Tweeting for the Caliphate: Twitter as the New Frontier for Jihadist Propaganda
by Nico Prucha and Ali Fisher
Almost all forms of online media allow, enable and empower users to generate their own content and interact by posting comments, questions or responses. Online media platforms facilitate a blend of audiovisual media interspersed with writings that further sanction and explain specific ideological dimensions of jihadist activity. As the range of online platforms has expanded, jihadist groups have increasingly used sites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr. The role of the "media mujahidin" has been approved, sanctioned and encouraged with the release of suggested strategies, although not all jihadists have perceived the move away from the traditional discussion forum websites as positive.
The classical jihadist discussion forums remain the vital hub for authoritative and cohesive propaganda online. The importance given to Twitter by jihadist groups, however, was highlighted in the 11th issue of Inspire magazine, which was released by al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in May 2013. Indeed, within the complex network of interconnecting sites, Twitter has become the main hub for the active dissemination of links guiding users to digital content hosted on a range of websites, social media platforms, and discussion forums.
This article discusses the emergence of jihadist social media strategies, explains how the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) has used Twitter to disseminate content, and analyzes content shared by JN. Using an interdisciplinary approach to the analysis of jihadist propaganda, this article demonstrates how jihadist groups are using Twitter to disseminate links to video content shot on the battlefield in Syria and posted for mass consumption on YouTube. Data for this article is derived from analysis based on more than 76,000 tweets, containing more than 34,000 links to web-based content. Through the mining of this data, this article identifies a content sharing network of more than 20,000 active Twitter accounts and a collection of YouTube video files that have been viewed nearly 450,000 times.
Twitter: The New Beacon for Jihadist Activity Online
The main al-Qa'ida forums have adopted this trend and are active on Twitter, promoting their official Twitter accounts on the main jihadist web forum pages. Jihadist media activists and fighters on the ground use Twitter on a regular basis to upload their personal pictures and videos that were made with their cell phone cameras. This material enters the jihadist online sphere where it is immediately used and re-used to strengthen the worldview of al-Qa'ida and affiliated groups. As a result, new communication channels have emerged through which the new generation of activists and fighters, including those working for, or on behalf of, al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), AQAP, al-Shabab, and JN, can interact with potential influence multipliers and sympathizers.
Groups such as the Somalia-based al-Shabab rely on Twitter to publish pictures, statements, and links to YouTube jihadist videos primarily in Arabic and English. Al-Shabab used Twitter to update their followers regarding the failed French operation to free Denis Allex, who had been taken hostage by the group in 2009. Pictures of an alleged dead French soldier and his gear were posted on Twitter and Facebook, with the al-Shabab Twitter account (@HSMPress) claiming that they executed one of the French hostages in revenge for the raid.
The Afghan Taliban (@ABalkhi), AQIM's media department al-Andalus (@Andalus_Media), and the Islamic State of Iraq's (AQI) al-Furqan media branch (@abo_al_hassan) all have Twitter accounts and frequently publish and disseminate new and old content. AQAP, for example, recently resorted to using Twitter to link to official statements.
These "official" media channels facilitate active communication with sympathizers and followers on Twitter. For example, an official al-Qa'ida user on jihadist web forums advertised for AQIM's al-Andalus Media's Twitter account. Four days later, on April 1, 2013, an "open interview" was announced via the forums with "Shaykh Ahmad Abu 'Abd al-Ilaha, the head of the Media Board for al-Andalus," setting a time window for individuals to ask him questions on Twitter using the al-Andalus account. On April 18, the Twitter account posted a link to a PDF document containing all of the shaykh's answers to the questions.
The use of twitter by jihadist media activists was further highlighted by the "AQTweets" section in the recent edition of AQAP's English-language Inspire magazine, which highlighted tweets about the Boston bombings of April 2013.
