
· "Have a self-destruct timer
· "Do not allow forwarding."
OPEN SECRET CHAT WINDOW WITH BLANK DIALOGUE BOX -
USER CAN EITHER TYPE OR SPEAK
OPEN SECRET CHAT WINDOW WITH MESSAGE TYPED INTO DIALOGUE BOX; USER THEN HITS "SEND"
KEY FOR SECRET CHATS - "200% SECURE"
The windows below show a secret chat underway with an "encryption key" (marked in red) that is shared by the chat's participants. The encryption key window states: "This image is a visualization of the encryption key for this secret chat with [interlocutor]. If this image looks the same on [interlocutor's] phone, your chat is 200% secure."
SUPPORTERS OF THE ISLAMIC STATE GROUP - MEMBER PROFILES
Following are the profile pages of some of the Telegram users who are members of the Supporters of the Islamic State group:
*Steven Stalinsky is Executive Director of MEMRI