Possession of an encryption program used by jihadists is being cited of evidence against two Vice News journalists and a local fixer / translator arrested in Turkey, who now face terror-related charges.
British journalist Jake Hanrahan, cameraman Philip Pendlebury and their local assistant were picked up last week in Diyarbakir, a city in the Kurdish south-east of Turkey, the scene of renewed fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces.
The arrests have prompted protests from human rights organisations, the US and the European Union. Critics say the arrests are motivated by an attempt by Turkish authorities to deter other journalists from investigating the conflict with Kurdish rebels.
Turkish government officials denied this, telling AP that the presence of encryption software found on the assistant's computer supposedly pointed to links with terrorists. The assistant disputes this and the name of the program in question was not apparent in early reports.
A Turkish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera: "The main issue seems to be that the fixer uses a complex encryption system on his personal computer that a lot of ISIL militants also utilise for strategic communications."
The three were initially detained following an anonymous tip off suggesting an association with ISIS, but now face charges of assisting the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and its youth wing.
Renewed fighting in Turkey's mostly ethnic Kurdish south-east since July has claimed the lives of 60 soldiers and police and 90 rebels, as well as derailing a two-and-a-half year peace process. The geopolitics of the situation are complicated by the presence of Kurdish forces over the border in Syria, who are seen in the West as one of the few effective ground forces in situ fighting against ISIS.
The director of the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists has published an open letter to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, calling for the release of the Vice team.
The reporters "were providing badly needed coverage of current events in south-eastern Turkey, which are of interest not only to domestic but also to international audiences," CPJ executive director Joel Simon said. "Reporting on sensitive issues, including talking to a variety of news sources, is not a crime and such coverage must never be equated with criminal activity," he added.
The software in question could be anything from TOR or PGP to Mujahideen Secrets or more modern jihadi-themed encryption software packages, such as Asrar al-Dardashah.
OpSec experts are dismissive of the general capability of Jihadi web-warrior crypto apps.
“Encrypted messaging apps from ISIS or AQAP are as operationaly relevant as an encrypted messaging app from Man U or Liverpool,” the grugq concluded in a recent assessment. “It might be exciting for some hardcore fans who want to show their support, but the real players don’t touch the stuff.”
“Real jihadis use secure codes and couriers, not some Android toy My First Crypto Chat,” he added. ®