“We Fought With Our Bodies and Voices, Not With Guns and Weapons” – Interview With the Cast of ‘A Syrian Love Story’

Jan Seftl/Flickr (CC BY/SA)



Jan Seftl/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

Jan Seftl/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

By Tayfun Balçik -


The IDFA-screening of A Syrian Love Story – a documentary depicting 5 years of the life of a troubled Syrian family filmed against the background of the war,– caused many emotional reactions among  Amsterdam’s Tuschinksi cinema visitors. Some people in the audience cried, some were obviously distressed. The main characters of the film, Raghda (mother), Amer (father), Ricardo, Bob (sons) and Sean McAllister (director) received a standing ovation. The discussion afterwards with journalist Marcia Luyten was too short to be really satisfactory. Therefore, it was great that Koen and I had the opportunity to have an interview with the crew the day-after. Both the family whose story is told in the documentary as well as some of the crew-members were present. It is exactly the visible tensed togetherness of the family which makes ‘A Syrian Love Story’ so moving. After all, we see how revolutionary parents in a dangerous context struggle between their ideals and normal family-life, forcefully catched in Amer’s lamenting phrase about Ragdha in the film ‘You cannot be Che Gueverra and a mother’. The whole audience was witness to a marriage crisis, so closely filmed by Sean that it even felt somehow wrong to watch the evolving drama between a husband and his wife. We saw their children trying to make sense of what was happening between their father, mother and the whole Syrian carnage altogether at the same time. In conversation with Sean, the teenager Ricardo reveals his true feelings about the situation in Syria: “In the beginning I was happy with the revolution. Now, I hate it.” And little Bob’s anger with Assad in his mother’s arms is heartbreaking and a simple but clear reminder to the rationale behind the armed opposition against the Assad-regime. Eventually, the family draws the same conclusion as thousands of other Syrian refugees and leaves their home. First from Damascus to Yarmouk Camp, and then their desperate flight to Lebanon and France. Raghda now lives in Istanbul and is part of the Syrian opposition. Amer lives in France with his children.


“Why does the West want Bashar to stay?”


Because of the focus on the situation of the family the political discussion somewhat degrades to the background but never fades away. In reaction to a question during the Q&A about the prospects for Syria, Sean McAllister remarked shortly: “I don’t really want to get in that discussion, but the removal of Assad would be one thing to start if you want to talk about future prospects for Syria”. The moderator looked surprised to hear that and asked, “who should remove Assad?” Raghda stepped in and responded with a question, “why does the West want Bashar to stay?” Amer said that he has no hope for Syria.  This interview can be seen as an in-depth follow-up of that short discussion.

The managing director of IDFA, Cees van ‘t Hullenaar, said that he sensed some sort of change in Europe with regards to the treatment of refugees and the Syrian crisis? Do you feel that too Amer?


“Not really, it’s getting worse actually.”


Yes, yesterday you said there is ‘no hope’ for Syria and there is also mentioning in the film that the Middle-East problem will eventually come to Europe. What do you mean exactly by that?


Amer: “I hope the problems won’t come to Europe, but what you see now is that everyday thousands of refugees are arriving in Europe. And those refugees have big problems inside them. There are another 5 million Syrians who are just waiting for their chance to come to Europe too. Why? Because they lost their chances, their homes and everything. So it’s a difficult situation over there, which cannot continue any further without causing bigger problems.”


In Europe people fear ‘jihadists’ coming with the refugees. They see this problem as a security issue.


Amer (defensively): “I don’t want to see it that way. Daesh (ISIS) comes, Daesh goes. After all, what is Daesh? Daesh’s origins lies in the USA. That problem is not here. The problem here, in Europe, is that families are coming with complicated psychologic troubles, because of the horrific things they saw. And these people will have to start a new life in Europe. But how? They need help. They need at least 10 years to dig ways. And what about the new generation that will come? The kids. How can they be in a school again after what they have seen in Syria? It’s a big problem.”


What do you mean with that ISIS originated in the USA?


Amer: “In just three months Daesh captured an enormous territory in Syria and Iraq! How could that happen? Where were the eyes of the world, with their big satellites. Really they can’t find Daesh? I cannot believe that. I think they could erase Daesh in one night.”


“As long as there are Syrians alive, there will always be hope.”


But what would be the interest of the USA in creating Daesh?


