Quilliam’s Political Liaison Officer Jonathan Russell contributes to this Financial Times report on ways in which online social networks are contributing to the phenomenon of young Britons travelling to take part in the brutal civil war in Syria.
In May last year, Ifthekar Jaman, a modest young Briton with Che Guevara locks and dimpled cheeks, stole away from the small terraced house in Portsmouth where he had grown up with his family – his mother and father Hena and Enu, his brothers, Mus and Tuhin, and his cat Bilai – to go and die in Syria. He left behind his guitar, his little cousins with whom he baked cupcakes and the aviary he had been building on the roof.
A week before Christmas he was shot by a tank in Deir Ezzor on the banks of the Euphrates, fighting for the Islamist State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis), the most brutal of all the factions fighting against Bashar al-Assad.
In his death, aged 23, Jaman became the most modern of martyrs: immortalised and venerated by the dozens of viewers who watched his artless, engaging videos online on Ustream and Keek; the hundreds who shared his Instagram photos; and the thousands on Twitter who retweeted his patter, aphorisms and religious dogma in 140 characters or less. For more than a year before he went to Syria and the seven months he was there, Jaman laid bare his beliefs, hopes and ambitions on social media.
Months later, his Twitter account still has more than 3,000 followers. In the short period he used it, he tweeted nearly 10,000 times, sometimes dozens of times a day. He was deeply engaged with the war in Syria, and with a broad network of followers at home in the UK – and he used Twitter just like any other social media-savvy member of Generation Y.
Jaman embodied a phenomenon that is not only baffling the west’s security services, but alarming them too: the burgeoning of radical Islamism through social media across Europe, which is radicalising thousands of young Muslims, dissolving borders, connecting them with banned terror organisations and propelling them towards violence in the most bloody conflict since the second world war.
According to UK security officials, about 400 Britons have gone to Syria to fight since the war began. Over half have returned. Dozens have been arrested under the terrorism acts, the Home Office says. A huge proportion of them, from across the UK, use social media.
“If the Gulf was the first televised war, this is the first tweeted war,” says Jonathan Russell, liaison officer at the Quilliam Foundation, a British think-tank that aims to combat Islamist extremism. “Gone are the days when you had to go to a certain problematic mosque and meet a hate preacher. There are stories of guys just following events on Twitter, or just sending messages to people over there, and then booking an easyJet flight to Turkey.”
Since January this year, the Financial Times has contacted more than a dozen fighters in Syria. They come from all over the UK – from Bradford to London via Birmingham and Luton – and from Europe: Holland, Denmark and Sweden. We did so through the media they themselves use: Twitter, Ask.fm (a site where anonymous internet users ask the host questions), the free text messaging apps Kik and WhatsApp, the internet phone services Skype and Viber, and by email.
Many refused to respond outright, deeply suspicious of the “lies of the media”, as one wrote. Others referred to their public answers to questions on Ask.fm. But seven responded privately in online conversations, detailing their experiences in Syria, their lives in the UK and the reasons they had gone to fight. All of them were aged 19 to 28 and all claimed to be members of violent Islamist groups, in most cases Isis, but also other groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in the region (Isis was disowned by al-Qaeda in January for being too violent).
All described watching the humanitarian crisis unfold for months from home before deciding to fight – following reports on Channel 4 News, sharing clips from the BBC on their Twitter accounts and consuming and distributing the huge amount of often violent raw material streaming out of Syria on YouTube. All wrote zealously about defending fellow Muslims; saving women from “rape camps”, as one put it, and protecting children, although all were also stridently sectarian and regard Assad’s Alawite regime – if not all Shias – as evil.
Like any group of young adult men using social media, they lark around too. Some have posted photos and recordings to Twitter and Tumblr of themselves riding donkeys or enjoying meals around campfires, and joking with each other – albeit about martyrdom.
The images project their own identities as much as communicate with others: pictures of themselves with weapons; artful shots of revolvers with the setting Syrian sun glinting through the trigger or, in another case, a fashionably washed-out Instagram photo of bullets arranged to spell out the user’s Twitter handle. None of the men the FT communicated with had any experience of war before they travelled to Syria: the closest most had come to holding a gun was playing computer games.
What is most striking about the social media content posted by young jihadis is its ordinariness, moving easily from kitten pictures via food snaps to memes and conspiracy theories. “Tried to get kitty to sleep near me but doesn’t like it and walks off. What’s the point. I want a new kitty,” Jaman would tweet, before switching to the need for an Islamist caliphate in Syria and the evils of democracy.
Others tweet from Aleppo about their favourite Kellogg’s cereal or the fact that they miss go-karting in Hampshire. The content is disarming, reflecting the extent to which information refracted through social media – even when inflected with a violent ideology – is so easily normalised. “Teaching mum how to use Twitter,” Jaman wrote just before he left for Syria.
