The Snowden leaks have not changed the way jihadi terorrists communicate, according to a new study.
A report by Flashpoint Partners concludes that jihadi/terrorist groups, their recruits and affiliates are making greater use of secure communications tools.
Yet the report ascribes this to the development of new encrypted communications packages by jihadists themselves rather than a reaction to leaks of top secret information about US surveillance programmes by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Intelligence agencies such as Britain's GCHQ have claimed that terrorists have upped their game in cryptography as a result of Snowden's leaks about NSA spying, typically arguing that terrorists' communications in parts of the world had "gone dark" in the wake of the whistleblower's revelations.
Flashpoint Partners' (FP) analysis supports the counterarguments of Glenn Greenwald and others that the Snowden revelations have done nothing to harm national security in the West.
It's common ground that al-Qaeda has developed more sophisticated encryption techniques, so the argument centres about the timing of these improvements and whether or not they are linked to Snowden's leaks.
FP researchers reached their conclusion of non-linkage with Snowden after looking at the formal release of jihadi encryption software packages, charted over time, as well as the statistical frequency of discussions about encryption by jihadi forum users charted over time. These metrics were used to get a handle on whether the Snowden revelations had a measurable impact on the logistical subterfuge techniques of terrorist organisations – principally, Al-Qaeda.
Flashpoint’s analysts concluded "there is very little open source information available via jihadi online social media that would indicate that Snowden’s leaks served as the impetus for the development of more secure digital communications and/or encryption by Al-Qaeda."
The underlying public encryption methods employed by online jihadists do not appear to have significantly changed since the emergence of Edward Snowden. Major recent technological advancements have focused primarily on expanding the use of encryption to instant messenger and mobile communications mediums. Aside from warning of tampered copies of “Asrar al-Mujahideen” that were deliberately infected with spyware, none of the prominent jihadi logistical units have expressed any public doubt as to the continued effectiveness of encryption methods employed in their software packages that were released prior to the Snowden leaks.
According to FP's analysts, jihadists were far less interested in the implications of the Snowden revelations than discussing newly released encryption software packages tailored to their cause. Part of the reason for this is that jihadists have long known that Western intel agencies were tracking their online activities.
The actual release of new jihadi-themed encryption software packages, like “Asrar al-Dardashah,” seems to have had a far more noticeable impact in terms of driving waves of interest in the subject of encryption among users of jihadi web forums than the publication of the Snowden NSA revelations in June 2013. Well prior to Edward Snowden, online jihadists were already aware that law enforcement and intelligence agencies were attempting to monitor them. As a result, the Snowden revelations likely merely confirmed the suspicions of many of these actors, the more advanced of which were already making use of – and developing –secure communications software.
The report goes on to list various secure comms packages for jihadists, such as Asrar al-Mujahideen (Secrets of the Mujahideen).
Flashpoint adds a caveat to its conclusions by noting that a definitive answer to the question of whether terrorist organizations have truly adapted their behaviour in the wake of the Edward Snowden NSA leaks would only be possible with access to "classified information or other credible sources that reveal the inner workings of terrorist organisations". The study is also limited because of a lack of access to private discussions of those responsible for producing jihadi encryption products such as Asrar al-Mujahideen.
Despite these caveats FP analysts are sticking to their guns about their main conclusion, that "the underlying public encryption methods employed by online jihadists do not appear to have significantly changed since the emergence of Edward Snowden". ®