An ISIS photo that was released on Telegram on Nov. 24, 2015. Telegram
It appears that the terrorist group ISIS has figured out how to get around some roadblocks on one of the main applications it uses to disseminate propaganda.
Last week, Telegram shut down 78 ISIS-related channels after terror attacks rocked Paris and opened up questions about how terrorists use encryption to prevent their communications from being intercepted.
ISIS (also known as the Islamic State) has been using the messaging app as a means of communicating and distributing its propaganda material since September, when Telegram introduced a “channel” feature letting users broadcast messages to an unlimited number of subscribers. Telegram is similar to WhatsApp but is known for its high level of encryption and broadcasting channels. The most popular ISIS-affiliated channels had thousands of followers.
Soon after Telegram blocked dozens of ISIS-affiliated channels, new ones started popping up in their place. And now the group appears to be employing new tactics to avoid getting shut down by Telegram.
One of the top distributors of ISIS propaganda found its way back onto the app on Tuesday. The channel distributes official ISIS releases in English.
An invite link to the channel started showing up on Twitter on Tuesday morning along with tweets telling users to join quickly before the invite link was changed. The link didn’t include a username, which allow people to find a channel even if they don’t have a specific link.
Usernames can be turned into links that follow the format “telegram.me/[username].”When entered in a browser, the link will open a prompt that asks whether the user wants to launch the channel in the Telegram app. Channels that have public usernames display those usernames in the app, allowing anyone who subscribes to the channel to see the username.
And now, rather than provide usernames, it seems that ISIS affiliates have started using Telegram’s invite links. These links were originally conceived to allow users to migrate existing group chats from other apps to Telegram.
The ISIS channel that reappeared on Tuesday can be accessed via the correct invite link, but a person would have to have the specific link in order to gain access to the channel, rather than being able to figure out the channel link based on the username.
The channel itself sent out instructions on how to prevent it from getting shut down, asking members to copy and paste information the channel sends out rather than forwarding it, “lest the kuffar [infidels] know about the channel and suspend it.” Copying and pasting allows users to spread the information to other channels or group chats without revealing the source of the information.
“If they suspend the source which is the channel, then we all know that we are going to get difficulties in getting the updates,” the message read.
Other ISIS channels have reappeared as well, including an Arabic-language channel that distributes official ISIS propaganda.
A message from the “Nashir English” channel on Telegram. Nashir English/Telegram
But the channels look different than they did before — they’re missing usernames and they no longer specify how many members they have.
ISIS didn’t take these precautions before, when Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov suggested that he’d continue allowing terrorists to use the app and that privacy took precedence.
ISIS also disseminates its propaganda on Twitter, where there is a larger audience, but Twitter suspends ISIS accounts, making it difficult for them to gain much traction before they’re shut down.
Until recently, Telegram, which has about 62 million monthly active users, wasn’t seeking out ISIS channels to suspend.
“Privacy is ultimately more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism,” Pavel said, according to VentureBeat. “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.”