Amer: “How do you think these group came up? When the revolution in Syria started in 2011, we were the first peoples on the streets. And what did we want? We wanted freedom and democracy like the countries in the West. And still we need the right steps to be taken to have a good life and a good economy.”


But yesterday you said you have no hope for Syria?


Amer: “I just imagined how it would be if I were in Syria right now. If you have hope for Syrian people, OK, be there, and think about what now? If you are here, in Amsterdam, with girls, with beers, camera’s everywhere, then I can imagine one says I have hope. But if I’m a Syrian in Yarmouk camp near Damascus, or Homs, hope would not be the thing I would think about. In such a situation you just want to stay alive, just want to eat something, some grass or anything!”

Amer’s eyes gets wide open and he talks fast and passionately.


Clear. But Raghda reacted differently when you said you had no hope?


Amer: “Yes, we have different opinions about it.”

Raghda: “Amer only sees problems. My view is, also during my time in prison: as long as there are Syrians alive, there will always be hope. We will make a comeback as Syrians.”


You are from the Syrian opposition, situated in Turkey. What is it exactly that you are trying to accomplish?


Raghda: “Mostly I talk with different group representatives, and work together with them as Syrians. We prepare the ground for the day when we go back to Syria. We try to build something and be together.”


What about armed groups? Do you also represent them?


Raghda shakes her head and leans back: “No, no no.”


What should the world do for Syria?


Raghda: “We have hope because living Syrians are depending on us. We cannot know what the next steps will be, but we always try. I cannot say everything.” (Laughs).


But how do you envision a future Syria, with or without Assad?


Raghda (resolutely): “Without.”


How do you want to do that?


Raghda: “The world, all the governments, support Assad. If the world decides to let Assad go, the killing will stop. This is our message.”


Koen: But what about the changes that should take place within Syria? It’s a divided country.


Raghda: “The problem is the regime. All Syrians should work together to change the regime. Not just Assad. The Mukhaberat (secret services, TB), they control everything. It’s a big lie that half of the Syrian people support Assad. No, that is not true.”

Amer: “I think the world has no memory or there is a hole in the story. We fought with our bodies and voices, not with guns and weapons. That time we asked the world to help us, to be with us in our fight for democracy. And what did they do? They asked: ‘OK, where is the opposition, who can be a new government in Syria?’ We said: ‘We are the opposition.’ Than they asked to form a union. And we did! Than they said: ‘It’s not enough, do another one.’ We did another one. What after, what do you want? People were starting to get killed in Syria. And the world continued to make a picture, to make a video. And the people in Europe, they all watched on television. For this we died. What after?! Hope is not enough. The memory of the world is bullshit. They must remember when the laique (secular) people started the revolution in Syria. We wanted democracy. People who used religion, who fought in the name God, there are reasons to fight in the name of God, if you have the Islamic way, like we had before: fight for Syria, like a united country. For the people, that was our way. But nobody supported that, nobody moved to do that. How then can we talk about hope or democracy? There is no way you can do that. They put your head on the roof if you say that.”


So, the revolution was initially secular?


Amer: “There was no religion. There were people from Christian, Islamic, Sunni, Alawi, Shia, Druze, they were all together in the streets. But after that, when nobody supported them and left them weak, nobody gave them anything to continue against Bashar al-Assad.” Resentful: “They let us alone. Most of us died, is now in prison to die more or left the country.”


So, before the revolution in 2011, there were no tensions between Sunnis, Alawis and Christians?


Amer: “You have to believe me on this one. The ex-husband of my sister, I only knew after four years that her ex-husband was Shia.”


You really did not know?


Amer: “I never thought about it. It did not matter.”


Raghda: “We did not speak or know about whether a person was Christian, Muslim, Sunni or Shia.”


“If you were doing this interview in Damascus before 2011, you would have been taken away immediately.” 


What exactly was the problem then? (This question was received with laughter.)


Sean: “I think one of the problems was if you sleep at night, and you have a bang bang bang at two o’clock in the morning, and you get kidnapped, that is not an acceptable society to live in. That was fundamentally the problem.”


They were painting a picture of Syria as a nice multicultural society.


Sean: “Well, people were living in fear and they could get kidnapped at any point, fuck all the multiculturalism! She was taken and nobody knew anything were she was taken. The prisons were full of people without any trial. Fuck multiculturalism!”


