Jakarta: When underwear manufacturer terrorism analyst Nava Nuraniyah monitored the encrypted chat groups of Islamic State sympathisers on the Telegram app she uncovered something surprising: they were more likely to gossip than plot terror attacks.
On Friday, Indonesia asked internet companies to block l web versions of Telegram – which has been dubbed “the app of choice” for Islamic State members and supporters – and threatened to impose a total ban on the messaging app.
But Ms Nuraniyah from the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, says online forums provide a goldmine of information, so it is in the interests of counter-terrorism agencies to monitor rather than ban them.
Between 2015 and 2016, Ms Nuraniyah had access to the encrypted chats of two groups of Islamic State sympathisers in Indonesia on Telegram – one all-male and one all-female – and found both mainly discussed mundane personal matters.
“To give you an illustration as to how personal are their chats, they talk about jihotties – hot jihadis basically – and they have huge online businesses, selling everything from Muslim clothing even lingerie and cooking recipes,” she said.
“For the male group the highest ranked topic is about takfir [declaring people to be infidels] … and personal topics are also dominant, recruitment, just general propaganda, copying and pasting stuff and religious discussion.”
Telegram secret chat and Amn Mujahid, an encryption app, was more likely to be used for explicit discussions on training and plotting than Telegram groups.
One of the most valuable insights Ms Nuraniyah gleaned from her research into Telegram groups was that many members turned to the online community for a sense of belonging and acceptance.
“In some cases it replaces one’s own family, especially when the family is against the decision to join radical groups, it became a support group for newbie extremists.”
Ms Nuraniyah also found that there are very few cases of people being recruited entirely online in Indonesia, with extremists still relying heavily on offline study groups for recruitment.
Telegram hit the headlines when it was revealed the Paris attackers who killed 130 people in November 2015 had used the app.
Indonesian Police Chief Tito Karnavian said there were 17 cases in Indonesia where terrorists had used Telegram, including the Starbucks bombing in Central Jakarta in 2016, that led to the death of eight people including four civilians.
Ms Nuraniyah said the use of the internet by extremists was nothing new, with Imam Samudra, one of the perpetrators of the first Bali bombing in 2002, a champion of online jihad.
Twitter and Facebook had taken down the accounts of thousands of extremists since 2014 and the Indonesian government had banned dozens of jihadi websites, which had led to a shift to private chat apps such as Kik, Surespot and Telegram.
Telegram, in particular, had become a favourite for IS supporters, because its founders, the Durov brothers, had defied the Russian government’s request to hand over any data.
“As of October 2016, [IS] supporters in Indonesia had established over a hundred public channels and dozens of private groups based on the Telegram app,” Ms Nuraniyah wrote in the book Digital Indonesia.
Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian who joined Islamic State in Syria in late 2014, has become an infamous example of someone who used the app, teaching his Telegram disciples how to make car bombs and hack credit cards.
Ms Nuraniyah said Telegram had an image of a “scary platform” because it was the “Bahrun Naim kind of plotting” that made the news, when her research suggested it was generally used more for gossiping than plotting.
But the bad news, she says, is that social media does enable extremists to expand their networks and resources more cheaply and faster than in the past.
The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict studied a group of between 50 and 100 radicalised Indonesian maids in Hong Kong, who forged relationships through Telegram and helped internationalise local extremist networks.
Ms Nuraniyah says they developed ties to jihadist groups and clerics in Indonesia, some of whom came to Hong Kong to give sermons and collect donations.
The Medan church attacker, who tried to carry out a suicide bombing last year, was a beneficiary of donations from migrant workers.
With their good English skills and internet access, the radical maids were also able to assist would-be jihadists such as Syahputra, a former police officer who joined IS, to travel to Syria.
Ms Nuraniyah said banning Telegram was just a temporary solution, which if anything makes extremists more creative. “They keep finding new platforms … in other word it makes it harder for police to find their whereabouts,” she said.
“Infiltration I think is more realistic and urgent and I believe this is what our security apparatus has been doing here and all over the world.”
In Digital Indonesia, she writes that more research is needed on why alienated youths turn to online extremist communities and what can be done to counter this, beyond simply cutting off online communications.