In November Jaman’s story was picked up by UK media and he gave an interview to BBC Newsnight. His distraught parents say they had no idea what their son was planning to do: his mother told the Daily Mail that she thought her son was in Turkey studying.
It is through social media that a city like Portsmouth – with a small Muslim population below the national average and no previous record as a hotbed of Islamism – could end up as home to five, possibly more, young jihadis. Ifthekar Jaman was the first to go and fight, according to those who knew him.
If Twitter is a vehicle for self-expression, its darker side – in the context of radical Islamism and of jihad in Syria – is its power as a recruiting tool. All the jihadis the FT communicated with were very conscious of the fact. “It’s important for people to see the real picture, directly from the ground,” one fighter from Holland wrote – so that others will join the fight. Many said their tweeting was like “Da’wa”, which means “preaching” in Arabic and is the term used to describe proselytising Islam. There are no parade-ground calls-to-arms on the Twitter feeds or video uploads of most jihadis, just young fighters posting pictures of themselves in the desert and revelling in their own sense of purpose and community.
“In many ways, Syria has revolutionised the jihadist use of PR and the jihadis’ use of information – the dominance of social media to communicate, stay connected, provide statements – and for people to have their own accounts has been profound,” says Charles Lister, a Doha-based terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think any other conflict has come anywhere near the quantity or scale of social media use we are seeing in Syria. This effect is going to continue for years to come … it has been hugely valuable in terms of recruitment.”
The fighting groups that many jihadis join in Syria are more than aware of the power social media has brought them. According to western intelligence officials the FT has spoken to, almost all these groups have sophisticated, well-resourced social media teams, none more so than Isis – the group Ifthekar Jaman ended up with. Dozens of accounts linked to the organisation tweet in English and Arabic and reach out intentionally to Islamist groups and organisations across Europe. Isis’s unmistakable black-and-white flag has become the avatar for hundreds of tweeters based in the UK.
The Twitter feeds of many British fighters are filled with references to “jannah” – paradise – and eulogies about friends who have got there by being killed. Many post horrific images. At one end of the spectrum are shots of corpses with apparent smiles on their faces – fellow jihadis who have achieved martyrdom and are venerated. At the other end are the pictures of the gruesome mutilated bodies of their enemies.
“They’re young – Facebook and Twitter have been ubiquitous in their lives … but they lack a lot of information. They imbibe the al-Qaeda narrative: highly anti-Shia, sectarian, anti-western and all about establishing a caliphate,” says Shiraz Maher, a researcher at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London.
Maher and his colleagues have spent more than two years cataloguing the interactions of European jihadis fighting in Syria; he estimates 2,000 went there over that period. Few of those Maher follows – and none of those we contacted, with the exception of one Dutch fighter – have any clear ambition to come back to their homes in Europe. Most see themselves achieving martyrdom in Syria or living as heroes, with many wives, in the caliphate they believe they must succeed in establishing.
“I know if I was to return to Britain I would be in prison for life despite the fact I would integrate back with no problems,” one 19-year-old fighter said. “But saving lives is better than a red passport.”
European anti-terror officials are in little doubt as to the scale of the threat posed by Syria’s mujahideen. The number of foreign fighters in Syria exceeds that of those who flocked to Afghanistan in the early 1980s to fight the Soviets – a conflict that spawned al-Qaeda and set the west on course for decades of conflict.
According to Jean-Paul Laborde, the UN’s counter-terrorism chief, “The magnitude of the problem is huge, it is growing. Terrorist acts are becoming more and more frequent. With the enormous amount of people – all of these foreign fighters going to fight – the risk is very high, higher than for 10 years. The foreign fighter problem is everywhere – in western Africa, in East Africa, with the [Westgate] mall attack. And in Syria it is [at its] worst.”
Senior Whitehall officials have told the FT that over half of all the casework currently handled by the UK security service – MI5 – is related to combating the threat posed by Britons travelling to Syria or returning. Even though all the fighters we communicated with denied having any intention of carrying out attacks against their home countries, experts say there is little doubt that the UK is a prime target. The director-general of MI5, Sir Andrew Parker, described the terror threat to the UK as “more diffuse, more complicated and more unpredictable” than ever before in a rare public speech at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank, in October. One plot against the UK – for a Mumbai-style attack against targets in a large city – planned by returnee fighters from Syria, has already been thwarted according to security officials.
The police have embarked on a spate of arrests this year, with the most notable coming in late February, when Moazzam Begg, the former Guantánamo detainee, was taken into custody. Begg was charged with terror offences related to Syria earlier this month – at the Old Bailey via video link from Belmarsh prison. He was charged under two provisions of the UK’s sweeping 2006 anti-terrorism law for providing terrorist training in Syria and for funding terrorism overseas – offences that carry a 10-year jail sentence.
Other, wider-ranging provisions in the same law have been used by police to arrest UK suspects too, in particular section 1 which covers encouragement of terrorism through direct and indirect means, including its “glorification”. Securing safe convictions under section 1 is recognised as a tricky task – one of the issues that has made police reluctant to use it if they can opt for more concrete breaches of the law.
