Like al-Qaeda before it, the Islamic State (Isis) has embraced technology to communicate, spread propaganda and target new recruits, but this new generation of digital jihadis has emerged in the era of free, easy-to-use and fully encrypted mobile messaging apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp.
While efforts have been made to crack down on Daesh on Twitter and Facebook, governments and cyber-spooks are finding it increasingly difficult to track and monitor communications on Telegram, which is now IS's number one source for communications, and efforts to combat the spread of material online have largely failed.
Telegram enables people to have one-to-one and group conversations that are encrypted end-to-end. Over the last 12 months, Isis has taken full advantage of the platform's privacy benefits to establish a flourishing community of channels, bots and chatrooms.
In addition to publishing news and media of recent victories and, of course, propaganda of how life is in the Islamic State, there are more private channels where wannabe jihadis trade tactics, military documents, weapons instructions and plan hacking operations.
Speaking exclusively to IBTimes UK, Raijin, the tech lead of Ghost Security Group (GSG), a non-profit organisation of people who analyse information relating to Isis on social media platforms to track potential terrorist activities said: "We are aware of ongoing attempts to recruit not just fighters but specialists in all areas of expertise that could be beneficial to a new state attempting to build a foundation: from doctors and nurses, to chemists, engineers, mathematicians and physicists.
"They are looking to automate the manufacture of supplies necessary for their fight, like bullets and other projectiles and they are also sharing Android applications in other rooms designed specifically for mobile warfare and surveillance protection."
IBTimes UK has spent two months infiltrating and exploring this underground, and largely hidden, world of Isis-inspired communications. Here's some of the oddest content we discovered that is out there on the chat app:
Unsurprisingly, some of the channels on Telegram related to spreading Daesh propaganda, but one particular gem of a channel called "Did you know?" with 599 members actually attempts to rewrite history in order to show Muslims in a superior light to the West, as well as criticising trivial elements of popular culture.
All the statements come with beautifully Photoshopped images, and our favourite is the appropriation of the completely fictional Disney pirate film characters Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbossa as historical figures from the Ottoman Empire.
There are accusations made about the British Empire (okay, those are fair), but we're not sure we believe the one about how the great Islamic scholar Al-Biruni discovered the Americas 500 years before Christopher Columbus did. We're also a bit sceptical about Daesh's claims that it is responsible for very few civilian casualties. Do those beheadings not count then?
Also, apparently yoga is a really bad idea — rather than being an innocent exercise activity, it is actually dangerous and involves interacting with the devil. Oh dear.
Hacking and security
Hacks and breaches are now a daily occurrence and it's no surprise that terror groups like Isis have adopted a cyber warfare mindset. In many ways, at least on Telegram, many channels are similar in tone, speech and structure to a chatroom managed by Anonymous.
IBTimes UK was able to find a number of dedicated hacking channels – including 'Kalachnikv E-Security', 'Online Dawah Operations' and 'Muslim Safety Tips'. In many cases, the content within overlaps as members share content on various threads.
Furthermore, it's easy to fall down the rabbit-hole of Telegram links – as the platform constantly struggles to combat the constant pop-up of fresh groups. Many links disappear, are recycled, and reappear. It's a terrorist-themed whack-a-mole.
Topics discussed include privacy, hacking tips, malware and data breaches. The administrators post hacking books that describe, in detail, how to get started with techniques like keyloggers and SQL injections, while boasting about 'hacks' they have orchestrated.
The Kalachnikv E-Security Telegram channel, for example, is frequented by members purporting to belong to the United Cyber Caliphate. As previously reported, this group recently merged from the ashes of three former IS-inspired hacking collectives. While it brands itself as Islamic State – many doubt the capabilities of this group.
Its Telegram posts back up the idea that the group is extremely limited in actual hacking ability – in some cases proudly boasting about 'hacks' and defacements on websites including car dealerships, florists and CD-duplication studios.
Meanwhile, in Online Da'wah Operations [Da'wah: preaching of Islam], the group does less proselytising and more OpSec tactics. "Buy cheap burner phones, use and throw. This will help you not get tracked," the administrator posted.
Another concern raised was with WhatsApp. Despite its recent move towards end-to-end encryption, the Isis supporters are convinced it's not safe. "We cannot trust WhatsApp since it is the easiest application for hacking and also one of the social messaging apps purchased by Facebook," one person wrote.
Another raised concerns about how secure Telegram encryption really is, while on Telegram: "If you are using Telegram because you want to ensure your privacy of the messaging you are sending, be aware that it will not stop sophisticated hackers from reading your messages. We highly recommend adding additional protection to your mobile device that can detect device-level cyberattacks".
Actually, that's quite good advice.
News from the front
In the real world, the Islamic State has embraced fear tactics. The group is notoriously brutal and, in many respects, this translates to Telegram. Many channels exist that report on IS-related news, including Khilafah News, Amaq Agency and Nasir English.
Beheadings, murders and the faces of terrified captives – all are reported in gory detail. There are daily 'news' style updates on IS operations and what purports to be first-hand accounts of bombings, shootings and overly large explosions.
Military training and how to make weapons
You can't have a war without having a decent army, and you can't plot terror attacks in other countries unless you have people in those countries that are able to carry them out. So why not use the internet as a way to train Isis sympathisers?
To this end, Daesh has hundreds of channels and private chatrooms specially dedicated to sharing information on everything from making your own bombs to DIY poisons and how to use military equipment like missile launchers and armoured vehicles, as well as strategies on how to attack enemy fighter jets from the ground.
Some of the channels also offer PDF versions of chemistry textbooks, as well as ebooks describing how to make different types of bombs and even how to modify guns that can be easily downloaded straight to users' devices, and there are also HD video tutorials with narrations and full on-screen instructions in Arabic (see video above for more information).
One of the core tenets of Islamic State doctrine is the religious justification for a holy war, and to that end, there are hundreds of channels that explain why fighting is necessary. Using polished Photoshopped graphics similar to the inspirational quote graphics seen on Instagram and Tumblr, Daesh explains the definition of the enemy, which is known in Arabic as a "kafir".
A kafir is apparently anyone that hates Islam, the Prophet, makes fun of Islam, as well as anyone who is against Muslims and anyone that operates outside Sharia law (so basically most of the world), and Isis wants to get rid of all kafirs. To that end, there are thousands upon thousands of posts declaring war against the kafirs and blaming the West for all problems experienced by Muslims, including those living in Western countries.
Interestingly, through our research on Telegram we also found numerous channels that seemed to be totally peaceful, posting mp3 recordings of imam's prayers and daily Quran scripture reminders. But there were also other channels and chatrooms where users rambled on endlessly about Islam and the West but made no clear points, other than criticising the kafirs.