Popular Online Figures who Inspire the Syrian Fighters

By Joseph A. Carter, Shiraz Maher and Peter R. Neumann

Over a twelve month period from early 2013 to early 2014 a team of researchers at ICSR created a database of social media profiles of 190 Western and European foreign fighters. More than two thirds of these fighters were affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusrah or the Islamic State (IS) – two groups that have, at one point or another, maintained formal relationships with al-Qaeda.

The social media activity of these users provided a unique and unfiltered window into the minds of Western and European foreign fighters in Syria, which provided the information for the ICSR’s very well received April 2014 report ‘Greenbirds: Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks‘, which examines the question of how foreign fighters in Syria receive information about the conflict and who inspires them.

The report finds that Syria may be the first conflict in which a large number of Western fighters have been documenting their involvement in conflict in real-time, and where – in turn – social media represents an essential source of information and inspiration to them. In their minds, social media is no longer virtual: it has become an essential facet of what happens on the ground.

According to ICSR data, large number of foreign fighters receive their information about the conflict not from the official channels provided by their fighting groups, but through so-called disseminators – unaffiliated but broadly sympathetic individuals who sometimes appear to offer moral and intellectual support to jihadist opposition groups. The ability of jihadist groups to exert control over information has been significantly eroded, while private individuals, who are (mostly) based in the West and who may have never set foot inside Syria, possess significant influence over how the conflict is perceived by those who are actively involved in it.

The report also reveals the existence of new spiritual authorities who foreign fighters in Syria look to for inspiration and guidance. Although there is no evidence to suggest these individuals are physically involved in facilitating the flow of foreign fighters to Syria, or that they are coordinating their activity with jihadist organisations, they are playing the role of cheerleaders: their statements and interactions can be seen as providing encouragement, justification, and religious legitimacy for fighting in the Syrian conflict, and – whether consciously or not – are playing an important role in radicalising some individuals.

Based on quantitative analysis of their popularity within foreign fighter networks, the report identifies the two most prominent of these new spiritual authorities as Ahmad Musa Jibril and Musa Cerantonio. Jibril, a U.S. based preacher with Arab roots who is in his early 40s, does not explicitly call to violent jihad, but supports individual foreign fighters and justifies the Syrian conflict in highly emotive terms. He is eloquent, charismatic, and – most importantly – fluent in English. So is Musa Cerantonio, a 29 year old Australian convert to Islam who frequently appears on satellite television and has become an outspoken cheerleader for ISIS.

Both men are very different and consequently have different appeals. Ahmad Musa Jibril is a subtle, careful, and nuanced preacher, while Musa Cerantonio is much more explicit in his support for the jihadist opposition in Syria.

ICSR’s groundbreaking research is the subject of this 8 minute video.

Download the full report here.

This article first appeared in ICSR’s Insight. Republished here with permission.

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