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Telegram’s upcoming blockchain network: a safe haven for terrorists?

Robert Stevens


A 253-page report detailing how terrorists use cryptocurrencies concludes that the imminent release of Telegram's TON (Telegram Open Network) blockchain network and associated Gram cryptocurrency is a major security threat to the U.S. government. 

The report, released this week by the Washington, DC-based Middle Eastern Media Research Institute (MEMRI), produces new evidence that shows how terrorist groups including ISIS, Al-Qaida, Hamas, and Muslim Brotherhood rely on Telegram to raise cryptocurrency and coordinate attacks. 

“Telegram is the number one source for terrorist organizations online,” Steven Stalinsky, executive director of MEMRI told Decrypt. 

TON, the encrypted messaging app's new blockchain network, raised almost $1.7 billion in a private ICO sale last year and is expected to be released in the next few months. Gram will thus launch as one of the most valuable cryptocurrencies ever, and every user—estimates suggest there’s more than 365 million of them—will automatically receive their own wallet. 

But that means terrorists will, too. “Every different group that is already using [Telegram]—which is every main terrorist organization—will all have access,” said Stalinsky. 

Stalinsky is particularly concerned about TONPayments, a platform for highly efficient cryptocurrency transfers and micropayments within the TON network. It’s supposed to be lightning-fast—a claim that’s been corroborated by users of its private beta—and it’s built on the same principles of privacy as its encrypted messaging app. 

Since TONPayments is built into the Telegram messaging app, it’ll become incredibly easy for terrorists to raise funds for operations, Stalinsky said. Donors won’t even have to leave the app to make payments. And whereas bitcoin can be linked to exchanges or banks, Stalinsky said that terrorists’ followers on Telegram “are going to be able to send money [that’s] totally untraceable.”

Telegram has not yet responded to a request for comment on the report. 

Telegram’s CEO, Pavel Durov, has refused to compromise on the privacy of the Telegram messenger app, and does not share encrypted keys. That said, Durov has cooperated with governments following Telegram-coordinated terrorist attacks, and its website mentions it does “block terrorist bots and channels,” often flagged by its @ISISwatch channel—at the time of writing, this month it has blocked over 3971 alone.

Without access to the private beta that launched earlier this year, Stalinksy’s claims might seem speculative. And MEMRI, generally well regarded for its analysis of Middle Eastern affairs, has on occasion been criticized for being biased.

Yet the new report contains a mountain of evidence on terrorists’ crypto-fundraising campaigns on Telegram. “They're already fundraising using Bitcoin. [TON] is going to make it 10 times worse,” he said. 

The MEMRI report documents how Hamas’s military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigade, has openly encouraged Bitcoin donations on its site since the start of the year. 

MEMRI picked up a video disseminated by SadaqaCoins, a crowdfunding platform for international jihad earlier this year titled "Jihadi Investment" on its Telegram channel. The video shows the commander of the Junud Ash-Sham militant group in Syria, Amir Muslim, encouraging supporters to donate crypto. Among other things, SadaqaCoins asks for donations for a .50 cal bolt action sniper rifle ($4070)—“The enemys [sic] worst nightmare. One shot, One kill”.  

MEMRI’s report also found Syrian militant group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)’s Telegram channel, a campaign calls on Muslims to donate crypto to support jihad. There, a car bomb costs $20,000, a rocket costs $900, and preparing a fighter for a storming operation costs $1,000.

In previous reports, MEMRI has documented how ISIS used Telegram to coordinate the November 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, and used Telegram to claim responsibility for its attack in the southern French town of Trèbes.

Stalinsky noted a recent trend of terrorist-affiliated Sheikhs encouraging the use of cryptocurrencies through Telegram. In mid-July, HTS jurist Sheikh Abu Al-Fath Al-Farghali posted a video to over 10,000 members on his Telegram channel, encouraging members to donate to ”charity”—including jihad—using bitcoin.

Using the TON network will only make things easier, Stalinsky said, because TON users won’t have to bother with setting up their own crypto wallets—a procedure that’s complicated to the uninitiated.

Stalinsky said that governments worldwide are “very ill-prepared” when it comes to addressing the security threat Telegram poses. MEMRI’s headquartered in Washington D.C., and Stalinsky has been trying for years to warn the U.S. government about Telegram, writing briefings for White House officials and meeting with members of Congress. He’s had some, albeit limited, success: in January 2018, a task force was set up to fight terrorist use of cryptocurrency. But governments, are “generally a year or two behind everything,” Stalinsky said.

Telegram does appear to be acutely aware of the problem, specifically singling out terrorists in its privacy policy,  “If Telegram receives a court order that confirms you're a terror suspect, we may disclose your IP address and phone number to the relevant authorities. So far, this has never happened. When it does, we will include it in a semiannual transparency report published at: https://t.me/transparency.”