Jabhat al-Nusra on Twitter
The primary jihadist rebel group in Syria, which maintains active links to al-Qa'ida, is JN. Although JN's official Twitter account, @jbhatalnusra, has been quiet since April 10, 2013, there has been a steady increase in their followers. In addition to collecting and analyzing tweets posted by @jbhatalnusra, the authors also identified and analyzed influential users, the most shared links and the content to which those links directed users. A total of 76,000 tweets containing JN related content were captured over 50 days from January 27, 2013, to March 18, 2013.
JN disseminates content using the hashtag #جبهة_النصرة, the original short version of the name in Arabic for which the group has become known. Through an analysis of the tweets containing the Arabic hashtag for Jabhat al-Nusra, the network of users sharing content via Twitter was identified. The following is a list of users who frequently tweeted using the #جبهة_النصرة hashtag during the 50-day period: @Nasser1437: 1,257 tweets; @zhoof21: 593 tweets; @al_khansaa2: 363 tweets; @qmzp1434: 359 tweets; @alshohdaa: 300 tweets; @az_241: 287 tweets; @Jalaaad_alshi3a: 265 tweets; @SaifAlbayan: 254 tweets; @shame210: 230 tweets; @ROOH_GNAN: 223 tweets.
Active users are defined as those who share a lot of content, but it does not indicate whether other users read or followed their content. To determine whether a user can be considered "influential," the most frequently "mentioned" users in tweets containing #جبهة_النصرة were identified. Over the 50 days of data collection, users sharing tweets containing the #جبهة_النصرة tag created 45,959 connections among 20,459 users. A total of 96.5% of these users were part of a single interconnected network. The most influential users are those who have been most frequently mentioned. Those Twitter users are as follows:
The two most influential Twitter accounts using the JN hashtag are @jalaaad_alshi3a, who appears to be an extremist al-Qa'ida follower probably based in northern Syria, and @Wesal_TV, the "official account of the [Saudi] Wesal [satellite] Television Network."
Wesal TV is a particularly important node in this network. In addition to airing recruitment videos for the Free Syrian Army on television, Wesal TV disseminates links to JN and other jihadist groups on YouTube to its 290,000 Twitter followers.
This highlights a key finding: twitter has become the main hub for the active dissemination of links directing users to digital content hosted on a range of other platforms.
Links on YouTube
Of the 20 most shared shortlinks, 80% lead to YouTube videos, while the other shortlinks direct to pictures shared via Twitter or Facebook. The most frequently shared shortlinks to YouTube content lead to 15 video files that have been watched a total of 440,200 times, although one video file accounted for 250,000 of those views. These videos are on average 273 seconds in duration and have an average Twitter "rating" of 4.9 out of 5.
Three of the video files had more than one shortlink associated with them, meaning that they were hosted on multiple websites. These video files are:
- The Moment of Attaining Martyrdom by One Member of JN (23,599 views, shared twice);
The Visual Literacy of Role Models, Indoctrination & Radicalization
The second most shared video file demonstrated vividly the multilayered and multifaceted dimension of jihadist video culture on the internet. It had more than 10,000 views and consisted of a short sequence from another video, The Sincere Promise, published by JN's media department, al-Manarat al-Bayda', on al-Qa'ida web forums and other jihadist outlets online. The original one-hour video was published on May 22, 2012, and is available as a full high definition version. It was a classical jihadist video but seemed influenced by AQI, resembling the general layout, the quality, as well as the military operations common to that organization. The video began by showing abuse and torture conducted by the Syrian regime, and then JN pledged a "sincere promise" to seek revenge and restore the dignity of Sunnis in Syria.