So the multiculturalism before the revolution was a façade.

Sean: “The whole thing was bullocks!”


Amer: “If you were doing this interview in Damascus before 2011, you would have been taken away immediately.”


Sean: “How could people live like that? Why should anyone live like that?”

Amer: “You cannot write, you cannot move. All the problems are around you. You feel like you live in a cage, even in your bed. All the time you are being watched. You are not safe. All the time you dream about freedom outside. If you go to Lebanon you see more freedom, even though it’s tough sometimes. Yes, of course there were corrupt Alawi people around Assad, in the cities especially. But in the poor villages, Alawi or not, the regime was as oppressive as it was against everyone who was against the dictatorship.”


Raghda: “There is no problem between the different communities. The problem is the regime, if he goes, than Daesh and all other problems will go away.”


But I hear other voices. People who are afraid of a Islamist or Jihadist takeover. In Christian, Druze, but also Alawi communities. That Assad is protecting them and keeping Daesh down.


Amer: “Bullshit.”

Everybody starts laughing.


“Telling the truth in such a situation could get their family killed.”


Raghda: “People risk their lives when they speak the truth about the Assad regime. What would you do if you know that doors are slammed and people are taken away to get killed? I know many families who have three or four family-members who are taken away by the regime or Daesh. Telling the truth in such a situation could get their family killed.”


OK, what if Assad is gone and all the killings stop, how to build-up a community again?


Amer: “It’s too late to have a community. Because now, with the country crushed completely, and the opposition is bullshit everywhere, in Turkey and other countries, they are shit, they cannot do anything! There is no opposition actually. But to answer your question, if Assad is down, because his friends don’t support him anymore, I think that the fighting will continue without any goal. They will just fight on. Because they cannot forget their blood! If you are Alawi, and you kill my son, I want to kill you and never stop my war against you. It’s not about “community” now between Alawi, Sunni or Durzi. It’s about revenge in the streets, between neighborhoods. Everybody wants to continue.”


Well that is a reason for the international community to come between the warring sides and stop the killing.


Raghda: “When the revolution started..”

Amer: “Nobody had a plan..”


Raghda: “And we paid with our lives for that. Now people wake up, and try to make something…”


Amer (cynically): “I think now it’s a good time, for the big powers in the world like America, England to go and shoot Daesh. But there is nothing to shoot Daesh. They are big liars. They go with air forces and shoot Daesh. To crush more and continue the war. For what? For the time-after, so their companies can come and build a new Syria, which will be good for their economy. It’s a big game and everybody now know what’s happening. So how can I have hope? Who can do anything for Syria? Its not a country anymore. Its like a shape, everybody can touch it, everybody can put a finger everywhere.”


Yes, but the killing continues. And some countries in the West and Turkey said there should be a security-zone and no-fly-zone.


Amer: “Yes, I support the idea of a security-zone, not just around the Turkish border, everywhere in Syria, if they can support these kids with their families to stay alive and create some perspective for them, maybe so they can have hope later. But the big powers must do that. Not other players, who put their fingers everywhere.”


Koen: Do you think that Syria can be one united country again?


Sean: “The only way for Syria to be a united country again is to have another dictator. You cannot bring the country together democratically. It’s a divided nation now, it’s impossible to have it like it ever was. I think it will be like Yugoslavia. Carved up. The more interesting question for me was, if we had gotten involved, which was not cool, early on, if we had made that concerted effort and supported the Free Syrian Army to remove Assad, which we didn’t want. What would have been the outcome? Now we have 350.000 people killed. And ISIS is growing. People from Britain are joining them. For me the problem was one man. What do you think?


I am for military intervention. Especially after the chemical attack in Ghouta.


“I think that was the fundamental thing. We set the red lines and Obama let him go with a lousy deal. The green light was provided for him. And it’s a little line in the film, which goes unmissed (sic): The Middle East problem will come to Europe. We thought we could ignore their problems. OK, fine, ignore Syria. We did, we ignored it until it collapsed into massacre, but now the problems comes from two ways. In refugees, which we see, and in Daesh. Daesh is coming to Britain! And this is what they are going to do: they are gonna start targeting Europe and America. So when we think about Syria, we have to think in terms of our own security, and therefore we have to get involved. We should have gotten involved.”

