Technology companies: If your product attracts crowds, it will likely also appeal to terrorist groups like ISIS.
Rita Katz is the executive director and founder of the SITE Intelligence Group, the world's largest non-governmental anti-terrorism organization, specializing in monitoring and analyzing the online activities of the global extremist community.
ISIS has effectively harnessed the power of technology to fuel its worldwide growth, from streaming and file-sharing platforms to messaging applications and social media services. Many technology companies have reacted in turn, reinforcing their surveillance and security measures. But as major platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Telegram become more and more inhospitable for ISIS, the group's reach is expanding with lesser-known messaging apps designed for businesses and gamers alike.
Following significant losses of territories in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is reconfiguring how it uses technology to drive its recruitment and coordination efforts.
The transition to free public email applications
ISIS uses the Telegram encrypted messaging platform as the main application for press releases. In seeking new places to broadcast its content, the terrorist group has repeatedly tried to create web pages and blogs on services such as Tumblr and WordPress. Such platforms are appropriate places for ISIS propaganda, where content can be transferred from Telegram to an organized and easily accessible presentation.
Throughout the year 2018, the group's Amaq news agency has made considerable efforts to stay on these webpage and blog platforms, ranging from Cloudflare's implementation to protection against DDOS attacks on creating browser extensions immediately providing users with new URLs. These measures ultimately failed, as each of their sites was hacked or deleted.
For example, new messaging applications, including those with social media-based features such as newsgroups, channels, and media sharing, have become an effective alternative to ISIS.
In mid-December 2018, some of the most prominent ISIS-related media groups announced the creation of channels on RocketChat, an open source email service designed for businesses. The platform is both mobile and desktop enabled; since its founding in 2015, it has reached 10 million users. Nashir News Agency, the ISIS-related media outreach group, urged its supporters to join the application, stating, "God willing, the media will be published on RocketChat before Telegram."
Many other ISIS-related media groups have adopted RocketChat almost simultaneously. Some provide instructions for conducting terrorist attacks, while others reflect the content of the ISIS parent channels on Telegram. In no time, RocketChat has been the host of Khilafah News content, related to ISIS, the "Just Terror" attacking guide channel, the Halummu English-language media, and the forum's long-standing discussion, Shumukh al-Islam. On December 15, a technical manual published by the ISIS-related "Afaaq Electronic Foundation" explained to its subscribers how to install and use RocketChat anonymously.
An examination of these RocketChat rooms shows that Ameq News Agency, the official Isis press point, was the first to open an account on the platform, which suggests that the migration to Rocket was entrusted to ISIS Central. These groups continue to grow on the platform. As of January 8, the server hosting ISIS channels had more than 700 users. All you need is a private invitation link and an email address to participate.
At about the same time as they were promoting RocketChat, some major ISIS-related channels also announced accounts on Yahoo Together, a new mobile messaging app launched in July to replace Yahoo Messenger. The platform has so far been used in a similar way to RocketChat, reflecting press releases, photo reports and press releases first published in Telegram.
Unlike RocketChat, Yahoo Together seems to have quickly deleted ISIS accounts. Since then, ISIS groups have not announced any accounts on the Yahoo app.
Last month, ISIS also announced the creation of a Nashir News Agency account on Viber, another cross-platform instant messaging application. Although media and ISIS-related supporters have long used this platform, their official promotion of Viber marks a new level of investment.
The account of the Nashir News Agency seems to have been deleted since then, but its initial creation on Viber probably encourages other ISIS media groups and their supporters to create accounts on the platform. .
Beyond the group's media leaders, hard-line jihadist supporters are stepping up online outreach efforts in more unexpected places.
One example is Discord, an email application for players with more than 130 million registered users. The platform organizes its discussion communities into "servers", each containing many text and voice channels.
A Discord server includes users with pro-ISIS names such as "Al Bagdadi" and "dawlatulislambiqiyah" (an ISIS slogan for "remaining state of Islam"). The server contains official ISIS media, Telegram links and comments on the group's operations and strategy. Other publications contain pro-ISIS graphics drawn from Telegram, such as recent images calling for attacks against Christmas in New York, Paris, Barcelona, and other Western cities. The server publications are in several languages, including English, Russian and Japanese.
These activities – seemingly informal discussions, exchange of links and user names, sharing of propaganda and amateur art works – are exactly what happens when recruiting. Messenger applications now serve as dissemination centers for ISIS media workers. And while these apps attract millions of new users, many do not seem prepared to filter out the bad guys.
The use of these messaging platforms eliminates many of ISIS 'security concerns and allows the group to leverage the existing audiences of technology companies. Applications like RocketChat and Viber also allow ISIS media professionals to manage, adapt, download and stream content more efficiently from their phone or computer.
ISIS is currently testing the water with these apps, carefully monitoring how long their accounts remain active and whether they are censored or not. Previously, ISIS had attempted to use platforms such as Riot and TamTam, but had yielded after these companies took immediate action. It is therefore clear that the responses of public courier companies, whether fast or indifferent, are essential to influence the next migration of terrorist groups.
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