While one may expect that the most bloodiest and brutal scenes of the film would be chosen for the Twitter clip—such as the testimonies of the portrayed martyrdom operatives (istishhadiyyun), the executions of captured soldiers, or sequences showing the torture of civilians by al-Assad's shabiha militias—the sequence instead highlighted the moral actions of JN, such as moving a civilian out of the line of fire and aborting an improvised explosive device (IED) attack to prevent collateral damage. The first part of the sequence allegedly showed JN fighters engaged in Syria's northeastern city of Idlib. During a firefight between JN and government forces, one mujahid took care of a civilian, shielding him behind a wall. A grey arrow highlighted "safeguarding Muslims" to counter any possible discrediting of JN, a lesson learned from Iraq and Algeria where al-Qa'ida affiliates indiscriminately bombed targets resulting in the deaths of scores of Sunni civilians. The scene is further detailed on JN's official forum, describing themselves as the "mujahidin who are the ones bringing death to the shabiha. In another place the mujahidin bring humanitarian aid."
The later sequences showed planned IED attacks on cars, minivans, and buses purportedly carrying troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad. In another scene, a pedestrian was branded as "Muslim" by a grey arrow, as the targets (marked as "targets") passed by, with JN deliberately aborting the operation to avoid a civilian casualty. One of the mujahidin said off-camera, "we did not blow the car up as Muslims are here. We ask God that He may protect us, sparing their blood."
In this case, JN is implementing lessons learned from past conflicts and has adopted its ideology in coherence with messaging from al-Qa'ida's senior leadership.
Within a few days, the sequence uploaded on YouTube under the title Jabhat al-Nusra Forbids the Carrying Out of Operations Due to the Presence of Civilians was viewed about 10,000 times. In general, the comments were positive, admiring the professionalism, implementation of their ideology, and pledge to fight for the defense of Sunni Muslims. The proper operationalization of the propagated ideology was applauded by the member "soraqh," who stated that "the jihad of our brothers in JN is [based] on the correct creed, and the blood of any Muslim is without doubt forbidden (haram)."
Within this zeitgeist, new jihadist files show ideological coherence, while individual consumers are able to seek guidance or further explanation should decisions, actions or deeds seem unclear. With the density of jihadist, al-Qa'ida-dominated material online, local groups such as JN or AQIM seek to frame their actions as part of this global war under the ideological umbrella of al-Qa'ida. Understanding what aspects are most appraised allow governments or analysts to potentially rate and measure elements most vital for radicalization processes in general.
While the technology can be disruptive for authorities, these platforms can also be empowering for those seeking to understand user behavior within these complex digital environments. Social media platforms produce vast quantities of data. This creates the opportunity to leverage genuine interdisciplinary approaches, which combine in-depth knowledge of big data techniques and network analysis, with rich multilingual understanding of the ideological, religious, and cultural foundations of jihadist propaganda. Ultimately, "the potential in the era of big data comes not from drowning in a sea of data but navigating the most useful ways to derive insight and develop innovative strategies."
Nico Prucha is a fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH), University of Hamburg. His research focuses on textual and audiovisual content analysis of al-Qa'ida activity online, specifically focusing on jihadist Shari'a law interpretation of hostage taking and executions. He has written frequently on the subject, such as for Jane's and blogs at Jihadica. He is currently completing his Ph.D. at the Department at Near Eastern Studies at the University of Vienna.
Dr. Ali Fisher is an adviser, strategist and author on methods of achieving influence across a range of disciplines including public diplomacy and strategic communication, counterterrorism, child protection, human security, and public health. Across these diverse disciplines, his work enables organizations to identify and build networks of influence. His book, Collaborative Public Diplomacy, was published earlier this year.
 The persistent as well as ideologically cohesive presence of jihadist propaganda online, framed as authoritative rulings and determinations, has become an open sub-culture. The jihadist narrative, enforced by audio and visual elements, strengthens in-group cohesion and affects mainstream Muslim culture, the main targeted audience.
 For an introduction to the jihadist presence on Twitter as well as the social media strategy deployed since the outbreak of violence in Syria, see Ali Fisher and Nico Prucha, "Jihadi Twitter Activism – Introduction," Jihadica.com, April 27, 2013.
 Cori E. Dauber, "YouTube War: Fighting in a World of Cameras in Every Cell Phone and Photoshop on Every Computer," U.S. Army War College, 2009.
