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Telegram Is Kicking the Islamic State Off of Its App

The Russian-made messaging app blocked 78 channels used by the Islamic State to spread its word online.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Nov 19 2015, 3:30pm

Over the past 24 hours, instant-messaging app Telegram has been scrambling to block Islamic State communications, shutting down public channels that the group also know as ISIS or IS had used to spread its propaganda. 

On Wednesday night, Telegram announced it had blocked "78 ISIS-related channels across 12 different languages," noting that it would not block private person-to-person communication on its service. 

Ghost Security Group, a counter-terrorism network that's an offshoot of the Anonymous collective, told VICE News that it had alerted Telegram of 211 different IS affiliated channels in the last month. "No rest for Daesh-bags," a spokesperson for the group told VICE News over encrypted chat, using a bastardization of IS' Arabic acronym Daesh.  

It's not unusual for IS to get kicked off a messaging 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."

But Telegram became a clearing house for IS messages last month, when it 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 a feed from IS's official Arabic feed that was shut off last night. 

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 had functioned 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.

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.

After Telegram cracked down on IS communications Wednesday it sent out a statement assuring its users that the crackdown was only related to channels, and that its normal messaging  service would remain protected. "All Telegram chats and group chats are private among their participants," the statement said. It also encouraged it's users to keep reporting IS-channels: "We are carefully reviewing all reports sent to us... and taking appropriate action to block such channels."

As of Thursday morning, however, at least one major Arabic-language IS channel — — al-Haqq Media — was still functioning on Telegram.