The Islamic State terrorist army is snatching up the latest off-the-shelf encrypted applications to hide their military planning, with fighters publicly thanking former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden for tipping them on U.S. spying tactics.
The West’s fertile tech laboratories have unwittingly become the Islamic State’s research and development arm for free messaging software. It uses the apps to recruit followers, defeat the U.S.-led coalition and expand conquests in Iraq and Syria.
The Islamic State’s mastery of secure communications is an especially important advance because its commanders do their attack planning — and then execution — via the Internet and smartphones. The Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, has set up cybercommand posts. It recently published photos it said showed commanders orchestrating a suicide bombing and relaying information from the Internet by cellphone to the attackers.
Al Qaeda and its followers for years have tried to encrypt telephone and email messages. Documents seized in the 2011 raid of Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout confirm this.
What is new, says terrorism expert Steve Stalinsky, is that the Islamic State increasingly is turning to the newest downloadable apps that keep conversations private and, in so doing, lock out the FBI and NSA.
Mr. Stalinsky is executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which tracks Islamic extremists’ social media. MEMRI has published a new report that asserts “encryption technology embraced by ISIS reaches new level with increased dependence on apps.”
“As tech companies are creating more encryption technology without built-in ‘backdoors’ to allow government access or monitoring, jihadis are now increasingly adopting this technology almost as fast as it emerges,” Mr. Stalinsky told The Washington Times.
MEMRI has quoted some fighters as praising Mr. Snowden, the self-proclaimed whistleblower who released volumes of documents on how the U.S. tracks and listens to terrorists.
Said retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, who ran the NSA: “Most of what Snowden revealed had very little to do with American privacy. For the most part it revealed how the American state collected legitimate foreign intelligence. Our adversaries, including ISIS, have gone to school on these revelations. It will take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to recover. In the meantime, valuable intelligence will be lost.”
While Mr. Hayden and others who have had the responsibility of protecting America bemoaned what Mr. Snowden did, Islamic State terrorists take a different view.
“The NSA revelations are of extreme academic value,” an Islamic State fighter tweeted in February. “They’re really useful and we do operate in accordance with their uncoverings.”
Helpful privacy apps
The MEMRI report said the Islamic State has taken a special liking to two apps, Surespot and Kik, though it uses a handful of others. The attraction: Developers say there is no component, or “backdoor,” within the app that would allow the government to snoop.
The Surespot mobile app encrypts plain text messages on their way to the intended recipient. The sender has complete control over content and can delete both the sender’s and the recipient’s version, says the Surespot Web page.
“Jihadis value Surespot because it allows only the recipient — and no one else — to view the message, making unhindered communication easier,” the MEMRI report said.
Surespot was founded by techies involved in the decriminalization-of-marijuana movement in Colorado. It offers the app for free and solicits contributions in Bitcoin, the virtual online currency. Its domain is based in Montenegro, according to MEMRI.
“Surespot is about taking back your right to privacy,” the developers say. “No one along the network route the message takes from one client to another, not any of the hops, not even the Surespot server, can view the contents.”
MEMRI says there are at least 115 Islamic State members identified as using Surespot. “Major recruiters for ISIS are tweeting that they should be contacted via Surespot for assistance in emigrating to join,” MEMRI said.
“In 2015, there have been reports that Islamic State recruiters are urging teen girls whom they are grooming to become jihadi brides to communicate with them using Surespot,” the report states. “According to reports, after the girls are indoctrinated on Twitter, the recruiters move communications to Surespot.”
Kik, also a free mobile app widely available for all types of smartphones, allows users to send encrypted instant messages and images. Kik’s slogan is “Chat on your terms” and claims 200 million users.
The Islamic State’s tweets often mention these two apps as the way to communicate.
A fighter, Abu Usamah as-Somali, tweeted a photo of himself standing in front of a commandeered U.S. multipurpose Hummer vehicle. “To@Barack Obama,” he wrote, “We making good use of the Hummers. Appreciate it!”
He urges followers to use Kik or Surespot to reach him.
In a guidebook to the Islamic State out this month, the author says the group is developing its own network of encrypted software: “Inside the Islamic State you will have access to the usual gizmos such as laptops, mobile phones, and of course the Internet. Keep in mind that mobile networks are still in the making, but apps such as Skype, Kik, WhatsApp and Telegram, to name but a few, are great alternatives.”
‘Recruit, radicalize, plan’
How has Mr. Snowden specifically helped the Islamic State and al Qaeda?
For one, his disclosures on how the NSA tracks terrorists sharpened the group’s focus on encryption as a top priority. The leaks, historic for their sheer volume of top secret information, also instilled more caution in how terrorists communicate.
For example, after the Snowden information flow began, Inspire magazine, a product of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, told followers to stop sending emails to the publication and to turn to encrypted messaging.
The jihadi forum Shumoukh Al-Islam also urged followers, after the initial Snowden collection release, to stop using email, especially Gmail.
Michael J. Morell, who was deputy CIA director when Mr. Snowden unleashed the cybertrove, devotes 30 pages to the leaker in his memoir, “The Great War of Our Time,” written with former agency spokesman Bill Harlow.
Mr. Morell, who has witnessed more Snowden-caused damage than he can tell in an unclassified book, is a harsh critic of the man toasted by civil libertarians and Hollywood. He credits the computer techie with aiding the rise of the Islamic State and predicts that Americans will die because of it.
“Within weeks of the leaks, terrorist organizations around the world were already starting to modify their actions in light of what Snowden disclosed,” Mr. Morell writes. “Communication sources dried up, tactics were changed. Terrorists moved to more secure communication platforms, they are using encryption, and they are avoiding electronic communications altogether. ISIS was one of the terrorist groups that learned from Snowden, and it is clear his actions played a role in the rise of ISIS. In short, Snowden has made the United States and our allies considerably less safe. I do not say this lightly: Americans may well die at the hands of terrorists because of Edward Snowden’s actions.”
In sum, he said: “I believe that the Snowden disclosures will go down in history as the greatest compromise of classified information ever. Period. Full stop. The damage done has already been significant and it will continue to grow NSA officers are patriots. Edward Snowden is a traitor.”
At a June 3 House Committee on Homeland Security hearing on terrorism and the Internet, Chairman Michael T. McCaul described the use of secure apps to recruit new Islamic State henchmen.
“They engage, establish bonds of trust and assess the commitment of their potential recruits,” said Mr. McCaul, Texas Republican. “From there, extremists direct users to continue the conversation on more secure apps, where secure communications hide their messages from our intelligence agencies.”
Michael Steinbach, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, told the panel there are about 200 social media companies today. He acknowledged they are building communications apps that U.S. technology cannot decipher.
“It has afforded a free zone by which to recruit, radicalize, plot and plan,” he said. “So when a company, a communications company or an ISP or social media company, elects to build in its software encryption and leaves no ability for even the company to access that, we don’t have the means by which to see the content. When we intercept it, we intercept encrypted communications.”
The FBI agent said the U.S. needs to “work with private industry toward technology solutions.”
But Silicon Valley and other tech havens want the market appeal of telling customers their conversations are private.
Tech giants, and civil liberties advocates, oppose what the FBI would like them to do: design systems that allow the government to eavesdrop.
“Whether you call them ‘front doors’ or ‘back doors,’ introducing intentional vulnerabilities into secure products for the government’s use will make those products less secure against other attackers,” said a letter to the White House in May from 140 companies, including Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Twitter.
Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive officer, penned an open letter to users.
“I want to be absolutely clear that we have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services,” he said. “We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.”
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