Jihad in a social media age

by Luca Foschi

Facebook, Twitter, Skype Jihad

“My night time lessons via Skype are followed by thousands of disciples around the world”, sheik Omar Bakri said in the austere parlour of his residence in Tripoli. He lived in the UK between 1984 and 2006 when pressure from the government after the 7/7 terrorist attacks forced him to return to Beirut, where he was born 55 years ago.

He is one of the most important figures in the British Islamic community and fought in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Kosovo and Afghanistan. “I’m a sort of retired now…but what we are struggling for, here in Tripoli is the creation of a caliphate in north Lebanon, that will later join the conquest of our brothers in Syria,” Bakri said.

Bakri does not appear in the new report from King’s College London ICSR (the International centre for the study of radicalisation and political violence), he belongs, it seems, to the old school. Although the research did cover the martyrs in Syria, which totalled 11,000 in December 2013.

They come from 74 nations, of which 2,800 are European or Western looking to join to the most social media documented conflict in history which “has become the cradle of a resurgent al-Qaeda: a magnet for recruits, offering the skills, networks and motivation needed to produce another generation of jihadists”, states a paper by Joseph A. Carter, Shiraz Maher and Peter R. Neumann.

Over the period of 12 months, ending in February 2014, the King’s College team has pinpointed and monitored the open source social media profiles of 190 Western and European fighters. 55 per cent of the foreign fighters joined the ISIS (Islamic state of Iraq and Syria), 14 per cent embraced the cadres of Jabat al-Nusrah and only two per cent are thought to belong to the secular Free Syrian Army, Liwa al Taweed and Ahrar al Shaam. 17.9 per cent of the total come from United Kingdom, followed by France (11.6 per cent), Germany (11.1 per cent), Sweden (ten per cent), Belgium (8.9 per cent) and the Netherlands (6.3 per cent). Eastern European countries such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Bulgaria and Serbia count together for 9.6  per cent, Australians, Canadians and Americans for 5.5 per cent, along with 19 per cent unknown.

Since early spring of 2011, after the collapse of the long hated Shia oligarchy in Damascus, the country has turned in on itself. Only few weeks ago Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of al Qaeda, tried to broker a ceasefire between ISIS and al Nusrah, who have been involved in a bloody war in eastern Syria, at the border with Iraq. The initial collaboration in the toppling of Bashar al-Assad regime has turned into a feudal war where hegemony and territorial control leave no room for theological arguments.

The anarchic political and military situation on the ground produces a splintered narrative that the “New Disseminators” – the Internet-era heirs of the videotape smugglers that during the mid-1990s distributed among Muslim communities in Europe, documenting the deeds of fellows jihadists in Bosnia and Chechnya.

These new disseminators, using Twitter, according to the King’s College research, “spread information from the battlefield in real-time, publishing links to new videos and official statements, spreading photographs of battles, equipment, meeting and martyrs.”

Disseminators are not directly linked, it seems, to the jihadist armed groups. Fluent in English and Arabic, from their desks they raise the profile of the conflict, attracting new recruits.

A combination of the speed at which information can travel from scenes of jihad coupled with a disgruntled minority of western Muslims, has created a fertile breeding ground for new recruits to join the armed struggle in faraway lands that they know little of, but have seen via social media. What the outcome will be, nobody knows, but death or incarceration on return to their home countries is a highly likely scenario.

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