Amer: “Actually they lie too much. When they say they want to help Syrian people, they want us to die more. They have never given anything. We know the games they play with us. Every day we lost many thousands people. Than we started to know that they lied.”


Last question. In the film we also see your struggles as husband and wife. And during one of these fights you explain what it means to be loved by someone and say ‘every man in his life seeks for that person’


Amer: “You want me to fight with her again?”


Everybody Laughs.


It was really beautiful.


Amer: “I think every man wants to be loved by the one who he sees as his heart, his love. Not like friends. You can’t remove that feeling, it comes along with love. I am like any man, I want to feel it. And it’s hard. Because I lost it.”

The enemy’s enemy is a friend: turning a blind eye to the atrocities of the Assad regime

Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr (CC BY/SA)
Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

By Koen Kluessien -

Palmyra, once a hub of Greek, Roman and Persian cultures and an important center of the ancient world, has now become known for the bloodbath perpetrated by the Islamic State and the possible destruction of its historical artifacts. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Islamic State has already executed 217 men, women, and children of Palmyra since 16 May. Although it is important that these atrocities do not go unnoticed, this international attention for the events in Palmyra is exemplary for the media reporting and international politics since the rise of ISIS. Namely, Palmyra (or Tadmor in Arabic) is for many Syrians not only known for its historic landmarks, it is also symbol of the cruelty of the regime of the Assad family that has been oppressing the Syrians for decades. While the international community has been focusing on the bearded killers of the Islamic State who post their cruelties on Youtube, the West seems to have forgotten about the well-shaved President who is still massacring its people in the hidden confinement of Syrian prisons.

Recently, a video surfaced of Syrians in Palmyra taking the street and holding a peaceful protest in which they waved flags and danced to express their hope for change. This video was recorded four years ago. The protesters took to the streets to protest against the cruelties of their own president Bashar al-Assad. The city was home to an infamous prison initiated by his father President Hafez Assad and used for executions and complete massacres in the 80s and 90s. A 1996 Human Rights Watch study reported of a 1980 massacre in which a total of 500 prisoners were killed in one day. On paper the prison was closed when Hafez’s son, Bashar al-Assad, assumed power in 2001. However, the prison was soon re-opened to imprison the vast amount of dissidents. In 2001 Amnesty International reported the detainees were ‘completely isolated from the outside world’ in a place which seemed to ‘inflict the maximum suffering, humiliation and fear on prisoners’ through excruciating torture tactics.

The same demonstrators who took the streets against the oppression of Assad are now hiding in their basements awaiting another airstrike by the government or another massacre perpetrated by the Islamic State. In the meantime, the international community seems to have turned a blind eye to the waves of atrocities the Assad regime is still committing. In August 2012, President Obama stated that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a clear ‘red line’ for action by the United States. One year later, 1,500 Syrian men, women, and children were murdered in the infamous sarin gas attacks, perpetrated by the Assad regime. Accountability for this massacre came in the form of a UN directive for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Although the regime agreed to destroy the existing stockpiles, the use of chemical weapons has only increased. On April 16, 2015, the United Nations Security Council heard firsthand accounts of doctors from Idlib in northwestern Syria who had treated the most recent victims of Assad’s barrel bombs, many of which contained chlorine gas.

Samantha Power, US ambassador to the United Nations stated she would take every step possible to hold the perpetrators accountable for this attack. If the UN would take action, this would be the first time since 2013 that Assad is punished for his use of chemical weapons. With the international community still hesitant to intervene in these crimes, Assad clearly does not see any reason to stop his attacks and the use of chemical weapons. According to Jett Goldsmith, investigative reporter for Bellingcat, there have been at least six more sarin or chlorine gas attacks from December 2012 to March 2015. While the method of gas attacks is becoming even more deadly, it seems  hypocritical to have a US-led coalition intervention against the positions of the Islamic State while the Assad regime is still dropping barrel bombs on civilians.

