World

02.16.14

Syria’s Jihadist Twitter Wars

How disgruntled extremists inside Syria’s al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel factions are taking to social media to air their internecine grievances.

In March 2012, Omar Hammami, the American jihadist who called himself Abu Mansour al Amriki and fought for Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, released a short videotape claiming his life was in danger. But Hammami wasn’t fearful that American or Somali forces were pursuing him. Instead, he feared that Shabaab’s emir might kill him him due to differences with strategy and the implementation of Islamic law. 

Shabaab responded on its Twitter account, and denied that Hammami was targeted for death. Hammami followed his video by taking to Twitter to lash out at Shabaab and its emir. Hammami even released his autobiography via Twitter. 

The Twitter War between Hammami and Shabaab continued for 18 months until Shabaab finally tired of the American’s critiques and sent its secret intelligence unit to execute him and a Brit follower

While @wikibaghdady’s account may be biased against Abu Bakr, the events described are consistent with what has transpired in Iraq and Syria.

The Hammami/Shabaab Twitter war was one of the first instances in which jihadists, who once were voiceless or confined to more structured forums, have aired their dirty laundry in public.  

This trend of jihadists going back and forth on social media sites has continued. And the internecine sniping is on full display in the Syrian civil war as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) is on the outs with the al-Nusra Front for the People of the Levant, al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, and allied jihadist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham.

Jihadists on both sides of the aisle have taken to Twitter to savage the opposite faction for promoting fitna, or strife, within the ranks of the muhajideen. But beyond the rank and file, some important personalities have used Twitter to voice their displeasure. 

The most fascinating Twitter flamer has gone by the name @wikibaghdady. While his real name isn’t known, wikibaghdady is thought to be a senior leader in the ISIS, and possibly a disenchanted member of the group’s shura, or executive council, U.S. intelligence officials have told The Daily Beast. 

Between December 10, 2013 and January 21, 2014, wikibaghdady unloaded a stream of tweets in Arabic that documented the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the ISIS, and his deputy, Haji Omar; the group’s move into Syria; its dispute with the emir of the al-Nusra Front; and the formation of the ISIS. While wikibaghdady’s account may be biased against Abu Bakr, the events described are consistent with what has transpired in Iraq and Syria. Wikibaghdady has gone silent since his last post on January 21. 

Another interesting bout of flame-throwing by a jihadist leader took place in January, when Abu Khalid al-Suri, a senior leader and founder of Ahrar al-Sham, one of the largest factions in the Islamist Front, attacked the ISIS. Al-Suri harshly criticized the ISIS because of its infighting with other jihadist groups, and said that the group should not attribute its actions to Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other leading jihadists.

Al-Suri’s tweets are interesting because he isn’t just a random Syrian rebel leader with a beef with the ISIS. Al-Suri, whose real name is Mohamed Bahaiah, currently serves as Zawahiri's representative in Syria. He has also served as Osama bin Laden's courier, and is accused by the Spanish government of passing surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center and other American landmarks to al-Qaeda's senior leadership in Afghanistan in early 1998.

Jihadists aren't using Twitter just to poke jabs at rival factions. The social media site has become a mainstay for propaganda and recruiting for most major groups. Most big jihadist groups have an official presence on Twitter, and often distribute their official propaganda there.

Twitter was such an effective tool for Shabaab that its account was shut down numerous times. Shabaab released official statements and speeches, as well as communicated operations, often in real time. Shabaab’s acumen with Twitter was on display for the world to see in September 2013 during its multi-day assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. As the Kenyan government struggled to retake the mall, Shabaab lobbed taunt after taunt.

Twitter shut down Shabaab’s account several times during the Westgate siege, only to watch the group establish new accounts. The new Shabaab accounts were then distributed by Shabaab supporters and were easily found by the media. Shabaab’s success with Twitter also spawned a series of copycats who attempted to mimic the terror group’s style.

Twitter has been both a benefit and a curse for jihadist groups. On one hand, the social media site has help spread their message, communicate with followers, and incite potential recruits to wage jihad. On the other, jihadist groups have lost the ability to control the messaging when one their own want to lash out at their leaders or rival groups.