By Ahmet S. Yayla & Anne Speckhard
ISIS has been the most successful terrorist organization in history using social media and the Internet for distributing its propaganda, dissemination of its news and more importantly to communicate. There is no doubt that the frequency and quality of ISIS posts on the Internet, including their videos, memes and online journals are of a quality to make many professional editors and producers envious and they also receive much attention.
ISIS usually does not host its posts on dedicated servers but uses several free and open mediums including Google drive, Cloud.mail.ru, Yandesk, YouTube, Sendvid.com, Dailymotion.com, Drive.ms, Archive.org, Justpaste.it, Bitly.com and some other recent platforms. Of course, hosting is not enough; hosted posts need to be distributed to followers, the target audience and the public. At this point, several social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, WhatsApp, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Viber, and WeChat are utilized by ISIS to circulate their posts so that the target audience and public are made aware and can watch or read them by clicking on the web addresses posted to those mediums.
Among these social media platforms Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram were previously heavily utilized by ISIS, but since takedowns on these sites, ISIS currently favors Telegram where ISIS users maintain a presence in several different languages. ISIS has assigned administrators in several languages who are in charge of ISIS social media accounts including Telegram. When interviewing ISIS defectors, we also learned that female foreign fighters are specifically tasked for the administration of social media accounts, and they have special offices in Raqqa to carry out their tasks under the control of their emirs. A Belgian female defector recently recounted being recruited upon her arrival to ISIS to serve as an Internet seductress, a role she declined. Indian police also told us that most of their ISIS recruitment occurs via the Internet and consists of female seducing males into the group. Indeed, American Mohamad Khweis appears to have been seduced in this way, marrying his ISIS bride when he arrived to Istanbul and then traveling into ISIS territory with her.
Telegram – The Platform of Choice
At ICSVE, our researchers closely follow ISIS’s Telegram posts on a daily basis and download any relevant videos, journals, memes, pictures or anything else useful for our research. While the terrorist organization utilizes several different platforms to distribute their posts, the most reliable medium of late for their purposes has been the Telegram social media application. This is because other platforms usually quickly take down posts or shut down the accounts posting the links to these hosts. Hosting mediums also delete posts as soon as they realize they are ISIS content. As a result, Telegram has become the main social media platform for ISIS members and followers primarily because, so far, Telegram administrators do not usually shut down ISIS accounts, and when they do, the frequency is far less when compared to other social media accounts. For example, Twitter or Facebook take down ISIS accounts in a day or most two in many cases, and when the same account owners open new accounts, they block them even sooner. However, there are Telegram accounts opened or used by ISIS members that stay active for months or basically never get closed.
Telegram was launched in 2013 by two brothers, Nikolai and Pavel Durov, who also founded Russia’s largest social network Russian VK. The Telegram Messenger LLP is registered as an independent nonprofit company in Berlin, Germany. The founders claim that Telegram is “faster and safer” than other apps and more importantly the “messages sent through Telegram cannot be bugged by third parties.”  Indeed, Telegram is an encrypted social media application that is very difficult for law enforcement to penetrate or eavesdrop.
Apart from accounts not being closed as often as other ISIS social media accounts, there are two other advantages to ISIS for using Telegram. The first is that while in most cases the links to hosts are distributed in Telegram groups where there are several members or directly sent to individual accounts, they become useless as soon as the hosting companies realize they are ISIS posts and take them down, making them dead links. However, Telegram’s large file-hosting feature becomes very handy in this case because almost all files pushed through Telegram with links are also uploaded to the Telegram channels, and those files remain as long as the channels are open or the user who posts does not delete them. Therefore, even if a file is not available as a link, if it is uploaded to Telegram, it will exist there unless it is deleted or the channel is closed. Furthermore, Telegram allows uploading large files simultaneously consequently allowing the ISIS social media accounts to simultaneously upload videos with four or five different resolutions and sizes beginning from the largest to the smallest, such as a video in full HD from which would be 1.5 gigabytes to smaller resolution versions such as 800 megabytes, 500 megabytes, 200 megabytes and 50 megabytes. The smallest size versions would be for mobile devices.
The other advantage of Telegram is providing users a forum to be able to communicate in a secure way through a secure algorithm. While Telegram chat rooms are usually open to all members, one-to-one communications are secret and cannot be seen by others. There have been several attacks where it was later established that ISIS members communicated internationally about the attacks before they took place. For example, the Istanbul Reina club attacker got his orders from his Emir in Raqqa, Syria through Telegram and communicated over Telegram with his Emir both before and after the attack. The same was true of the Paris attacks. Telegram has thus become one of the main communication apparatus of ISIS, particularly with foreign fighters deployed outside of ISIS territories.
