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Jihadists Leverage Social Media to Condemn US-led Airstrikes

Jihadists have reacted angrily to US-led airstrikes on locations in Syria. (Twitter)
Jihadists have reacted angrily to US-led airstrikes on locations in Syria. (Twitter)

Supporters of Islamist extremist movements took to social media streams on Tuesday to slam U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria against the militant group calling itself the Islamic State [IS].

And as a new front in the Syrian civil war has opened, analysts say militant fighters could change the way they use social media.

IS militants, which used social media with particular skill, could be affected more than some of the other groups - such as Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida offshoot in Syria - analysts say.

Verifying the identity, location and affiliation of the accounts of extremists groups is nearly impossible. But they seemed to make no effort to cloak their anger on social media.

One user calling himself @Khalid_Maghrebi posted a photo of what he said was an innocent child killed in the strikes. The same image of the same dead toddler was used across numerous jihadist accounts, al though it was impossible to verify if the child was a victim of the strikes.

This user added that the strikes killed fighters from the UK and the Netherlands.

Another pro-extremist account, @MohammedGhazzal, who claims to have been on the ground where some of the strikes occurred, warned jihadists to be careful.

Extremists also noted that IS was not the only group targeted.

And there was anger at the US.

Abu Rumaysah,” an influential disseminator of jihadist information, tweeted a veiled threat.

One account claiming to be on the “battlefields of Syria” and calling themselves @chechclearr, called the strikes “a war on Islam.”

Anger among militants was also pointed at the Arab states which reportedly joined the US in the strikes, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar.

This category of Tweet could be harmful to the militants’, particularly IS’s, cause, says Erin Saltman of the London-based Quilliam Foundation, a counterterrorism think-tank.

“The depiction of the enemy is becoming larger and larger,” she said, noting the countries joining the US are large Sunni Arab countries. She said adding Muslim countries to the enemies list could leave IS “marginalized as the extremist terrorist organization that they are.”

One user, @ArmyOvJustice, who claims to be “witnessing the birth of the caliphate,” predicted the Arab countries would soon stop participating in the strikes.

Saltman said airstrikes could change the way extremists, particularly IS, uses social media.

Compared to al-Qaida, which used a very centralized method of disseminating its propaganda, ISIS is extremely decentralized, she said.

“ISIS took a new approach so that information could be spread out in as many languages and as fluently as possible,” she said.

First off, the bombing could simply make it harder to tweet, said Jytte Klausen a Brandeis University professor and founder of the Western Jihadism Project, which focuses on jihadi activities in the West.

“Bombing Raqqa may take down Internet connectivity for a while,” she said, adding that temporary satellite connections would likely limit the impact of any terrestrial disruption.

Saltman said that now that the US bombing Syria, IS might try to more tightly control its social media output, because some of the information could be used against IS. But she said it would be hard to do that with “such a decentralized group of actors in different localities.”

“You wonder how much that's monitored,” she said.

Robbed of a freewheeling social media presence, IS could find itself hamstrung.

“With social media it’s easier to tell people you’re stronger than you are, she said. “Many researchers are arguing that this is not an incredibly strong army. The longer they are left alone, they more validity they seem to have.The more successful they seem, the more people will join.”​