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Terrorists, jihadists get new mobile phone encryption software

A screen grab from the website of the Global Islamic Media Front shows its announcement of new encryption software for mobile phones.NBC News

New mobile encryption software meant to give jihadists an edge over Western intelligence agencies has been released by an Islamist group that produces propaganda for terrorist groups like al Qaeda, Pakistan’s Taliban and Somalia’s al-Shabaab.

The Global Islamic Media Front said Tuesday that it had released its “Mobile Encryption Program” for messages and files on mobile phones running the Android and Symbian operating systems. According to the group, the software can encrypt text messages and files and send them via mobile email, even between cell phones with different operating systems. The software also lets users securely check email and prevents users from receiving non-encrypted messages, the group claimed.

The software release was first noted by Flashpoint Partners, a consulting group focused on intelligence and cyber threats. 

The front has long offered jihadists a general encryption program and earlier this year released a texting version called "Asrar al-Dardashah," or "Secrets of the Chat."

On its website, the front claims that the new software for direct encryption of material sent to and received from mobile phones "will be a blessing, relief and a secure weapon for our brothers for continuous communication far from the eyes and monitoring of the enemies."

But the efficacy of its previous software releases is unclear, with some calling it simply a rebranding of popular encryption software, and others saying it could be more effective if done well.

"There is no doubt that GIMF produces the premiere proprietary encryption software for jihadists -- in the realm of both Internet messaging and now telephony," Flashpoint senior partner Evan Kohlmann, an NBC News terrorism analyst, said in an email. "There is also no doubt that Al-Qaida has placed its reliance on this technology. AQAP in Yemen, for instance, has encouraged would-be recruits living in western countries to send them ideas for proposed terrorist plots encrypted with GIMF-produced software. We don't really know how effective the encryption is or isn't, because nobody at an official level has publicly disclosed that. However, based on our research, it is likely that U.S. intelligence agencies do have the capability to break that encryption when needed."

Word of the release comes in the wake of news stories detailing the extent of controversial U.S. government technology initiatives aimed at thwarting terrorist plots.

After National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden released key details of two huge U.S. spying programs this spring, it was reported that terrorists had begun changing how they communicated to evade the NSA.

And last month, a security alert resulted in the closure of U.S. embassies in the Mideast and elsewhere. U.S. officials said the closures came after intelligence services intercepted information that al Qaeda or its affiliates might be planning a large terrorist attack near the end of Muslim holy month of Ramadan. U.S. officials said that the warning was based on a "significant increase in chatter from a growing number of intercepts" in the Mideast. Ramadan ended without an attack.

NBC News investigative reporter Robert Windrem contributed to this report.