Popular Saudi cleric and promoter of jihad in Syria Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Moheisini has over 295,000 followers on Twitter and until the afternoon of March 7 — hours after BuzzFeed first contacted Twitter regarding Moheisini’s account — he had a verified blue check next to his name. Moheisini tweets in Arabic from Syria, where he relocated in September 2013 to advise, publicize, fundraise, and recruit for jihadi groups battling the Syrian regime and rebel factions. The move has not dampened the 49-year-old preacher’s high profile. His Twitter feed is a stream of words, videos, and pictures that extol jihad in Syria and encourage his followers near and far to donate and join.
Part of Moheisini’s appeal, analysts say, is that he makes jihad in Syria appear heroic online for those watching from abroad. On March 5, he posted a video of himself with Chechen rebels in Aleppo after the fighters attacked a hospital. He was injured in the Aleppo fighting — exactly how is unclear — but nonetheless posed with a gun for his YouTube channel before leaving.
Moheisini’s online appeal is further reinforced by his reputation as financially well-connected in jihadi circles offline, said Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University. “The Syrian rebels are entirely dependent on money and support from the outside world,” Landis said, noting how rebel strongholds are in Syria’s historically impoverished areas like Idlib and Gezira. “Without people like Moheisini who can link together the Gulf [money] with the rebels, this rebellion would quickly collapse.” In this way, Landis argued, Moheisini’s Twitter content is one source for information into how Syria’s jihadi networks and their leaders operate. Moheisini has been pictured with a who’s who of Syria’s hardline extremist rebels, which Landis argued was a sign that rebels value visibility on Moheisini’s social media accounts. The rebels “wouldn’t allow their photos to be taken with [Moheisini] if they didn’t think it was for their good,” he said. “People come to him because he’s making waves abroad.”
In a recent tweet, Moheisini called for supporters to help purchase rockets, directing them to numbers in Qatar and Turkey.
It is difficult to determine the precise fundraising and recruiting impact of men like Moheisini in Syria. “We see a lot of Twitter campaigns for money [for Syria],” said Firas Abi Ali, head of Middle East forecasting for the British research firm, IHS. “There’s no way of tracing where the money goes and what kind of responses there are.”
Similarly, it is important not to overstate the influence that tweeting jihadis have on the day-to-day grind of the Syrian war on the ground. “I don’t see [Twitter] used in a tactical role,” said Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute. Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis, echoed White’s sentiment. “There’s a lot to be skeptical of viewing the Syrian conflict through social media,” Lund said. “There must be tens of thousands of rebels inside Syria. And there’s a small percentage of that which is reflected in Twitter.”
But White and other analysts agreed that Twitter provides Syria’s jihadis with an important propaganda means: They tweet photos and videos of their war exploits to try and convince friends and foes that they are winning. “Social media is extremely important to them as a recruitment mechanism. They use it to advertise their successes and to communicate to interested parties.” Without legal communication networks like TV or radio channels, Syria’s jihadis can’t propagandize their exploits in the traditional ways, but Lund said, “what they can do is communicate via the internet.”
Here Moheisini shared a link to what he called a “terrific” video of himself and other fighters during a recent battle in Anfal. “I publish it [the video] to lift the determination and anger the infidels.”
In January, Moheisini targeted his tweeting toward a particular aim: political mediation. At the end of 2013, intense fighting broke out between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the most violent of Syria’s jihadi factions, and a range of Syrian rebel groups, from moderates to Islamists, fed up with ISISs’ brutal tactics. In tweets and messages through his Facebook page, YouTube channel, and website, Moheisini urged his followers to stop this fitna, or internal strife. Citing Islamic law, he tweeted directly at ISIS leaders to criticize them for killing other Muslims and warned that the infighting undermined the legitimacy of the Syrian jihad as a whole.
Then on Jan. 23, Moheisini launched a peace plan, the Umma Initiative, which called for an immediate ceasefire between ISIS and other Islamist rebels, according to Lund. Moheisini traveled across Syria to meet with rebel leaders, while simultaneously promoting the plan across his social media platforms: he created a section for it on his website, uploaded a video to YouTube of himself reading the text (with English subtitles), and started a Twitter Arabic hashtag, #Umma_Initiative. (Umma means “nation,” or, in this context, “global Islamic community.”)
By Jan. 27, the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front (with whom Moheisini is considered closest) had signed on to the plan, as had Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic Front (IF), and other Islamic groups. But ISIS ultimately refused the compromise, which doomed the plan. In response, Moheisini called on ISIS supporters to defect on Twitter. “Despite the fact that his peace initiative was effectively rejected by ISIS, Moheisini has presented a second and alternative solution to the infighting,” Charles Lister, an insurgency expert, told BuzzFeed in an email. “Only time will tell if this proves to further strengthen his standing within the Syrian jihad.”
