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Tracking Islamic State
Monday 29 February 2016
A group of German-speaking jihadists has released the first issue of an online magazine that provides information on encrypted communications and Internet security.
The magazine's release highlights the growing awareness of, and interest in, security and encryption among Islamist militants as a tool to help them operate and spread propaganda undetected.
The jihadists' apparent effort to wring opportunity from the greater availability of encrypted communications platforms could enable them to better evade monitoring by government security services.
The magazine, Kybernetiq, is in German and was released on social media on December 28 by a group that claims on its Twitter account to be "not ISIS," an acronym referring to the Islamic State (IS) group. The group told RFE/RL in a direct message exchange on Twitter that "it is enough for you to know that we aren't from ISIS" but would not say if they had an affiliation with any other militant group.
According to the SITE Intelligence group, which translated extracts from the magazine, Kybernetiq includes an article on how jihadists can protect their identities online. One piece of advice tells would-be militants to avoid applications that have "a mujahid branding," -- i.e., a distinct jihadist identity that would identify them as militants to law enforcement.
According to SITE, Kybernetiq also recommended that jihadists use Tor or Tails, free software that enables users to surf the Internet anonymously.
Kybernetiq also advised would-be militants to use the Whatsapp or Telegram messaging apps, which have built-in encryption, and praised the GNU Privacy Guard cryptographic software as a "nightmare for intelligence agencies," according to a translation by SITE.
Encrypted platforms like Tor and popular messaging apps like WhatsApp have many desirable uses for the privacy-conscious. They keep user data safe and can allow those living in repressive regimes to communicate without being snooped on, for instance.
But intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have warned that such technologies are also increasingly used by extremists, including IS.
Those tracking jihadists' usage of encrypted technology also say the problem is growing.
In recent months, there has been a visible shift by IS militants toward using some of these secure platforms, particularly Telegram, to spread propaganda messages over the web.
A source in the anti-IS Anonymous subgroup GhostSec said that in the past five days alone there has been a surge in the creation of new jihadist chat rooms in Telegram and the hacktivist group is now tracking nearly 300 chat rooms in various languages.
"I feel that their Telegram usage is being overlooked and is a lot more powerful than anyone realizes," the source told RFE/RL.
According to Alex Krasodomski from the Center for the Analysis of Social Media at the London-based think tank Demos, the use of encryption technology by militant groups is not a new phenomenon but part of a "long tradition."
Al-Qaeda released its own encryption software in 2007. (Notably, Kybernetiq advises would-be militants not to use it because it is jihadist-affiliated.)
What is new is the increase in number and availability of apps that use encryption software, many of which -- like messaging apps Telegram and WhatsApp -- can be downloaded for free from the Internet.
So it's not surprising that "wannabe jihadis are early adopters" of such technology, says Krasodomski.
The boom in availability of encrypted communications platforms has raised fears that militants' use of these technologies could pose a serious threat by allowing them to evade monitoring by security services.
In the immediate wake of the November 13 Paris attacks, for which IS claimed responsibility and which killed 130 people, there was speculation that the attackers had used encrypted communications in order to plot and direct the attacks.
But does the increasing use of encrypted communications by jihadists really pose a threat?
Krasodomski points out that, despite the initial fears, signs show the IS networks involved in plotting the Paris attacks used unencrypted technologies -- old-fashioned text messaging -- to communicate.
So laying the blame for the attacks "at the door of cryptography is not the answer," Krasodomski says.
Nevertheless, "encryption is a fact and security services have to have the capability and tools under law to deal with it, that reflect this new reality," says Krasodomski. "But I don't think that [encryption] will paralyze the security services."
It's worth noting that even the authors of Kybernetiq magazine are not convinced that encryption software will make them invulnerable to the security services.
Jihadists should write really important messages down on paper, and these must be "quickly burned," they wrote.
About This Blog
"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.