Russia Update: State Duma Asks FSB to Restrict Access to Telegram Messaging App Used by Terrorists

November 16, 2015
Pavel Durov in September 2013 discussing his app called Telegram at the conference TechCrunch Disrupt. Photo by

Russian parliamentarians are asking Russian intelligence to consider restricting access to Telegram, an encrypted messaging system invented by Russian entpreneur Pavel Durov alleged to be used by the terrorists in the Paris attacks.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

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Kremlin Continues to Spin Conspiracy Theories About Metrojet Crash That Don’t Directly Involve ISIS

As we noted earlier today on our Putin in Syria column, despite a number of world specialists pointing to evidence that the terrorist who placed a bomb on the Metrojet Airbus A321 was related to ISIS, Russia itself has been slow to articulate the possibility of terrorism officially, and continues to advance other theories for the crash that don’t suggest that this is “payback” from ISIS for their bombing campaign (which in any event, has mainly not bombed ISIS.)

Today, President Vladimir Putin said Russian experts were nearing the end of their investigation into the crash that killed all 224 people aboard, and urged caution about rushing to conclusions about the perpetrators, IB Times reported.

Moscow Times reported that Russian experts thought results would be no sooner than the end of the year. 

From the first hours after the crash, when Metrojet officials were furiously denying technical problems and pointing to the possibility of terrorism, Russian leaders failed to implicate ISIS. It was left to Prime Minister Dmitry Medev, 10 days after the crash, to say finally it “could not be ruled out” that terrorists were involved, prompting international media to say that Russia was now “warming” to the theory of terrorism.
Strangely, Kommersant, a business daily that has lost some of the independence it originally had when it was founded, published a story early on November 6 stating that according to a source inside the investigation of the “black box,” there was no substantive information to be gained — the flight recording ended abruptly and pilots apparently didn’t have time even to punch an emergency button that would have conveyed to air traffic controllers that they faced a mechanical or terrorist disaster.
But hours later, however, as we reported, the rest of the world’s press was covering the news that other sources within the investigation in Egypt were reporting the sound of an explosion on that same tape.

Could Kommersant‘s source, if he truly were inside the investigation, not notice a sound like this or perhaps fail to mention it? Or had Kommersant willingly or unwillingly taken part in a disinformation story designed to instill confusion about the validity of the tape and preempt claims of evidence of a bomb?

As the UK’s Independent reported November 6, analysis of the black box on board the Russian plane brought down over Egypt shows it crashed following an “explosion,” French media has claimed:

According to LePoint, an unnamed official close to the investigation has revealed that results of tests carried out on the cockpit voice recorder show the tragedy could not have been caused by either a technical fault or an error by the crew.

A source who had access to black boxes said the distinct sound of an explosion mid-flight could be heard, adding that the motor did not break down prior to it, according to France 2.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has said there is a “significant possibility” Isis is responsible for bringing down the plane, while US President Barack Obama has agreed there is a “possibility” the crash was caused by a bomb. 

Whatever the Kremlin’s officials claims about Metrojet, that day Russia halted all flights to Egypt, following the decision of other world capitals earlier.

Two days later. on November 8, CNN reported that the US was “99% certain” that a bomb downed the Metrojet flight.

Russia’s contribution to the discussion during this period was to issue the claim that the UK’s intelligence agency M16 was supposedly responsible for the placing of the bomb.

On November 9, Sputnik International, the Kremlin’s foreign language propaganda outlet, claimed British statements about the likelihood of a bomb to be “unseemly” and “hasty,” and failed to mention the report of sounds of an explosion on the recording:

Russia has reacted angrily to the high-level comments from Britain and the United States. Quite rightly, Moscow has said that it is inappropriate to speculate at such an early stage in the crash investigation. A team of investigators are on the ground in the Sinai Peninsula where the airliner fuselage came down, still examining the aircraft remains.

Moreover, when Britain, followed by the US, announced its terror concerns the examination of the flight data recorders (black boxes) was only just underway. It may take weeks before forensic analysis reveals if there are any chemical residues on the plane parts that would indicate if explosive device did indeed cause the aircraft to blow up. Other possibilities are that the plane broke up due to a mechanical rupture, or an engine combusted from its own fuel. 

Sputnik said Sharm el Sheikh was a “hub” of British intelligence and went so far as to blame the UK for failing to warn Russia of the impending attack:
If Britain had sensitive intelligence on a terrorist input then why doesn’t it share it discreetly with the Russian government? The British could also have just suspended commercial flight services with a low-key statement on security precautions.

