Taliban Urges Supporters to Use Texting App To Get Jihadi News

Officials concerned about surveillance challenges with new apps.

ByABC News
June 1, 2015, 11:11 AM

— -- The Afghan Taliban is urging its supporters to install a popular smartphone texting app in order to receive news from the battlefields directly, a call that has underscored longstanding concerns by U.S. counter-terrorism officials about shortcomings in surveillance capabilities.

The insurgency in America's longest war, capitalizing on the proliferation of mobile transmission towers throughout the war-torn landscape of impoverished Afghanistan over the past few years, advised followers on Twitter Friday to download the popular international communication tool WhatsApp.

“All Muslim brothers can register their names... to receive all Al Emarah releases in Pashto, Persian, English and Arabic languages,” the Taliban statement said, according the SITE Intelligence Group. The Taliban promised those who register would receive “breaking news and video releases of the Islamic Emirate.”

The statement included an Afghan mobile number that appeared to be from MTN Group, a South Africa-based telecommunications firm offering mobile services in the country. However, the numbered account was dismantled by WhatsApp because it did not comply with the app’s terms of service, a spokesperson for WhatsApp told ABC News Friday.

Recent U.S. federal court documents filed by the Justice Department in counter-terrorism cases have cited the use of some texting apps for smartphones that are popular among jihadis in places such as Syria, Iraq and Somalia and often used to radicalize and recruit -- or simply stay in touch with -- Islamist sympathizers in America.

Apps made by companies that do not archive messages are viewed as the most desirable to terrorists.

Some jihadi "technical experts" have advised sympathizers in the past two years to avoid using WhatsApp and other apps for messaging, for fear they could be used by Western intelligence to monitor communications and movements on the ground. Other groups like ISIS and the Taliban have encouraged the apps' use.

While WhatsApp has corporate offices in California's Silicon Vally, other companies who make popular messaging apps for smartphones are often foreign-based, and therefore out of the reach of the FBI and its use of national security letters, search warrants and wiretapping warrants by federal criminal courts or the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The apps also use wireless networks, rather than phone networks, meaning the only records of messages are in the phones of the parties sending and receiving, which makes surveillance of those communications difficult if not impossible, officials have told ABC News.