Based on primary information from forums, communiqués and social media activities, this article offers an insight into the online activity of political jihadists and shows how online platforms are being used to support the jihadist cause in Syria.
By Camille Maubert, 4th September, 2013
The notion that the internet is a strong asset for international terrorist groups is not new. Forums have long been acknowledged as the main channel for Al Qaeda to reach out to its followers and articulate its goals and ideology. However, changes in the online environment and the fast development of social media as a preferred way of communication have altered the nature of the jihadi activities online.
Despite complaints by some ideologues that forums are being abandoned by their followers in favor of other medias, these platforms remain an essential part of jihadi media strategies. Some of them, such as Shumukh al-Islam and Ansar al-Mujahedeen, have been active for years and thus benefit from an great credibility with their audience. They are also direct links between AQ central and its supporters, featuring messages from famous jihadi writers and clerics the most prolific of which include Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, Sheikh Abu Basir al-Tartusi, Abu Ubaydah and of course AQ’s current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Aside from official propaganda, forums enable groups and individuals alike to diffuse content, post comments and share links with other bloggers in a relatively safe environment, ensuring cohesion within the jihadi community. However, developments in the Syrian crisis have created new needs which forums could not fulfill. As a matter of fact, Syria has been described as the first Youtube war, where every unfolding event is reported live by individuals using camera phones and posting images and videos online instantly. Such level of democratization and reactivity cannot be replicated in forums which are by definition restricted to members and censored by an editorial board. As a result, militants have turned to other platforms, namely Twitter and Facebook.
The changes in the online environment have been recognised by the Al Qaeda senior leadership in a message posted on the Shumukh al-Islam forum (February 2013) which exposes the reasons why Twitter has become a key part of the jihad. The main point raised in the post is the urge for jihadists to act increasingly on their own in order to limit contacts with AQ central and thus reduce the chances of being caught. This recommendation makes sense in a context where forums and other jihadi media outfits are increasingly monitored by law enforcement authorities. As a result, there has been a considerable increase in social media activities among the jihadi followers and sponsors alike. As evidenced by the below chart, a clear majority of jihadi Twitter accounts were created in 2012, simultaneous to the shift in nature of the Syrian crisis from peaceful protests to violent conflict.
These numbers also coincide with the intensified involvement of islamist groups in the fight against the Assad regime. Several of the main jihadi groups active in Syria indeed have Twitter and/or Facebook accounts, including the Al Haq Brigades, Ahar al-Sham, the Syrian Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) which is by far best represented in the online community due to its status as the most active group on the field.
The aforementioned post by AQ senior commander Mohammad al-Baghdadi listed 66 twitter accounts which he described as the most important jihadi accounts to be followed in support of the islamist cause, including official accounts of groups, charities (i.e. Ansar al-Sham) and media foundations (i.e. Ansar al-Mujahedeen)but also personal accounts of scholars, clerics and other influential figures. In total, these accounts are estimated to be followed by a loose network of 300 000 people, with a core group of 500 to 1000 actively engaged followers. Most groups and individuals tend to follow each other and re-tweet content to disseminate it among a wider audience. They also use Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook) as a platform to share links to various media hosted on sites such as YouTube, Safeshare or Twitmail.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s Twitter account is a good example of how the online media nebula works. Although it has been quiet since April 2013, JN remains the most followed rebel group online, with 71,318 followers as of July 2013. Interestingly, the group is not that active in disseminating content using the hashtag #جبهة_النصرة , with only 257 tweets in July. This relatively low activity level can be understood in the content of the group’s PR strategy: One of its officials stated in a Time interview that the group does not make a priority of circulating propaganda material, instead focusing on the military aspect of their operations. As a result of this policy, it is likely that the group’s Twitter page is used as a hub for like-minded activists to rally; between February and April 2013, tweets containing the #جبهة_النصرة tag created 45,959 connections among 20,459 users.
The Jabhat al-Nusra Twitter nebula (source: Jihadica)
It is worth taking a look at what kind of content is being circulated by jihadi social medias and their followers. To a large extent, most media products are images and videos of abuse scenes by the Assad regime. These are not necessarily posted by jihadi outfits themselves but play a strong part in their PR strategy in the sense that depictions of extreme violence on civilian populations carry a strong emotional charge and allow Islamist groups to frame the Syrian crisis as an attack on Sunni Muslims and consequently legitimises violent action as a defensive jihad to save al-Sham, the heart of Islam. YouTube in particular is a good indicator of which type of videos are popular among Islamist followers. One of the most seen videos, entitled “The sincere promise” was released by Jabhat al-Nusra on May 22, 2012 and was viewed by over 10,000 users. Although the absence of English subtitles makes it hard to decipher precisely, it is possible to identify some key components which offer a good overview of the group’s public strategy. As mentioned above, the video depicts typical scenes of violence against the population, followed by a pledge to protect and avenge innocent Muslims. More interestingly though, the significance of this video lies not in its content but in its layout; the fighting scenes are strongly reminiscent of AQ tactics and methods, and their sophisticated alternation with speeches and fighters’ testimonies also resonates with AQ media foundations’ products. In short, JN’s online media publications reveal sound ideological and practical links with AQ central and highlight an effective strategy intended to rally support for its Syrian agenda.
Support for the jihadi cause in Syria – be it in the form of manpower, donations or else – is arguably the main reason for Islamists’ presence on social media outlets. Through the mass dissemination of videos and images of abuse, jihadi groups have been able to reach a wide Muslim audience and rally people to their cause. Links to YouTube videos of prominent clerics’ speeches are widely spread and incite potential recruits to join the jihad by invoking solidarity with the Muslim community (Ummah) and declaring jihad as a personal and obligatory duty (fard’ain) for every Muslim. To cite but a few:
• On 13 March 2012, Jordanian cleric Al Tahawi endorsed Jabhat al-Nusra and called for Muslims to join the jihad in Syria
• Al-Fajr Qadim, an active member of the Shumukh al-Islam forum promoted violent action, urging Sunnis to carry out attacks, kidnappings and assassinations in every region
• On 26 May 2013, the Egyptian Al-Farouq Media Production issued a communiqué calling on “any Muslim who can carry arms” to wage jihad in Syria
While most of the jihadi online activity is carried out in Arabic (see graph below), some of the Twitter and Facebook accounts do attempt to provide non-Arab speaking audiences with translations of communiqués, videos and literature in English and other languages. Some groups also chose to directly target individuals within specific countries, such as Sharia4Belgium or Ansar al-Haqq (France), with publications designed to appeal to these particular audiences.
All in all, it has become evident that social media are a key asset in Islamist groups’ Syrian agenda. The brutality of the visual content disseminated via the various online outfits is intended to provoke a sentiment of anger and solidarity and participates in rallying support for the jihad. Parallel to speeches by prominent clerics, these images contribute to the process of radicalisation of the audience and further legitimises the groups’ call for violent action against the enemies of Islam: Al Assad, Iran, Shi’ites and the West. The increasing participation in the online discussions demonstrates how useful the Islamist PR strategy is, not only in rallying online supporters but also in attracting recruits to the Syrian battlefield. Young Muslims who die in combat are praised on a dedicated Facebook page as martyrs of the revolution, drawing more – including as many as 5000 Europeans – to the cause.
Camille Maubert is an international security researcher for a criminal law enforcement agency based in France. Her work focuses on security, intelligence and counter-insurgency. She has completed a masters degree at King’s College War Studies Department and one at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.