Saturday, June 14, 2014

Following the Money Men

As ISIS wreaks havoc across Iraq, networks related to fundraising for the war in Syria are reacting in dramatic fashion, a development which will play out over time but could have significant ramifications for the future direction of the jihadist movement.

I analyzed approximately 2.8 million tweets from more than 7,500 accounts that were followed by a selection of key nodes in the Syrian fundraising machine. These accounts represent a mix of influences -- including active fundraisers, important donors and sources of news about groups that are receiving donations. In other words, it's the social network in which fundraising activity takes place, not necessarily a straight-up snapshot of donor sentiment.

The most recent 200 tweets from each user were collected on June 1 (prior to the launch of ISIS's Iraq campaign) and again on June 13 (after the fall of Mosul) for two sets of 1.4 million tweets, which included some overlap, as not all users tweeted during the interim period.

Tweets using the hashtag "Syria" more than doubled from June 1 to June 13, while tweets using the hashtag for "Iraq" increased tenfold (although Syria still outranked Iraq handily).

Tweets using hashtags for jihadist groups, also soared, as seen in the chart above. The nature of these tweets suggests an increase in infighting and factionalization among supporters of the Syrian jihad.

As I've previously discussed, ISIS has a very organized social media presence which can cause a spike in the use of the hashtag for its official name. What's notable here, though, is that the single biggest increase for an organization's name was found for "Daash," which is a derogatory reference to ISIS used by its critics. In other words, among the donor community, there was a massive surge in hostility toward ISIS despite its battlefield successes. And the surge in the use of Daash suggests that the network is organically talking more about ISIS overall, rather than the shift being a result of social media marketing strategies.

As a percentage of all tweets using one of the hashtags, Daash also clocked the biggest increase, rising from 20 percent to 29 percent. The ISIS tag rose by 2 points as a percentage of all tweets using one of the hashtags, while Jabhat al Nusra fell 8 and the Islamic front fell 3.

So what does all of this mean?

People in the social network surrounding jihadist fundraisers, who have thus far favored al Nusra, are talking about how much they hate ISIS more than how much they love al Nusra. That is probably not good news for al Nusra. The negativity may depress turnout, and the massive surge in the insulting "Daash" label points to weakness and smacks of desperation, while also making Nusra supporters look like they have a sour grapes problem as their primary competitor scores big on the battlefield.

While it's still early days, we may look back at this moment as the start of a major shift in the flow of donations. The infighting between the al Qaeda breakaway (ISIS), the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria (Nusra), and al Qaeda Central has been poisoning the well for some time, but ISIS is emerging as an increasingly formidable competitor for hearts and minds (and wallets) globally, and I would suggest the data above shows that Nusra supporters are alarmed.

Even if ISIS loses its territorial gains, it is likely to benefit on the global stage from the shock value of its spree across Iraq over the last week, in terms of moral support, generating excitement, and ultimately raising money.

The circumstances under which ISIS loses its territorial gains could further impact the playing field. If the United States helps drive ISIS out with air strikes, ISIS will certainly gain significant stature and fundraising appeal. If the Iranians drive ISIS out in a protracted, hard-fought ground campaign, this too will burnish ISIS's image outside of its geographical dominion. There is really only one likely scenario under which ISIS comes out of this campaign weaker than when it went in -- self-inflicted wounds in the form of overreach or massive-scale atrocities.

The views expressed herein are mine alone, but major thanks go to Aaron Zelin for help in assembling key portions of this analysis.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam