Messaging service Telegram
W. Le Devin and G. Kristanadjaja

Police officers probing the attack on a priest in the quiet northern French town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray were led to an unusual location in their investigation: Telegram, a messaging application that has 100 million active users worldwide.

With both private and public chats, the application’s flexibility, as well as its policy on privacy, makes it attractive to users, especially those in countries with repressive political regimes. About 15 billion messages are sent on the application every day.

Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean, the two French ISIS jihadists who killed the priest, appeared to have used Telegram before they carried out their attack.

“The investigation that has just begun is interesting because it addresses two key notions of jihad: the narcissistic and personalized aspect of a crime and the duality between terrorism and mass communication,” said an investigating officer.

“Share it ASAP”

The Anti-Terrorist Division of Judicial Police (SDAT) found that Kermiche and Petitjean met for the first time on Telegram on July 22. The following day, they met in person. Petitjean, who lived in Savoie in southeastern France, came to see Kermiche, who was under judicial review in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, just days before the attack.

The two terrorists shared their plan with others. Petitjean told his cousin Farid K what he intended to do. (Farid K has since been slapped with terror charges.) Kermiche posted boastful audio messages on Telegram to a group of more than 200 users. “You take a knife, you go to a church and you create carnage. You cut off two or three heads and it's good, you’re done,” he said, encouraging other users to take part in the process. “I’ll let you know a couple of minutes before I start and, when it happens, you should share it ASAP.”

The police officers are working on the networks of people the two terrorists knew. The duo, especially Kermiche, may have been influenced by a foreign preacher. The two militants were shot dead by police shortly after they killed the priest.

Everything a potential jihadist needs

It’s no coincidence that terror group ISIS has chosen Telegram as one of their communication tools. The application has the functionality of both social networks and encrypted messaging systems like WhatsApp and Signal. Users can send single recipient messages or hold private group discussions.

Jihadists want to address a small community online, not reach out to the kind of large audiences that Facebook and Twitter have, explained Romain Caillet, a French jihad expert. “Their main goal is to keep their supporters informed. Telegram is very helpful to keep it all between jihadists. Some of them seek to relay information while others are meant to receive it," he said.

Abdel Malick Petitjean â€" Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On Aug. 1, 2016, the propaganda outlet for ISIS, Amaq Agency, created a new broadcast channel on Telegram. Minutes later, the first dispatch appeared. “Breaking. A second martyrdom operation took place yesterday. A vehicle carrying a bomb hit Iraqi forces near Qayyarah in Niniveh.”

The message was followed by another about a missile attack in Manbij, Syria. In total, seven messages were posted in seven minutes on the channel. More than 200 people began to follow the channel. Other channels describing themselves as “authentic broadcast media” popped up on Telegram.

One of them called "Fighting Journalists" shares English-language propaganda â€" from reports of attacks and photos of the Syrian civil war to maps of areas occupied by jihadists and links that direct to videos of preachers calling for armed combat. In short, everything one needs to become a jihadist.

Fighting Journalists has 600 followers and only the administrator has access to the usernames of members.

Often, channels vanish shortly after they appear. While some aren’t updated for weeks, others are deleted and recreated under new names to avoid detection. That’s what happened to the Amaq Agency channel, which could not be found a day after it was launched.

“Media uproar”

Messaging services have become crucial for intelligence services. In addition to Telegram, authorities are examining other applications like WhatsApp, Signal, Viber and IMO but it’s easy to get lost in the maze of fake accounts and usernames, sometimes used by the same person as a cover.

“We then proceed to directly interview close relatives,” a police commander said. “When they worry about the radicalization of a specific member of the family they might cooperate by providing the right accounts and passwords.”

Although ISIS finds Telegram useful, it does not revolutionize the way attacks are carried out, one analyst argued.

“Apart from the crime, what matters when it comes to a terrorist attack is that it causes globalized communication. Jihad has always enriched itself with media uproar and now there is no longer a need to conduct an operation as spectacular as 9/11 to make headlines worldwide. With social networks, a tweet claiming responsibility for the killing of someone is sufficient to make the world go crazy,” said political specialist Abdelasiem Em Difraoui.

Still, the application is a thriving medium for ISIS propaganda. For Caillet, the French researcher specializing in jihad, Telegram is the logical successor to Facebook and Twitter â€" platforms where administrators have increased censorship of ISIS propaganda in recent years.

“It will take one or two other attacks before Telegram will do the same,” Caillet said. After the November 2015 Paris attacks, Telegram’s administrators closed 78 accounts linked to ISIS. No doubt more will be shuttered in the future.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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