Abu Usamah's Twitter background.. Image: Twitter
Ask.fm provides its more than 60 million worldwide users with an anonymous platform to ask each other questions—and it’s all the rage among Western jihadists in Syria connecting with followers who are looking to stay anonymous.
“I am untrained. Would i be a burden or should i still make hijra?” asked one anonymous follower to Abu Usamah, a popular North American jihadist fighting in Syria.
“You will be put in an intensive training camp to ensure you are prepared and if you aren't after the camp will… have another job ready for you,” Usamah replied.
Questions to Jihadists range from personal things, like if they're scared during battle, to what kinds of food they eat, to logistical things like how much it would cost new recruits to get into Syria from Canada, or why their favorite weapons are Kalashnikovs and Glocks.
Based in Latvia and subject to Latvian courts, Ask.fm user data is harder to come by for international law enforcement agencies requesting information. It's also the same social networking site known for cyberbullying and linked with a string of teen suicides. Privacy settings allow for unrivaled and uninhibited freedom to talk about jihad, as the facade of anonymity emboldens users to ask whatever they want.
Ask.fm can see the IP addresses of visitors and members, meaning geo-locating European or North American based users interested in joining militant groups is likely a click away for surveillance agencies—if they can get the data.
I asked Ask.fm if they were aware jihadist organizations in Syria used their site for communication.
“In cases of criminal content we cooperate with law enforcement agencies on the basis of proper legal investigation,” said spokesperson Liva Bieseniece. “We do not comment on a specific case. Those must be addressed to the law enforcement agencies concerned.”
Oppositely the chat platform provides rare access into the harsher side of jihad.
“The brothers who do martyrdom operations. Are they volunteers or commanded by the amir?” asked one follower to Abu Muhajir.
“Volunteers… but when time comes they are called upon,” he replied.
Surveillance is a common concern. Many followers warn Western jihadists to limit the details of their conversations, lest they interfere with active operations and if intelligence agencies are monitoring their profiles. But the jihadists seem fully aware of the dangers of spying on their conversations.
“Please don't say anything concerning Hijra routes don't make it hard for your brothers,” said one concerned follower to Abu Usamah.
“Of course, people contact me on Kik for help with that,” Usamah replied.
Ask.fm is often the connecting tool to fighters with an online presence, who offer free mobile chat platforms, like Kik messenger, as an alternative for speaking privately with prospective recruits or interested fans.
Evan Jendruck, an analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, thinks the online profiles of Western jihadists on Ask.fm have multiple purposes.
“It might very well be for recruitment or propaganda,” he said. “But a more likely reason seems to be for justification of their actions. Many users want to give insight into why they are doing what they are doing, either to their family, friends, or others thinking about travelling abroad to fight.”
On some level Jendruck thinks fighters have notoriety in mind, because “they like the attention and the feeling of importance” that comes with being a well-known militant fighting illegally abroad.
There’s also the possibility organizations sanctions the profiles of fighters, promoting a visceral portal into the personal side of a jihadist in Syria. Combined with well-documented use of Twitter and Instagram, Ask.fm offers insight into the mindset of individual militants, especially those that came from the West.
“Militant groups in Syria are very aware of the role social media plays in the conflict, and users of Ask.fm may in fact be given the go ahead to speak more generally about the conflict, or their personal experience,” said James.