Ayman Al Tamimi’s career came apart in public last week.
The young terrorism analyst’s sudden fall was due, in part, to the same factors that had made him one of the fastest rising stars in his field — his online connections and self-presentation to jihadists he was attempting to mine for information.
A recent graduate of Oxford University, the 21-year-old had become a widely-cited public authority on jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria while still completing his undergraduate studies.
But almost from the beginning, his links to known jihadis — including members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), arguably the most ruthless of such groups — and a habit of firing off tweets and social media posts appearing to sympathize with their cause raised eyebrows among his colleagues in the tightly knit, scholarly community of Western-based terrorism analysts.
On July 14, Al Tamimi, who had been cited in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post and had appeared on BBC News, published an article attempting to debunk journalist Michael Weiss’s evidence that Iran was aiding ISIS, which now controls a roughly Belgium-sized slice of Iraq and Syria.
Tamimi was generally considered a leading public authority on jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, and the article was cross-posted to Bellingcat, the online publication launched by Eliot Higgins, the renowned investigative journalist most famous for helping to prove the Syrian regime’s responsibility for the August 21, 2013, chemical weapons attack in Damascus.
But within days the article had been pulled from Bellingcat and Tamimi had been dropped as a contributor to the site, a development Higgins confirmed for Business Insider by email early last week.
Higgins cited serious accusations that had surfaced on Twitter after fellow terrorism analysts had aired evidence suggesting that Tamimi was discomfortingly close with some of his sources in the jihadist world.
Weiss linked to a conversation in which Tamimi told an apparent ISIS supporter that it was “best not openly tweeting” pro-Caliphate sympathies, and that his “bro,” the pro-ISIS Twitter user Shami Witness, “suggested I should stick to objectivity on Twitter.”
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, called the exchange “pretty disturbing.”
Other instances of Tamimi’s apparent closeness with ISIS supporters and members soon began circulating. He had gone to unusual lengths to convince members of the group that he was one of them, calling them “akhi” (brother), and sharing that one member of the group said he loved him as a “brother in Islam”:
He had also expressed personal concern for an ISIS fighter he had been in contact with who had been reported dead in Syria:
Elsewhere, prominent terrorism network analyst JM Berger alleged that Tamimi had once rallied ISIS supporters on Twitter — in Arabic — in order to get Berger thrown off of the social networking site, a claim that no one consulted for this article disputes. Tamimi himself confirmed a version of the incident to Business Insider.
When reached for comment on assignment in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Jonathan Krohn, a journalist who co-authored the Bellingcat piece with Tamimi, defended the article, claiming that several regional experts and journalists had voiced their approval of it.
He denied, in the most categorical terms possible, that Tamimi is a terrorism supporter. But Krohn also said he found Tamimi’s ingratiating behaviour towards jihadists disquieting, and wouldn’t have collaborated with Tamimi had he known about it earlier.
“I had no idea what was going on until things were brought up on Twitter,” Krohn says, “and had I known this I would not have published anything with him in the first place.”
Many of Tamimi’s colleagues in the analyst world are explicit about the troubling patterns of Tamimi’s behaviour.
“One crosses the line when one starts to, under their real name and in full view of the general public, kind of act like a jihadi and say that they are a jihadi,” Phillip Smyth, a terrorism researcher at the University of Maryland, explains.
“He’s presenting two different sides of himself to different audiences,” Berger tells Business Insider. “He’s presenting himself to us as part of this analyst community, and he’s presenting himself to ISIS sources as someone who is supportive of their political goals. Both of those things really can’t be true. So it creates a problem.”
Tamimi himself often appeared confused, selling himself as a supporter of the right-wing Israeli party Yisrael Beitenu less than a year after making anti-rightist arguments on the website of left-wing Israel critic Juan Cole (whom Tamimi had bashed previously). Tamimi emphasised to Business Insider that he’s disowned the Beitenu article and does not include it on his website.
“People have asked me a number of times about my beliefs,” Tamimi wrote in Arabic on February 1. “I am jihadi? I am a Jew? I am for the regime of Assad? Do [I] … want [the caliphate] or democracy? In truth, these questions do not interest me, I believe in the doctrine of chaos … I think the entire world will be in chaos by 2100.”