But the announcement this week to cancel flights was made in the context of Britain’s “terrorist bomb theory” — as if to authenticate that claim as valid.
In this regard, there is an obscene haste to turn a tragedy into a political football, as with the downing of the Malaysian flight over Ukraine in July 2014, when again the British and the Americans leapt to make premature judgements over the cause of the crash, and on that occasion to impute Russia or “Russian-backed rebels” in east Ukraine.


Cameron and Obama are evidently being fed intelligence assessments of a bomb being stowed in the airplane’s hold by terrorists.

Then, a week ago, speculation about British perfidy was dropped along with the sound of a bomb on a recording — never reported — and Kommersant reported that other “sources in Russian state agencies” were talking not about any ISIS bomb, but the “treachery of Egyptian colleagues.”
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev convened a meeting of vice premiers to discuss the issue of when Russian tourists could return to Egypt, a popular destination for budget vacations. Vice Premier Arkady Dvorkovich said the suspension of flights to Egypt was only temporary. But later a source within the presidential administration told Kommersant that the ban was for a long period, and possibly indefinitely.
By that time Israel announced that they believed on the basis of their intelligence that the crash was caused by a terrorist bomb; Ernst Valeyev of United Russia, deputy chair of the Committee on Security at the Duma, was telling Kommersant that Russian authorities must have made the decision to halt travel for some good reason; the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia’s Andrei Lugovoy, who is accused of involvement in the poisoning of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, said Russia’s decision was “absolutely justified” and said it was “to be expected, given the Russian Federation’s active operations in the Middle East” and the fact that ISIS and terrorism in general has become more serious and widespread.
Kommersant never developed further what this dark “treachery” on the part of Egyptians exactly involved, or what was the Kremlin’s decision to halt flights really based on, but today Sputnik International has advanced a new conspiracy theory:
Interestingly, Sputnik cites as their source a magazine called Expert, a publication that is part of a larger media holding that includes the online daily Russkiy Reporter, and is believed to have close ties to intelligence (they had among the few publications with early access to WikiLeaks’ cables’ they were involved in publication of fake WikiLeaks cables, and have obtained exclusive interviews with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange),

Sputnik writes:

Commenting on the theory that the plane may have been downed by terrorists, Russian business and analysis magazine Expert noted that such a theory “poses serious foreign policy implications. It is absolutely clear that Russia cannot simply passively swallow such a bitter pill, and that its next steps in the complex game in the Middle East must take account of a new kind of threat.” 

The magazine’s analysis, published as an editorial in its Monday print edition, suggests that “if the version suggesting terrorism is definitively confirmed (and the facts in favor of this theory are mounting), first and foremost it will be necessary to understand what forces may stand behind the direct perpetrators from among the Egyptian wing of the Islamic State.”

“The first version,” Expert notes, “is that Qatar, a country which supports ISIL, may be responsible. The emirate does have a very tense relationship with Moscow, and the parties regularly exchange insults and threats, including over Syria. Moscow’s actions there are contrary to the interests of Qatar’s powerful Minister of Foreign Affairs –Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, and undermine his authority in his own country.”

“However,” according to the magazine, “in this case, it appears unlikely to be the work of the emirate. The days of the emirate’s disproportionate ambitions sank into oblivion along with the former emir, and now the ultimate goal of Qatar’s authorities seems to be to maneuver between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It seems unlikely that the emirate would risk the consequences of blowing up a Russian plane.”

“The Saudis on the other hand, have had every reason to lash out at the Kremlin,” Expert notes. “Having begun an operation in Syria and managing to coordinate it with the Americans, Moscow did not just muddle all of Riyadh’s cards in the Syrian war — it put Saudi Arabia in a desperate situation.” 

For example, in Yemen, the Saudis are fighting against pro-Iranian Huthis hand in hand with the local branch of ISIL –Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” said Expert.

Yury Satanovsky, a prominent Russian expert on the Middle East, said Qatar could be responsible:

“Specifically,” Satanovsky explained, “Al Attiyah is the sponsor of a number of terrorist groups in Syria which have been bombed by Russian military aircraft. Yes, even the infamous Islamic State is largely a toy of the Qataris. Moreover, it is Qatar which funds all the terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. It’s simply worth recalling Qatar’s use of the Muslim Brotherhood to undermine the Egyptian government, and the Brotherhood’s defeat by Egyptian authorities in 2013.

