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This Russian-Made-App Is The Islamic State's Newest Propaganda Machine

In Telegram, the Islamic State has found an easy and accessible platform to spread its statements and videos.
Foto via Telegram

After the attacks in Paris last Friday, as cable news shows speculated blindly about those behind the murderous rampage, serious terrorism experts scoured the web for statements of responsibility.

Just hours later, such a statement emerged on Telegram, a free encrypted messenger app founded by two Russian entrepreneurs. Over the past year, Telegram has become one of the most popular messaging apps around the world, even challenging WhatsApp in the free international chat market. It's also emerging as the primary platform for videos and official statements by the Islamic State.


Though the group has long had a strong Twitter presence, well-known IS accounts are constantly being shut down. In Telegram, IS found a much friendlier platform.

"The list of platforms they have been thrown off of is pretty long -- Diaspora, Friendster, VK, and a number of others," said JM Berger, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institute who closely tracks IS media.  "The move to Telegram is much like other moves they have made since Twitter began to put pressure on their official accounts."

Last month, Telegram launched a "channel' service", which allows an unlimited number of users to tune into a stream of information distributed by an anonymous source.

Below is today's feed from the IS Arabic language channel.

Earlier this month, IS quickly launched a series of information channels called Nashirs – Arabic for 'distributor' — in nine different languages. Anyone can follow these channels, and they function as a mainlines into the jugular of IS propaganda. Between October 7 and 12, the group's followers on Telegram doubled from around 4,000 to 8,000. Today, the Arabic language feed alone has over 15,000 followers.

In the hours after the Paris attack on Friday, IS analysts took to Telegram, and waited to see if the group would post a statement of responsibility.

"As far as I know, [Telegram was] the first place it was posted," Berger said.

The group also used Telegram to circulate verified Twitter spokespeople, and coordinate its PR campaign after the Paris attacks.


— Charlie Winter (@charliewinter)November 13, 2015

To follow IS on Telegram is as simple as following a friend on Facebook. Anyone with a phone number can set up an account, and all you need to do is enter the url of the channel into your browser, hit "join," and you'll receive live updates from IS  official media channels.

The streams range from the banal to the obscene. On Monday afternoon, the English language channel released a series of images boasting about public transit in the Syrian city of Manjib.

But just a few hours earlier, the same channel circulated an image of a public execution in Iraq's Anbar province.

Telegram was founded back in 2013, and is backed by the Russian entrepreneurs Nikolai and Pavel Durov. It was initially intended to help Russians avoid surveillance in their own country. "The no. 1 reason for me to support and help launch Telegram was to build a means of communication that can't be accessed by the Russian security agencies," Nikolai Durov told TechCrunch last February.

The company did not respond to a VICE News request for comment.

In the long term, it's not clear if the app will actually shield IS from intelligence agencies.

Last Sunday, Iran cracked down on Telegram, arresting administrators from over 20 different groups it said were spreading "immoral content." And last week, Egyptian authorities reportedly tracked members of the IS Sinai affiliate using Telegram.

In the end, Berger said that Telegram may come under pressure to scrub IS off the platform, in the same way Twitter now constantly deactivates IS-affiliated accounts.

"They may eventually get tossed off of Telegram as well," he said "If [Telegram] get tired of the bad press, which is typically when platforms get tough on terrorism."