Heads up, tech companies: If your product appeals to the masses, it likely also holds allure for terrorist groups like ISIS.
Rita Katz is the Executive Director and founder of the SITE Intelligence Group, the world’s leading non-governmental counterterrorism organization specializing in tracking and analyzing the online activity of the global extremist community.
ISIS has effectively exploited the power of technology to fuel its rise around the globe, from streaming and file-sharing platforms to messenger applications and social media services. Many tech companies have responded in turn, strengthening their oversight and security measures. But while major platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Telegram are becoming increasingly inhospitable to ISIS, the group’s reach is growing on lesser-known messenger apps designed for businesses and gamers.
In the aftermath of major territory losses in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is reconfiguring how it uses technology to drive its recruitment and coordination efforts.
The move towards free public messenger apps
ISIS uses the encrypted messenger platform Telegram as its primary app for media releases. In seeking new venues to disseminate its content, the terrorist group has made repeated attempts to set up web pages and blogs on services like Tumblr and WordPress. Such platforms are fitting places for ISIS propaganda, where content can be transferred from Telegram into organized, easily accessible layouts.
Throughout 2018, the group’s Amaq News Agency invested significant effort into staying on these webpage and blogging platforms, from implementing Cloudflare to protect against DDOS attacks to creating browser extensions that immediately provide users with new URLs to their sites. Those measures ultimately failed, as each of their sites was hacked or removed.
Thus, emerging messenger applications—particularly those with features modeled after social media, such as chat groups, channels, and media-sharing—have become an effective alternative for ISIS.
In mid-December 2018, some of the most prominent ISIS-linked media groups announced channels on RocketChat, an open-source messenger service designed for businesses. The platform is both mobile and desktop enabled; since its founding in 2015 it has grown to 10 million users. Nashir News Agency, the ISIS-linked media dissemination group, urged supporters to join the app, stating, “God willing, media will be published on RocketChat before Telegram.”
Many other ISIS-linked media groups embraced RocketChat nearly simultaneously. Some provide instructions for carrying out terrorist attacks, while others mirror content from ISIS’s mother-channels on Telegram. In no time, RocketChat was host to content from the ISIS-linked Khilafah News, the attack-guide channel “Just Terror,” the English language ISIS media outlet Halummu, and the longstanding deep-web discussion forum Shumukh al-Islam. A technical manual published by the ISIS-linked “Afaaq Electronic Foundation” on December 15 instructed followers on how to install and anonymously use RocketChat.
A review of these RocketChat rooms shows that Amaq News Agency, ISIS’ official news outlet, was the first to hold an account on the platform, suggesting that the migration to Rocket was instructed by ISIS central. These groups continue to grow on the platform. As of January 8, there were over 700 users on the server that houses ISIS’s channels. It requires only a private invite link and an email address to join.
Around the same time they were promoting RocketChat, some major ISIS-linked channels also announced accounts on Yahoo Together, a new mobile-only messaging application launched in July to replace Yahoo Messenger. The platform has thus far been used in a similar fashion to RocketChat, mirroring communiques, photo reports, and media statements first posted to Telegram.
Unlike RocketChat, however, Yahoo Together appears to have quickly removed the ISIS accounts. Since then, ISIS groups have not advertised accounts on Yahoo’s app.
Last month, ISIS also announced a Nashir News Agency account on Viber, another cross-platform instant messenger app. Though ISIS-linked media groups and supporters have long used the platform, their official promotion of Viber signaled a new level of investment.
The Nashir News Agency account appears to have since been removed, but its initial establishment on Viber is likely encourage other ISIS media groups and supporters create accounts on the platform.
Beyond the group’s media officials, die-hard jihadi supporters are expanding their online outreach efforts in more unexpected places.
One such example is Discord, a messenger application for gamers with more than 130 million registered users. The platform organizes its chat communities into “servers,” each of which contains numerous text and voice channels.
One Discord server includes users with pro-ISIS names like “Al Bagdadi” and “dawlatulislambiqiyah” (an ISIS slogan meaning “State of Islam Remaining”). The server has featured official ISIS media, Telegram links, and commentary about the group’s operations and strategy. Other posts contain pro-ISIS graphics pulled from Telegram, such as recent images calling for attacks on Christmas celebrations in New York City, Paris, Barcelona, and other Western cities. The server’s postings are in various languages, including English, Russian, and Japanese.
These activities—seemingly casual discussions, the exchange of links and usernames, and the sharing of propaganda and amateurish artwork—are exactly how recruitment takes place. Messenger apps now serve as outreach centers for ISIS media workers. And though these applications are attracting millions of new users, many seem unprepared to sift out bad actors.
Exploiting these messenger platforms sidesteps many of ISIS’s security concerns and allows the group to take advantage of tech companies’ existing audiences. Apps like RocketChat and Viber further enable ISIS media workers to curate, tailor, upload, and disseminate content more effectively from their phones or computers.
ISIS is currently testing the water with these apps, carefully watching how long their accounts remain active and whether or not they’ll be censored. Previously, ISIS attempted to use platforms like Riot and TamTam, but backed off after those companies took immediate action. Thus, it’s clear that the responses of public messenger companies—whether swift action or indifference—is critical in influencing where terrorist groups migrate next.
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