Thursday, December 12, 2013
By Joby Warrick
The Washington Post
(Continued from page 1)
Last year, Stalinsky’s group began to catalogue the “martyrdom” tributes showing up on Facebook and Twitter. But a year later, Stalinsky said, there were so many postings that the organization could no longer keep up.
Many of the postings include images and allusions intended to resonate with the Muslim faithful. In some photos, bodies with grievous wounds are posed so that they appear to be smiling or, in some cases, pointing to heaven. Dead rebels with wide, toothy grins elicit admiring comments, as was the case when the image of a lightly bearded youth was displayed on a Twitter account in April.
“We have seen many martyrs smiling when they meet with their God, but we haven’t seen a smile this wide,” responded a man writing under the Twitter name FahadJabbar1. “What did he see to make this beautiful smile? Oh Allah, grant us martyrdom.”
A common belief among jihadists is that martyrdom brings special rewards in paradise, including the affections of the “houris”_ the 72 black-eyed virgins promised to men in the afterlife — as well as an ability to win entry to heaven for the martyr’s relatives.
Jihadist teaching also holds that the martyr’s corpse resists decay and exudes a perfume-like odor. Thus, many of the postmortem photos are accompanied by testimonials claiming that the bodies possessed an otherworldly aura.
“The scent of musk emanated from his pure body, and it was smelled by the mujahideen,” Twitter member Albaraibnmalik1 said of a dead fighter whose smiling, bearded face was posted in March. “Women trilled loudly after they smelled the musk emanating from his body.”
Until recently, when a terrorist leader such as Osama bin laden sought to convey a message, he would send videotapes via couriers to trusted assistants who would post them on Islamic websites after delays of several days or even weeks. By contrast, rebel commanders in Syria have instant access to thousands of followers.
Groups in Kuwait that support the Syrian rebels have used Twitter to run increasingly elaborate fundraising drives, including online auctions that accept cash bids for donated luxury goods, including Land Rover SUVs, diamond necklaces and resort properties.
Others use social networking sites to distribute not only resources, but also ideas. Some of Syria’s larger rebel groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist faction linked to al-Qaida, use Twitter and Facebook in much the same way that corporations and government agencies do in the United States. The groups run sophisticated media outreach programs that allow them to better manage their public image, said Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, a private firm that monitors jihadists’ Web postings.
Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the Obama administration, has sought to counter that image with an aggressive social-media campaign that seeks to cast the group in a softer light, Katz said. Some recent postings on YouTube showed Jabhat al-Nusra fighters handing out food and blankets or clearing trash from rubble-strewn Syrian neighborhoods.
“Clearly this new style of media propaganda is very different from the old fighting images affiliated with the jihadist outlets,” Katz said. Such efforts reflect an ambition to “win hearts and minds of the local population as well as the international community,” she said.
Such messaging depends on services and networks run by U.S. firms. Twitter, the San Francisco-based firm, is the preferred platform for many of the groups in Syria. It is also regularly used by top al-Qaida terrorists, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group’s leader since the death of bin Laden. Twitter in recent months has taken steps to shut down a number of accounts linked to known terrorists, but company officials have said that they lack the resources to monitor the estimated 500 million registered users and 340 million messages posted on a typical day.
Although attempts to police the sites are laudable, Katz said, “in most cases, they fail to make a significant dent.”