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Islamic terrorists have swiftly adopted mobile devices and apps to secure internal communications, spread propaganda and recruit.
Jihadis utilize a wide range of apps to run their operations, and they prefer Android devices over Apple iOS devices, a new study from cybersecurity intelligence firm Flashpoint has found.
The Islamic State group's use of mobile and encryption technology is a source of growing tension between American intelligence officials who want to investigate terrorist crimes and intercept terrorist communications, and Silicon Valley, which says it wants to protect the users from government snooping generally. The well-publicized battle between Apple and the FBI over the unlocking of an iPhone belonging to San Bernardino, California, mass murderer Syed Farook is one such example.
The Islamic State used encrypted messaging app Telegram to publicize, and perhaps plan, the November Paris attacks that left 130 dead and hundreds wounded. Telegram, which allows groups of up to 200 people to chat, is the most popular encrypted messaging platform for individual jihadists and official jihadist groups, the study found.
Flashpoint security researchers crawled the deep and dark web to identify and analyze the way jihadist groups, such as ISIS, are using digital technologies to further their radical agendas.
They use Telegram to disseminate official statements, claims of credit, videos and propaganda. Today's jihadis have urged peers to adopt Telegram's "secret chat" service which uses end-to-end encryption, meaning messages are encrypted and decrypted within the devices sending and receiving them. This makes them unreadable by those who might try to intercept them.
In April, a pro-ISIS technology manual highlighted Swiss messaging app Threema for its security features. The author trumpeted Threema's end-to-end encryption and the fact that it does not request personal information or store messages on its servers. The manual also claimed that Threema will not "decrypt encrypted messages if the company faces government pressures."
Facebook's WhatsApp, despite also offering end-to-end encryption starting in April, did not meet with jihadist approval, the study found. Following the update, a pro-ISIS thought leader issued this warning: "We cannot trust WhatsApp since WhatsApp is the easiest application for hacking and also one of the social messaging apps purchased by the Israeli Facebook program!"
Most jihadis do not trust apps and services built in the West, Flashpoint found, which creates problems for anti-Western terrorists since most apps and services are designed in the West. There have been some terror-group efforts to try to address that problem; for example, in February 2013 Islamist propaganda organization Global Islamic Media Front introduced a plugin to allow users to encrypt instant messages sent over platforms like Google Chat, Yahoo, MSN, Paltalk and Pidgin.
Jihadis have built their own apps for disseminating propaganda internally and utilize Facebook and Twitter to reach beyond direct followers, the study found. Twitter has been particularly aggressive in closing down pro-ISIS accounts, Flashpoint co-founder Laith Alkhouri noted in the report.
The A'maq Agency, a media organization affiliated with ISIS, released one of the first jihadi-built Android mobile apps and has since rolled out software updates with versions of the app in both English and Arabic.
Al-Bayan Radio, ISIS' official radio station, has also released an Android app offering supporters access to Quranic recitations, radical lectures, news clips and public announcements. It is translated into several languages and also live streams over the internet.
"This effort has profoundly increased the size and scope of ISIS propaganda's target audience," wrote Alkhouri.
On April 1, the Afgan Taliban launched the Voice of Jihad app on Google Play. The app was pulled 48 hours after it went live and reappeared days later on Amazon's Appstore. It was branded as a way for users to "keep up to date with latest news, reports statements and articles." (Amazon later removed the app.)
ISIS' central media has also released an app aimed at children. Alphabet teaches kids how to read and write in Arabic and with references to rockets, cannons and tanks.
"This further catalyzes ISIS's aggressive indoctrination strategy," wrote Alkhouri.