“The situation is escalating,” says Quilliam’s Jonathan Russell. “More people have been arrested for Syria-related offences so far this year than in the whole of 2013. That’s the scale of the increase. We are getting to 1,000 by the end of the year and that is just too big a job for our security services to monitor and look after in terms of surveillance.”
The problem extends far beyond the individuals who have travelled out. For every jihadi, a vast hinterland of virtual followers exists on Twitter and other social media. UK security officials estimate that half of those who go to Syria will die there, but in doing so, they will still pose a threat. “It spreads the Islamist narrative even further,” says Russell. “Their families and friends may see them as martyrs. The problem becomes entrenched. It becomes a personal grievance. It’s not foreign policy any more, it’s Bashar al-Assad who killed my brother, killed my son.”
Those in charge of the UK’s anti-terror policies admit there is no way of knowing what threat the social media followers of jihadis represent. A study last year by the US extremism expert JM Berger and Google engineer Bill Strathearn, backed by Google, may point the way. It looked at how white supremacists in America used Twitter and concluded that the more socially engaged in the network individuals were – the more their tweets were retweeted or they retweeted those of others – the more overt they were in identifying themselves as extremist.
Several police forces across the UK, as well as the Home Office and GCHQ – the government’s signals intelligence bureau – have told the FT they are avidly monitoring social media as best they can. The British government is aware of where its existing pre-emptive anti-terror strategy, dubbed “Prevent” (part of the overarching terrorism policy “‘Contest”, first launched in 2003) is falling short. The strategy’s historic focus has been on tackling the physical sites of extremism and individuals – targeting radical mosques or stopping groups operating in schools or universities.
David Cameron commissioned a task force to review the strategy in the wake of the murder of drummer Lee Rigby by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in London last May. It reported in December that, “Extremist propaganda is too widely available, particularly online, and has a direct impact on radicalising individuals,” calling for more restriction of online content, more censorship and more “counter-narrative” material – voices other than the government espousing moderation. Putting these aims into practice is a slow and difficult process, however. With internet companies and civil liberties campaigners still indignant over the Edward Snowden leaks, which laid bare the huge surveillance activities of US and UK spymasters online, it is a highly sensitive moment for the UK government to attempt to take a greater role in the moderation of online content. Twitter did not respond to the FT’s requests for a comment on these issues.
“This is a very dynamic, fast-moving environment in terms of the use of social media and the use of terminology, and we need to be agile to respond to that,” says James Brokenshire, the UK security minister.
The problem is twofold. First, while the government has in place powers that enable it to have websites taken down – 8,000 removals have been granted this year alone, compared to 20,000 in the past four years – there is no such capability for an individual tweet to be removed. Even when Twitter accounts are blocked for consistently breaching Twitter’s own guidelines on inciting violence, users simply add a digit to the end of their old handle name and pop up, garnering hundreds of followers within days.
“The challenge is that all these sites are so different,” Brokenshire says. A site hosting video material and a social media instant messaging platform, for example, present fundamentally different issues. Second, while some content is clearly illegal, much of it is not. Quotations from the Qu’ran cut with opinions on the immorality of British life and the ideals of martyrdom, or links to articles on atrocities in Syria, is the currency of the jihadi narrative, but does not add up to a jailable offence.
“Government on its own can’t solve this,” Brokenshire says. The Home Office is lobbying internet companies hard to persuade them to become more careful in the way they handle their own content. “We want to continue a discussion with them as to how best they can handle material that is potentially radicalising and extremist but that is not illegal.”
It is a fine line to tread. “These techniques and technologies are absolutely at the bedrock of who we are and what we do now as individuals, it’s not that we are seeking to frustrate that,” says Brokenshire. “But [we need to] work with industry where these are being used in a dark way, [to] exploit the vulnerable and to take someone down a path towards terrorism.”
The Portsmouth Jami mosque is just a stone’s throw from the quiet terraced street where Ifthekar Jaman grew up, close enough that his cat would sometimes follow him there for dawn prayers. The area is not known for having a hardline religious community: the locals who the FT spoke to – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – mostly expressed bewilderment at the disappearance of the young men from Portsmouth and their untimely deaths in Syria.
The mosque itself is set back from one of the ugly roundabout systems that hem the centre of town. The building is attractive: an old music hall, its long, high rectangular bulk, with a gable roof and small whitewashed belfry oddly give it the air of a Methodist chapel. A bright mosaic, pieced together by the mosque’s congregation, sparkles above the entrance, spelling out a line from the Qu’ran: “Peace is better”.
Now, in the wake of Jaman’s death, the Jami mosque has asked its young members not to gather without permission from older members. It is a gesture of concern, but the harsh reality is that such traditional remedies have little relevance to the gatherings and the communities which pose the most serious threat – those that take place at the click of a mouse.
Click here to read this article in the Financial Times.