“I do think that the fact that he had this social media platform put him in the position where he could launch this [Ummah] initiative in the first place,” Lund said. “If he hadn’t been online in the first place, he would have been invisible when he first came to Syria.”
Twitter refused to comment, citing privacy reasons, on when and why it bestowed Moheisini a blue verification checkmark. A search through his Twitter feed shows content that can be seen to violate Twitter’s rules and media policy against tweets that incite “threats and violence” and “unlawful use.” While Twitter requires all new users to sign a terms of conditions contract, it does not actively monitor accounts. The company instead relies on users to report alleged violations, then investigates and suspends accounts it finds in breach. (Facebook, on the other hand, has taken a more concerted effort to take down, suspend, and block certain accounts; in some cases, though, Syrian opposition activists argue that Facebook has blocked accounts without cause or warning.)
Twitter has in the past shutdown prominent jihadi accounts from Somalia to Gaza to Lebanon in response to violations. In Syria, it has suspended ISIS’s official media account, al-Itisam Media, several times (such as in September 2013, when ISIS claimed responsibility via Twitter for a bombing in Erbil, Iraq that killed six and injured dozens) only to see mirror accounts pop up, according to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum who studies jihadi groups in Syria. More recently, @reyhadiraq, an account associated with ISIS in Syria, livetweeted ISIS’s amputation of a man’s hand they had accused of theft. Photos of the event went viral, and Twitter that same day suspended the account.
The removal of Moheisini’s verified status did not go unnoticed by his supporters online. Some speculated that he was the victim of a spam campaign, while others directly blamed Twitter.
“Twitter is starting to help the Kufar [infidels],” accused one.
“Even Twitter is a dictator,” tweeted another.
Yet it is in these kinds of ambiguities that jihadi networks on Twitter thrive — and the analysts, journalists, and intelligence agencies that gather information on them rely.
“It’s a weird symbiotic dance in some ways,” said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The conundrum, he said, is twofold: On the one hand, Twitter provides extremist groups with a platform for recruiting members, fundraising, and publicizing their campaigns and ideologies without geographic bounds. On the other, researchers can adroitly exploit these open sources, combing through Twitter to find information on the movements and operations of radical individuals and jihadi networks.
Prior to the social media boom, jihadis largely engaged online through password-protected chatrooms. Access to these platforms required a personal connection to someone already in them, and the conversations within them retained a network’s general hierarchies. In comparison, Syrian activists have relied heavily on Twitter and Facebook since the Syrian conflict started in March 2011. But it was not until 2012 — when hardline Islamist groups began to make their most serious advances into the fight — that Twitter in Syria morphed into an increasingly attention-grabbing platform for beating the drums of war.
Analysts attribute this change to a confluence of forces: the influx of radicalized foreign fighters from regions like Saudi Arabia and Europe (where Twitter use is already high); the territorial gains made by extremist groups like ISIS, which implemented information networks in areas it conquered; and the information void that resulted as many journalists stopped reporting from Syria amid rising rebel and regime violence. Some jihadis were soon live-tweeting their attacks from the field, engaging in Twitter battles with other rebels, and using apps like Ask.fm and KIK messenger to communicate and advise, according to Tamimi of the Middle East Forum.
Late last year, the State Department started an English account @ThinkAgain_DOS (and a corresponding hashtag: #ThinkAgainTurnAway) through which it tries to engage jihadis and counter their messages on Twitter. Analysts contacted by BuzzFeed dismissed Western-backed counter-radicalization initiatives as largely ineffective. “They’re really not going to convince jihadis to abandon their ideology by just saying ‘Al-Qaeda and ISIS are evil’ all the time,” Tamimi said. Lister agreed. He emphasized that State Department initiatives “are to be applauded,” but argued, “Their replies to posts made online are more often a subject of amusement or derision that an effective counter-extremism strategy.”
It’s a virtual cat-and-mouse game that both sides are trying to exploit. Analysts say that not only would it be an impossible regulatory feat for Twitter to monitor and block jihadis on Twitter, but it would also be counterproductive for counter-terrorism — and a slippery slope for freedom of expression.
“My personal opinion is that these accounts should not be blocked,” said Tamimi. “I think it’s better that this jihadi material remain open source rather than blocked off in password-protected forums.” Despite the death and destruction groups and individuals have inflicted in Syria, Zelin seconded Tamimi’s general assessment that jihadi accounts, like Moheisini’s, should remain online. “It’s part of how people do things now in some way.” He added, “It more highlights that [Syria’s jihadis] are similar to everyone else.”