Bashar al-Assad’s cruelties seem to go far beyond the atrocities his father committed. As an Amnesty International report on human rights violations in the Syrian city of Aleppo stated: ‘These violations amount to war crimes and in the case of those committed by the Syrian government are so systematic and widespread that they constitute crimes against humanity’. However, the international community is still holding on to its appeasement politics of ‘the enemy’s enemy is a friend’. This reasoning may be a result of the simplistic idea that the Islamisation of the conflict in Syria is growing. Ironically, the one-sided Western military operations are creating conditions that may push some Syrians into the hands of the same extremists the coalition is fighting. There are still many Syrians fighting the Assad regime with the same principles as when they started the protests during the Arab Spring. However, both the US-led coalition and the Western media have been ignoring their voices, creating a feeling of hopelessness that is favorable for extremists such as the Islamic State. As a man who calls himself Aby Ayman stated in an interview with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: ‘I can see the appeal of Isis. As much as I don’t like them, I can see that they are leading some Sunni communities towards a dignity that no government will give them.’

The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State is currently not choosing for a lesser evil, but for a different evil. Resulting in a desperate situation for the Syrian people. As a Syrian cynically stated in an interview with Business Insider, there is not much hope for help from the West: ‘Obama can cover the whole world in red lines. Who cares? We are dying here. And Ban Ki Moon? He is ‘worried’ all the time. Ban Ki Moon is worried, Obama is drawing red lines, everybody is talking and nobody is doing anything.’ If Western countries genuinely want to battle the extremist movements, they will have to listen more to the needs of the civilian population instead of their own pragmatic reasoning.

‘Question their continual existence to this day’ – The Islamic States’ ‘Dabiq’ magazine and its violent rhetoric

Photo: Bob Coleman/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-SA)
Photo: Bob Coleman/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-SA)

Photo: Bob Coleman/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)

By Koen Kluessien -

When attacks by the Islamic State took place in several small villages in the Syrian province of Aleppo, most rebels of the Free Syrian Army were stunned: these villages were of no real strategic importance. However, although the villages had no direct military goal, the jihadists of the Islamic State had a very clear plan when taking over the area close to the Turkish border. One of the villages, Dabiq, is to IS of the utmost importance, not for military but religious reasons. Similar to Christianity and Judaism does Islam anticipate the end of the world combined with a final confrontation between good and evil. According to the Hadith – a collection of sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet Muhammad – Dabiq is the place where these apocalyptic events will take place. The prophecy is taken very serious by the jihadists as they do not read Muslim literature as mere spiritual guides, but as literal blueprints to follow towards the end of times in order to become true and authentic Muslims. It will therefore come as no surprise that the religiously and historical important village of Dabiq is a constant returning topic in IS propaganda. The Islamic State now even has its own glossy magazine, named after the mysterious village of Dabiq. What role does this magazine play in the violent propaganda of the Islamic State?

Some may know the name of the small village from the almost 16 minute long video Although the Disbelievers Despise It, which was distributed on Twitter and jihadi forums on November 16, 2014. It shows the simultaneous beheading of Syrian pilots, and the severed head of US aid worker Peter Kassig. One of the executors who is often referred to as ‘jihadi John’ – hinting at the British background of the jihadist – addresses Obama and his ‘Crusade’. Later, the British jihadist ends with a warning to Obama and the American troops: ‘Here we are, burning the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.’ The written propaganda is no less violent or megalomaniac.

The magazine gives an insight in the manner in which the Islamic State is framing its political, military, and religious programs. Especially the latter seems to be the core of the slick English-language magazine. According to Colin Clarke, a political scientist at the RAND research organization: ‘What you see with Dabiq is the combination of Islamic theological credentials with battlefield success. ISIS really takes great care to back up everything that it does with religious justification. That’s one area where Al Qaeda got soft over time.’ Indeed, the Islamic State is not the first organization of its kind to have its own magazine. Indeed, as mentioned before in my previous article on IS’ social media campaign, although its strategies are not necessarily new, IS has combined and optimized already existing strategies. Resulting in online jihadist propaganda that is frighteningly professional. The quality of IS’ Dabiq magazine can be illustrated by laying it side-by-side with al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine which specifically focuses on encouraging Western terrorist individuals to attack Western targets. The magazine is more of a how-to guide for aspiring terrorists, whereas Dabiq focuses on a global reach to recruit immigrants to build its state. Simply informing readers around the world of the military offensives would persuade maybe a few enthusiasts. The way in which IS articulates its vision in a comprehensive way truly shows the strength of its propaganda machine. Although the Islamic State is far from reaching its goal to have wide support of the worldwide Muslim community, it shows that IS is not a vague terrorist cell hiding from the world but a proto-state, finding out the best way to get the attention from both enemies and potential followers.

