When you follow Western jihadists on Twitter and some of their many fanboys, your feed tends to fill up with a mixture of battle updates, shout-outs to Allah, and beheading pics. But last week, as ISIS made its infamous advance on Mosul, my feed erupted into YouTube videos of mass executions of Shiite Muslim men, and, believe it or not, image macros celebrating the blitzkrieg invasion by Iraq’s most feared armed group.
While Western jihadists have been well documented on Twitter, Instagram, and even on anonymous question and answer site Ask.fm—it’s really their use of memes that has become the greatest symbol for Gen-Y jihad online.
In a clash of West-meets-jihadist imagery, fighters or their supporters have used image macros of the type normally flooding Reddit to reflect both a mixture of common jihad slang—like “murtadeen” for apostates or “Rafidi” for rejectors of the true authority (in this case it’s a reference to the Shiite Iraqi central government)—with Western slang and jokes.
One potential jihadist in Syria, who goes by the name Abu Omar on Twitter, posted a meme coupling the image of American soldiers in Iraq taking a vanity shot, with another of American flag draped coffins. Abu Omar’s tweet prefaces the image: “When US troops face dawlah." In this case, "dawlah" refers to “the state,” as in the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
The most striking thing about these types of images isn’t simply the callous treatment of death or the over-the-top bravado, but the fact that they’re produced similarly to the rest of the largely disposable meme-based portions of the web.
It's an interesting insight into the demographics of Western jihadists: these are tech-savvy millennials who might just read 4Chan, not simply bearded zealots living in a cave.
From reusing old Simpsons characters, reworking quotes from the Joker, or appropriating the Bad Luck Brian meme, the images show a literacy with Western media that denotes the origin of its authors.
There’s also a clear delineation of the Sunni versus Shiite rivalry running through the war between Sunni ISIS fighters and the Shiite Maliki government, which, due to Iran's Shiite majority, may end up receiving the support of both the Ayatollah and the US. Naturally, the Ayatollah has had his image plastered with Impact font too:
ISIS supporters even mock the taking of American weaponry inherited by the Maliki government in this meme, referencing other rebel groups asking for weapons from Uncle Sam.
For their part, Western intelligence agencies are worried by the online presence of the extremist groups in Iraq and Syria. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service told me Western jihadists are a clear concern when I reached out to them about another infamous online fighter.
“If they have participated in a foreign conflict or trained with a terrorist group, they might return with certain operational skills that can be deployed or taught to fellow Canadian extremists. Detecting and preventing young people from pursuing a cause that has no good outcome is an ongoing effort, not just for us but for security and law enforcement partners in other western countries,” said CSIS spokesperson Tahera Mufti.
The net has proven to be an attractive recruitment resource for militant groups, but grabbing attention through brutal imagery can garner just as much backlash as it does support. Ultimately, the meme might just be the most accessible tool in the jihadist social media strategy, especially with regards to Westerners. Either way, while the pro-and anti-jihadist meme lives online, the real-time ISIS invasion continues onward to Baghdad.