Hiding in Plain Sight: Jihadi Activism on Twitter
Thus far, the author has published a series of 16 chapters, which provide a rare insight into the world of the most powerful fighting force in Syria and the Middle East, revealing many of its dark secrets in addition to its modus operandi, origin, and the power struggle with JN. While the leaks are difficult to authenticate, they are believed to derive from an informed former ISIS leader who recently defected due to the outbreak of all-out war within the Islamist anti-Syrian regime camp. The author begins by posting a number of rhetorical questions to illicit the reader's curiosity, particularly by repeating "Wait for us soon."
However, important insights emerge from the tweets with regard to one specific affair that suggest the author's information is genuine. For instance, the leaks named a former Iraqi officer, Hajji Bakr, to whom it attributed most of the group's strategies and the actual formation of JN. Also, the leaks revealed the identity of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to be Ibrahim 'Awwad Bu Badri Bin Armoush.
On December 17, the author wrote that when the Syrian revolution broke out, al-Baghdadi and Hajji Bakr feared losing members of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to the Syrian battlefront, which would "cause a weakening and fracturing in the [Islamic] State." For this reason, "Colonel Hajji Bakr suggested the formation of a group of non-Iraqis that would go to Syria under the command of a Syrian, in order to block any Iraqi commander in ISI from leaving the Iraqi arena." JN was thus born and started to grow exponentially under Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, attracting foreign jihadists from North Africa (the Maghreb), North Caucasus, Jordan, the GCC, Yemen and Europe.
The discord between ISI and JN began when al-Joulani refused to accept the expeditious unification with ISI, announced by Baghdadi, which according to the leaks was born of concern by the latter of the growth of JN.
To conclude, the leaks have certainly wreaked havoc on the Islamist scene, its supporters and sympathizers, and deepened the rift between the multiple radical groups currently engaged in a bitter rivalry match against each other. Nonetheless, the leaks have become an unprecedented source for valuable intelligence information that was difficult to acquire and retrieve without the rivalry and defections within the jihadi factions.
The U.S. Takes Counter-Terrorism to the Twitter Battlefield
On July 9, 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then-deputy of Osama Bin Laden, sent a letter to Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi stressing, amongst other things, the importance of the media in modern warfare. Al-Zawahiri wrote that AQ and its enemies are engaged "in a race for the hearts and minds of our Ummah," and that more than half the war is taking place "on the media battlefield." Bin Laden made a similar famous remark in a 2002 letter to Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar: “It is obvious that the media war is one of the strongest tactics this century; in fact, it may amount to 90% of the total preparation for battle."
Following the booming trend of jihadi activism and propaganda on Twitter, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), based in the U.S. State Department, launched a Twitter account called Think Again Turn Away, @ThinkAgain_DOS on December 3, 2013. The goal of this account is to expose militant activities around the world that jihadists claim are directed against their enemies and rivals when in fact most of them target innocent civilians, based on their religious confessions.
U.S. response to violent jihad on Twitter
All tweets on the account are in English, suggesting it is aimed at Muslims living in Western countries who sympathize with AQ ideology. This is likely due to the fact that various militant groups in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and the Maghreb have embarked on sophisticated, multi-language propaganda campaigns over social media platforms, specifically designed to attract would-be jihadists in the West.
Currently, @ThinkAgain_DOS has garnered 1404 followers and tweeted 424 messages. Basically, it relies on short messages accompanied by attached links that refer readers to news reports, articles and audio-visuals that counter AQ ideology and claims. For example:
Social media networks, particularly Twitter, have without a doubt become an integral tool in the jihadist war efforts and modus operandi, after realizing the importance of the media as a complementary battlefront.
What enables jihadi propagandists to gain traction on Twitter is the fact that a growing number of activists -- many of whom are indistinguishable from random users of this social media -- repost messages originally published by militant jihadi groups, AQ forums and ideologues. This complicates the process of differentiating between actual jihadists and mere AQ sympathizers. That said, the fluid nature of the platform means that onlookers witness not only activism, but rifts among jihadi groups as they happen in real time.
The death of Osama bin Laden not only decentralized AQ jihadi activities and those of its many factions around the world, but also boosted individual and aggressive utilization of the social media for propaganda purposes, expanding the group's outreach to a multilingual audience, and eliminating traditional security and social barriers. Moreover, today's modern “media jihad” has become an ulterior fulfillment of the online call issued by the AQ media arm al-Fajr following bin Laden's death to take the fight to a higher level on all online channels:
The Internet is a battlefield for jihad, a place for missionary work, a field for confronting the enemies of God. It is incumbent upon every individual to consider himself a media Mujahid, dedicating himself, his wealth and his time to Allah.