Thus, much as it did with a kaleidoscope of conflicting theories on the downing of MH17, Moscow seems to be advancing diverse theories on Metroject to distract from further probes about ISIS’ relationship to the crash.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

French President Francois Hollande to Meet with Putin , Obama in
French President Francois Hollande said he would meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama in the next few days to discuss the prospect for a broad anti-terrorist coalition, reported. In a speech to the lower and upper chambers of the French parliament, Holland indicated he would meet Putin in Moscow and Obama in Washington.
Hollande spoke of the need “to unite efforts to achieve results” and stressed the importance of “uniting all those who can fight against this terrorist army within the framework of a large coalition.”
Hollande spoke at a rare presidential address to a packed meeting at the Versailles Palace today, Reuters reported:

“France is at war. But we’re not engaged in a war of civilizations, because these assassins do not represent any. We are in a war against jihadist terrorism which is threatening the whole world.”

Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov said Putin and Holland may meet before the climate summit in Paris planned for the end of November, TASS reported.
US News & World Report said the “potentially historic UN summit on climate change” was still on track, but had been scaled down considerably.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls reportedly told local radio Monday morning that the conference will be “reduced to the negotiation” between countries’ representatives, adding that “a lot of concerts and festivities will be canceled.” 

Valls did not say whether a planned march on the eve of the summit Nov. 29 – which organizers hoped would attract as many as 200,000 demonstrators – would also be called off. 

No foreign leaders had asked France to wholly cancel the summit, which runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, Valls said. Even if anyone had, he continued, doing so would have amounted to “abdicating to the terrorists.” 

The Obama Administration had earlier stressed the connection between climate change and conflict, noting that a protracted drought in Syria “probably” contributed to the civil war there, say US News & World Report.
Meanwhile, the death toll from last Friday November 13th’s terrorist attacks has risen to 132, with 352 injured, at least 99 critically.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russia Calls on NATO to ‘Change Priorities’ After Paris Attacks, Positioning Itself as Leader of Anti-ISIS Coalition

NATO must change its priorities after the terrorist attack in Paris, Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister told reporters in Ankara yesterday, according to Novaya Gazeta and RIA Novosti (translation by The Interpreter):

“We hope that the events in Paris will likely put everything in its place and somewhat change the scale of priorities of our colleagues in Washington and other NATO capitals.”
Russia has repeatedly criticized Western leaders for supporting moderate rebels and advocating the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, deflecting any criticism from the US and EU about Moscow’s failure to actually target ISIS since bomb strikes were begun September 30.
President Barack Obama met with Vladimir Putin on the margins of the G20 summit yesterday. The Russia’s Rossiya 24 TV channel characterized the meeting as “20 minutes” with translators only; RT said it was “more than 30  minutes” and the US media said it was “35 minutes.”

NBC reported that the two leaders “could be seen in an intense huddle” and noted a White House statement:

“President Obama and President Putin agreed on the need for a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition, which would be proceeded by UN-mediated negotiations between the Syrian opposition and regime as well a ceasefire,” a White House official said.

“As the diplomacy continues, President Obama welcomed efforts by all nations to confront the terrorist group (ISIS) and noted the importance of Russia’s military efforts in Syria focusing on the group.”

Putin showed satellite images and other photos to world leaders today, claiming wide-scale sale of oil by ISIS fighters for a monthly revenue of $50 million, citing Iraqi intelligence that the oil is sold for $35 a barrel or as low as $10 a barrel, RBC reported.

He said some of the financing for ISIS was coming from G20 countries and joint efforts through a UN Security Council resolution had to be made to cut off the flow of funds

In a statement to the press today in Ankara, Putin said Russia needs the world’s support for combating ISIS:

“We very much need that assistance and support on the part of the United States, European countries, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran in order to make the process irreversible.”

RIA Novosti published an infographic today of the war in Syria saying ISIS numbered from 50,000 to 200,000, with 5,000-7,000 of its fighters estimated to have come from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union.

It also claimed that $2.3 million a day (about $70 million a month) was made from speculation of oil sales on the black market, significantly more than the $50 million Putin indicated in his statement; that 3,153 people had suffered from terrorist act committed by ISIS and “armed conflicts of the army with radical groups,” including 1,466 who had been killed and 1,687 were wounded.

More than 200,000 civilians had been killed since the start of the conflict in 2011, but RIA Novosti failed to explain that its ally Assad was responsible for most of these deaths.

After the terrorist attacks on Paris Friday night November 13, Russia was the first to report that ISIS had taken responsibility for the attacks, although not providing any details, and blamed the West for fueling ISIS.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
State Duma Asks FSB to Consider Restricting Access to Telegram Messaging App Used by Terrorists

Russian parliamentarians are asking Russian intelligence to consider restricting access to Telegram, an encrypted messaging system alleged to be used by the terrorists in the Paris attacks, reported, citing RIA Novosti.