Ultimately, the story of Tamimi’s shifting professional stature isn’t entirely about his alleged sympathies or how he expresses them online. It’s also a sign of the changing nature of expertise in a time when platforms like Twitter bring researchers, journalists, sources, and the general public closer together than ever before.
This unprecedented level of connectivity can make stars out of people who would otherwise remain relatively unknown. It brings information and insights to public light that would previously have been left buried inside of academic papers or even classified intelligence reports.
Tamimi’s case shows that there’s a downside to this new era of proximity. Whether or not he harbors pro-terrorist sympathies, his interactions with jihadists compromised his analysis, advanced a terrorist group’s propaganda, and brought about a rapid professional fall.
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Tamimi insists he isn’t a terrorism supporter. “I’m not pro-ISIS or anything,” he tells Business Insider. “I’m not.”
He was quick to identify what he now recognises as flaws in his research methods. He was too eager to convince online jihadists and their supporters that he was a sympathetic listener, and misrepresented himself in an attempt to pump them for information, he now admits. He published a contrite “reflection on methods” on July 22, where he says he “feigned sympathy” for jihadists’ views and “adopted a ‘jihadi persona’ in communications with them.”
“I think there’s something to be said that I did try to ingratiate myself in these is circles to get information,” Tamimi tells Business Insider. “I agree that that was unethical.”
It’s something he says he has been doing for months now. “I did this to get information,” he explains. “I’m not going to defend it. I shouldn’t have done it.” Nonetheless, he claims the tactic helped him land what he considers one of his most important scoops.
In August of last year, he broke the news of an ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee’s death in Syria days before the rest of the media did. He ended up being quoted by major news organisations, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — before he had even graduated from college this past spring.
Tamimi, who studied Classics at Oxford and whose family is originally from Iraq, says that he began following jihadist organisations in the region nearly a year and a half ago, long before ISIS’s blitz through Iraq triggered an international crisis. At that point, he says, ISIS didn’t have a single official news feed, and before long, his descriptive accounts of the group’s activities on Twitter attracted jihadists to him.
“On my Twitter feed I wouldn’t condemn them openly,” Tamimi says of ISIS. “I just wanted to track them intensely. And this is how I ended up having some people from [ISIS] following me on Twitter.”
According to JM Berger, Tamimi was at the top of ISIS’s English and Arabic-language Twitter network, in terms of both influence and level of interaction. Berger is careful to note that that doesn’t necessarily indict Tamimi: “The fact that he shows up in these analyses does not in itself mean that his content is pro-ISIS,” Berger says. “But he consistently ranks at the very top of these lists. He’s a figure I think they turn to because he aggregates their content, and that makes it easier than following a bunch of different accounts.”
Tamimi covered ISIS so closely that he tweeted one of the earliest mentions of crucifixions in Raqqa, Syria, in April — disseminating news of one of ISIS’s most pornographically violent atrocities in near-lockstep with the group’s semi-official organs.
“Tamimi reported the executions and posted a photo of one of the crucified men 4 minutes before the tweet from the self-identified ISIS account,” Jacob Siegel of The Daily Beast wrote. “Given that the account claiming to be affiliated with ISIS posted its tweet only minutes after Al-Tamimi’s, and used similar wording without offering any new details, it may have come from someone trying to falsely imply a personal involvement in the executions.”
Tamimi himself admits that his centrality to ISIS’s presentation on social media — his role as a kind of unofficial record of the group’s exploits — might have drawn him deeper into their world than was ethical.
Other analysts believe that Tamimi let himself get used.
“He probably is being exploited and manipulated by them,” says Mubin Shaikh, a former Canadian security intelligence operative and current PhD candidate at Liverpool University, who communicated with Tamimi at an early point in the analyst’s career. “I can see it in the context of what he’s trying to do.”
The most striking instance of this came in early December of 2013, when Tamimi appeared to rally jihadists on Twitter in order to get JM Berger’s account suspended. Tamimi insists this was a joke that was misinterpreted.
But it wasn’t lost on other members of the analytical community that Tamimi had reached out to the terrorist organisation he was covering in order to get one of their most highly respected colleagues thrown offline. And there were signs of Tamimi’s fallout with other analysts long before his conversations with ISIS supporters became public.
Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Studies, began publishing Tamimi on his Jihadology website over a year ago. Like a number of other experts in the terror analysis field, Zelin saw Tamimi as a promising young voice with proven Arabic skills and a deep well of resources related to ISIS and its operations. “My website has been an avenue for younger researchers to write articles and get their names out there,” Zelin says of Jihadology, which is now a widely consulted source for analysis of terrorist groups and their online networks.
Tamimi reached out to Zelin about writing for him in March of 2013. “I thought, ‘OK sure, why not, he’s a young guy who seems interested in the topic and he has Arabic.’ I was just trying to be nice, as anyone would be who wants to help out younger researchers.”
But Zelin became increasingly troubled by Tamimi’s online profile — both in terms of how he interacted with jihadists, and in how he seemed to uncritically regurgitate their exploits and version of events. Zelin’s doubts about the value and nature of Tamimi’s work grew.
“His analysis was becoming more and more just pushing that narrative of the groups themselves,” he says. “Whether it was consciously, I don’t know.”
Zelin eventually became uncomfortable enough to scrub Tamimi from his site: back in January, Zelin pulled everything Tamimi had written from Jihadology.
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If we take Tamimi at his word that he is not an ISIS sympathizer, the most likely explanation for his professional misadventure is that he lacked the analytical depth or experience needed to exercise basic research judgment and to avoid being used.
“He does have good sources,” Mubin Shaikh says. “Possibly inadvertently, he did become a PR outlet.”
Phillip Smyth has known Tamimi since early 2012. Smyth was put in contact with Tamimi through Barry Rubin, the late Israeli scholar widely valued as a focal point and facilitator for the broader terrorism studies community.
“In terms of being an analyst I was always more than happy to work with him,” Smyth tells Business Insider. “When I was introduced to him a number of years ago I saw a lot of hope in who he was. He was very, very passionate about these subjects … everybody expected so much and this is the result. It’s a real shame.”
But Tamimi’s career is also a window into how expertise and analysis are developed and consumed in an intellectual marketplace driven by the Internet and social media.
Just a few years ago, terrorism analysis was limited to people with research budgets, travel capabilities, years of deep contacts, and language skills. Today, it’s possible for just about anyone with a web connection to talk directly to members of ISIS or Al Qaeda if they really want to.
“Social media research is a new avenue of study,” explains Smyth, who lacks a graduate degree but has testified before Congress partly on the strength of his work tracking the activities of Shi’ite militant groups online. “It’s a whole new world … social is manipulated by so many different actors that it requires an extra level of analytics.”
Tamimi never adequately understood this, Smyth says. “I get the feeling that he was trying to put out that he was just playing the ISIS members,” Smyth suggests, “but didn’t even take into account that the ISIS members are very clearly playing him.”
Social media provides an opening for people like Smyth and Berger, who both credit the new culture of internet-based analysis with their own rise in stature. This situation also creates ample opportunity for someone like Tamimi.
“A decade ago he wouldn’t have been this established in the public sphere because we generally didn’t have means for people to advance that quickly and that young,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross tells Business Insider. “Reputation is made in a different way now.”
The new media environment also includes figures like Shami Witness — an avowed ISIS enthusiast and Tamimi associate who gained currency as a Twitter observer of events in the Middle East.
Shami has become more controversial as the extremist Sunni group’s escalating atrocities have come to light. After Amnesty International reported in December that ISIS had been detaining and flogging children as young as age 8, Shami defended the group by asserting that they don’t torture anyone under 14. After reports of ISIS being involved in the massacre of civilians — including women and children — in pro-Assad towns, Shami asserted that his ISIS “bros” didn’t have the stomach to commit such atrocities.
Both Shami and Tamimi demonstrate how quickly people can gain traction as public authorities in the Twitter era, regardless of how compromised their work may end up being.
It’s too early to tell what Tamimi’s learned from the past week. The recent college graduate doesn’t view these developments as the end of his analytical career.
“I just want to do this without any clashes with other people,” he says. “I’ll just leave others alone and they leave me alone and that’s fine.”
On July 16, Tamimi told Business Insider via direct message that he was “going to take some time off.” As of this writing, he hasn’t tweeted since that date.
Michael B. Kelley contributed to this report.
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