openDemocracy: The ISIS twitterati and the online jihad

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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its supporters have taken control of large swathes of Syria, Iraq and the online sphere. The ISIS mujahedeen are modern-day warriors, armed with Kalashnikovs and camera phones. They like posing with the decapitated heads of their enemies, the movies of Robin Williams and Nutella. Welcome to the Islamic State—they want to return to the Middle Ages of Islamic hegemony, but they also want to tweet about it.

ISIS—we should not legitimize them by calling them the Islamic State; they are neither Islamic nor a State—are different from Al-Qaeda, or indeed any other terrorist group, in a number of ways. Most importantly, they have captured the imagination of Islam’s disenfranchised youth in a way that arguably has never been seen before. ISIS and Al-Qaeda—which includes ISIS rivals the Al-Nusra Front in Syria—are competing over the same ‘talent pool’ of marginalized and angry Arab and Islamic youth, and ISIS is winning hands down.

They are able to recruit Sunni Arab tribal fighters in Iraq who have had enough of outgoing Prime Minister Maliki’s sectarian policies, as well as second generation Muslim immigrants from the First World who are looking for a Cause to fight, and die for. Some of these recruits have physically taken up arms to join the fight; others are lending a hand through the medium of social media.

It is the latter cadre that interests me most; the social media mujahedeen, the ISIS twitterati. As a second generation immigrant myself, I can perhaps understand this desire to belong. Loyalty to the Islamic Ummah—worldwide community—has a particular hold on a certain section of Muslim youth who have sometimes felt like strangers in their countries of birth; allegiance to this nebulous ideal can outweigh national, and even family ties.

ISIS’s foreign fighters come from as far afield as Portsmouth and Sydney—but do these emigrants, who very probably will not see the shores of UK or Australia ever again, now feel at home on the killing fields of Syria and Iraq? Their bragging tweets certainly appear to indicate so. Cardiff-born ISIS ‘soldier’ Abul Muthanna (real name Nasser Muthana, a former medical student who appeared in an ISIS video entitled, “There is no life without jihad” earlier this month) tweeted before and after images of a destroyed army base in Iraq earlier this week. “Army base buildings before and after, I’m getting good with these bombs,” he crowed. An image of an ISIS convoy was accompanied by the tweet “This is how we roll,” with the Islamic State hashtag. His twitter feed is rife with re-tweets of other ISIS fighters and supporters.

Another ISIS fighter, Abu Faris, tweets Quranic verses and images of his dinner (“our munch”); roast chicken and chips. An image of ISIS fighters Abu Faris and Abdul Haafidh, “two beautiful brothers,” posing with an ISIS convoy behind them has been favorite and retweeted dozens of times, going viral across the ISIS-associated twitter tree. The same goes for images of a French-born ISIS recruit in Syria posing with a jar of Nutella—the Italian-made hazelnut chocolate spread.

There is a real sense of community—online or otherwise—in evidence here. “U won’t understand the brotherhood here, truly meet/depart for the sake of Allah, nothing other than making Allahs word highest gathered us,” Abul Muthanna tweeted. “It is a true Islam brotherhood. When our intention only for Allah. Please dm me. I need to join our brother,” one ISIS wannabe replied. ISIS is using twitter not just to promote its atrocities, but to gain new followers. The terrorist group has cracked the social media model. ISIS has fighters on the ground in Syria and Iraq, as well as an online army sitting in western capitals behind computers ready to carry out their digital jihad. One online ISIS jihadi, Abdullah seems to spend all his time updating his twitter feed with tweets glorifying ISIS and self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, as well as re-tweeting and favoriting the tweets of ISIS fighters on the ground in Syria and Iraq. “Yes. Once again Islam allows taking the women of people who aren’t People of the Book as captives & killing their men if they refuse Islam,” Abdullah tweeted on Friday, defending ISIS’s crimes of humanity against Iraq’s Yazidi community. “I might watch Jumanji tomorrow. Just for fun,” he tweeted days earlier following the news of Robin Williams death. And before that, “Sometimes rain is really annoying.” He is getting the message out, but still has time to pontificate about movies.

It is the dichotomy between extremist Islamist rant and mundane movie and weather chatter that most gets me. There is a danger of getting caught up in media sensationalism regarding ISIS and its atrocities, of dismissing the group and its members as mindless terrorists, as inhuman, as ‘evil.’ But the reason that ISIS, and extremist ideology in general is such a threat is that it is not ‘the other’, it is depressingly normal. Its ‘soldiers’—on the ground and online—are real people; they eat Nutella and like the Empire Strikes Back. They could be anyone. And, more dangerously, anyone could be them. As one Islamist tweeted during the impromptu movie discussion session: “We are humans like you…why we shouldn’t see movie[s]?”

This article was originally published here.