The conflict in Syria is now in its third year. It can be characterized by the heavy influx of foreign fighters – up to 11,000 as of December – as well as the sustained use of social media, particularly Twitter and YouTube, by rebel groups.
To set the stage for readers who are unfamiliar with the Syrian conflict, here is a VERY superficial, and entirely insufficient summary of the situation. Bashar al-Assad has been the president of Syria for 14 years, following his father who ruled for 30 years prior. Assad is the leader of the Ba’ath party, which promotes a pan-Arab state and is ideologically tied to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party in Iraq, as well as an Alawite. Alawis are a branch of Shia Islam, generally ideologically opposed to the vast majority of Muslims – Sunnis.
In the general upheaval of the Arab Spring, Syrians protested for better living conditions and political representation and were met with harsh retribution by state forces. Soon, the protests evolved into outright civil war which has devastated most of the country. There have been accusations of chemical weapons and other extrajudicial killings by both the Syrian regime and rebel factions. Both sides receive heavy support from external actors – generally aligned with their respective religious ideologies. For a really good breakdown of these groups, see this series of Reddit posts: One, Two, Three, Four.
Of particular interest (and concern to some) is the increasing number of foreign fighters coming from Europe and North America. Germany, this blog’s focus, has contributed about 270 jihadists.
One of these Germans, a rapper named Deso Dogg, made headlines inside and out of the social media community after he converted to Islam, moved to Syria as a jihadist and was reportedly killed, then confirmed to be alive. He now goes by the name Abu Talha al-Almani and outspokenly encourages German-Muslims to leave Germany and participate in jihad.
Though Germany is Europe’s most populous country, many European jihadists have come from smaller nations like the Netherlands and Belgium, although that trend seems to be changing. They increasingly use social media to document their lives as jihadists; one Dutch fighter posts regularly on his Tumblr (WARNING MAY BE GRAPHIC), mixing images of dead fighters and children with AK-47s and even posts titled “cats of the mujahideen” (NOT GRAPHIC, JUST KITTIES). He even has an ask.fm account set up to answer questions that his followers might have. While many foreign nationals join existing factions, there is at least one faction that is comprised entirely of foreign fighters, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Supporters) who you can follow on Twitter here.
Opposition groups have always used social media to promote their message; they often post videos of successful missile attacks or hard fighting to improve their image. Just as often they post ultimatums, decrees, or threats towards other groups. The Syrian conflict’s fighting has spread to the internet. Journalists (and regular people) have jumped at the chance to follow every detail of the conflict via primary sources. The entrance of western voices into this mix is a way for Syrian groups to reach out to western audiences who are mostly disinterested and possibly gain support.
For more information on the Syrian conflict, check out http://reddit.com/r/syriancivilwar which is a great example of citizen-journalism, essentially collating the thousands of social media posts into a more coherent picture.