The shadowy social media platform favored by Islamic State for its confidentiality may have kicked the terrorist army off briefly after Friday’s attacks in Paris, but the jihadist group was back on Telegram with a vengeance.
Telegram announced the removal of 78 ISIS-related channels Wednesday.
However, just minutes after Telegram began pulling offline the 78 ISIS affiliated accounts that readers alerted the social network to, ISIS messaged its 16,000 channel viewers announcing a backup channel to its main channel, Nasher. Soon after, ISIS replaced the 78 public channels removed by Telegram by more than double that number.
“Even though some of the Islamic State channels were taken off Telegram, they were quickly able to reorganize and launch new channels,” said Veryan Khan, editorial director for The Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium. “Within 5 minutes, the Islamic State was back on line.”
A member of the Islamic State group messaged its followers to spread the new main channel link and to “please be patient” as they uploaded the content, which showed their warriors beheading, shooting, blowing up, drowning and burning alive their enemies. They also warned their followers to be cautious because the network may no longer be safe for them to use.
“They started thier (sic) war on the #IslamicState
be very careful and from now on nothing is save (safe) to use
they can give away our info
so keep using VPN and be carefull (sic)
may Allah protect you.
And we are soon creating a back up channel please do remember that we will post the link here”
On Thursday Telegram tweeted that it blocked another 164 public channels. “Thanks to your reports, today we were able to block another 164 public channels used to spread terrorist propaganda,” it said.
ISIS used Telegram to claim credit for the Paris slayings, which left 129 people dead on Friday, Nov. 13. ISIS also used the network to display a photo of the “bomb” it claims to have used to bring down the Russian passenger jet over the Sinai desert earlier this month.
Khan said she is concerned that the Islamic State, which appeared to be operating openly for its followers on Telegram, now appears to be going underground, a concern those who track terrorism.
“They could go completely dark at some point,” Khan said. “In a way, it is scarier not to see them at all, rather than to see what they are doing.”
ISIS is among the many terror groups using Telegram to broadcast their brutality to the world, to make secret financial transactions, to plot terrorist acts and to recruit to their murderous network.
Developed by two Russian brothers living in Berlin, Pavel and Nikolai Durov, Telegram boasts users can conduct secret chats that self-destruct, via its Secret Chats function, making it impossible to track communications. Users can send money, speak in private chatrooms of up to 200 people and even post public messages, including video, secure in the knowledge their content won't be purged and their identities will be protected, according to experts who track terrorist groups' online activity.
The company boasts it won’t cooperate with government intelligence agencies. To keep their product, services and users from the clutches of governments, the Berlin-based non-profit has a number of shell companies around the globe. There are no outside investors, no marketing and no advertisements.
Groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, whose accounts are continually suspended by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube once those companies sniff out objectionable content, are flocking to the new alternative.
To ensure privacy and efficiency for their 50 million users who send and receive more than 12 billion messages daily, Telegram messages are heavily encrypted, are delivered quickly and can be accessed from multiple devices.
Pavel Durov, who attended the TechCrunch Disrupt Conference in San Francisco in September to speak about his platform, told VentureBeat.com at the time he was aware that terrorists could be using his service.
“Privacy is ultimately more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism," he said. "If you look at ISIS, yes, there’s a war going on in the Middle East. Ultimately, ISIS will find a way to communicate with its cells, and if any means doesn’t feel secure to them, they’ll [find something else]. We shouldn’t feel guilty about it. We’re still doing the right thing, protecting our users’ privacy.”
The messaging application went live Aug. 14, 2013, but it wasn't until Telegram launched a "channels" feature in Sept. 2015, that TRAC witnessed a massive migration from other social media sites, with Telegram becoming “an underground railroad for distributing and archiving jihadi propaganda materials.”
The new feature allows users to create a Twitter-style feed to communicate text, images and video. In just a matter of weeks, more than 200 major, mainstream jihadi channels appeared on Telegram, many with ISIS affiliations, but also an increasing number of channels from other major players in the global jihadi world, Khan said. They broadcast in a dozen languages, including Arabic, Bengali, Bosnian, English, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Kurdish, Russian, Turkish and Urdu.
Telegram is proving a useful tool for terrorists, Khan said. “From Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to Jabhat al-Nusra to Ansar al-Sharia in Libya to Jaysh al-Islam, the rate of membership escalation for each discrete channel is staggering,” Khan said. “Within a week's time, one single Islamic State channel went from 5,000 members to well over 10,000 members. Though it is unclear if what is commonly referred to as ‘the ISIS fan club’ will migrate to Telegram, what is clear is that the hard core disseminators already have.”
Telegram did not respond to requests for comment, but explains on its website that private users are protected: “All Telegram chats and group chats are private territory of their respective participants and we do not process any requests related to them.”
"Please note that this won't work with local restrictions on freedom of speech. For example, if criticizing the government is illegal in some country, Telegram won‘t be a part of such politically motivated censorship. This goes against our founders’ principles.”
The company maintains it does censor public terror content: “While we do block terrorist (e.g. ISIS-related) bots, we will not block bots that peacefully express alternative opinions.”
Khan noted that it took the Telegram users lobbying Telegram directly to get the company to act on Wednesday. The company didn’t initiate the action on its own, according to its own statement on Twitter crediting its users.
Malia Zimmerman is an award-winning investigative reporter focusing on crime, homeland security, illegal immigration crime, terrorism and political corruption. Follow her on twitter at @MaliaMZimmerman