With remnants of the once-feared Islamic State terrorist group driven off from Syrian and Iraqi territories, it’s not all good for the ultra-hardline group on the digital front as well.
Iraqi hackers are turning the tables on the Islamic State by infiltrating it’s channels on Telegram and running disinformation campaigns.
In the last few years, popular messaging app Telegram has been used as a preferred platform by the Islamic State’s hackers for their propaganda and recruitment efforts. Thanks to the platform, the terrorist group had succeeded in spreading its tentacles to far-off regions like Indonesia, Malaysia as well as in Europe.
The jihadi group especially took advantage of the fact that Telegram offered end-to-end encryption to all users and as such, sheltered their identities from the prying eyes of governments and intelligence agencies from across the world.
Such was Telegram’s popularity among the Islamic State’s hackers that a research by Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM), MEMRI Cyber Jihad Lab (CJL) and MEMRI Jihad revealed how it had become an ‘app of choice‘ for jihadi organisations, individual supporters, and private channels.
‘Content shared on Telegram channels goes beyond the mere reposting of jihadi groups’ propaganda, and includes tutorials on manufacturing weapons and launching cyberattacks, calls for targeted killing and lone-wolf attacks, and more. Some channels, such as those belonging to ISIS, show various levels of coordination among them, even using bots to aid their efforts,’ said the report.
The research added that a channel on Telegram only displays the number of subscribers but does not reveal their names, thereby making it difficult for authorities to track individual users. At the same time, users can forward information obtained from a channel to other users, thereby making it easier for terrorist organisations to spread their propaganda.
Thirdly, channels on Telegram only allow one-way transmission, which means that a broadcaster can share all the information he wants with subscribers but no subscriber can confront him or engage him in a discussion. This ensures that ISIS-run channels cannot be disrupted with counter-propaganda.
Even though Telegram shot back by claiming it blocks thousands of ISIS-related public channels every month, it bowed to concerns of the Indonesian government earlier this year and agreed to set up a special team to monitor and regulate content posted on its channels.
Despite Telegram’s efforts, hackers belonging to the Islamic State have had an easy run so far, with hackers opening new propaganda channels as soon as existing ones are shut down. However, fresh tricks employed by a group of Iraqi hackers has ensured that disseminating propaganda is no longer a cake-walk for the Islamic State.
Daeshgram, the said group of Iraqi hackers, told Sky News that their goal is not only to undermine the ‘credibility and effectiveness of their [Islamic State] media outlets in Telegram’, but also to ensure that the app is no longer considered as a preferred channel by the terrorist group.
Daeshgram is now using the Islamic State’s own hashtags to spread disinformation among the group’s followers, with long lists of fake news and false propaganda. It also carried out a DDoS attack on Amaq, the Islamic State’s propaganda arm, forced it to go offline, and then impersonated Amaq to spread confusing messages that were designed to mock the Islamic State’s ideology.
‘They didn’t know which ones were real, which were unreal, which one to trust – so they just stopped trusting Amaq,’ said a Daeshgram member to Sky News.
‘We were building credibility in ISIS telegram groups, understanding how they post things, what are the things they don’t want to hear, what are the things they want to see how, which type of content they post on their telegram groups.
“So we’ve created lots of confusion, lots of disputes among IS members from there, sometimes to the limit they were kicking out the admin and not believing in him, these kinds of things.
‘[ISIS] killed our people in Mosul and many other people. They abused people, they raped girls. They did every type of brutal thing so it’s really essential for us, as Iraqis and young Muslims, to fight those groups. And to tell the world that Isis is not a real representation of Islam.
‘We just wanted to contribute in fighting ISIS, and we could fight it through media and through internet, which is as important as the physical realm,’ he added.
Daeshgram isn’t the only vigilante group taking on the Islamic State, as several other groups have engaged in a silent digital war with the terrorist group in the last few years. In November 2015, Anonymous, a group of vigilante hackers, took down more than 5,000 Twitter accounts affiliated with ISIS in the wake of the Paris attacks, with hacking group BinarySec also targeting the group’s cyber resources and posting a text file on Pastebin that allegedly named members of the Islamic State.
Earlier this year, mocking the Islamic State’s narrow and hardline ideology, WachulaGhost, an ethical hacker, filled as many as 250 ISIS-run Twitter accounts with pictures of rainbow flags, LGBT unions and gay pornography.
‘We started to take over their accounts with porn and gay pride images basically just to troll them. We thought that putting the naked images would offend them. If the social media people like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram would stand up and do something it would help. Sometimes you have to stand up and make a change for the good,’ the hacker told CNN.