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English-speaking ISIS supporters exploit messaging app

The English-speaking supporters of the terrorist group ISIS have been using the encrypted messaging app Telegram to communicate with like-minded sympathizers around the world, a new report finds.

A new study by George Washington University's Program on Extremism found that English-speaking ISIS supporters "exploit Telegram's suite of features to communicate with like-minded supporters across the world, disseminate official and unofficial (ISIS) media, and provide instructional material for operations."

The report calls Telegram "effective and secure" and "the preferred digital communication tool for (ISIS) sympathizers."

Law enforcement and intelligence officials across the world have been concerned about the use of the app by extremists. It's encrypted and said to be near impossible to track. 

Telegram prides itself on the secrecy of its messaging, boasting on its site that "exchanging Telegram messages [is] similar to talking face to face (without a tape recorder)." Its app claims to enable users to delete any messages sent or received in any one-on-one conversation, and the entire chat history can be cleared on both ends.

However, some hacktavists have been testing Telegram's encryption claims for years. In early 2017, one hacker sent CNET's Dan Patterson a note saying that he or she had accessed "dozens of islamic state telegrams and...intercepted their communications" and warned that ISIS members were trying to recruit attackers in major world cities. The hackers have told Patterson that they routinely hack Telegram, which they have found to be insecure. Patterson also pointed out that a Google search for "how to hack Telegram" produces a number of effective results.

The app was used by the terrorist cell that plotted the attacks in Paris in November 2015, and by the masterminds of the murder of a priest in Normandy in 2016. Communications features on the app include "secret chats" and "supergroups." Supergroups can have up to 100,000 members. Telegram has declined to work with law enforcement or counterterrorism agencies.

The app does say it bans terrorist content, however. On its ISIS Watch channel Telegram publishes daily updates on terrorist bots and channels banned from using the app. In May, Telegram banned 8,291 terrorist bots and channels. On Wednesday, Telegram banned 309 terrorist bots and channels, bringing the monthly total so far to 1,304.

According to the report, the recent loss of territory in the Middle East has inspired ISIS supporters to "ensure resilience of their networks on Telegram, supplement official media with unofficial productions, and develop new measures for online guidance of operations."

President Trump announced in March that U.S.-backed forces had taken 100 percent of the territory once held by ISIS in Syria. However, their worldwide terrorist activity has continued.

ISIS also taken credit for the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka which killed hundreds of people in April. ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi also appeared for the first time in five years in a video released by the extremist group's propaganda arm in April.

Andres Triay contributed to this report.

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