Terror Jihadi groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are now shifting much of their social media propaganda, recruiting and fund transferring from mainstream social media sites like Twitter to a service called Telegram, according to a new report by the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC).
ISIS and other militant groups have been jumping from one social media service to another in their attempts to avoid anti-terrorism programs by governments and corporations. They appear to have settled on Telegram. “The Jihadis’ struggle to keep up with the relentless suspensions and removal of jihadi social media content may have finally run its course,” says Veryan Khan, the Editorial Director at TRAC. “The new frontier of jihadi communication is taking place on a recently launched tool, in a messaging platform that has revolutionized the social media sphere.”
Telegram was launched in August 2013 by the two Russian brothers, Nicolay and Pavel Durov, as a free encrypted instant messaging service. While reports of terror groups using Telegram surfaced months ago, a new feature called “Channels” was launched in September to let users broadcast to other members of the service. It quickly turned Telegram into the favorite social media hub of ISIS and other terror groups.
“It is this new feature that has been enthusiastically embraced by many militant groups, becoming an underground railroad for distributing and archiving jihadi propaganda materials,” the TRAC report says.
As of Nov. 2, TRAC has recorded more than 200 major jihadi channels. Half of them belong to ISIS. Other major players in the jihadi world, from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to Jabhat al-Nusra to Ansar al-Sharia in Libya to Jaysh al-Islam, are increasingly creating their own channels. The rate of membership growth for the channels has been staggering, quickly climbing to about 150,000 total members, the report concludes.
“The sheer scale and momentum of the Telegram migration is hard to fathom,” says Brian Watts, an author of the TRAC report. “The force of the numbers using Telegram channels is staggering, watching hundreds of new members in an hours' time; thousands coming on in over a few days is commonplace for many channels.”
The rapid shift to Telegram by ISIS and other groups represents a wholesale change to terrorists’ communication style, Watts adds. ISIS’s popular website for video circulation, ISDARAT, has five Telegram channels. ISDARAT is often shut down by authorities, but with Telegram's guarantee of permanence, and the capacity to transfer any type of file via a channel, ISDARAT no longer needs to hide.
As a result, Telegram and its chat feature have become essential to ISIS’s recruiting efforts — and to its money-moving activities. While it has been possible to transfer funds via text message in the past, Telegram makes that type of exchange more appealing. The service is encrypted and it offers a feature that allows users to set messages to “self-destruct” after a certain period of time. Accounts can also be eliminated after periods of inactivity. Additionally, sending payments in bitcoin allows both senders and recipients to remain anonymous, and bots developed to handle transfers of crypto-currency can make it even harder to track who is moving money around the world.
“The use of Telegram and other messaging applications to transfer funds (and other assets of value) is expected to be a rapidly changing environment that will require constant monitoring,” says Bethany Rudibaugh, another author of the report.