Jihadis Shift To Using Secure Communication App Telegram’s Channels Service

October 29, 2015

The following report is a complimentary offering from MEMRI’s Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here.

Introduction

In the last few weeks, a number of jihadis and terrorist organizations have announced that they are opening their own channels on the Berlin-based secure messaging app Telegram. Telegram’s Channels Service, launched in late September 2015, allows individual message content to be transmitted to an unlimited number of subscribed users. Terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have already created several channels on Telegram for sharing their content with thousands of followers.

Telegram was founded by Pavel Durov, known as “Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg.” Durov also created Vkontakte (VK), a popular Russian social network website.

Jihadis’ use of Telegram and other secure messaging apps has gained momentum in the last year, for purposes such as communications, propaganda, and recruitment. The new service offered by Telegram constitutes a step up from the standard one-on-one messaging function, and there seems to be no way to censor it.

One of the main strategies in combating jihadi content online has been identifying, reporting, and removing it. Currently, Telegram’s channels offer no way in to monitor them, and thus are expected to pose an obstacle to this with regard to them. Also, based on the rate at which new jihadi channels are emerging, and on the large number of members they are attracting, these channels can be expected to become a fertile and secure arena for jihad-related activities.

Content shared on Telegram channels goes beyond the mere reposting of jihadi groups’ propaganda, and includes tutorials on manufacturing weapons and launching cyberattacks, calls for targeted killing and lone-wolf attacks, and more. Some channels, such as those belonging to ISIS, show various levels of coordination among them, even using bots to aid their efforts.

Telegram’s Channels Service
Telegram announced its channels service on September 22 as a replacement for its old Broadcast lists. As noted, the channels allow content to be shared with an unlimited number of subscribed users, either by invitation from the channel’s administrator or by following a public URL.

Telegram accounts are tied to the telephone number of the user. A user must be in possession of the telephone with that number that is verified with a code sent to it by SMS or phone call. Telegram also offers a web service, telegram.me, which allows users to open a chat directly with another user by following a URL such as telegram.me/username. Telegram channels use similar URLs, which, in the case of jihadis, are frequently shared and promoted on Twitter and elsewhere. The channels also offer their subscribers a notification function for whenever new content is posted on the page. Since it is a cloud-based app, content is synchronized across a user’s devices.

Telegram channels have some features and functions that are advantageous to the typical jihadi user. First, they provide relative anonymity. A channel displays only the total number of its subscribers to other users without disclosing their names. However, a channel administrator can see the names of members. The relative anonymity makes it harder to identity and track followers of a certain channel for a number of reasons: First, on a social network such as Twitter, following and follower lists are public, and therefore pro-ISIS accounts can be cross-referenced by checking the accounts that they follow and those that follow them. Second, Telegram users can forward content they find on the channel to other Telegram users, thus heightening the sharing and dissemination of jihadi content. Third, messages on the channels are transmitted in a single direction, and no reverse interaction from channel subscribers to the broadcaster is possible. This eliminates the possibility of counter-messaging and the disruption of a content’s feed, both of which are used on Twitter as a strategy to counter extremist propaganda. Finally, Telegram provides a client-server/server-client encryption as a default option, which, in theory, adds security to the entire interaction.

Reporting Illegal Content On Telegram Channels
One of the ways to combat jihadi content posted online is to identify it and subsequently flag or report it whenever feasible. This strategy, albeit not the most efficient, has been used with varying levels of success on platforms favorited by jihadis such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Telegram channels do not have a flagging mechanism; moreover, they appear to operate as a “no man’s land” away from any moderation, even moderation by the company itself.

In writing this report, MEMRI contacted Telegram with questions on how to report content on its channels, such as ones promoting violence, for example. Telegram wrote in response that its private and group chats (likely referring to its channels service) were the “private territory” of their respective participants, and that the company did not process any requests related to them. Telegram added that only complaints concerning its bots and sticker sets (an emoji-like feature) could be submitted; both features are publicly available services. Telegram’s October 21, 2015 response read as follows: “Hi there. All Telegram chats and group chats are private territory of their respective participants and we do not process any requests related to them. But sticker sets and bots on Telegram are publically available. If you find sticker sets or bots on Telegram that you think are illegal, please ping us [email protected] But please understand that we only accept such reports.”