Aleksandr Ageyev, deputy chairman of the State Duma’s Commitee on Constitutional Law said that the terrorists who committed the attacks in Paris on November 14 reportedly used the Telegram messenger service developed by Pavel Durov, the Russian entrepreneur who founded VKontakte. Durov left Russia last year after selling his shares in Russia’s most popular social network and refusing to meet the demands of the Federal Security Service (FSB) that he turn over the communications of the Ukrainian Maidan protesters. 

Ageyev appealed to Aleksandr Bortnikov, head of the FSB to review the issue of restricting access by Russian Federatoin users to Telegram — if it is confirmed that ISIS terrorists used the service, he said (translation by The Interpreter):

According to repeated reports in the Russian media, the Telegram messenger is actively used for the purposes of propaganda by the terrorists from the Islamic State. We can surmise that this is where the process of recruiting citizens of Russia into the ranks of ISIS takes place.

Telegram uses a strong encryption system with several layers of encryption with prevents communications from being accessed by law-enforcers.

Ageyev added that because there were a number of social networks, messenging programs and other Internet services which complied Russian law designed to combat extremism,
it would not be a blow to freedom of speech or violate other civil rights and liberties” to restrict one service.

All Russian Internet service providers are required to cooperate with the FSB and enable monitoring of their services and saving of logs for specific periods 

The New York Times reported on November 14 that Telegram was used by a group that claimed responsibility?

The remarks came in a communique published in Arabic, English and French on the Islamic State’s account on Telegram, a messaging platform, and then distributed via its supporters on Twitter, according to a transcript provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadist propaganda.

The statement was released on the same Telegram channel that was used to claim responsibility for the crash of a Russian jet over the Sinai Peninsula two weeks ago, killing 224 people. As in that case, it made the announcement in multiple languages and audio recordings.

The remarks came in a communique published in Arabic, English and French on the Islamic State’s account on Telegram, a messaging platform, and then distributed via its supporters on Twitter, according to a transcript provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadist propaganda.

The statement was released on the same Telegram channel that was used to claim responsibility for the crash of a Russian jet over the Sinai Peninsula two weeks ago, killing 224 people. As in that case, it made the announcement in multiple languages and audio recordings.

On October 15, the BBC said that ISIS was driven to Telegram after it was run off other services like Twitter. ISIS has used Telegram to announce attacks, such as one in Yemen, and to organized the payment of ransom for hostages. And jihadists inspired by IS, including a British teenager convicted recently, have used the app’s secure encrypted messaging to conduct attack planning.

Durov hasn’t commented currently on the possible connection between his app and its use by terrorists in the Paris attack, but he has used Twitter to tout Telegram’s features and has spoken on the connection in the past:

Earlier on September 22 during a tech conference — before the Metrojet crash believed to be due to a terrorist bomb on October 31, and the Paris attacks on November 14, Durov said he didn’t have an issue with terrorists using his app:

In the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, Durov said, “Privacy is ultimately more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism.

Durov continued that, “If you look at ISIS, yes, there’s a war going on in the Middle East. Ultimately, ISIS will find a way to communicate with its cells, and if any means doesn’t feel secure to them, they’ll [find something else]. We shouldn’t feel guilty about it. We’re still doing the right thing, protecting our users’ privacy.”

Business Insider has noted that the encryption on Telegram is so strong that even with a valid warrant, law officers would not be able to crack it:

Telegram is one of many apps and software suites that say they use “strong” encryption. This refers to a way of scrambling messages/data in such a way that in cannot be understood without a valid key or password. Apple uses strong encryption to secure the data on iPhones, and it cannot be decrypted by the company — even if it is supplied with a valid court order.

Strong encryption has been increasingly incorporated into tech products after Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance provoked global privacy concerns, but the tech existed long before that.

Many authorities are concerned about the rise in encryption products. It means evidence law enforcement previously had access to is “going dark,” and it can be used by terrorists, paedophiles, and other nefarious individuals to hide their communications. It’s precisely this appeal that will have drawn groups like Islamic State to Telegram.

Durov has sponsored a number of contests offering bounties to coders who might manage to crack his app, but so far there have not be any winners.  He was also angered at revelations about NSA surveillance, and offered a job to Edward Snowden after he obtained asylum in Russia.

Russian intelligence has claimed that at least 1,700 Russian Federation citizens have joined ISIS, and that 20% of ISIS’ members come from the states of the former Soviet Union, notably from the Caucasus and Central Asia.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick