In April, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation produced a report, ‘Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks,’ which examined the use of social media in recruiting people to the jihadist groups, referring almost solely to Syria at that time, but which applies equally to Iraq. I have now gotten around to reading it and its findings are extremely interesting.
Using information gathered from the Facebook and Twitter accounts of foreign Salafi-jihadists who have descended on Syria, it names Musa Cerantonio, an Australian Islamic convert, and Ahmad Musa Jibril, a U.S.-based preacher, as “the two most prominent of these new spiritual authorities” that the virtual jihad has attracted to its banner. Jibril is very hedged in his support for violent jihadism: he supports individual Salafi-jihadists on the ground inside Syria and justifies the conflict in emotive terms, but has avoided outright justification for holy war. Cerantonio has no such scruples: He “frequently appears on satellite television and has become an outspoken cheerleader for ISIS.” Neither has been explicitly linked with facilitating foreign jihadists getting to Syria; they are rather sources of inspiration for this trip, and sources of reassurance and support once the jihadists arrive in Syria.
Fully a fifth of the foreign fighters surveyed had “liked” Jibril’s Facebook page, making him the most popular page among them, and more than a sixth had “liked” Cerantonio’s Facebook page, making him the third most popular page. (“Wake up Oumma,” a French propaganda page, was second. Noticeably the most popular tended to be pro-ISIS pages not pro-Nusra.) The eighth most popular, “liked” by a little over 10% of the surveyed, was Sulaymaan bin Naasir al-Ulwan, suggesting that this phenomenon of new “spiritual leaders” was getting widespread.
In Ulwan’s case this is especially intriguing. He does not have a social media presence and communicates only in Arabic. He was part of the opposition stream in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s that supported Osama bin Laden. He supported bin Laden after the 9/11 massacre and was arrested in April 2004 for his opposition to the House of Saud. He was released in December 2012 but was rearrested in March 2013 and subsequently sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment for having violated the terms of his release, which included an injunction against anti-Saudi-government preachments. His defiance made him a popular cause among the online jihadists in the West through 2013.
“Ulwan’s popularity among Western and European foreign fighters is probably more reflective of his celebrity status than his stance on the Syrian conflict or his scholarship, which many of the foreign fighters in the dataset are unlikely to understand or appreciate.”
Jibril and Cerantonio are a different story. Both communicate regularly, in fluent English, on social media. Jibril’s Facebook page is liked/followed by more than 145,000 people, or thirty times more than is average. Cerantonio has 11,000 “friends” on Facebook. On Twitter, Jibril is followed by 60% of the sample; Cerantonio by 23%. Both men’s following is especially strong among ISIS. Jibril’s “tweets” get significant circulation, retweeted an average of 74 times. He also makes a particular effort to interact with his followers, especially the foreign fighters, who take up 1.25% of his responses and to whom he pledges great dua (supplication). The most prominent example of this came in December 2013 when Jibril sent a direct message to the brother of Ifthekar Jaman, a jihadist from Portsmouth, southern England, who was killed fighting in an ISIS offensive in Deir Ezzor, and the brother uploaded it to Twitter. It was retweeted nearly one-hundred times. It was vague enough to be supportive of the family and the cause their relative died in, without actively endorsing the takfiris.
Ahmad Musa Jibril is a Palestinian-American born in Dearborn, Michigan. He spent part of his childhood in Saudi Arabia, where his father studied at the Islamic University in Medina. Jibril returned to the U.S., completed high-school, and then also went to the Islamic University to take a degree in shari’a. Jibril later completed the two most common law degrees in the U.S., the J.D., which is the initial degree most lawyers earn before sitting for the bar exam, and the LL.M., which provides a lawyer with additional expertise in a specialised area.
In 2004, Jibril and his father were convicted on 42 charges, including: conspiracy, bank fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, failure to file income tax returns, and felon-in-possession of firearms and ammunition. Photographs seized from the family home showed Jibril and other very young children dressed as mujahideen, and in possession of live firearms, “playing” at holding one-another hostage. Jibril was at that time running a militant Salafi website, AlSalayfoon.com, which contained reams of hysterically anti-Western material, and had sent a fax to CNN in 1996 claiming responsibility for Khobar Towers. Jibril has been flung out of several mosques in Dearborn for his ferocious anti-American and anti-Jewish ravings whenever given the stand, and his attempt to foist these views on congregants. The authors note, however, that Jibril walks a very fine line and his careful not to incite jihadism, which is to say terrorism:
“Instead, he adopts the role of cheerleader: supporting the principles of armed opposition to Assad, often in highly emotive terms, while employing extremely charged religious or sectarian idioms.”
Since many non-Muslims and non-jihadist-Muslims find themselves supportive of the use of violence by the Syrian people to dislodge the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, even if they support the nationalist groups and not the jihadists, and in line with the First Amendment, there is very little that can be done about this. But, as the authors delicately put it, his confrontational stance and loudly-spread view that the West is conspiring against Islam and Muslims, “can easily be interpreted as offering support, encouragement, justification, and—particularly given his status as a religious leader—legitimacy for the decision to join a jihadist group in Syria.”
Jibril has written nothing substantive or innovative; he is not a jihadist intellectual or scholar. He is a popular figure, based mostly on Twitter and YouTube, and his charisma and fluency in English is what gives him his power. His most influential work is probably a series of YouTube lectures on Tawhid, the oneness of god, which several British jihadists quoted as key to their decision to wage holy war in Syria.
Musa Cerantonio converted to Islam from Catholicism at the age of 17 and has spent time studying Islam in the Middle East.
“He has hosted numerous English-language shows on Iqraa TV which is based in Egypt and broadcasts via satellite around the world. Two of his most important shows are ‘Our Legacy,’ which covers Islamic history and civilisation, and ‘Ask the Sheikh,’ a live call-in show where viewers are able to ask him questions relating to Islamic jurisprudence.”
Cerantonio is not a big Twitter user: More than half of his small number of tweets are interactions with followers and another two-fifths are retweets, meaning that in more than 90% of cases his tweets involved interactions. His main use of his Twitter account appears to be a personal online jihad against the U.S. State Department’s ‘Think Again Turn Away’ account that tries to talk aspirant jihadists in the West thinking of going to Syria out of being so bloody stupid. In language as dry as they dare, the authors say:
“Cerantonio typically employs highly inflammatory language, for example, calling the State Department ‘pussy Yankee scum,’ and claiming that ‘the USA and its slaves like you are the greatest criminals on Earth.’ In one instance, he posted a modified image of the U.S. State Department seal which read ‘U.S. Department of Rape’.”
Where Jibril uses Twitter mostly, Cerantonio is very active on Facebook, regularly commenting on the Syrian war, and is an explicit endorser of: ISIS, Westerners who join the group, and takfiris using violence against the FSA-branded rebels. On March 16, Cerantonio wrote (and subsequently deleted) on Facebook:
“[W]hich law is it that the FSA wishes to implement, and which law do we see them implement at the moment in the areas which they rule? Among them are secularists, democrats, even Christians and other disbelievers. … [T]hey hoist high the banner of nationalism, and remove the banner of the Word of Allah. So how can it be said that they are fighting a Jihad…? No, rather it is Jihad to fight them [the FSA] and to remove them from power, along with their laws of falsehood and tyranny.“
Would that somebody could pass this on to the Western press and the U.S. government who continue to defame this rebellion as a jihadist enterprise and deny meaningful assistance to the nationalist opposition. Cerantonio’s allegiance to ISIS is apparently born of sincere ideological commitment rather than sectarianism: they are the most effective and likely group to establish Khalifa—of course by now they say they have done so—but he would support anybody who meant to do this.
“In this respect he is less of an emotional ‘cheerleader,’ and instead appeals to logical argument, suggesting to his followers that support for ISIS represents the only ‘rational’ choice based on the principles of ‘true’ Islamic governance.“
Cerantonio’s appeal also differs from Jibril’s in that the latter is a qualified jurist and father-like figure. Cerantonio is young and brash and presents himself a “first among equals,” as the authors put it, somebody who will not allow his age (29) to hold him down—not unlike other ISIS scholars who have dismissed seniority among the scholars. (There are very good secular reasons for this: basically all of them have rejected their claim to Statehood. The only really serious pro-ISIS jihadist scholar is a 29-year-old Bahraini, Abu Humam al-Athari, @turky_albinali, who studied under Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.)
“This leads to the conclusion that, rather than competing, the two preachers are, in fact, appealing to their audiences in very different ways: while Jibril is a fan of Twitter, Cerantonio is more active on Facebook; where Jibril talks about religion and appeals to emotion, Cerantonio deals with politics; and while Jibril styles himself as a benevolent father figure, Cerantonio comes off as a canny, more energetic brother. Foreign fighters who follow them both are exposed to the same essential message: fighting in Syria is legitimate and honourable.”
Harnessing new technology to the jihad
The other section of the report deals with the spread of jihadist propaganda using social media.
They note that in the last two decades, the traditional means of disseminating jihadist propaganda “involved producing propaganda videos—often with high production values—through media companies such as As-Sahab (the clouds) or Al-Malahem (the battles). The platform through which these videos were launched and spread normally involved password restricted internet forums such as Ansar al-Mujahideen, al-Ekhlaas, Faloja, or Shamukh.”
Even before the internet, in Bosnia and Chechnya, videotapes were distributed but this involved the physical movement of hard-copy tapes through trusted couriers and sources because of course being found in possession of such things at least alerted the authorities to networks of extremists who would likely become terrorists, if not—depending on the content of the videos—actually convicting their owners of a crime.
This began to change in Iraq when men like Younis Tsouli, based in London of course, would receive clips of Zarqawi’ite savagery, edit them, and distribute them on the internet. Al-Qaeda were so pleased with him they dispatched a Syrian emissary to his West London flat to formally recruit him. Twitter has hypercharged this: videos are now uploaded in real time and spread very easily. Thus men like Tsouli—people not formally recruited to the Qaeda network or the Islamic State—are now the norm, and the most popular is Shami Witness, whom nearly two-thirds of Twitter accounts in the jihadi dataset follow.
They refer to Michael Kelley’s profile of Shami Witness in January, where he managed to speak to the man, who claimed he did not always agree with ISIS’ methods, especially the arrest of journalists, but he supported their overall project and was certainly anti-anti-ISIS. Shami Witness was also quoted in that piece making jokes about raping Kurdish women so one supposes there is to be some thanks that he has some limits. (He denies that is what he meant—female PKK prisoners are apparently worth more in exchanges—and the tweet has now been deleted.)
The authors themselves interviewed one of these “disseminators,” and found that while they denied any motive in wanting to contribute to the war on the ground, they saw themselves as part of the information war, as a corrective to the “propaganda against the Muslim side,” but they did also say they saw the Syria and Iraq conflicts as one and the same—as do then-ISIS, who recognise no frontiers—and wanted to help topple the Shi’a/Alawite governments in those countries, which it would have to be conceded is wanting to influence the outcome of this war. They were moved by a deep sense of solidarity and identity with the (Sunni) Muslims in these struggles. These people were also very happy with the anonymity Twitter gave them, and said they would quit if it was compromised.
ICSR also make the important points that these accounts are effectively bridging mechanisms, since most speak Arabic, to translate the raw materials from the ground into Western languages, and they are also able to give a more complete picture of the Syrian war precisely because they are outside. The holy warriors in Idlib have no idea of what is happening in Raqqa, and mutatis mutandis this applies across the country. Because many of them are not tied to a particular group—and are not at that group’s gun-point—they are freer to use other resources to find out what is happening. These disseminators also interact with people and answer questions—even sometimes asking questions for this purpose, from sources on the ground. The official accounts of ISIS and Jabhat an-Nusra are discouraged from anything spontaneous: they distribute propaganda and—especially in ISIS’ case—very little else.
Official accounts are not wholly useless in terms of understanding the conflict—it helps one understand what a group wants the narrative to be, and if this conflicts with established facts it can give other indications (relative weakness, say)—but they are, in intelligence terms, duds. Accounts like Shami Witness, Abu Siqr, Radical Islamist, and Saqr Ansaar—the four most popular disseminators in the survey—are much more useful. They release all kinds of material from the ground and speak in their own voice, giving answers that are influenced or informed by the views of groups, while not subject to the tight oversight of groups who know they must wage counter-intelligence. These people give glimpses of things they do not know they shouldn’t, in other words, and in this is what makes them so useful—to everybody.
This information war matters because it affects the functioning of these groups. At the time of this study the framing was what damage these online networks could do to the West. That question still stands but it is more powerful at this point as a question within the jihadist world. There is tremendous debate about the role of al-Qaeda “central” in global terrorism. By some readings Ayman az-Zawahiri’s influence now is merely moral suasion and occasionally some money. But there is evidence to suggest that Zawahiri’s blessing brings with it a whole mechanism of finance and human recruits that somebody without his blessing cannot access and might indeed be shut off from. The split between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda (represented by Nusra locally in Syria) is the greatest breach in the jihadist universe since its inception—for the jihadists, believing their version of the faith is the authentic one, it is the greatest breach in the world of Islam as a whole since the squabbles at the dawn of the faith that come to us now as the Sunni-Shi’a divide. For the Islamic State, this question of external funding is largely irrelevant: they are self-funding with oil money from the regime, stolen antiquities, and criminal enterprises like extortion. (The reports of a massive heist from Mosul banks are apparently not true.) The accusation that I.S. is a foreign, specifically Saudi, project has been overthrown: At most, 5% of their budget came from the Gulf between 2005 and 2010. For al-Qaeda, though, whatever the doubts about the usefulness of foreign fighters, this external finance matters a great deal. If I.S. outstrips it in this media war, if it convinces the jihadist audience that it is the best way to the Khalifa, then the donations and recruits will go to I.S., and al-Qaeda will fall even further behind, whatever efforts it makes to claw its way back.