September 26, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Extremist Twitter Reacts to Coalition Airstrikes
In the days since the US and Arab members of the anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition began airstrikes in Syria, extremist groups have been working hard to shape the social media narrative in their favor. The two main rivals, IS and the Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), are both trying to claim the title of the true defender of Sunnis against the West and apostate Arab governments.
Both groups have taken to Twitter to proclaim that they best represent the suffering Syrian people and that attacks against them constitute attacks on the Syrian effort to oust the oppressive Assad regime. Each group, in effect, is saying it is indeed ‘strike-worthy’ and is wearing it as a badge of honor. Of course the people saying this are not the ones experiencing airstrikes, but those who are generating online support for the group.
JN cyber supporters in particular have moved to embrace the West’s attacks, as their targeting put the group back in the social media limelight after months of IS ubiquity. While the coalition airstrikes primarily targeted IS, the US unilaterally conducted strikes near Aleppo against an al-Qaeda Central cell it has labeled “the Khurasan group.” JN supporters quickly pointed out that there is actually no such group; rather, it is a term used to denote those who traveled from ‘Khurasan” (the land spanning Afghanistan and Pakistan, home to AQC and Ayman al-Zawahiri) to advise JN fighters. The Qaeda types use the term Khurasan as one would use the term “headquarters.”
JN supporters are claiming that the US couldn’t get support to strike JN because most of the Syrian rebel groups work with the group, and thus were forced to call the target something else. JN claims to have the support of other rebel groups that are actively fighting the Assad, regime, unlike the over-the-top IS. Indeed, public statements by Ali Bakran, a commander in the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), declaring that JN “are the people” serve both to highlight JN’s claim to popular support and the worrisome connections between terrorist groups and “moderate” groups such as the FSA, which are slated to receive training and weapons from the West.
The group quickly released a video entitled “We are all Jabhat al-Nusra,” that juxtaposed images of the United Nations with those of Syrian JN supporters fighting Assad's regime. The group’s cyber supporters appear intent on reclaiming some of the notoriety that it lost to the surging IS over the last six months or so, even if it comes at the cost of airstrikes. JN is betting that it has more true support than IS among the Syrian population and among the rebel groups, which will make airstrikes against it more problematic for the coalition.
For their part, IS supporters are highlighting the damages and injuries of air strikes on the Syrian people. This standard tactic will actually have a greater effect in Syria given that the battlefield is nebulous and all the groups are mixed among themselves and among civilians. Like JN, IS is stressing that the reviled West, the Assad regime, and the despised Shi’a governments of Iraq and Iran are the ones benefiting from airstrikes against the Sunni of Syria.
In keeping with the assertion that it is a true state/Caliphate, the group is saying that damages to its infrastructure harm the future of Syria more than the actual group, which is a rather effective argument that will resonate not just among IS supporters or sympathizers, but with those concerned about the plight of the Syrian people. The more damage airstrikes do on roads, bridges, electrical, and oil facilities, the more credible its claim will be.
Both JN and IS reasonably claim that the airstrikes have inflamed local—and perhaps regional—sentiment against the West. Both will continue to promote the narrative that the conflict is not against extremism but against Muslims worldwide and against Syrians in particular. The airstrikes will need to be tailored in such a way that they deprive—and not supply—extremist groups support.
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