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

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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.