In addition to all these advantages, like all other applications, Telegram is convenient and mobile as it can be installed on cell phones, Windows PCs, and iOS computers, therefore, making it available on many different devices.
How Telegram Works
Joining Telegram is easy. The only requirement on the side of Telegram, to sign up, is having a cell phone number and verifying that number after the registration through a text message verification step. In some cases, some Internet proxy phones (phone accounts created over the Internet) work as well, omitting the requirement of a cell phone number as long as the Telegram system does not recognize the number provided as a proxy Internet number. Telegram, therefore, only requires a cell phone number to verify the user and once a user is verified, the user does not need to maintain the phone number, enabling users to use a number once to verify an account without the necessity to keep that number. In fact, the one of the cell phones ICSVE staff use to track ISIS telegram accounts was registered through a cell phone number and that number has been inactive since 2015, but the account has still been in use without any problems. This feature becomes a great tool for ISIS terrorists as they do not need to reveal their real identities or provide anything to be traced other than a phone number which they don’t need to maintain.
On the side of ISIS, in most cases, there is no vetting to join their public channels or groups, but private ones do vet potential members with a range of questions, sometimes having to do with the basics of Islam such as cleansing before prayer (wudu) etc. If ISIS members need to connect over the Telegram without physically being in touch, they either use other known members to reach and connect to the desired members or for their foreign fighters, they pre-arrange known passwords and indicators to vet the people they are communicating with to ensure the authenticity of the parties.
As a user interface, Telegram is no different than many other similar mediums such as WhatsApp and Twitter. When it comes to peer-to-peer communication, it is more like WhatsApp where users can message each other, share documents, links, videos and voice messages similar to the chat features of many social media platforms. There are even time stamps indicating when the messages were sent and if they were read or not. Telegram channels are a different from common social media groups as followers are not allowed to interact with the others in the channel openly unless authorized by the administrator. Members are only able to read and download posts shared in the channel unless they have permission for greater access. Posts flow on the timeline chronologically and with time stamps and an indicator “eye” acting as a counter showing how many times a post was downloaded by the channel members. Telegram groups, as opposed to channels, are just like other social media groups where members can interact with each other and their individual posts, therefore, making it possible to communicate with sometimes thousands of people at once. Based on our experience at ICSVE, several channels and individual accounts in the same languages are usually run by the same administrators, or there are a handful of administrators who appear to share the same posts simultaneously.
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Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. is co‐author of the just-released book, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. He is a Senior Research Fellow of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and is also Adjunct Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University. You can follow him on Twitter @ahmetsyayla
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) where she heads the Breaking the ISIS Brand—ISIS Defectors Counter-Narrative Project. She is also the author of Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS and coauthor of ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate; Undercover Jihadi; and Warrior Princess. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhard. You can follow her on Twitter: @AnneSpeckhard
This article was originally published on the International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism website on May 9, 2017. Republished here with the permission of the author.
 Speckhard, Ph.D., Anne; Shajkovci, Ph.D., Ardian; and Yayla, Ph.D., Ahmet S.. “Defeating ISIS on the Battle Ground as well as in the Online Battle Space: Considerations of the “New Normal” and Available Online Weapons in the Struggle Ahead.” Journal of Strategic Security 9, no. 4 (2016): 1-10.
 Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.
 Speckhard, Anne research interview Brussels, Belgium January 2017
 Speckhard, Anne research interview New Delhi, India March 8th, 2017
 Speckhard, Anne & Yayla, Ahmet S. (March 20, 2016) American ISIS Defector – Mohamad Jamal Khweis & the Threat Posed by “Clean-Skin” Terrorists: Unanswered Questions and Confirmations. ICSVE Brief Report http://www.icsve.org/american-isis-defector—mohamad-jamal-khweis-and-the-threat-of-clean-skin-terrorists-.html
 Editorial, “Russia’s Zuckerberg launches Telegram, a new instant messenger service,” Reuters, August 30, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUS74722569420130830
 Yayla, A.S., “The Reina Nightclub Attack and the Islamic State Threat to Turkey” CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Vol 10, Issue 3, pp. 9-16, March 2017.
 Evan Perez & Shimon Prokupecz, “First on CNN: Paris attackers likely used encrypted apps, officials say,” December 17, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/17/politics/paris-attacks-terrorists-encryption/