It is hard to avoid a feeling of déjà vu. Back in 2013, an established al-Qaida ideologue lamented the decline of the jihadi web forums, warning users against migrating to social media platforms Twitter and Facebook and calling for a revival of the forums as the “main theater” of internet jihad. The appeal of course failed to persuade, as the platforms, and Twitter in particular, surged in popularity and left the forums in the dust. Fast forward three years, and again things are changing. Now, a jihadi author is lamenting the decline of the social media platforms, warning users against migrating to Telegram, an encrypted messaging service, and calling for the revival of Twitter and Facebook as the locus of web-based jihad.
The al-Qaida ideologue from 2013, while ultimately unpersuasive, was right on one count. He predicted that a day would come when the social media platforms would “shut their doors in our faces.” And indeed, the crackdown on the jihadis of Twitter has finally come. (Even my ghost accounts for following them are being deleted.) Yet those targeted have not gone running back to the forums, as this ideologue would have liked. Rather, they have gravitated towards the new hot commodity, Telegram, which has gradually replaced Twitter as the primary online home for the Islamic State and its supporters. Not everyone, however, is so pleased with the relocation.
One of those speaking out is the pseudonymous Abu Usama Sinan al-Ghazzi, a pro-Islamic State writer who authored a short essay last month titled “O Supporters of the Caliphate, Do Not Withdraw into Telegram,” published by the al-Wafa’ Media Foundation (wafa’ meaning “faithfulness”). Al-Ghazzi, whose name suggests a Ghazan origin, has been writing in support of the Islamic State since at least July 2013, when he penned a post calling for greater coordination of media efforts between the Islamic State and its supporters. The importance of the online support network is a running theme in his writings. In his 2013 post, he described the need to fight back against “the greatest campaign of disinformation…history has known,” urging his readers “not to be satisfied with fighting [alone]; rather, confront [the enemies] with both the tongue and the spear.” While not a particularly distinguished author, al-Ghazzi’s work deserves attention for being published by an important media outlet.
Al-Wafa’ belongs to an elite group of semi-official media organizations that promote the Islamic State online, previously by means of Twitter but now mostly via Telegram. (Al-Wafa’s decline on Twitter is captured by the pictures of pears it is currently using to hide from the censors.) The other big two organizations are the al-Battar Media Foundation (Battar meaning “saber”) and the al-Sumud Media Foundation (Sumud meaning “steadfastness”). The three are known primarily for their ideological output in the form of essays, poems, and books, and they often work hand-in-hand with the Islamic State’s official media organizations. For example, al-Battar is responsible for producing the transcripts of Islamic State speeches and videos, and al-Sumud has the privilege of publishing the new poems of the Islamic State’s official poetess, Ahlam al-Nasr, every week or so. When the Islamic State launches a concerted media campaign across its provinces, such as its December 2015 campaign calling for jihad in Saudi Arabia, the semi-official organizations also participate. In the Saudi campaign, they released dozens of essays by dozens of anonymous authors, all encouraging jihad there.
It is unclear how many of these authors, like Ahlam al-Nasr, reside in the lands of the caliphate, but occasionally they claim to be speaking from there, or they seem to possess insider knowledge. Neither is the case with al-Ghazzi, though he certainly speaks for more than just himself on the subject at hand.
In his essay, al-Ghazzi bemoans the fact that Twitter and Facebook have been losing members to Telegram. This shift, as J.M. Berger has explained, can be traced to September 2015, when the Telegram service introduced a feature called broadcast channels, which added Twitter-like functionality to an app that was previously much like WhatsApp. For many jihadis, Telegram’s arrival was a welcome development, providing a permissive environment for communicating and spreading their message online at a time when Twitter was deleting their accounts more rapidly. But for al-Ghazzi, it was unwelcome, even disastrous.
The Telegram frenzy began, in al-Ghazzi’s telling, at a crucial time in the online war between the “crusaders” and the Islamic State and its supporters. The two sides were engaged in an all-out war for control of the Twittersphere, a war that al-Ghazzi believed his side was winning. The crusaders were being forced to delete thousands and thousands of accounts, but to no avail. Unable to do anything more, the crusaders had “surrendered to reality.” Then along came Telegram, and the jihadis began abandoning the battlefield.
The allure of Telegram was the security and stability it offered relative to Twitter. The chances of one’s account being deleted were much lower, as they still are. “Many of the brothers preferred Telegram over other [platforms],” al-Ghazzi explains, “in view of the small number of deletion operations to which the supporters were exposed on Telegram.” Another attraction was the ability to hide from those who might report one to the censors. On Telegram, channel operators can “change the channels…into private channels,” so as to avoid being targeted for deletion. Here al-Ghazzi is referring to the two different kinds of broadcast channels that Telegram offers.
For those unfamiliar, here is how Telegram defines channels: “Channels are a tool for broadcasting public messages to large audiences. In fact, channels can have an unlimited number of members.” And here’s its explanation of the difference between public and private channels: “Public channels have a username. Anyone can find them in Telegram search and join. Private channels are closed societies—you need to be added by the creator or get an invite link to join.”
Most of the channels supporting the Islamic State, in my experience, are of the private kind. This means they are not accessible to the broader public. When a new private channel is formed, the other Telegram channels circulate an invitation link that usually expires within hours. The result is that the Islamic State’s supporters on Telegram are a rather isolated community. They create an echo-chamber. (Only some of the private channels maintain parallel public channels, as do al-Wafa’ and al-Sumud, but not al-Battar.)
It is this introverted orientation of Telegram that, according to al-Ghazzi, makes it so unattractive. Among Telegram’s “negatives” he lists the fact that channels are limited to “a specified group and faction determined by the owner of the channel,” and that “searching for channels is not allowed.” “The other platforms,” by contrast, such as Twitter and Facebook, “are open to the masses,” which means they can reach a much larger audience. Telegram, in other words, is bad for outreach.
Al-Ghazzi sums up his warning thus: “Do not withdraw into Telegram.” And he ends with a plea: “Come back to Twitter and Facebook, for our mission is greater than this and deeper. Those we seek to reach, we will not find them on Telegram in the way desired, as we will find them on Twitter and Facebook.”
Al-Ghazzi’s essay raises the question whether the Islamic State’s supporters will heed his warning or not. For the moment, the answer seems to be not. His appeal looks to be going the way of the ideologue’s who warned against migrating to Twitter and Facebook back in 2013. Momentum is clearly in Telegram’s favor. The jihadis, it seems, are just not willing to create new Twitter accounts every day when there exists a perfectly good alternative that goes little patrolled.
The more diehard pro-Islamic State Twitter accounts are also, like al-Ghazzi, complaining of a lack of dedication to the platform. “O supporters of the Islamic Caliphate,” a prominent account tweeted a few days ago, “be you warned against laziness and negligence on your battlegrounds!” Less prominent accounts are also complaining. One tweeted two weeks ago: “Where are the supporters, where are their accounts? Where is our power on Twitter that the nations of polytheism were being terrified by?” These are expressions of nostalgia. Twitter has ceased to be the jihadi playground it once was—at least for fans of the Islamic State.