A man posted a selfie of himself outside Masjid Al-Noor in Christchurch to a far-right chat group, threatening to kill worshipers at the mosque, Marc Daalder reports

A man wearing a face mask with a skull decal took a photo of himself outside Masjid Al-Noor in Christchurch over the weekend. He then posted the selfie to a channel on the encrypted chat app Telegram, threatening to kill attendees at the mosque.

Anjum Rahman, founder of the Inclusive Aotearoa Collective, said she had notified police and leaders in the Muslim community.

“Police [are] aware of this matter and takes all threats to our community extremely seriously. Enquiries are ongoing into the incident,” a police spokesperson said.

Threat not unexpected

“We were expecting as we lead into the one year anniversary of the attack that there would be a rise in activity, so this is totally not unexpected,” Rahman said.

The message was sent to a channel on the encrypted messaging service Telegram, which now hosts a wide array of far-right groups, as Newsroom reported in October. This channel was created on March 18 and glorifies the accused Christchurch shooter, praising his alleged actions, reposting the footage of the attack and incorporating the man into a wide array of memes.

Much of the discourse in this channel is conducted in Ukrainian. The post in question was accompanied by text in English, a gun emoji, and then the same message in Ukrainian. Newsroom has chosen not to quote the message, which contains a death threat.

Rahman encouraged media outlets not to over-publicise the threat. “On the one hand, we do not want to do publicity for these guys or create any fear among the community, but on the other hand, we do want [the community] to be on their guard and aware and for wider New Zealand to be aware that they actually need to be active and vigilant in this space.”

She also encouraged Kiwis to rally together in solidarity against such hatred. “It would be really good for communities to pull together at this time and be really vocal. There needs to be a widespread response,” she said.

A platform for terrorism

Since being posted on Sunday evening, the picture and message have been shared to other far-right Telegram channels and been viewed 1700 times.

Telegram allows users to send encrypted messages to one another, create public-facing channels, and has private chatrooms with hundreds or thousands of members. It was created by a pair of Russian tech entrepreneurs and was based in Dubai as recently as 2017.

More than 365 million people have signed up for Telegram, and as of March 2018 it had 200 million monthly active users. According to statistics compiled by a far-right user who is trying to centralise the various extremist groups on the platform, there were more than 158,000 subscribers to far-right Telegram channels as of December 9 – up 50,000 from mid-September.

The programme’s founders have repeatedly ignored or dismissed concerns that the platform is a breeding ground for terrorism. In 2015, the Islamic State (IS) used the app to communicate with potential recruits and coordinate the ground war in Iraq and Syria.

In 2016, French officials alleged that Telegram was used by two IS terrorists to coordinate a terror attack in Normandy.

Although Telegram said in November 2015 it would block public channels advocating terrorism, the far right has gotten around this through a technicality. Instead of directly urging people to engage in terrorism, users write that it “would be a shame if someone [engaged in a specific terrorist activity in a specific location]”.

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the threat was posted in both English and Russian. That language was Ukrainian, not Russian.*

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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