Orlando, Nice, Wurzburg, Kabul, Aleppo, Ansbach and, eventually, Caen: almost every day, some news about a new terrorist strike appears in our newsfeed. Despite the Caliphate keeps on losing resources under the raids in Iraq, Syria and Libya, it managed to spread fear and slaughter across Europe through a plethora of gifs, hashtags and infographics.
After taking over vast swaths of Iraq and Syria, ISIS declared itself a state in June 2014, with Raqqa, Syria, as its capital. While many of its fighters were proudly displaying captured heavy equipment and weaponry on the battlefield, the new “Caliphate” attracted others with soft skills that have arguably been more beneficial in the years since.
“Al Qaeda and ISIS do things much differently,” Jim Christy, a former cybercrime investigator for the US Department of Defense, told Tech Insider. “Al Qaeda leveraged technology for protection, while ISIS uses it for propagation.” Al Qaeda had a web presence, and even released its own version of encryption software for terrorists to communicate, but it hardly ever launched cyberattacks. ISIS, on the other hand, has learned it can strike far outside its borders with laptops and internet connections, defacing websites, taking over Twitter accounts, and spreading its propaganda to swell its ranks.
One link is enough to access the jihadi propaganda, and today the battlefield of the virtual jihad is Telegram. This instant messaging app is very similar to Whatsapp, and users can take advantage of message encryption and some other additional features like bots and gifs.
The ISIS network on Telegram is like a system of Chinese boxes, where every container has a second one inside. From one channel to the other, jumping from one link to the other, as it’s nearly impossible to find them through keywords such as Isis, Daesh or Caliphate. In fact, to get around censorship, administrators name the chats using acronyms or words in Arabic and, to keep them working, they use Bots allowing them to copy the contents.
Despite these tricks, many channels are shut down by Telegram itself within a few minutes. Long story short: to gain access to the propaganda you need to be fast, and those who lose the moment are locked out. You will be banned if perceived as an infiltrator: this is why it’s better to use fake profiles when creeping into the jungle of the jihadi advertising.
The official channels are the ones broadcasting “news” and “updates”, and represent the heart of the propaganda. Alongside the main ones are side channels to share symbolic images, black flags and ideological slogans, which have truly become weapons in the hands of the fan-boys.
Whatever the means may be, the goal remains to recruit as many “soldiers” as possible. Marco Arnaboldi, a collaborator of ISPI and an expert of jihadism, explains: “At the beginning, the aim was to convince the newcomers to leave for the Islamic State and turn them into colonists. Nowadays, the heads of the IS lowered their ambitions and the recruiting process is losing touch with the mobility of its targets”. It doesn’t matter if individuals know how to fight. The only thing that matters is that he (or she) is willing to kill for the cause, and possibly die.
Intelligence agencies all over the world have acknowledged that, if a technology platform exists, ISIS has found a way to exploit it. The aim is to spread its ideology and, first and foremost, for recruiting. Even dating websites (clearly not Tinder or OkCupid, but those targeted at devout Muslims) are used to lure potential brides to join their jihad and marry ISIS militants.
The center of the network is Amaq News, the so-called press agency of Isis, in the form of an Android app produced by the Caliphate. Amaq shares contents while at the same time dissociating itself from them, a trick to persuade the public that communication is not controlled. It may even happen to quote internal sources while assuming the responsibility for a strike.
In the case of Wurzburg and Magnaville attacks, the killers’ last wills have been shared a few hours later on Telegram in video form. When the Dacca massacre happened, Amaq itself posted the picture of the five guilty students, after these circulated on the fan-boys channels. It’s hard, however, to identify some patterns, as many messages are posted with the specific purpose to mislead or slow down investigations.
The analysis of the languages of the Isis propaganda may prove a little more useful, as channels are grouped on the basis of the language used and they help analysts to identify where the targets are. Arabic usually prevails, but some chats are in French, Spanish, Russian and German. Before the attack in Wurzburg, hundreds of messages in German diffused calling for “Bald in Berlin” (soon in Berlin). And, as the Olympic Games in Rio are approaching, some channels appeared in Portuguese.