 Tumblr is a microblogging platform and social networking website. According to Rüdiger Lohlker, it "looks like a hybrid between blogging and Facebook. It's in a layout similar to a blog, but it has all sorts of sharing features you may meet on Facebook. On tumblr, you will post text, photos, quotes, links, music, and videos from wherever you happen to be in a tumblelog." See Rüdiger Lohlker, "Tumbling Along the Straight Path – Jihadis on tumblr.com," University of Vienna, August 2012.
 "Al-Manhajiyya fi tahsil al-khibra al-i'lamiyya, Mu'assasat al-Furqan & Markaz al-Yaqin, part 1," Markaz al-Yaqin and al-Furqan, May 2011.
 The sanctioning of jihadist activity is related to the existing core fatawa (authoritative rulings and ideological decrees). Thus, any local jihadist, al-Qa'ida-affiliated action is placed under the virtual umbrella, increasing the appeal. See Prem Mahadevan, "The Glocalisation of al-Qaedaism," Center for Security Studies, March 22, 2013.
 Discussed in Fisher and Prucha, "Jihadi Twitter Activism – Introduction"; Nico Prucha, "Online Territories of Terror – Utilizing the Internet for Jihadist Endeavors," Orient 4 (2011). Members of the Ansar al-Mujahidin forum and Shumukh al-Islam have posted advice encouraging fellow users to develop social media profiles to disseminate their message to a wider group of users. See for example: "The Twitter Guide // the Most Important Jihadi Users and Support Accounts for Jihad and the Mujahideen on Twitter," available at www.shamikh1.info/vb/showthread.php?t=192509; "Selected Tweets from Twitter," available at www.shamikh1.info/vb/showthread.php?t=192509.
 The jihadist success in using Twitter has had its impact on leading jihadist writers such as Abu Sa'd al-'Amili to highlight the shift of "major [jihadi] writers and analysts," lamenting the general decline in participation in jihadist online forums. Furthermore, al-'Amili issued a "Call (nida') to the Soldiers of the Jihad Media" demanding that they "return to their frontiers (thughur)" elevating their status. Al-'Amili himself is a high profile cleric, but is also quite active on twitter under @al3aamili. Also see Cole Bunzel, "Are the Jihadi Forums Flagging? An Ideologue's Lament," Jihadica.com, March 20, 2013.
 Twitter has become an addition to the classical forums but is attracting more interaction among members subscribed to the jihadist worldview. Within the "jihadiscape" on Twitter, members re-publish and disseminate "official" al-Qa'ida content, upload their personal files, such as pictures via their mobile phones, or link to extremist content on YouTube. Twitter has become the new beacon for jihadist propaganda and, more importantly, a free zone for extremist users online. The jihadist forums, however, are the first place where new jihadist core content is injected and then promoted by initiated users. On the importance of online forums, see Evan F. Kohlmann, "A Beacon for Extremists: The Ansar al-Mujahideen Web Forum," CTC Sentinel 3:2 (2010).
 "AQTweets," Inspire 11 (2013): p. 17. The cover story and a colorful picture commemorating Tamerlan Tsarnaev elaborated the "AQTweets" section. In the picture, the Boston bomber is depicted as sending an SMS from paradise to his mother: "My dear mom, I will lay down my life for Islam. I'm gonna die for Islam Inshaa Allah." Reactions taken from Twitter include the user Abu Shamel, who stated: "Allahu Akbar, I feel so happy, only 2 soldiers of Allah defeated America, it's army & #intel America can never stop the decree of Allah." The magazine took credit for having successfully inspired not only the Boston bombers, but also the Woolwich assailants, in a reasoning phrased as an "eye for an eye," revenge for the occupation of Islamic countries and the deployment of unmanned drones.
 Solely appearing in this list of users should not be considered evidence of jihadist affiliation. For example, academics and commentators writing about the phenomena may also appear in this list of 20,000.
