Posted by Aymenn Al-Tamimi on Friday, December 12th, 2014
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Those of you reading this post will probably know by now of the latest viral story to hit social media: namely, the revelation of the true identity of the most prominent Islamic State (IS) fanboy on Twitter by the pseudonym of ‘Shami Witness.’ Originally using the name ‘El Saltador’ (Spanish for ‘the jumper’: a Western cultural reference that escapes my recall), he emerged on the Twitter scene around the beginning of 2013. At that time, he would often try to engage certain, more prominent Twitter users on issues related to the Islamic world, myself among them. For instance, one of his first tweets to me was to criticise a rather inane tweet I had written on a ‘Bangladesh Spring’ victory over Islamists.
His perspective was clearly that of an Islamist but- undoubtedly through prior tracking of social media- he seemed to have a broad knowledge of Syria’s Sunni insurgency with a particular focus on Salafi and jihadi groups, something that extended to Libya in particular and the wider Muslim world (also in his very early days, he had marketed himself out as an analyst on Libya, and had told a colleague of mine that he was a person of Libyan origin in the UK). Other indications of his Islamist leanings in those earlier times were his support for the Ikhwan-led government in Egypt- his main line of defence being that none of the Ikhwan’s opponents could necessarily do a better job at governance (not an unreasonable argument)- and his cheering on of Erdogan during the Gezi Park protests that erupted in May 2013. It was of course during this same period (i.e. April 2013 onwards) that IS’ predecessor the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) emerged: at that early stage of ISIS’ existence it would not necessarily be fair to characterize him as an ISIS partisan. On the contrary he was more keen on the notion of ‘Islamic rebel/jihadi unity’, so to speak: something that could include ISIS. In short, his worldview was of an Islamist who at least had hope in the gradualist non-violent Islamisation projects of Erdogan and the Ikhwan in Egypt while showing sympathy for jihadis more generally. At this time too (i.e. late spring-early summer 2013), I had given him credit for correctly identifying that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had appointed Omar al-Shishani as ISIS’ ‘northern’ amir in Syria, which was vindicated later in open source material.
Two events mark key points in Shami’s transformation from an apparently rather standard Islamist to the IS fanboy as so many have come to know him. Of course, taking perhaps a more Tacitean cynical view of him, one might argue that he was a hardline IS/ISIS etc. fan all along and merely used a more ‘moderate’ Islamist veneer to gain standing and credibility. Not having met him in real life, I do not wish to speculate along such lines. In any event, presenting his evolution as appeared on his Twitter timeline is worthwhile. The first event was the coup against the Ikhwan-led government, which enraged him considerably. Yet even after this point, he had not yet become a full-blown ISIS partisan, but rather was still willing to give credence to forces like Jabhat al-Nusra (Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate) and the Islamic Front coalition, which contrasts him with other prominent hardline ISIS fans at the time (most notably, @zhoof21, about whom more later). Thus, the second main turning point was the outbreak of infighting between ISIS and rebel groups at the start of 2014. This completes his definite public transformation into the ISIS/IS fanboy. It is also this stage, it should be noted, where many of the other pro-jihadi Twitter users take more definite sides in contrast to a previous attempt at jihadi brotherology. For example, Abdullah al-Ansari, who had expressed a personal preference for Jabhat al-Nusra but was willing to advertise ISIS material in 2013, turned strongly against ISIS, as did the user who called himself @troublejee.
Prior to January 2014, I had given Shami two opportunities for guest posts, one on the emergence of ‘Jaysh al-Islam’ (in which post he expressed approval of Jaysh al-Islam as a legitimate Islamic force, even if he believed it was a largely just a new front name for already existing Liwa al-Islam affiliates) and the other for his more general view of where jihadis fitted into the Syrian civil war dynamics. I had also made clear that those views were not indicative of my own, and my own published articles diverged quite sharply from his, something of which he himself was aware. For instance, my own view on the outbreak of infighting in Syria is that ISIS abused the welcome they had received from many rebels particularly those of Salafi leaning who wanted to entertain notions of ISIS as their ‘brothers’, whereas IS fanboys claim it was all part of a Western and Saudi-backed sinister conspiracy.
Nor will the spin of Shami or other IS fans convince me that jizya is anything other than Mafia-style extortion (a view I have always held). Shami’s own recognition of the sharp differences was what prompted him to request me to remove his guest posts from my site, believing it would only cause me trouble. It was his general courteousness towards me that led me to dub him a ‘friend’ despite not knowing him personally. Further, the status he gained meant that if ‘bro Shami’ approved of me, then the other IS fanboys on Twitter had reason not to harangue me: eventually though, in May a number of IS fanboys got on to my double game with some of them and purported to expose me as a ‘closet Jew’.
For all this, a mea culpa is the appropriate response. Those who say that Shami’s rise was partly facilitated by analysts giving him space to express his views are right: regardless of agreeing with his views or not, his prominence was increased.
But what of Shami’s wider role? Was the account used to ‘recruit for ISIS’ as CNN claims? Does his account’s deletion mean a ‘victory’ against IS? Here is my assessment:
1. It would not really be accurate to characterize Shami so much an ‘IS source’ as much as a ‘disseminator’, as Peter Neumann of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization puts it. The main scoop I can trace to Shami is the one mentioned above re. Omar al-Shishani’s appointment. The only other instance in which I can perhaps credit him for original information was on Liwa Thuwar Raqqa’s relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra in Raqqa, which, as it turned out, had always been troublesome, culminating in a formal expulsion of Liwa Thuwar Raqqa from Jabhat al-Nusra. If one looks back on Shami’s Twitter feed, as more and more official IS venues of information on Twitter emerged, much of the time he was simply retweeting. Shami’s role can therefore also be described as an ‘aggregator’ of IS content, something he also did in the days before official IS(IS) provincial news feeds and the like.
Aggregation of official material and other IS-related news is a sure way to attract foreign fighters on Twitter to follow you, even if the tone is not necessarily pro-IS. Fighting on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, where Internet access is intermittent at best, other duties occupy your time and the conflict is heavily localized, it can very difficult for a foreign fighter to get an idea of the overall picture unless he turns to an outside disseminator.
2. Shami’s role in a supposed ‘coordinated’ campaign of advancing IS propaganda- as well as his real influence- can be overstated. That is not to say that unofficial pro-IS accounts can’t run coordinated promotion campaigns (as we will see below), but Shami does not appear to have been part of such initiatives. Rather, like @zhoof21, he just came across as a very motivated fan and disseminator. Incidentally, whereas Shami had the public transformation from standard Islamist to hardcore IS supporter, @zhoof21’s subsequent account appears to have gone in the opposite direction, becoming a mere tweeter on ‘tawheed’ (‘monotheism’) and dropping the IS flag from his Twitter profile picture.
Other indications pointing away from the notion of IS somehow coordinating with Shami were Shami’s occasional divergences from IS positions. Most notably, he attempted to downplay the idea that IS had enslaved Yezidis- something IS later proudly admitted to in ‘Dabiq’ magazine (I had never doubted that Yezidis were at least being traded as slaves in a personal capacity). This followed on from a few IS Twitter users already boasting of the notion of Yezidi slaves.
As for Shami and the question of recruitment, no definite case has yet been shown to demonstrate that a foreign fighter/would-be recruit ended up joining/trying to join IS because he had been following Shami’s tweets or had interacted with Shami on direct messaging. Evidence in this regard can only be gleaned from the testimony of foreign fighters or would-be recruits. It will be of interest to see what emerges, if anything.
3. Despite his prominence, towards the end of his Tweeting career Shami had begun to attract reservations and suspicion among some IS supporters. Journalist Aris Roussinos remarked on Twitter recently: “Tbh I assumed @ShamiWitness was being kept alive as a honeypot” (i.e. to lure and trap would-be IS recruits). Not a wholly unreasonable hypothesis. One of the most glaring questions was that amid the Twitter crackdown on IS and pro-IS accounts that saw IS kicked off Twitter in an official capacity and some other prominent IS fanboys deleted multiple times, Shami’s account endured. Why? I had at first thought this was because Shami had perhaps exercised a degree of caution in his tweeting: avoiding to tweet the IS beheadings of Western hostages, perhaps? But in fact, I learnt from the Channel 4 expose that he had tweeted the video featuring Peter Kassig’s beheading multiple times. So what gives?
4. Amid the excitement about the disappearance of one of the most prominent IS-supporting accounts on Twitter, it is easy to become Anglophone-centric and forget that the majority of IS’ foreign fighters are from the Arab world, and that Arabic language recruitment is ultimately of greater importance to IS. In this regard, there is still an active, coordinated campaign by Arabic IS-unofficial media support outlets, regularly retweeting and disseminating IS material while also releasing their own co-produced content in support of IS. An archive of those outlets can be found here. Some of these groups include al-Nusra al-Maqdisia (‘Maqdisi [Palestinian] Support’), ‘The Media Front to Support IS’ and Fresh Air Media.
Speaking of Shami’s own native country in India, a local jihadi outfit- Ansar al-Tawheed, which pledged allegiance to IS in October- has also had its media wing busy in actively disseminating IS material in Indian subcontinent languages.
These non-English/Western language campaigns for IS, which have generally continued unabated, unsurprisingly attract less attention because the media focus on social media is on recruitment of Westerners. Overlooking the Arabic side of IS’ foreign fighters recruitment base and contingents risks missing out on a big part of the story of IS’ growth.
Ultimately, the fundamental problem we face is that there is simply too much IS material being disseminated too rapidly for Twitter and social media to catch up to crack down comprehensively, for all the ‘degradation’ of IS’ official capacity to propagate on Twitter. This would seem to be the price of the world of open access social media. Hopefully, the Muslim world within in particular can develop counter-narratives.