The jihadist calling himself Abdullah caused a brief stir on the Internet this week – but not, to his disappointment, because of his backing for Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Instead, his comments posted on Twitter over the death of U.S. actor Robin Williams went viral, prompting a blizzard of facetious questions about his film tastes.
Until recently, Islamist militant websites were a largely dark and hidden corner of the Internet, rarely seen by outsiders beyond the intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Increasingly, however, groups like the Islamic State – a former al Qaeda affiliate until recently known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – are using the same platforms as everyone else, often in English.
Other militant Islamist Twitter users also weighed in on Williams, most welcoming his death, in part because of a 2002 satirical sketch in which he lampooned jihadists. Some also mentioned his visits to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While Abdullah said he hoped the actor was now burning in hell, he exchanged tweets with another militant about their mutual enjoyment of Williams’ 1995 children’s film “Jumanji”.
He then found himself in multiple conversations about his movie taste, revealing his favourite Disney film was “The Lion King”. Website Buzzfeed collated a list of that and similar tweets from other jihadists, further fuelling the conversation.
This is kinda awkward,” Abdullah tweeted in successive messages. “I’m actually worried that people will start to follow me because they wanna hear about my favourite movies instead of reporting jihad.” “I’m here to report news, not rate romantic comedies.”
The true identity of Abdullah – who tweets under the handle @mujahid4life – is unknown. His account describes him as 19 years old, a supporter of the Islamic State and its aim of a Sunni Islamic caliphate. It adds that he is “anti-democracy”, opposed to Shi’ite Islam and “harsh on kuffar”, a derogatory term for non-Muslims.
His profile picture shows a young man in a balaclava and military fatigues in a desert.
His use of words and spelling suggests he may be British. Security experts and officials say several hundred Britons or more have fought in Syria and Iraq.
“Assuming these are genuine, it’s a great example of how weird and interconnected everything has become,” John Bassett, a former senior official at British intelligence agency GCHQ and now a fellow at Oxford University, said of the Robin Williams tweets. “Increasingly, some of these people come from the same background we do and they use exactly the same tools.”
Verifying the authenticity of the account is impossible and Abdullah did not respond directly to a tweet from Reuters.
Having fought Syrian government forces for more than two years, ISIL – now the Islamic State – has taken over much of north and central Iraq in recent weeks.
While it does not appear to have an official web presence or Twitter account, it does boast a growing number of online supporters and activists. Despite periodic calls to do so, Twitter has not blocked their accounts. Even if it did, experts say, they would simply reappear under another label.
In general, the Islamic State appears much more confident on the Internet and social media than counterparts such as Somalia’s al Shabaab, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, or the al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and north Africa.
In March, ISIL – now disavowed by al Qaeda – published a second annual online report of its activities, a 400-page document including statistics on attacks.
“Al Qaeda and its affiliates have always been a disparate group and that means the PR effort can also be very varied,” says John Drake, a Middle East expert for London consultancy AKE. “With ISIL, you have a variety of people with different life experiences and views. That’s coming through more now.”
In between dozens of tweets expressing commitment to sharia, disregard for international law and anger at other Muslim groups for not backing the Islamic State against U.S. airstrikes, Abdullah made a similar point. “Is it so hard to imagine I 1) support #IS (and) 2) watch movies?” he wrote.
Some militants welcome the new voices.
“IS needs a face to the West who grew up there, understands the sentiment, is articulate but also knowledgeable Islamically,” wrote @AmreekiWitness, a Islamist Twitter user whose account calls for the conquest of the Americas.
Current and former Western security officials say they take the online militant chatter seriously, including periodic threats to attack America and the West.
If users are based in western countries themselves, they risk being arrested under counter-terrorism or hate crime legislation. If they are in conflict areas such as Syria or Iraq, they may be harder to stop, but again may be identified and then prosecuted on their return.
There is no doubt Twitter accounts such as Abdullah’s make Islamist fighters seem more accessible and closer to the mainstream. That might, some security experts worry, help them attract new recruits.
For now, however, that familiarity seems also to produce contempt. Anti-Islamic State tweets from Western users have become increasingly widespread.
“Can’t wait to see how many of you become martyrs tonight,” wrote one U.S. Twitter user, referring to U.S. bombing raids against Islamist fighters in Iraq.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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