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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Saturday, July 12, 2014

IS Backlash Spills Over on Jabhat al Nusra

A few weeks ago, I provided some initial data on how advances in Iraq by the former Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were playing out in a key sector of the global jihadist infrastructure -- the network of people surrounding fundraisers for the Syrian jihad.

For that June 14 analysis, I looked at the most recent 200 tweets from approximately 7,500 Twitter accounts that were followed by 22 prominent jihadist fundraisers on Twitter (as well as the tweets of the fundraisers themselves), analyzing a total of about 2.8 million tweets. From those tweets, I extracted the most popular Arabic hashtags used by members of the network to refer to jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq.

I repeated this analysis roughly every two weeks, including results around June 29 announcement that ISIS had renamed itself "The Islamic State" and proclaimed it was a "caliphate" with authority over all Muslims around the world and specifically over all other jihadist groups. The results suggest that the IS caliphate declaration is not only provoking a great deal of hostility, but that it is also depressing enthusiasm for other jihadist groups operating in Syria, including Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic Front.

The task was complicated by the use of three popular hashtags for IS:
  • #Islamic_State_of_Iraq_and_Syria (prior to the renaming), 
  • #Islamic_State (after the renaming), and 
  • #Daash (a derogatory reference to IS/ISIS both before and after the renaming). 
The first two hashtags may be neutral or positive references to IS, the third is decidedly negative most of the time.

First, let's compare all references to IS under each name, including both positive and negative, to all references to Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic Front.

The first thing that becomes apparent is that people are talking about IS a whole lot more than they are talking about al Nusra or the Islamic Front, and the gap is widening. In fact, there were very close to twice as many references to IS as to the other two groups combined. That's a huge gap, especially when compared to June 1, when the number of references to IS were roughly equal to the combined references to the other two groups.

Does that mean people are growing to love the new "caliphate"? Hardly. Here's how the references to IS break down:

References to IS as "Daash" vastly outnumbered references to the group as either IS or ISIS, with Daash being hashtagged more than both IS and ISIS combined in the most recent period (some of the tweets analyzed in the July 12 collection date to before the name change). There were more than twice as many references to Daash as there were to IS under its new name, and both increased by similar amounts between June 28 and July 12.

Keep in mind that references to IS and ISIS are not necessarily positive, but references to Daash are almost always negative. (For that matter, there is no guarantee all references to Nusra and IF are positive; there is a derogatory hashtag for Nusra, "mishmish," but it barely cracked 100 tweets at its height.) With that caveat, it's pretty clear that the new caliphate has a lot of haters in the financier networks, and that the positives of the declaration are not enough to offset its growing negatives.

The hostility is not all that surprising in itself, since the global financing networks tend to be more aligned with al Qaeda, IS's increasingly bitter rival.

What's significant instead is the fact that discussion of al Nusra and the Islamic Front is flat or even declining over the period measured. That means the global financiers and their constituents (donors, friends, militant leaders and news sources) are more angry about IS than they are excited for al Nusra and the Islamic Front, and that trend has worsened since June 1. All of this negativity would not seem to be good for fundraising or for foreign fighter recruitment.

Finally, here's a quick look at how al Nusra, the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, fares against IS when they go head to head, with IS hashtags broken out for negativity.

Even broken down by clearly negative tweets versus tweets simply using the name IS or ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra still comes in third, and that can't be good for the AQ affiliate. These hashtags suggest that people are not flocking to al Nusra as an alternative to the hated IS, but rather they are saying "a plague on both your houses." In other words, the caliphate is bad for the global jihad business.

The declining references to al Nusra and the Islamic Front may be partially due to a surge in hashtags related to Gaza, but that didn't stop people from hating on IS in even greater volumes. #Gaza _ under bombardment did outrank all three groups, ranking lower than #Syria but higher than #Iraq. Tweets referring to Iraq dropped precipitously from June 28, when IS was on the move, to July 12.

Much could change in the weeks and months to come, but the IS proclamation of world domination has to date produced a massive surge in anger among movers and shakers in the global jihad, with very few signs of goodwill so far.

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


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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