Platform Preferences: Jihadis Thrive on ‘Telegram’ App’s Versatility, Making it a Top Online Terror Tool

It’s been a year since Twitter began taking seriously the removal of content by jihadi groups – led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al Qaeda – from its platform. Once it did, the jihadis who thrived on Twitter for years turned increasingly to the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Just as Twitter once declined, even arrogantly, to take responsibility for removing jihadi accounts, Telegram, which claims to have more than 100 million users and which states clearly that does not allow extremism-related material, has, to date, done very little to remove it.

Launched in 2013, Telegram describes itself as “a cloud-based mobile and desktop messaging app with a focus on security and speed,” and runs on Android, iOS, OS X, Windows and other operating systems. It provides end-to-end encryption with an optional self-destruct feature. Users must have a verified phone number, but experts say that it is easier to use a fake number on Telegram than it is on other messaging apps, such as WhatsApp. Telegram creator Pavel Durov, known as the “Mark Zuckerberg of Russia,” also founded the popular Facebook-like Russian social network VKontakte, which has also been used by jihadis; he left Russia in 2014.

Military-Grade Encryption

Research done over the past year by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and the institute’s Jihad & Terrorism Threat Monitor team has revealed the main reasons jihadis are switching to Telegram. For starters, its “secret chats” feature has end-to-end encryption that experts have called “military-grade.” Users can store these secret chats on the user’s device and nowhere else, so that the not even the company can access them. In addition, users may “lock” their app with an additional passcode. Since ISIS and others began using it a year ago, user-friendliness has increased and it now includes a desktop version. It also contains a timed self-destruct feature for secret chat and other messages.

It is easier to create an account with a fake phone number than on other messaging platforms, and it contains a number of options for users to send messages, photos, videos and files of any type. Telegram also contains the ability to create invitation-only groups and “supergroups” for broadcasting to up to 5,000 people all at once, or channels to which an unlimited number of followers can subscribe. Additionally, some of these jihadi groups and channels have tens of thousands of followers/ members – as many as 82,000. And, as noted, Telegram monitors and suspends accounts far less than other social media platforms.

Read the complete report in the April/May 2017 issue of Homeland Security Today Magazine here.

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