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Islamic State Uses App to Broadcast Message

Screenshot of Zello channel, "The State of the Islamic Caliphate," which has more than 10,000 subscribers.
Screenshot of Zello channel, "The State of the Islamic Caliphate," which has more than 10,000 subscribers.
Islamic State Group Using US-Based App
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The writers of a new book about the Islamic State group say it is using technology developed by an American company to spread its message.

Hassan Hassan and Michael D. Weiss wrote the book, “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.” Mr. Hassan told VOA the group is using a mobile software app, or computer program, called Zello.

The app is said to be relatively unknown in the United States. Yet the company that developed it 10 years ago is based in Austin, Texas.

The app combines social media with telephone and radio functions. Zello is designed for use in iPhones, iPads, Android devices, BlackBerry products, computers and Windows mobile devices. It enables the user to talk with someone else who has the app.

This iPhone screenshot shows a Zello channel purporting to belong to the "Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham"
This iPhone screenshot shows a Zello channel purporting to belong to the "Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham"

Zello does not need a lot of radio bandwidth and uses only a small amount of battery power. That means people in areas far from electrical power supplies can use it. It also can be used with traditional two-way radios. It can be used as a telephone or to send voice messages to large groups.

Hassan Hassan says sermons from Islamic State clergymen are being sent on the app. He notes that children like using Zello, and these messages have influenced some of them to become supporters of the group.

The book tells about a 14-year-old boy working in southern Turkey. In October 2014, he entered Syria to fight with Islamic State militants. His father later said his son had been influenced to join the group after listening to sermons on Zello channels.

VOA found many Zello channels belong to supporters of the Islamic State, including one called “The State of the Islamic Caliphate.” It has more than 10,000 members. Almost 50 people help to operate the channel.

Zello is also used in other parts of the world. It is similar to other “push-to-talk” cellphone apps like Voxer or iMessage. It operates in 22 languages, including Arabic. It enables users to share messages or save them for later playback.

In some ways, Zello is like Twitter and other social media apps. It can help activists and protesters across the world communicate without the knowledge of their governments. It helped Venezuelans protest against their government last year. VOA’s Ukrainian Service reported last year that Zello has been popular among pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Bill Moore is the Chief Executive Officer of Zello. He told VOA he is not surprised to learn that the app is popular among protesters.

“It’s communication that works well, typically over poor networks. It’s, it’s live, like two-way radio. It’s ideal for organizing and communicating. And it’s also anonymous, which is good and bad. It, it means that, you know, there’s no identity that’s been validated by Zello or anybody else, so users can have confidence, you know, that their conversations are private. And again that, you know, can be used by, by drug dealers or people, you know, fighting for democracy.”

Mr. Moore says when he learned the app was popular among Islamic State fighters, he thought “it’s terrible that Zello is used for evil.” He told VOA that his company is working to reduce its use by people he called “bad guys.” He added that he wants Zello to be used only for what he called “healthy conversations.”

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

Cecily Hilleary reported this story from Washington. Christopher Jones-Cruise wrote it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

app – n. abbreviation for “application”; informal

function – n. the special purpose or activity for which a thing exists or is used

bandwidth – n. a measurement of the ability of an electronic communications device or system (such as a computer network) to send and receive information

sermon – n. a speech about a moral or religious subject that is usually given by a religious leader

anonymous – adj. not named or identified

validate(d) – v. to show that something is real or correct; to verify a person’s identity

reluctant – adj. feeling or showing doubt about doing something; not willing or eager to do something

Are you an activist or protestor? Are you concerned about your government being able to listen to or read your private messages? Have you ever used Zello? We want to hear from you. Write your thoughts in the comments section.