The Rise of ISIS: Its Power Explained Through the Political Dynamics in the Middle-East

anticapitalistes google images
Anticapitalistes/Google Images (CC BY-SA)

Anticapitalistes/Google Images (CC BY-SA)

By Kari van der Ploeg –  

ISIS’ rapid rise of power was accompanied by a severe social media campaign. They confronted the world with gruesome videos of executions of not only westerners, but also Arabs and Muslims. Many people have started wondering why ISIS is killing its fellow Muslims. ISIS emerged as a result of a vacuum of desperation amongst Sunni Muslims. Since the US-led occupation of Iraq in 2003, Sunni Muslims have started to feel insecure, paranoid and under siege. After the Arab Spring, events have made these feelings escalate and lead to violent revolt. Sunnis have felt powerless after losing control in Iraq and are now suffering atrocities at the hands of the government in Syria. The rise of ISIS functions as a clear reaction to these events.

The capitalization of ISIS is directly linked to recent events in Iraq and Syria. The revolution in Syria has nurtured hope for a political comeback among Sunnis in Iraq. Hope was however crushed when, in December 2012, bodyguards of the moderate Sunni Minister of Finance Rafi al-Issawi were arrested by Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government. Feeling excluded and persecuted, peaceful protests emerged in Baghdad and Sunni provinces in northern and central Iraq. Protesters demanded an end to political, civil and economic discrimination against the Sunni community, which had started after the invasion of Iraq by the United States. Soon, protesters realized that Maliki was only offering cosmetic changes, shunning direct negotiations and failing to provide safety measures in Sunni dominated areas. Distrust against the government empowered radical factions. When the Iraqi government attacked a Sunni peace camp at Hawijah, killing fifty people and injuring 110, relations escalated and factions polarized along sectarian lines.

Peaceful protest became violent insurgence. As the government consequently performed ill-planned counteroffensives, shelling Sunni areas and forcing half a million people out of the Anbar region where food became more and more scarce, they have made the Sunni population more susceptible for ISIS’ rule. Corruption and patronage based on party, family or community under Maliki’s government, only contributed more to the marginalization of Sunni Arabs.

The hostility of Sunnis against Maliki and his government has enabled ISIS to gain momentum among Iraq’s Sunni population. The power became divided between the formal political power and Sunni insurgents, refusing to be discriminated. ISIS used these divisions in Iraqi society to rise fiercely and with great speed. Taking over Sunni areas, they were careful not to alienate the local population. Fighters were warned to behave moderately towards the Sunni population. As ISIS spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said:

“Accept repentance [to those who have fought alongside the government army] and recantations from those who are sincere, and do not bother those who do not bother you, and forgive your Sunni folk and be gentle with your tribes”

Notwithstanding ISIS brutalities, the Iraqi population currently favors ISIS over its own government. Feeling belittled, demonized and increasingly subject to a central government crackdown, many Sunni Arabs have concluded that their only realistic option is to fight the Shia hegemony, according to the International Crisis Group.

Knowing how things escalated in Iraq explains a tendency among Sunnis to turn to extreme measures. However, it does not explain why Sunni Muslims are so afraid of Shiites and why fighting Shia Muslims specifically is the only way to win back their rights. To find an answer to this question, we have to look at the power dynamics in the region which are inextricably linked to the apocalyptic prophecies of both Shia and Sunni Islam.

According to the prophecies as mentioned in the hadith, Judgement Day will come when the final battle has taken place in Dabiq between the Muslims and the Roman Empire  (i.e. the West). The members of the Islamic State believes they are fulfilling this prophecy. According to the, ‘the Mahdi’ will return when the battle in Dabiq has taken place. Sunni and Shia prophecies differ in their perception of ‘the Mahdi’. Sunnis believe him to be the prophet Muhammed’s successor, who is yet to come into existence. For Shia Muslims, the Mahdi has been born as Muhammed al-Mahdi, also known as the Twelfth Imam or the Hidden Imam, but disappeared. At the end of days he will come out of hiding and bring justice and victory over those who oppose the sharia. Iran uses the prophecy of al-Mahdi as a legitimization for their expansionist behavior. Iran’s rulers are still communicating a dream of reinstating the old Persian Kingdom, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, which stretched from the Balkan in the west to the Indus Valley in the east. By claiming that they have to control this area in order for al-Mahdi to return, they legitimize their actions.

The conflict about dominance over the area between Sunni and Shia groups is used by ISIS to motivate their fighters. The backing of Alawi President Bashar al-Assad in Syria by Iran and Hezbollah confirm ISIS’ anti-Shia conspiracy. ISIS claims that Shia Muslims want to control the whole area and want to convert everyone to Shia Islam. Close relations between Syria and Iran have led to a spur of Shiism in Syria, which makes Syrian Sunnis believe that the government is promoting conversion of Syrians to Shi’ism and shift the country’s demographic balance. This believe is fueled by a growing number of Shia Hawzas and Husseiniyats, which are seminaries where Shia clerics are trained. The establishment of a lot of Shia oriented cultural and financial institutions confirm Sunni fears of the take-over of Shi’ism. The true extent of these allegations is still unclear, but what is certain is that Al Assad’s government is continuously endorsing both the Lebanese and Iranian Shia parties.