 Recent martyr biographies—such as Abu Qasura al-Gharib, a 19-year old Libyan fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra—outline how the internet and the regular consumption of ideological materials have impacted a new generation. The biography, a eulogy written by one of his brothers in arms published on the Shumukh al-Islam forum, highlighted how Abu Qasura (Muhammad al-Zulaytni) used his iPad to improve his knowledge, embrace al-Qa'ida ideologues, and remain active online within the jihadist spheres while he fought in Syria. The virtual footprint of real-life martyrs and their internet habits is part of the advocated role model. He was killed on January 4, 2012. For details www.shamikh1.info/vb/showthread.php?t=193834.
 On the strategy and tactic of how the primarily Arabic language ideology is conveyed by individual preachers and activists, in this case for Germany and Austria, see Nico Prucha, "Die Vermittlung arabischer Jihadisten-Ideologie: Zur Rolle deutscher Aktivisten," in Guido Steinberg ed., Jihadismus und Internet: Eine deutsche Perspektive (Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 2012), pp. 45-56.
 See also Rüdiger Lohlker, "Religion, Weapons, and Jihadism Emblematic Discourses" and Philipp Holtmann, "The Symbols of Online Jihad," in Rüdiger Lohlker ed., Jihadism: Online Discourses and Representations (Göttingen: Vienna University Press, 2013).
 The Ansar al-Mujahidin network, a tier-one jihadist forum, for example, advertises its Twitter account
 "Denis Allex: French Agent 'Killed' by Somalia al-Shabab," BBC, January 17, 2013.
 Al-Shabab circulated the Facebook link to its Arabic account on Twitter to increase awareness.
 This "press release," claiming the execution of Denis Allex, went online on January 16, 2013, four days after the French attempt to free the hostage. It further stated, "the death of the two French soldiers pales into insignificance besides the dozens of Muslim civilians senselessly killed by the French forces during the operation. Avenging the deaths of these civilians and taking into consideration France's increasing persecution of Muslims around the world, its oppressive anti-Islam policies at home, French military operations in the war against Islamic Shari'ah in Afghanistan and, most recently, in Mali, and its continued economic, political and military assistance towards the African invaders in Muslim lands, Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen has reached a unanimous decision to execute the French intelligence officer, Dennis Allex."
 He updated his profile after announcing the merger of Jabhat al-Nusra with the Islamic State of Iraq, claiming to be the media account for the "Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [Syria]."
 At the end of January 2013, AQAP disseminated three statements via Twitter. A high profile jihadist Twitter user, @STRATEAGY, "retweeted" these. A member of the Ansar al-Mujahidin forum posted a screenshot of the subsequent "retweets" on the forums, to gain more attention for AQAP. See "Urgent – Three New Statements by AQAP," available at www.as-ansar.com/vb/showthread.php?t=79875.
 "Statement Regarding the New Twitter Account," available at www.as-ansar.com/vb/showthread.php?t=85175.
 "Now the Open Interview with Shaykh Ahmad Abu 'Abd al-Ilaha, the Head of the Media Board for al-Andalus," available at www.as-ansar.com/vb/showthread.php?t=85501&highlight=andalus_media.
 The questions and answers, in Arabic, can be accessed here: http://ia801703.us.archive.org/11/items/answersI.1/answersI.pdf.
 "AQTweets," Inspire 11 (2013): p. 17.
 At the time of writing, @jbhatalnusra has just over 60,000 followers, a 33% increase since April 3, 2013, and 6.5% since May 7, 2013.
 "Influential users" were determined by those posting content using the Jabhat al-Nusra hashtag.
 Analysis of the first two weeks of aggregated data, previously published on Jihadica.com, identified a network of 12,253 connections between 7,051 accounts that were either actively sharing content via retweet or were mentioned in a tweet containing #جبهة_النصرة. Ninety-five percent of the users formed a single interconnected information sharing network. Only 352 of the 7,051 users observed tweeting using #جبهة_النصرة did not interact with at least one member of this network. See Nico Prucha, "Jihadi Twitter Activism Part 2: Jabhat al-Nusra on the Twittersphere," Jihadica.com, May 13, 2013.