It seems that Telegram’s overall approach to the issue is reflected in the last sentence of its response: “By the way, you can always leave a channel you dislike.”

Telegram Bots
Telegram has an application program interface (API) for bots as well. The API allows a user to connect bots, which are special accounts designed to automatically handle messages, to Telegram servers. Telegram Bots do not require an additional phone number to set up. Bot usernames always end in “bot.” The Islamic State has a handful of Telegram bots (see “ISIS Bots” below) which aid it in its propaganda efforts.

The following are jihadi channels found on Telegram. Note: The channel URLs are redacted but MEMRI has a full list in its possession.

Jihadi Telegram Channels

ISIS-Related Channels
Nasher Channels
Nasher is currently the flagship of ISIS-related news on Telegram. Nasher was already associated with ISIS when it operated as a webpage (Nasher.me) and as an app as well.

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Nasher logo 

Nasher operates a number of channels on Telegram that provide ISIS-related news in a number of languages. The main hub of those different channels appears to be the Arabic-language Nasher channel, whereas the remaining channels offer various translations and content summaries. Also, content posted on the Nasher channels mirrors ISIS
releases that appear on Twitter and on the Shumoukh Al-Islam forum.

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Nasher English channel on Telegram 

Nasher channels are offered in the following languages: Arabic (over 10,000 members); English (998 members); French (348 members); Indonesian (1,076 members); German (340 members); Bosnian (201 members); Turkish (181 members), and Bengali (159 members).

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Instructions from one of the Nasher channels on how to forward content to other users

a3maqagency
The ISIS-affiliated A’maq news agency channel provides around the clock updates on the Islamic State, focusing primarily at ISIS’s military operations. A’maq had previously operated on Facebook, but its pages there were constantly shut down by administrators.  A’maq’s channel was created on October 1, and currently has over 9,000 members.

ISIS News
A generic channel that publishes ISIS-related news, mostly reposting of various official ISIS releases. It currently has 300 members.

Russian ISIS News
Opened on October 8, the channel delivers ISIS-related news in Russian. It currently has 1,919 members.

KhilafahNews
ISIS news channel in English, and currently has 1,711 members.

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Promotion of the KhilafaNews channel on pro-ISIS Twitter account (Source: @mhistory087, October 12, 2015) 

 

News3Libya
News for Libya is an unofficial channel reporting about ISIS operations in Libya. The channel currently has over 500 members.

“Libya and The Honor of the Caliphate”
Also an unofficial channel reporting about ISIS activities in Libya. The channel publishes various religious content as well. It currently has 1,437 members.

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Sinai Province
An unofficial channel publishing ISIS news from Sinai. The channel is named after Abu Suhaib Al-Ansari, a slain commander of ISIS in Sinai. The channel currently has 437 members.

“Elite Section Of IS”
The channel posts cyber-related content by a number of ISIS hackers. The channel states that it is the official channel of the “Islamic Cyber Army” and the so-called “Elite Section” of the Islamic State hackers. The channel was created on October 15, and currently has 698 members.

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Top members of ISIS’s
cyber channel 
 


Fursan Al-Rafi’ (“Knights of Upload”)
With over 3,000 members, the Fursan Al-Rafi’ channel is dedicated to uploading ISIS releases on various hosting websites, including YouTube, the Internet Archive (Archive.org), Sendvid, Google Drive, and others.

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Publication Library
A channel that offers a “library” of ISIS releases. It has over 2,600 members.

Al-Battar Media
A channel belonging to Al-Battar media foundation, a prominent pro-ISIS media entity. It currently has over 4,400 members.

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Publication Knights Workshop
A channel that focuses on generating pro-ISIS Tweets, which members can readily copy and paste to their Twitter accounts. The channel is affiliated with Al-Battar media, and currently has 1,205 members.

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Caliphate Spam
Opened on September 30 and currently has over 480 members, the channel is dedicated to publishing the names of anti-ISIS Twitter accounts for the purpose of reporting them to Twitter. The channel also offers instructions on how to use the reporting function on Twitter.

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Instructions on reporting anti-ISIS Twitter accounts 

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