Moreover, the manner in which the Islamic State is documenting and presenting its massacres to the outside world seems unprecedented in modern history. Even textbook genocidal regimes have not proclaimed their acts of violence so openly and unrestrained. For example, the Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) was a radio station that played an important role in the incitement of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. However, even in this clear case of incitement to genocide would the broadcasters use euphemisms such as ‘go to work’ as a call to kill the Tutsi and those Hutus who opposed the regime. The direct and clear language and images in Dabiq stand in stark contrast with the euphemistic propaganda of other violent perpetrators. The lengths to which the organization will go to achieve its goals is graphically portrayed in the page-long photos of mutilated corpses of ‘infidels’.

The fourth issue of Dabiq includes a five page article on the enslavement of the Yazidis. Last year in August, thousands of Yazidis were trapped on a mountain for days near their settlement of Sinjar. Large groups of the polytheistic people were massacred and many women and children went missing. The article claims to have researched whether or not the Yazidis are ‘mushrikin’ – polytheists, or to the definitions used by IS ‘pagans’ or ‘idolaters’ – and thus can be enslaved, because ‘[…] enslaving the families of the kuffār [disbelievers] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Sharī’ah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Qur’ān and the narrations of the Prophet and thereby apostatizing from Islam.’ This rhetoric which justifies rape and the enslavement of women through Islamic verses seems to be roughly based on a pamphlet on female captives and slaves, released by ‘The Research and Fatwa Department of the Islamic State’ between October and November 2014. The pamphlet contains answers on very ‘practical’ questions such as ‘Question 13: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who has not reached puberty?’ Sadly, the answer is yes.

The Dabiq article goes even further in the propagating of violence aimed at the Yazidis when it tells the reader that they are not only allowed to kill the pagan minority, but that it is their duty as true Muslims to ‘question their continual existence to this day [because it] is a matter that Muslims should question as they will be asked about it on Judgment Day’. This questioning of the mere existence of the Yazidis is later manifested in a call to action that is, according to IS’ ‘scholars’, based on Islamic scripture: ‘And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the mushrikīn wherever you find them, and capture them, and besiege them, and sit in (sec) wait for them at every place of ambush.’ Recently, several mass graves of Yazidis have been found in the Sinjar area and in other regions, which proves to show that these are not merely empty words coming from the Islamic State. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is currently analyzing the situation after the Kurdish Human Rights Committee appealed to investigate the Kurdish Yazidi and Christian minorities massacres. As Marieke stated in her article on the definition of genocide, it is a rather complicated term as it ‘does not only consist of the killing sites where the murders were carried out. Genocide is not just an event, it is a long enduring process – a continuum of destruction – involving many agencies, actors, and institutions.’ However, the killing of the Yazidis seems to make for a strong case as, according to research fellow at the Hoover Institution Bertrand M. Patenaude, it involved methods of ‘forcible conversion, rape, and then outright killing of people.’ Upon which he concluded: ‘I have no trouble with the use of the word genocide here.’ This does not mean that the ICC will agree or that there will be a case at all as Iraq – the country in which the crimes were committed – is not a member state. However, it is clear that Islamic States’ glossy magazine Dabiq will play a key role in determining the nature of the mass killing as this glorification of mass violence by its perpetrators is direct, openly violent and unprecedented in modern history.





‘Media Mujahideen’ – The Islamic State and its online warfare

Image: Sean MacEntee/Flickr


Image: Sean MacEntee/Flickr

Image: Sean MacEntee/Flickr (CC BY)

By Koen Kluessien -

Israfil Yilmaz is an avid user of many different social media platforms: he posts photos of kittens on his Tumblr page, discusses a wide range of topics on Twitter, answers questions from people around the world on his ask.fm account, and he shares photos with a ‘vintage’ filter on Instagram. He seems to be an average internet user, apart from the fact that he is a jihadist. Yilmaz was a professional soldier of the Dutch army and is currently training jihadists in Syria. Indeed, there are many kittens on the jihadist’s Tumblr page, but they are accompanied by the hash tag ‘#mujahideenkittens’ and quotes like, ‘we live, and die by the sword’. The questions he answers on Ask.fm are not always as innocent as they are with normal users, they will for example be about the weapons he uses in battle. Yilmaz shares photos with a funny Instagram filter, but it will depict himself smiling at the camera with an automatic rifle in his hand. Even his internet alias – normally a quirky online pseudonym – ‘@chechclear’ has an air of violence surrounding it as it refers to a both notorious and gruesome internet video showing the beheading of a Russian soldier by Chechens. Although the manner in which he is sharing his information is the same as the average social media user, the content is rather different.

