For the second installment of our Jihadi Twitter Activism series Ali Fisher and Nico Prucha explore data collected from Twitter related to the Syrian AQ branch Jabhat al-Nusra. This post identifies key ‘influence multipliers’ for Jabhat al-Nusra’s strategic communication and an overview of the content that these multipliers disseminate via Twitter.
Ali Fisher and I have recently exchanged thoughts and data regarding the increasing Jihadi use of Twitter. By taking an interdisciplinary approach of social-media analysis and cluster network assessment, we decided to start a series on Jihadica on the parts of the overall jihadi, primarily Arabic language propaganda resonating among the audiences online. We plan on delivering updates on the subject as we move along and kick-off the series with an overall introduction to the theme.
In future posts in the series, we will highlight and decipher some of the core content most often shared on Twitter, allowing conclusions to be drawn about the parts of jihadist propaganda which resonate with a wider audience (and hence shared over and over again).
Introducing the theme
The recent essay by Abu Sa‘d al-‘Amili on the state of global online jihad (discussed here) lamented a general decline in participation in jihadi online forums. Furthermore, al-‘Amili issued a “Call (nida’) to the Soldiers of the Jihadi Media” demanding that they “return to their frontiers (thughur)” elevating their status. Al-‘Amili himself is one of the high-profile clerics, a “prolific “Internet Shaykh” (Lia) on the forums, but is also quite active on twitter (@al3aamili).
Two interrelated causes identified by Abu Sa‘d al-‘Amili were the periods when forums were offline and the migration of users to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. This is exacerbated by the movement of “major [jihadi] writers and analysts” (kibar al-kuttab wa-l-muhallilin) from the forums to social media platforms. This has perhaps increased the momentum of members of tier-one jihad forums to expand onto twitter while twitter as a massive communication relay has become the basis for a new generation of sympathizers, posing another intersection. Twitter is a further medium of choice to (re-) disseminate propaganda material in general and is a platform where activists, sympathizers, and actual fighters upload audiovisual and other types into the jihadi hub.
Jihadists have aggressively expanded the use of twitter, in addition to Facebook and YouTube, especially since the outbreak of violence in Syria. During 2011 members of Jihadist forums issued media-strategies and advisory to fellow members prior, as for example is stated in this posting here of the al-Ansar forum. The posting, initiated by the member Istishhadiyya is basically a very elemental guide, comprehensive and for beginners, highlighting the effective and fast communication capability. The same posting was copy-and-pasted by Shumukh member Basha’ir shortly afterwards. A handbook, compiled by Twitter user @osamh ended up on the jihadi forums to further underline the importance of Twitter as well as its difference to Facebook, where jihadists already have a strong presence.
It took a while for jihadi activism to fully unravel on Twitter, and they have maintained a cohesive as well as detailed presence on this social media platform since the Syrian conflict turned violent in 2012.
Twitter, and as such social media in general, is in the meantime an integral part of jihadists’ media endeavors on the Internet, with the majority of jihadi forums having their official account advertised for on the main pages of the forums.
The role of the media activists, or in jihadist speak the “media mujahid” has since the death of Osama bin Laden in May of 2011 been promoted, highlighted and approved. AQ related documents have made this role model prominent. The role model of the “media martyr” any “media mujahid” can be become, is backed by the call to take the fight on a greater level on al channels online issued by al-Fajr in their response of the killing of bin Laden:
“The Internet is a battlefield for jihad, a place for missionary work, a field of confronting the enemies of God. It is upon any individual to consider himself as a media-mujahid, dedicating himself, his wealth and his time for God.” (Analysis here, Arabic original here)
At first, the strategies to promote Twitter among members of jihadi forums failed to develop substantial traction, but this changed drastically during 2012. When jihadists in and outside of Syria started to use and incorporate twitter as a medium to disseminate and re-post al-Qa’ida and other propaganda material.
Twitter activism and jihadi supporters
At first Syrian non-violent activists used, and continue to use, twitter as a medium to document human rights abuse and war crimes of the Assad regime, but jihadists quickly adapted that content and the platform for their propaganda.
Social-media smart and professional jihadists adopted this treasure grove for their propaganda. By rebranding and reframing the content created by civil society activists, jihadi propaganda used these grievances to support a key jihadist self-perception; the obligation to respond by force to defend and protect the Sunnites in Syria.
Due to the effect and success of the Syrian based Jihadi groups, other jihadi groups as well as the main forums are adopting the twitter activism, advertising official forum accounts on the main pages with users within the forums using twitter hashtags (#) or references to twitter users (for example: @al_nukhba). A list of “The most important jihadi and support sites for jihad and the mujahideen on Twitter’” was recently posted on the Shumukh al-Islam forum, allowing users to identify key accounts they might wish to follow.
Individual sympathizers and all those feeling inclined to contribute to the media jihad re-disseminate authoritative files of al-Qa’ida on twitter on a larger scale. Now all major jihadi media departments, part of militant networks, have their own channels on Twitter, linking to content from the jihadi forums and other social media platforms, primarily YouTube, Facebook, and pictures in general.
