The last time VICE News checked in on British jihadists in Syria, their war seemed, in many ways, more like a holiday camp than a brutal civil conflict. British fighters posted snaps of themselves messing about in swimming pools, hoarding Cadbury’s chocolates from home, and generally having a good time.
But this year, everything changed. The renegade al Qaeda offshoot that was joined most by Brits, the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), alienated more moderate rebel groups due to its tendency to attack those groups and kill their commanders. By January, all the other rebels had had enough, with even the official Syrian al Qaeda franchise Jabhat al Nusra joining the rebels of the Islamic Front and of the relatively moderate Syrian Revolutionaries Front in a campaign to rid the rebel-held north of ISIS.
Now ISIS has been pushed back into two areas: a swath of territory along the Euphrates river valley in eastern Syria and the thinly-populated Homs desert region in the West.
But battlefield setbacks haven’t hampered its efforts to reach out by social media. If anything, British ISIS fighters have been busier uploading videos and photos of their exploits than ever — only now the tone is different. Driven away from the creature comforts and internet cafes of Atmeh, on the Turkish border, British fighters are now uploading darker, more disturbing images from their desert strongholds.
You may find what follows deeply distressing.
Abu Abdurrahman al Britani and Abu Daighum al Britani, two fighters from London and now members of Rayat al Tawheed, an ISIS faction that communicates in English, have been busy uploading a constant stream of expertly Photoshopped, motivational image macros for their adoring British fans:
Their recent posts are the darkest images yet to emerge from the strange milieu of British jihadist fighters in Syria — exceeding the viciousness already seen in Facebook posts that had always displayed a willingness to mutilate and degrade the bodies of dead government troops:
Their latest Instagram posts reveal a degree of bloodthirstiness unusual even for British ISIS fighters, many of whom come across more like unworldly innocents than hardened killers.
The comments from Rayat al Tawheed’s adoring British fans seem to express disappointment that the heads are merely those of regime forces and not its former rebel allies in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), now bitter enemies.
It’s hard to know whether these images demonstrate war’s ability to brutalize ordinary British kids or whether they reveal the non-ordinariness of character epitomized by the sort of Brits who seek out and join a group despised — even by al Qaeda — for a willingness to behead first and ask questions later.
Now that the war is getting too tough, many British jihadists are returning home — to the contempt of their fellow fighters:
The ones that choose to stay are, no doubt, the most committed to the cause — those willing to stay and die in pursuit of their cause:
UK security services estimate that half the British fighters who travel to Syria will die there, and — with their group now at war with most every other armed faction in the country — the odds don’t favor the survival of either Abu Abdurrahman or Abu Daighum. Meanwhile, their increasingly grisly social media feeds offer a darkly compelling window onto Syria’s tragedy.
More from VICE News:
Members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — a jihadi group known as ISIS — were filmed publicly burning cigarette and alcohol stockpiles. Watch here. Two self-proclaimed LA gang members have posted a bizarre video from what they say is the frontlines of Syria's civil war. Read more here.
VICE News embedded with the Syrian rebels fighting ISIS, and followed their rapid advance across Idlib province. Watch here.