Yilmaz is no stranger to the media as he is neither too shy to discuss jihad in a live Channel 4 debate, nor afraid of being interviewed by a Dutch news program. The Turkish Dutchman recently also showed up in a number of headlines in which he was accused of marrying a 19-year-old Dutch girl, abusing her, divorcing her already after a few months and eventually selling her to a Tunisian friend. The Dutch girl had changed her name to Aïcha and started wearing a niqab after she had converted to Islam. Aïcha had never met Yilmaz, but was impressed by the Robin Hood-like attitude he presented himself with online. It is unclear if the allegations of abuse and modern slavery are correct, but this case shows how sensitive young people can be to a sly social media user. Although Yilmaz has denied to be a member of any jihadist organization, he has posted words of praise for the Islamic State (IS). Moreover, his sectarian denunciations of Sufi and Shiite Muslims do not seem to underline this claim either. Yilmaz neatly fits into the modern jihadi propaganda machine of ‘media mujahideen: jihadists who use social media to propagate the coming of a caliphate and to recruit new followers.

Islamist militant websites and internet fora had always been hidden in the dark corners of the Internet, most of the time only visible for the intelligence agencies who did their best to find them. Now, the Islamic State is using the same online platforms as any business owner would to promote his company, often in (the more accessible) English instead of Arabic. The Islamic State’s social media tactics range from the cunning tricks of internet savvy youngsters who have grown up in a society surrounded by technology, to the programming of applications that require highly specialized skills – skills that baffle even social media experts. For example, last year the Islamic State created an application called The Dawn of Glad Tidings which could dodge Twitter’s spam filters and send up to 40,000 tweets per day. At the same time the online jihadists are using simpler techniques such as ‘hitchhiking’ along popular, already existing Twitter hash tags. Major events like the football World Cup are often given hash tags such as #Worldcup2014, allowing Twitter users to easily access and post content related to the World Cup. IS used this popularity of the hash tag to spread their message, flooding the news feeds of many football fans.

The Islamic State is not the first jihadist organization using social media, but it does stand out when looking at the quality of their strategy and content. The videos of attacks and training missions often have a quality that seems reminiscent of certain Hollywood movies. For example, the propaganda video Although the Disbelievers Despise It is a 16-minute video showing the beheading of 22 Syrian soldiers which took six hours to make and, according to the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) and counter extremism think tank ‘Quilliam’, cost approximately 0,000 to produce as the video required multiple HD cameras and expensive editing equipment, making Al-Qaeda’s blurry propaganda videos seem like child’s play. Moreover, the ‘media mujahideen’, or people claiming to be one, cunningly use references to modern culture that are already present in society, and will appeal to some adolescents. Much of the Islamic State online propaganda uses very clear references to videogames, movies, or certain phrases that are popular among young people. For example, one video depicts a random killing spree of Islamic State jihadists shooting from a car, largely resembling a drive-by from the Grand Theft Auto videogame series. The Islamic State is conveying its often gruesome messages with a corporate-like sophistication combined with pop culture references, resulting in a remarkable modern propaganda cocktail. This makes for a shocking contrast of on the one hand seemingly innocent references, and on the other the propagation of very gruesome material.

The way in which these perpetrators glorify their crimes is almost unique in modern history. The fact that you can contact these same perpetrators with a few clicks of a button is remarkable, and the tactics of the jihadists to use seemingly innocent references to propagate material that is often very gruesome is paradoxal.  Moreover, the use of social media for jihadist propaganda is only one of many Islamic State online tactics: online media are also used for moral support to the battlefield and even real-time warfare. What is currently happening online is almost unprecedented, often difficult to grasp and will raise many questions. However, it is important to try to understand the strategies behind this online warfare. Most of Yilmaz’ social media accounts are blocked, but he will pop-up soon enough. I will keep track of him and his fellow jihadists, trying to find answers to these questions.