Militant groups in Bangladesh have become tech-savvy and are now using encrypted messages to communicate online, making it harder for them to be traced by law enforcement agencies.
Encrypting the messages while chatting via social media apps is also making it tougher for police to recover the conversation histories of arrested militants from their electronic devices.
Anti-Terrorism Unit officials said the militants initially had used popular apps like Facebook and its Messenger, and Google Hangouts to communicate. But recently they have started using instant and encrypted messaging apps such as Threema, Telegram and Wickr to keep their chats more secret.
The officials said that to avoid detection, militants are rapidly switching between other platforms including WhatsApp, Viber, Tango, and Hike, as most have the encryption facilities.
Monirul Islam, the chief of Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit, has previously claimed success in weakening the existing militant outfits in Bangladesh following the Gulshan cafe attack in July last year.
“We have broken most of the militant networks but they are trying to remain active on the internet,” he said. “We are tracking their online activities through regular monitoring and working on preventing them by conducting raids.”
CTTC’s Additional Deputy Commissioner, Abdul Mannan, told the Dhaka Tribune that the militant groups have started giving technology-related training to their new recruits so that they can avoid our online traps.
“Militants now also prefer students with a science or IT background while recruiting as their network and communications are now fully internet-based. Every militant group now has its own IT wing and they prefer online chats than talking over mobile phones,” he said.
Making their case, investigators also said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States had examined 30 phones seized from Holey Artisan Bakery after the July 1, 2016, attack, and found that the attackers had used the encrypted messaging app Threema to communicate with the militants outside.
“It’s becoming harder for us to infiltrate their secret online network as the militants are now using updated apps,” a police inspector of the CTTC, requesting anonymity, told the Dhaka Tribune.
“They may also use Silent Circle, Signal, Chat Secure, OS Tel or Red Phone, which are highly advanced and more privacy-conscious messaging apps, in the future. If they do that, it will become more challenging to trace their secret and online networks.”
Militants still active on Facebook, blog sites
Meanwhile, banned militant outfits Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Ansar Al Islam, Hizb-ut Tahrir and some other home-grown terror groups are still using the social networking sites, including Facebook, and blog sites to spread their ideology.
Dhaka Tribune has found 39 Facebook fan pages where most of these militant outfits are always making posts with either a Jihadi angle or misleading information about various ongoing conflicts in different parts of the world.
Our correspondents also accessed 50 blogging websites, mostly created on or by using WordPress, which are being actively used by these groups to search for new recruits, spread their words or even simply send instructions down the chain of command.
These terror outfits are active in 38 Telegram accounts and several YouTube channels, too, giving theoretical and sometimes warfare trainings to their members.
Using these means, these groups often provide alternative website addresses and login passwords to their members in case the page, blog site or video channel they are using is compromised to law enforcement agencies.
“We have been monitoring the militants’ online activities and managed to trace many in lots of cases, which is why the militants could not carry out another big attack after the Gulshan cafe one,” Md Alimuzzaman, deputy commissioner (Cybercrime) of the DMP’s CTTC, told the Dhaka Tribune.
“A few top militants are still on the run and we are trying to catch them with our own techniques and technology.”
Bangladesh Police recently conducted research on 250 arrested militants and found that 82% of them got involved with their respective terror outfits online. The information was disclosed at the International Police Conference held here earlier this year.
Apps militants could go for any day
London-based SC Magazine, which covers cybersecurity, cyber crimes and information security, reported in February last year that global terrorist organisation Islamic State was moving its mass communications to Threema from its account on encrypted messaging platform Telegram.
The executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, Stiven Stalinisky, told the magazine that the militants were migrating to Threema mostly likely because of the better encryption advantage.
The trend was later followed by other international and regional militant outfits, said different global cybersecurity monitoring organisations.
“Bangladeshi home-grown militants are also dependent on Threema, along with WhatsApp, Telegram and Viber,” said an official of Police Headquarters Counter Terrorism section.
According to different international cyber-security and investigation agencies, militants may migrate to several more updated encrypted messaging apps such as Talkray, GroupMe, Trillian, KIK, Voxer, IM Plus, Kakao and others in future.
If that happens, the police in Bangladesh would have to have more resources and better technology at their disposal to trace the militants and catch them before they launch major attacks.