 On Twitter, "mentioning" another user is when one individual tweets another individual's username in a message.
 For the purposes of this study, a "connection" is made when one user retweets or mentions a second user on Twitter.
 A smaller version of this network can be seen at Prucha, "Jihadi Twitter Activism Part 2: Jabhat al-Nusra on the Twittersphere."
 The Saudi satellite TV station Wesal, a global television network with more than 290,000 followers on Twitter, is essential for Jabhat al-Nusra propaganda-wise. @Wesal_TV actively addresses the ongoing fighting against the al-Assad regime, calling for financial, material, and personal support for the Sunnis in Syria. For a full discussion, see Prucha, "Jihadi Twitter Activism Part 2: Jabhat al-Nusra on the Twittersphere."
 See www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1FW-YFu1DE.
 URL shortening services save space in microblogs, such as Twitter, due to character limits.
 These reflect the number of views per link, not in total. All numbers correspond to the number of views on YouTube, as of May 30, 2013. Three links regarding the "martyr" from Kuwait, Khalid Abu Sulayman, were shared, of which two are identical. The third video is a eulogy in the form of a rhyme with various pictures of the fighter whose real name was given as Khalid bin Hadi al-Dihani al-Mutayri. This video has 9,617 views and includes screen grabs of Twitter where JN sympathizers propagated his "martyrdom." See www.youtube.com/watch?v=1b0a661vKNs.
 The author's use of "video file" means a file stored on the YouTube system with a specific ID to distinguish it from two visually similar "videos" that have separate video IDs. Despite the colloquial use of "video," users actually share, view and comment on specific video files.
 A 14-minute video showed the radical pro-Chechnya emirate, anti-Russian and anti-Assad demonstration by "Garip-Dar" in front of the Russian Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. It was uploaded on January 27, 2013, by the user "ömer onur belül" who has only posted this one video on YouTube. It received much less traction, with about 2,500 views by February 25, 2013. The clip showed a speaker and his followers holding a "press conference," held in Turkish. This may be the reason for the difference in views. While the majority of Arabic-language Twitter users reposted this clip in support of the jihad in Syria, it was of lesser importance due to the language barrier. See Garib-Der Rusya BüyükelÇiligi Basin AÇiklamasi, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVr4OGB6xGY.
 According to the video description, the officer, also named a shabiha, was captured and interrogated in the countryside of Homs. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lsPYCaln5o&feature=g-subs-u.
 Aaron Y. Zelin, "The Rise of Al Qaeda in Syria," Foreign Policy, December 6, 2012.
 Sidq al-Wa'd, The Sincere Promise, can be retrieved on "Jihad Archive" at www.jarchive.net/details.php?item_id=7528 as well as on other jihadist forums.
 For a case on how the leadership of AQIM justified two major suicide bombing operations in the capital of Algeria in 2007 after being criticized by sympathizers on the jihadist forums, see Nico Prucha, "A Look at Jihadists' Suicide Fatwas: The Case of Algeria," Research Institute for European and American Studies, 2010.
 Scott Helfstein, Nassir Abdullah and Muhammad al-Obaidi, Deadly Vanguards: A Study of al-Qa'ida's Violence Against Muslims (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2009).
 For details, see www.jalnosra.com/vb/showthread.php?t=138.
 See, for example, Charles Lister, "Jabhat al-Nusra – a Self Professed AQ-Affiliate," Jihadica.com, May 8, 2013.
 For details, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByRY4bxyZjM&feature=youtu.be.
 Ali Fisher, Collaborative Public Diplomacy: How Transnational Networks Influenced American Studies in Europe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
 Ali Fisher, "Everybody's Getting Hooked Up: Building Innovative Strategies in the Era of Big Data," Public Diplomacy Magazine Summer (2012): pp. 43-54.
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