Radical terrorists using social media to sow fear and recruit fighters have found a new media platform that ensures privacy, stores their files and, most of all, promises never to purge their accounts - no matter how twisted or gruesome the content.
Telegram, a digital messaging system invented by two Russian brothers now based in Berlin, boasts that it encrypts content for storage and transmission and won't suspend private accounts or cooperate with government intelligence agencies. 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.
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.
“The new frontier of jihadi communication is taking place on a Telegram – a recently launched messaging platform that has revolutionized the social media sphere, and at least for now put an end to any watchdog oversight,” said Veryan Khan, editorial director for The Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium. “Because of Telegram, jihadists no longer have to struggle to keep up with relentless account suspensions and content removal.”
“The new frontier of jihadi communication is taking place on a Telegram – a recently launched messaging platform that has revolutionized the social media sphere, and at least for now put an end to any watchdog oversight.”
- Veryan Khan, TRAC
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 and can self-destruct, are delivered faster than any other application and can be accessed from multiple devices.
Russian brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov created Telegram after a highly-publicized battle with the Kremlin led to their flight from Russia. Pavel Durov, who attended the TechCrunch Disrupt Conference in San Francisco in September, 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 with mass. 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.
“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.”
Nearly half the channels TRAC has archived belong to the ISIS, Khan said. Those channels have followers throughout the world.
“Many of them have thousands of members, who seem to regularly access the posted message," Khan said. "Messages in these channels get as many as 6,000 views in real time.”
Durov and his math whiz brother Nikolai created Telegram after fleeing their home country for Berlin last year. Although the brothers keep a low profile, and did not respond to repeated requests for comment, Pavel Durov, 31, told The New York Times last year he is against violence. Before leaving Russia, Durov created VKontakte, a Russian social media platform similar to Facebook which was ultimately seized by the government.
The Durovs, who fled after a public battle with the Kremlin that included what supporters say were trumped up charges stemming from a traffic incident and a company takeover that resulted in Durov's firing. Outwardly, Telegram is a symbol of the brothers' belief in the free market and their right to operate without government intervention and oversight. Durov is said to have even offered a job to Edward Snowden, the former U.S. government contractor accused of stealing secrets.
But whether by design or accident, Telegram is proving a useful tool for terrorists.
"The Telegram founders promote themselves as the beacon of Internet privacy, but in reality, they've create a platform that is tailor-made for any illegal activity -- most especially jihadists who seek to recruit, finance their terror and disseminate their propaganda," Khan said.
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.
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.”
But Khan said that claim is essentially meaningless.
“That just means that Telegram will consider taking down bots or stickers if you complain but they refuse to take down any real people,” Khan said.
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