Terrorist groups are moving to niche chat platforms for communication

By Yair Oded

Updated May 16, 2020 at 11:21 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

It’s been clear for several years now that terrorist groups such as ISIS have mastered the realm of technology, and have utilised various online platforms and social media hubs to boost their sinister cause and recruit members. While mega-mammoth social media giants, such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, are effectively cracking down on terrorist activity on their networks, less popular chat apps are having a harder time immunising their platforms against terrorists.

In a Wired op ed, executive Director and founder of SITE Intelligence Group Rita Katz expounds on ISIS’ most recent attempt to establish an online presence in order to spike up recruitment and facilitate communication following its significant territory losses in Syria and Iraq last year. According to Katz, the terrorist group has resorted to using encrypted messenger apps primarily intended for businesses and gamers after numerous failed attempts to launch web pages on sites like Tumblr and WordPress. The fairly new apps, Katz argues, have proved to be an efficient alternative for terrorist groups, particularly due to the platforms’ social media-like modeling and rudimentary security systems.

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While Telegram appears to constitute ISIS’ primary media hub, other similar apps seem to be penetrated and utilised by the group. RocketChat, an open-source messenger service, has become an increasingly popular arena for ISIS-linked media groups to both coordinate terror attacks and further disseminate information originally posted on Telegram. Katz claims that as of January 2019, there were 700 registered users on RocketChat’s server that were linked to ISIS’ channels.

Furthermore, in the past two months alone, ISIS has made successful attempts to expand its virtual media networks into messenger apps such as Yahoo Together (a recent replacement of Yahoo Messenger), Viber, and Discord (a messaging app for gamers). Content found on such apps revealed, among other things, conversations between ISIS members who were planning attacks around Christmas in major Western cities.

In her article, Katz contends that ISIS is currently “testing the water” on such apps—seeing how long they manage to maintain their activities there before they’re flagged or blocked. She further mentions that terrorist groups are taking advantage of the relatively boundless discussion environments such apps foster, and the great difficulty they face in sifting through and identifying adverse content. The messenger apps’ response, Katz argues, will be crucial in determining “where terrorist groups migrate next.”

Spotting and removing terrorist activity on such platforms may prove ever more challenging for messenger apps such as Telegram and RocketChat; while some ISIS linked channels do little to hide their identity, flaunting usernames such as ‘Just Terror”, others camouflage better. Furthermore, it will undoubtedly be trickier to spot groups of ‘sympathisers’ of terrorists (be it Islamic extremists or white nationalist), whose conversations may or may not escalate to discourse bearing potentially dangerous ramifications.

The greatest challenge regarding terrorist groups’ online presence is that their activity will not be extinguished by censorship, but simply migrate elsewhere. The internet (at this moment in time at least), constitutes a free space with virtually limitless opportunities to spread information. Thus, once one platform or channel is blocked, numerous others sprout to replace them. It is true of terrorists and hate groups just as it is of our beloved streaming websites, porn hubs, or anything, for that matter.

The only solution that comes to mind is a global, federation-like body that will be tasked with maintaining order online and removing content deemed perilous.

No doubt Putin is working hard to make this far-fetched dream a reality for us all.

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