After being publicly sacked by al Qaeda leader Aymann al-Zawahiri and accidentally beheading a fighter from one of their main allies in Syria, it’s fair to say the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)’s PR campaign has suffered in recent weeks. So, like any half decent group of militant extremists, they're obviously keen to address this slip. Unfortunately, a traditional media outreach is very difficult for them, given ISIS’s policy of kidnapping journalists. So they've turned, like many before them, to social media.
Over the past few weeks, foreign fighters from ISIS and their subgroup the Muhajireen Brigade have been busy uploading selfies across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, in an effort to publicise their cause and win more recruits to the Syrian jihad. They offer a bizarre and fascinating look inside Syria’s most feared and least understood militant groups.
On paper, the Muhajireen Brigade are separate to ISIS, but they're considered by some analysts to be a front group for the larger jihadist outfit. The social media evidence seems to support this view.
This picture shows British fighter Ibrahim al-Mazwagi in battle with Omar Shishani, a Georgian Chechen who formerly led the Muhajireen Brigade, and is now ISIS’s military commander in Northern Syria.
Al-Mazwagi was killed in battle in February, aged 21. This is a collage made to honour him as a martyr, along with his friend and fellow casualty, Abu Qudama.
Above are two other recent British martyrs, Choukri Ellekhlifi, 22, and Mohammed el-Araj, 23. The pair are shown here at a jihadist internet café in Atmeh, a Syrian border town that is now firmly under ISIS control. After they died, another British fighter wrote this glowing tribute to el-Araj on Facebook:
“This brother need no introduction. Those who knew him knew he was always working for his deen! He had the best manners, he came with a brother and left this world with the brother! They where tight and where both at the top of their classes and within a month where graduated as commandos and started teaching others! They both got married and left their wives within a week an went fi sabilillah coz they cud not sit around whilst the ummah was in this state! They were harsh towards the disbelievers and humble towards those who breathed la illaha illa llah, they didn't bother arguing with a Muslim even if they where in the right! Wollahi they stood out from amongst those who are the best of us in jihaad! May Allah the all mighty, the all wise, the magnificent, the ruler over all, the king of all kings accept all their efforts, forgive them their sins, allow us to reunite with them, keep firm those whom they left behind, keep us all steadfast upon the haqq and to earn HIS Allah swt pleasures until HE the supreme looks at us and smiles! Peace and blessing be to the best of man kind our beloved muhammed s.a.w, his family and the sahaba r.a. My brother philistini who beat us to the finish line! We soon come insha ALLAH ta'la.”
The high casualty rate suffered by British and other European jihadists – referred to in the martyr tributes below – at least partially refutes claims by the relatively secular FSA rebels that ISIS and their allies rarely, if ever, fight the regime:
Accusations that ISIS prefer fighting other rebels to fighting the regime seem to have stung the group, who have responded by releasing ever-more-intense combat footage from their official Vimeo account.
But at the same time, British-linked social media accounts refer to fighting the FSA group Ghuraba al-Sham, who had earned themselves a poor reputation among Syrian civilians for extortion, looting and banditry.
This photo shows gold claimed to have been captured from the "criminals" after ISIS’s recent successful assault on Ghuraba al-Sham. ISIS later executed the group’s commanders, as seen in this disturbing video.
The Atmeh internet café crops up frequently in social media posts, and indicates the relative normality of jihadist life far from the frontlines. In a clear recruiting drive, British fighters frequently refer to Syria’s “5 Star jihad” and urge their compatriots at home to join them while they still can.
One British Facebook account mocks the travel warning given by the police to those suspected of planning to travel to Syria:
“What the police give to those whom they think might be travelling to Syria lool they gimme joke!!... It means right now they can't really do squat... Hence the word "interest" lol.”
The same account then mocks the ease with which foreign jihadists can cross the Turkish border into Syria:
“Who thinks they can jump that???... Subhan'ALLAH... 1 hour flight from Istanbul, 30min drive from hatai and bing bang boom ur in!!”