Counterbalancing and deterring Shia domination is used as a justification by ISIS for its brutal violence. Its recruits, which are not seldom highly educated, join for this reason. They see it as the only group that is effectively fighting anti-Sunni groups and governments. Frustrations and insecurities have led to the scapegoating and blaming of other groups for their hardship.  Nouri al-Maliki’s system of patronage refusal for compromise has showed that an autocratic, sectarian government only fuels a jihadi problem, rather than diminishing it by repression. Should the Assad regime continue to behave in a similar manner, and should credible Sunni alternatives fail to establish themselves, ISIS will have an opening to maintain their stronghold and become more difficult to defeat.

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.

 

 

 

 

Unholy Alliances: Radicalisation in US Detention Facilities

Photo: Wisconsin National Guard/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)
Photo: Wisconsin National Guard/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

Photo: Wisconsin National Guard/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

By Kari van der Ploeg -

The Islamic State (IS) is known for its religious fundamentalism. Remarkably, its leadership consists of many men with moderate religious backgrounds. Several of its highest deputies served as officials for Saddam Hussein’s army. As Hussein’s Ba’ath Party was secular by background, this raises questions on how these men evolved from moderate military leaders to religious fundamentalists. It is said that IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi met most of his deputies during his imprisonment at Camp Bucca. Camp Bucca was a detention facility maintained by the United States military since April 2003. In total, 80.000 detainees passed through these centres. Backgrounds included both Sunni and Shia extremists, as well as ordinary criminals. Al-Baghdadi was held in this US maintained detention facility in Southern Iraq since 2004. Testimonies claim that both al-Baghdadi as well as his deputies were known as moderate Muslims before their detention, but radicalised during their time in prison.

Al-Baghdadi used to be known as a modest and withdrawn man that did not hold any radical views on the Islamic faith before he was detained. Members of his local mosque in Tobchi, Baghdad, remember him as a quiet and polite student that was good at soccer rather than being an extremist jihadi. During his time at Camp Bucca, he was not remembered as one of the radical detainees either. Army Colonel Kenneth King, former commanding officer at Camp Bucca, stated in an interview with the Daily Beast: “I’m not surprised it was someone who spent time at Camp Bucca, but I’m a little surprised it was him. He was a bad dude, but he wasn’t the worst of the worst.” Al-Baghdadi remained on the background until Al-Qaida’s shura council, a religious consultative assembly, elected him as leader of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010.

The Islamic State of Iraq was a caliphate (a political order in which everyone lives under religious, political and military Muslim rule), proclaimed by Al-Qaida around 2006. Under the leadership of Al-Baghdadi the group grew significantly. The group pursued a borderless worldwide caliphate. So when the conflict in Syria started, Al-Baghdadi moved his group to the border with Syria. Syria’s branch of Al-Qaida, ‘Jabhat Al-Nusra’, pleaded the ISI to stay out of the conflict and leave it to them, which placed the two groups against each other. After its infiltration of Syria, ISI became known as ISIL or ISIS. On 24 June 2014 it took its current name: ‘Islamic State’ (IS).

When Al-Baghdadi became head of ISI he immediately eliminated all disloyal leaders, surrounding himself with men he most knew and trusted. The most notorious of these men are Fadel Ahmad Abdullah al-Hayali, IS deputy to Iraq, and Abu Ali al-Anbari, IS deputy to Syria. Both were high officials in Hussein’s army and used to practice moderate forms of Islam. Both of them, he met at Camp Bucca.

Details about al-Baghdadi’s stay at Camp Bucca remain vague. Sources give contradictory periods of his imprisonment. It is established that his detention started in 2004, but it is not certain when he was released. The US Defense Department claims he was released after ten months, whereas other sources claim he was detained until 2006. It is however confirmed by several sources that his deputies al-Anbari and al-Hayali were in Camp Bucca at the same time, as well as men that now possess high positions within the IS.

According to previously mentioned Col. Kenneth King, the environment among detainees at Camp Bucca was very hostile. Its population was a mixture between Sunni and Shia militants who had to be kept separated at all times. Prisoners were constantly looking for opportunities to start fighting. They looked for routines, patterns and opportunities while fashioning homemade weapons from junk they found on the ground.  The problem of overcrowding fueled the hostile atmosphere as it enhanced the scarcity of recourses, especially after a great number of transfers from Abu Ghraib to Camp Bucca took place. Another factor that contributed to this atmosphere was a sense of uncertainty among prisoners about their status. Prisoners did not have information whether there was a process in place to review their cases. These insecurities gave rise to a sense of unease and a susceptibility to extreme ideals.

Jihadi inmates, who were part of al-Qaida, played into these sentiments by indoctrinating, threatening and intimidating their fellow detainees. Adel Jasim Mohammed, a former inmate, stated in an interview with Al-Jazeera that they gave classes on chalkboard on how to build and use explosives and how to become suicide bombers. Chaos and vulnerability provided extremists with the opportunity to instill their ideologies upon others.

Other reasons for members of the Sunni oriented Ba’ath party to join the IS was their frustration with local politics towards Iraq’s Shia population. Sunni members were angry about loss of land to Shia Iraqi’s. There also was a lot of discontent among Sunni’s about Iraq’s policy in favoring Shia Muslims. After the US invasion in 2003 Sunnis were barred from government positions and Shias were gaining a lot of political dominance. Again, these sentiments of insecurity and vulnerability were used by jihadists to spark ideological motivations among their recruits. The IS for instance propagates their quest for territory as an existential fight for Sunni-Muslims worldwide. They purposely operate close to Shia divisions to maintain the ideological framework of their fighters.

We see that extremist groups were well aware of the insecurities that occupied their recruits. They efficiently played into these sentiments by indoctrinating them with their ideals, providing them with a reason to fight.

‘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.