Twitter has turned into a primary hub for the distribution of jihadi agitprop files. These Jihadi information sharing networks using Twitter coexist, autonomously, with the classical forums. These networks carry, for example, samples of the wide range of jihadi propaganda files, in some cases placed first on Twitter, posted via mobile phones from the front lines. As a brief overview, a few samples consisting of:
- martyrs in general and martyrdom operatives (istishhadiyyun) announced and identified by their hashtag and Twitter account;
- calls for donations with phone numbers and social media contact information; taking care of the orphans of the martyrs among other civil elements;
- general material of incitement, and the impact of online attained propaganda files used offline are popular and gain plenty of traction,
What are they sharing?
In addition to disseminating their own propaganda, jihadi media activists repurpose content from social movements and non-jihadi groups for their own purposes, framing the non-jihadi actions or demonstrations as part of the global militant struggle. This has created another ‘grey area’ where analysts have to carefully monitor and decipher such content. The forum administrators and media-activists also are starting to incorporate and misuse Twitter for their purposes, in coordinated attempts to virtually infiltrate legitimate social movements by using the same hash tags and a similar rhetoric to create ideological cohesion – and placing extremist views and files in that virtual sphere while claiming to fight on the ground for the sake of the people.
To analyze jihadi media networks, their sympathizers and followers we have used a combined approach focused on a unique interdisciplinary analysis of the data acquired by technical means and the subsequent and immediate analytical process of its content.
Using these methods we have asked a range of questions, how have jihadi propagandists been able to gain traction and a foothold online? How do they disseminate propaganda content to a global, multilingual audience and what resonates most with that audience? What are the networks through which their content flows and what are the different roles users play within these networks? Ultimately do the different jihadi twitter accounts reach a range of different communities, or is it a small densely interconnected echo chamber?
Shmukh user al-Sakit argues that you need a wide distribution of jihadi propaganda on mainstream forums in order to attract a small amount of people. He observes that the three top mainstream Arabic forums have one million users each. If you post jihadi propaganda to all of them, only 10% (300,000) are likely to look at it. Of those, 10% (30,000) will like what they see. Of those, 10% (3000) will embrace the idea of jihad. Of those, 10% (300) will propagandize. Of those, 10% (30) will go out to fight in a jihad. Of those, 10% (3) will seek martyrdom.
That’s much the way I think about it, which is why countering the effects of jihadi propaganda is so difficult. It just needs to mobilize a few.
Several weeks ago, Leah noted the appearance of five new letters sent by Sayf al-`Adl, one of the most senior al-Qaeda members, to Abu al-Walid al-Masri. This is in addition to the five letters Sayf sent at the end of 2010 that Vahid ably summarized here. Given Sayf’s historical importance to the organization, his reported leadership role in the tribal areas, and the uncertainties surrounding the succession to Bin Laden, I thought readers might be interested in what he’s thinking. I’ll summarize some of their contents over the next few days.
As of Jan-March, when the letters were written, Sayf was preoccupied with the Arab Spring and its implications for al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has been justly accused of being on the sidelines of the revolutions but somewhat unfairly dinged for not grasping the technological advances that have enabled them. Sayf, for one, sees the power of social media and what it can mean for creating more just institutions in the wake of the revolutions. Here is his suggestion for Egypt (dated Feb 27):
I propose the establishment of a new site on the Internet for social networking, particularly in Egypt, that is similar to Facebook and whose proceeds would support the families of the martyrs and orphans in Egypt. On it, the umma will express its vision for the reform of its institutions. I think many wonderful ideas that can be beneficial will be put forward on these pages because genius is not confined to an individual or a family or elements of the regime. Wisdom and reason are not limited to a person, and Egypt and the umma are filled with people of knowledge, competence and wisdom.
Not a bad idea.
I’ve been thinking for awhile about 1) why the social media of choice for jihadi orgs and media outlets is discussion forums and 2) why few to no jihadi orgs and media outlets have a Twitter or Facebook account (recent exception here). (Marc Lynch first noted this phenomenon some time ago but I can’t find his post.) Since Shaun Waterman raises the issue in a recent column, I thought I’d take a stab at explaining why. Here are two hypotheses:
- Vulnerability: Accounts on Twitter and Facebook are too easy to shut down. You can flag an account to the administrators and they will remove it. Jihadi orgs could set up new accounts but then they’d have to let their followers know where to find them. By the time they do, the admins will be hip to the problem and move to close the accounts down again. Compare this with the forums, which have multiple addresses and jihadis control membership.
- If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It: Jihadis jumped on forums around 2005 and have perfected their use for pushing propaganda and building communities. The system still works well for them, so why bother changing it (h/t Daniel Kimmage, who is now in ghayba). Recent forum closures may make them question this inertia.
I know AaronW and others will have different takes, and I look forward to hearing them. Just want to get the ball rolling. Note that this is about organizations and not individuals supporters, many of whom have accounts on Twitter and Facebook.
Caveat lector: I am a complete Twitter neophyte and have managed to withstand the ridicule from friends and family for not having a Facebook page.
Update: The Translation Brigades on Ansar forum have translated Shaun’s article into Arabic (jihadi site). H/T Aaron Zelin.