War on the Rocks
December 30, 2015
Abu Ahmad, one of Islamic State’s most active supporters online says he has had over 90 Twitter accounts suspended, but is not planning to slow down. He is a trusted member of what has come to be called the Baqiya family, a loose network of Islamic State supporters from around the world who share news, develop close friendships, and help each other when members get arrested or come under law enforcement surveillance. Abu Ahmad, as with all Baqiya members, agreed to talk to me on the condition that his real name and location not be published.
While Islamic State social media accounts used to flourish, Twitter has now been suspending the accounts of fighters and supporters alike. Scholars and analysts continue to debate whether this is effective and worthwhile.
For over two years now, I have co-directed a study of Western foreign fighters based at the University of Waterloo and have been interviewing — on Skype and various text messaging platforms — several dozen fighters and members of this Baqiya family. A few things are clear: First, while Twitter suspensions certainly disrupt their ability to seamlessly spread information, they have developed innovative and effective ways of coming back online. Second, these youth receive an enormous amount of emotional and social benefits from participating in their online “family.”
This online network is important for spreading the new Twitter accounts of individuals coming back from suspension. Watching Abu Ahmad’s accounts, for instance, I have been amazed at how quickly he is able to re-acquire his followers. At times, his new accounts are only active for a day or two before getting suspended again, but he manages to get most of his 1,000-plus followers back every time. “I follow people, and they follow me back. We do shout outs,” he told me during an interview last month; “we also have secret groups online which don’t get suspended, and we share our new accounts on there.”
All of it seems terribly time-consuming and exhausting — the online equivalent of some Sisyphean saga. But he disagrees. “It is our obligation to call people to our cause and explain it to them,” he responds, “to debunk lies by the mass media about jihad and the mujahideen. We are rewarded for our efforts by Allah azza wa-jal [the Glorious and exalted].” Various members of this Baqiya family have told me they concur; their work online brings ajr, or reward from Allah for performing a good deed. Other members wouldn’t go that far. “It’s very silly to think you’re gonna get super ajr for creating a Twitter account,” Umm Hafida, another trusted member of the Baqiya Twitter family, tells me laughing.
When I ask Abu Ahmad whether he ever gets tired of constantly having to create new accounts, I wasn’t expecting his response. “I don’t create new accounts,” he tells me, “my friend steals inactive accounts for me.” A bit confused, I asked him and other Baqiya members what this meant. “We used to hack accounts a lot,” Umm Hafida says. “The choice of account was related to how weak the password was. We then change the password and clean the account. We change the profile picture, the cover picture, and delete all the old tweets. Then the account sits on a list until someone needs it. I used to spend the night doing that.”
In addition to hacking, Baqiya members also create accounts for others, sometimes for fighters in Syria and Iraq. “Depending on your IP location, you can’t create a Twitter account without a phone number,” Umm Hafida says, “So if you are in a country that doesn’t require a phone number, you would create a bunch of accounts for other people. Some of us would create two or three accounts every day and just keep it inactive until someone needs it.”
Getting suspended is also an important way for members of the Baqiya community to know that you are trustworthy, that you have paid your dues. “There was a time when everybody wanted to get suspended. Even I thought, ‘ah must be cool to get suspended and receive all that support from friends,’” Umm Hafida tells me. “When I got suspended, lots of people were saying, ‘welcome to the Baqiya family!’” She went on: “It is considered as a kind of shahada [martyrdom]. That’s why we say, my Twitter account just got shahada, Alhamdulillah! Suspensions show others that we are on the right path, and spreading the truth.”
While analysts spend a lot of time examining Islamic State “narratives,” and law enforcement types expend a lot of energy developing “counter-narratives,” they are missing a key element of why Twitter is important to these individuals: It gives them a sense of community.
Media reports are littered with concerns that ISIS recruiters are “brainwashing” youth or that young Western women are being “lured” online. These statements always struck me as a bit strange since I was directly talking to many of these fighters and supporters associated with the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra. Many of these youth did not seem to fit the stereotype we were peddling. They were not brainwashed or seduced. In fact, most were quite articulate and intelligent, and believed in a cause they felt to be of utmost importance. They were true believers. They also cared for each other, celebrated the birth of children, respected online boundaries of marriage and gender (“I’m married, no DMs from brothers please”), developed relationships and got married, expressed condolences at the loss of a fighter, shared news, and served as a support group for youth who are undergoing hardship thousands of miles away. Everything we do in our community, on and offline, they did as well.
As Howard Rheingold states in his groundbreaking book The Virtual Community, a book with timely insights even though it was published in 1993, “I care about these people I met through my computer, and I care deeply about the future of the medium that enables us to assemble. … [It was like] discovering a cozy little world that had been flourishing without me.”
Getting a sense of the emotional and social benefits these youth receive from being part of this online community helps to see them as people, and helps us understand the choices they make and the risks they are willing to take. If we continue to focus simply on the content put out by the Islamic State and, I’m sure, future jihadi movements, we are overlooking a major part of what is going on.
“Trust me, I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere until I met the brothers and sisters online,” Abu Abdullah, another trusted Baqiya member, told me during an interview earlier this year. “Baqiya Twitter is one place I felt at home. The Internet keeps us connected. Keeps us as a family.” I think I understand, I tell him. It’s about belonging. “Yes,” he says, “sometimes it’s like the person online is the real you.”
Amarnath Amarasingam is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow and co-directs a study of Western foreign fighters based at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Follow him on Twitter: @AmarAmarasingam