As the world dives deeper into the digital age, jihadist groups like ISIS and the Taliban have taken increasingly diverse measures to secure their communications and espouse their actions and ideas across the planet.
Propaganda has been a key measure of any jihadist group’s legitimacy since at least 2001, when al-Qaeda operative Adam Yahiye Gadahn established the media house As-Sahab, which was intended to spread the group’s message to a regional audience throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Over the years, jihadist propaganda has taken a broader and more sophisticated tone. Al-Qaeda published the first issue of its digital newsmagazine, Inspire, in June of 2010. Inspire was aimed at an explicitly Western audience, and intended to call to jihad the would-be mujahideen throughout Europe and the United States.
When ISIS first took hold in Iraq and Syria, and formally declared its caliphate in the summer of 2014, the group capitalized on the groundwork laid by its predecessors and established an expansive, highly sophisticated media network to espouse its ideology. The group established local wilayat (provincial) media hubs, and members of its civil service distributed weekly newsletters, pamphlets, and magazines to citizens living under its caliphate. Billboards were posted in major cities under its control, including in Raqqah and Mosul; FM band radio broadcasts across 13 of its provinces were set up to deliver a variety of content, from fatwas and sharia lessons to daily news, poetry, and nasheeds; and Al-Hayat Media Center distributed its digital newsmagazine, Dabiq, in over a dozen languages to followers across the world.
As the group expanded its operational capacity and declared new wilayat throughout the Middle East and South Asia, secure communications became an increasingly valued necessity. Secure messenger apps like Telegram were widely reported to be used for communication and coordination, both among ISIS fighters and the fanboys who have taken to task the mission of propagating their message. But ISIS has also embraced numerous other methods of keeping its communications secure, and hidden from the prying eyes of intelligence agencies seeking to snoop on its web traffic.
According to deep web intelligence and cybersecurity firm Flashpoint, which conducted extensive analysis on “the jihadists‘ digital toolbox”, militants have been evaluating secure browsers for use in disseminating propaganda and communicating via email since May of 2007.
During the summer of 2008, Tor’s popularity grew sharply within jihadist Deep and Dark Web forums. This time frame also marks the inception of the first proprietary jihadist encryption tool, Asrar Al-Mujahideen. Shortly thereafter, a top jihadist web forum was abuzz with deeper discussions of encryption, privacy, and naturally ― Tor. In particular, one forum member distributed guidelines describing Tor’s implications and best practices for jihadists.
The guidelines suggested that jihadists download the Tor browser on a portable flash drive, for use at internet cafes and across multiple computers – a method also embraced by journalists and activists who seek to hide their online actions.
While Tor remains the dominant browser for use among jihadists, ISIS has also taken to using the free VPN service built into Opera, a popular alternative web browser marketed to internet users for its slew of privacy and security tools. In April of 2016, an ISIS member posted on a web forum with detailed instructions for mujahideen to use the browser and hide their digital footprint.