The so-called Vault 7 files released by Wikileaks that describe the Central Intelligence Agency’s electronic surveillance and cyber warfare capabilities continue to attract a significant amount of attention.
In addition to the numerous reports and news stories about the leaks and associated consequences, some researchers have even gone so far as to draw connections between certain tools contained within the Vault 7 dump and cyber activity targeting countries around the world. Stripping away the rhetoric, fanfare, and hype, however, reveals one community to whom the Vault 7 revelations are particularly important: the jihadist community.
Jihadists and Technology
Although jihadists’ use of technology has been a salient topic of discussion for more than 15 years, several relatively recent events have forced the discussion into the national spotlight — primarily in the context of the “encryption debate.” The most prominent of these events was the San Bernardino shooting and subsequent fallout, which resulted in a judicial battle between the Justice Department and Apple over the FBI’s request to gain access to one of the shooters’ encrypted mobile phones. More recently, members of the United Kingdom government have called upon companies that produce encrypted services to provide government access. This contentious request followed the March 22, 2017, attack in Westminster, the investigation into which revealed that the attacker had sent messages via WhatsApp moments before the attack. As the global community continues to struggle with the balance between security and privacy, examining the jihadist community’s response to the issue provides further insight into what the Vault 7 revelations could mean for companies.
As one might expect, Vault 7 has elicited noteworthy reactions among jihadists operating on the Deep & Dark Web — the difficult-to-access regions of the Internet where many jihadists seek refuge from the prying eyes of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. In one top-tier ISIS web forum, a member posted the following comment:
“Wikileaks: The American Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, hacked most popular apps and monitor any person they want, and that includes Telegram + WhatsApp”
In response, another member exclaimed:
“All emails, communications apps, and websites can be hacked by Western security services.”
In another instance, members of a group chat on Telegram ask one another whether the platform is safe to use, given that the CIA can spy on it.
It is important to note that most reactions from jihadists on the Deep & Dark Web suggest that their general understanding both of the leaks and of the full extent to which the leaks could impact their community is largely superficial and uncertain. To date, only one actor has distributed a response that demonstrates a more nuanced understanding of Vault 7 and its impact on the jihadist community.
“Horizons” and Vault 7
Horizons is a pro-ISIS information security group that regularly publishes detailed, step-by-step guides to computers, smartphones, and recommended applications. On April 10, the Horizons Telegram channel published a document in Arabic, titled, “10 Things You Must Know about the Wikileaks Leak of CIA Documents.” While the document does not reveal anything new about the leaks themselves, it does provide some insight into the specific impact on the jihadist community and how the author seeks to mitigate the reaction.
The ten topic areas, each of which was accompanied by more in-depth analysis, are as follows:
1. WikiLeaks disclosed CIA secrets for hacking [mobile] phones
2. The CIA did not break the encryption of apps, rather they bypassed the encryption
3. The CIA developed malware that targets Windows, Linux, and Mac OS
4. The CIA borrowed code from samples of publicly available malware
5. The CIA used applications infected with malware to spy on [its] targets
6. The CIA is desperate to hack Apple encryption
7. Apple said that it has fixed many of the vulnerabilities that were disclosed by the CIA leaks
8. Hacking any person anywhere thanks to the Internet being insecure
9. WikiLeaks CIA leaks are not bigger than Snowden’s NSA leaks
10. The former head of the CIA says that WikiLeaks’ file made the United States less safe
Along with recommending specific applications for use by jihadists, the Horizons group seeks to raise awareness of information security and digital hygiene among its followers. Providing a detailed explanation of how the Vault 7 leaks impact these actors is of particular importance for the group, because it seeks to reinforce confidence in the underlying technologies. The explanations provided under the second, third, and fifth bullets are especially important for these actors. Not only does this information address some of the most crucial components to jihadists’ attempts at obfuscating their identities and activity on the Internet, it reinforces their awareness of a common attack vector. Encryption, VPNs, and Tor all fall into the former category, while the distribution of malware — including infected copies of popular apps and propaganda materials — fall into the latter.
Impact on the Jihadist Community
Telegram and WhatsApp are among the encrypted communication services that have been promoted by Horizons and other jihadist groups, particularly because they offer end-to-end encryption. Although the Vault 7 documents describe these two apps as vulnerable to endpoint exploitation – a flaw that would allow an attacker to access the communications either before they are encrypted or after they have been received and decrypted – Telegram and WhatsApp are not the primary applications promoted by Horizons for direct communication. While many jihadists frequently use these platforms for media distribution and group chats, they often warn one another to avoid disclosing sensitive information due to both platforms’ susceptibility to third-party monitoring. Consequently, Horizons has placed heavier emphasis on applications such as Conversations and Pidgin for direct communications, which are not included among the Vault 7 list of vulnerable applications.
In addition, it is common for members of the jihadist community to be targeted with infected files and programs. Recent examples include counterfeit issues of ISIS’s Rumiyah magazine, the most recent of which circulated at the beginning of April 2017, days before the official release. Additionally, in March 2017, the website of the pro-ISIS media unit A’maq served an Adobe Flash update infected with a Trojan to visitors. Warnings to obtain files and software only from official sources are commonplace among jihadists in order to mitigate this threat to the community. Horizons’s emphasis on specific applications that are known to have been targeted for malware infection serves to raise awareness around those applications that might enable spying against the community, as well as to reinforce the practice of placing trust only in official sources.
Ultimately, by looking at the Vault 7 leaks through the jihadist lens, we can derive several key lessons. First, the encryption debate is not likely to be solved anytime soon. Jihadists and their supporters depend on the Internet and connected technologies for communicating with one another, recruiting followers, distributing news and announcements, and disseminating propaganda. Furthermore, as popular social media platforms take more proactive stances toward removing extremist content and suspending associated accounts, encrypted technologies create spaces within which jihadists and sympathizers can hide.
Although the vulnerabilities exposed by the Vault 7 leaks have undoubtedly caused some members of the jihadist community to question the safety and rationality of many technologies on which they have come to rely, such technologies will likely remain popular among jihadists. Even as the endpoints on which they reside provide the greatest avenue for exploitation, jihadists are still likely to consider encrypted technologies to be their best means of communicating securely.
**Ken Wolf is a Senior Analyst at Flashpoint with over 10 years of experience in the security field, ranging from IT and information security, to information operations. He obtained a master’s degree in International Affairs from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, with a concentration in International Security Policy. Ken is fluent in Arabic and specializes in Middle East and North Africa cyber threats.