Islamic State terrorists using latest encrypted apps to hide attack plans

ISIS has apparently embraced new encryption technology and increased their dependence on certain mobile phone apps to help carry out their military plans in secret. Some fighters are even publicly thanking former NSA contractor Edward Snowden for giving them tips.

Steve Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), says 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.”

 Edward Snowden speaking at the 2015 International Students for Liberty Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. Please attribute to Gage Skidmore
Edward Snowden speaking (via video chat) at the 2015 International Students for Liberty Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

The Islamic State’s mastery of secure communications is an especially important advance because its commanders do their attack planning and execution via the Internet and smartphones, according to a recently published MEMRI report.

The Jihadis’ favorite smartphone apps? Apparently Kik and Surespot.  Developers say the attraction to these particular apps is that there is no “backdoor” within the app that would allow the government to snoop. Kik allows users to send encrypted instant messages and images, while Surespot allows only the recipient to view the message.

According to the Surespot Web page, this 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. “Major recruiters for ISIS are tweeting that they should be contacted via Surespot for assistance in emigrating to join,” MEMRI said.

The report also states that Islamic State recruiters urge teen girls– whom they are grooming to become jihadi brides– to communicate with them using Surespot.”

“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.

Surespot encrypted messenger. Photo courtesy of Surespot

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.

Islamic State terrorists have said, “The NSA revelations are of extreme academic value. They’re really useful and we do operate in accordance with their uncoverings.”

Retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden said, 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.”

Mr. Snowden’s disclosures on how the NSA tracks terrorists sharpened the groups’ focus on encryption as a top priority, the report says.  Terrorists also became more cautious in the way they communicate with one another as a result of the Snowden leaks, which were historic for their sheer volume of top secret information.

Michael J. Morell, deputy CIA director at the time of the Snowden leaks, says “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.”

At a recent Homeland Security hearing on terrorism and the Internet, Chairman Michael T. McCaul said about IS-recruiting tools, “Extremists direct users to continue their conversations on more secure apps, where secure communications hide their messages from our intelligence agencies.”

FBI agents say the U.S. needs to work with private industry toward technology solutions, like designing systems that allow the government to eavesdrop.

But Silicon Valley and other tech havens disagree, saying the appeal for their customers is to keep their conversations totally private.

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