Another British jihadist tumblr account states that Turkish border guards facilitated their illegal entry into Syria, despite Turkey’s recent denials of support for jihadist groups (the bracketed notes are his own):
“a huge army vehicle from the Turkish army appeared from the border we were about to cross. On top of it was a machine gun with a soldier in control of it and two more men inside. A few of the brothers thought this was it, that we were going to attain martyrdom or be arrested, strangely enough my heart felt at ease and content. They commanded us to get out of the car and asked us to open our luggage. They asked us were we jaysh al-hur [Free Syrian Army] but we replied no we are here for sadaqah and we weren’t lying as we had no intentions of being anything to do with jaysh al-hur (free Syrian army) as many among them are murtadūn (apostates).
The commander was debating between whether to send us back or let us through the border but as soon as our driver told them we was British, they smiled and were inspired by our presence. The sad thing was to see they had love for the deen (religion/straight path) but they had sworn allegiance to the tawagheet (tyrant rulers). After searching our luggage and taking a pair of our gloves as a gift (they gave us no choice) they let us go on our way. Our happiness wasnt hidden, it gleamed from our faces so much that it brought smiles to theirs but they made the vehicle we were in turn around and leave, leaving us to travel through the border on foot.”
Once inside Syria, life seems pretty good for Britain’s jihadists on tour, with food supplies from home...
Infantilising treats from the West...
And a number of baller villas they get to live in:
There's a strange sense of the traditional lads holiday to this life. And much like their holidaying peers in Kavos or Magaluf, British jihadists don't have to stomach any foreign muck like tabbouleh or hummus. Instead, they get pizza...
As one fighter notes of the lads-on-tour vibe:
“We be living nice AL-HAMDULILLAH! Uploaded a few pics of my house showing u how Allah has provided for us in the blessed land of shaam! Note this is only my house which is a one bed room.. Others have 5+ bedrooms with swimming pools etc. Again AL-HAMDULILLAH for the ONE who has provided for us out here as HE knows I like a little bit of Dunya with my deen lol”
But it's not all junk food and sweets. They also train with a wide range of weapons in the olive groves around Atmeh...
Show off their personal hardware...
And generally make the most of being young, carefree and on jihad:
“we got Internet, phones, cheese burgers lol pizza, markets, schools for children, classes for adults, shariah courts and all sorts!”
Though, as with any group of young men living together, sometimes banter can veer into straight-up bullying:
“Sad u got grown men coming to jihad fronting an acting like they big stuff.. Wollahi ur a joke! I pity u and feel sad for ur wife!"
A common location in social media posts is a large villa on a hilltop overlooking Atmeh, with the black ISIS flag fluttering atop it, which appears to be the home from home for British fighters. It's here that they work out...
And chillax in their pool.
Such a distinctive location can easily be tracked down via satellite imagery, which suggests that the jihadists either have a very poor sense of information security or absolutely no fear of being bombed by the regime or monitored by Western intelligence services.
Recent reports indicate that, stung by Western criticism, the Turkish government has increasingly begun to restrict access to Syria for foreign jihadists, which means that the best days of the "5 Star jihad" may already be over.
Despite this, the calls for fresh recruits make the place sound about as tempting as a gig joining in in Syria's carnage could ever sound:
“To the brothers: What are you waiting for? There are plenty of weapons here waiting for you to come and play with them. Plenty of food as a sheep gets slaughtered regularly depending on how many brothers are around, there are plenty of women here waiting to get married ;) waiting to bare the offspring of the army of Imam Mehdi by the will of Allah and there is honour for the Muslims here.
"To the sisters: What are you waiting for? Your husbands clothes need washing! (I’m joking) but seriously what are you waiting for? You may wear your veils without being harassed, no woman is harmed here and if she is there is a harsh penalty as the woman’s honour is not to be tampered with whatsoever, there are plenty of mujahideen desiring to get married who have some of the most loving and softest characters I have ever witnessed even though they are lions in the battlefield, there are orphans here waiting for mothers to love them the way their parents would have. Come to the land of honour. You are needed here.
"We don’t just need men and money. We need communities. We are building the Islamic state. Join us as it is becoming extremely difficult to enter through the borders.”
But one by one, social media accounts are going silent, presumably as their owners are killed. But for now, young Brits are still fighting and living in Syria, uploading their exploits to an audience of envious friends and curious journalists back home. As British fighter Abu Qa’Qaa notes on his Tumblr about the recent media storm over young volunteers in Syria:
“Britain posting our pictures in newspapers. They don’t realise it inspires more to come jihad and don’t worry, we never wish to come back. :)”
Follow Aris on Twitter: @arisroussinos
More from VICE: