Jihad Selfies: British Extremists in Syria Love Social Media
After being publicly sacked by al Qaeda leader Aymann al-Zawahiri and accidentally beheadinga fighter from one of their main allies in Syria, it’s fair to say the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)’s PR campaign has suffered in recent weeks. So, like any half decent group of militant extremists, they obviously want to address this slip. Unfortunately, a traditional media outreach is very difficult for them, given ISIS’s policy of kidnapping journalists. So they’ve turned, like many before them, to social media.
Over the past few weeks, foreign fighters from ISIS and their subgroup the Muhajireen Brigade have been busy uploading selfies across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, in an effort to publicize their cause and win more recruits to the Syrian jihad. They offer a bizarre and fascinating look inside Syria’s most feared and least understood militant groups.
On paper, the Muhajireen Brigade are separate to ISIS, but they’re considered by some analysts to be a front group for the larger jihadist outfit. The social media evidence seems to support this view.
This picture (above) shows British fighter Ibrahim al-Mazwagi in battle with Omar Shishani, a Georgian Chechen who formerly led the Muhajireen Brigade, and is now ISIS’s military commander in Northern Syria.
Al-Mazwagi was killed in battle in February, aged 21. This is a collage made to honor him as a martyr, along with his friend and fellow casualty, Abu Qudama.
Above are two other recent British martyrs, Choukri Ellekhlifi, 22, and Mohammed el-Araj, 23. The pair are shown here at a jihadist internet café in Atmeh, a Syrian border town that is now firmly under ISIS control.
Black Gold Blues: The Hazards and Horrors of the Makeshift Oil Industry in Rebel-Controlled Syria
Deir ez-Zor, Syria’s sixth-largest city, is also the country’s oil capital. For four decades, the al-Assad regime (first run by Hafez, and now by his son Bashar) struck deals with Western oil companies like Shell and Total that resulted in the extraction of as much as 27,000 barrels of black gold from the sand every day. A pittance compared with other Middle Eastern countries’ production, but it made Syria a bona fide oil-exporting nation. At least this was the case until international sanctions were imposed in 2011 in response to the regime’s crackdown on the antigovernment protests, which quickly morphed into a civil war.
Located in the middle of the desert and less than 100 miles from the Iraq border, Deir ez-Zor dominates the eastern portion of the country and has had a long, fruitful relationship with the petroleum industry: before the war, its 220,000 inhabitants often worked for oil companies as engineers, technicians, and laborers.
Downtown Deir ez-Zor is still home to many modern glass-walled buildings erected by Western firms, but in the past two years, they’ve been largely abandoned as the battles between the rebels and al-Assad’s forces, each of whom hold portions of the city, have left them pockmarked, windowless, and scarred.
When I visited Deir ez-Zor in September, there were snipers lurking on roofs as combatants exchanged fire from Kalashnikovs, mortars, and heavy machine guns below. Beyond the city limits the suburbs give way to the mostly empty desert where the oil wells are located and where the rebels—most of them hard-line jihadists, and many of them with ties to al Qaeda—are in complete control. It’s a very different place than it was prerevolution, but it is still an oil town, albeit one of an entirely new sort. Instead of multinational corporations, it’s now the Islamist rebels who are providing jobs to the locals.
Ground Zero: Za’atari Refugee Camp
If the severity of a conflict can, at least in part, be measured by the number of refugees it creates, the Za’atari camp in Jordan is a disturbing reflection of just how bad the civil war in Syria has gotten: when it opened, Za’atari had just 100 families. Today, it has about 120,000 residents. Located 18 miles south of the Syrian border, it’s the fourth largest city in Jordan and the second largest refugee camp in the world.
Since July 2012, when the camp was opened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Jordanian government, Za’atari has become home for the huge numbers of Syrians who’ve fled the violence and trauma of their country’s civil war since it began in March 2011.
Watch the documentary
The Families of Colombia’s ‘False Positive’ Victims Are Still Fighting for Justice
I arrived in Soacha, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Bogota, on an overcast July afternoon. We had driven away from the city center and the building that dominates its skyline—a huge structure covered in LED lights that slowly change color; a gaudy beacon for Colombia’s wealthy elite—and had pulled up on a residential side street.
I was there with the NGO Justice for Colombia to hear about the country’s ‘false positives' scandal, which first broke five years ago and shows no sign of relenting any time soon. The scandal has its roots in the Colombian 50-year civil war between the government and the left-wing peasant insurgent group FARC. In the early 2000s, then-president Alvaro Uribe, out of an apparent concern for the army’s reputation, started putting pressure on soldiers to increase their kill figures.
According to media reports, soldiers were promised cash payments and more vacation time if they produced the bodies of dead FARC guerrillas—an accusation the government denies. In an effort to increase their quotas, soldiers allegedly started luring young, impoverished men away from their homes with the offer of work. Once away from their families, the soldiers executed the men, dressed them up in guerrilla uniforms, and presented them as combat kills. Many victims were dismembered and buried hundreds of miles away from their families.
The National Victims Movement protests against the state’s “false positive” scandal. (Photo courtesy of Justice for Colombia)
When the scandal broke, the Colombian government insisted false positives were isolated incidents. By 2012, however, nearly 3,000 murders were recorded and, in 2007—the worst year for this type of killing—one in every five combat kills recorded was a false positive. In Soacha, 19 mothers lost their sons in the false positives scandal, and so far only one of them has seen the killers convicted, but his conviction was appealed and the main defendant, an army major, became a fugitive.
After parking up among the ownerless dogs and football-playing boys that seem ubiquitous in Bogota’s suburbs, I was led up some steps to a little house set back from the street. Waiting for me were three women, smartly dressed, warm and hospitable. They shook my hand and sat me down. As I waited for the rest of my group to file in, I noticed school pictures on the wall of young boys in suits—the dead sons of the women I’d just met.
A Munitions Expert Weighs in on Last Month’s Chemical Attacks in Damascus
Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime currently stands accused of committing one of the worst war crimes of the 21st century: dropping sarin nerve gas on the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus last month. The body of evidence against the regime is large and compelling, but—much like 9/11 truthers sharing links to HD torrents of Zeitgeist—people are still passing around misinformation like it’s gospel truth.
The debate will likely rage on for years in the armchair analyst community, regardless of whether military action is taken or not. But, for now, I thought it best to contact independent munitions expert Eliot Higgins, AKA Brown Moses, who, since the conflict began, has been investigating and verifying evidence of crimes on both sides of the conflict at his blog. Eliot isn’t operating on the ground in Syria. In fact, he’s operating from his house in Leicestershire and if he has an armchair, I don’t doubt that he’s operated from it before. But where he differs from your average lonely keyboard warrior is that he’s incredibly well respected among journalists and weapons experts for his forensic ability to identify munitions found on Syria’s battlefields. He has written for Foreign Policy and New York Times, and been interviewed by Channel 4 News, CNN, and the Guardian. Typically, he’s billed as someone who’s used the internet and social media to become an “accidental arms expert.”
Eliot has put forward a particularly convincing case linking the regime to the sarin attacks, which corroborates firmly with the information gathered by NGOs and the intelligence agencies of the US, UK, France, and Germany. I spoke to him to find out more about his research.
VICE: Hi, Eliot. Can you tell me how you came to know so much about munitions?
Eliot Higgins: I’m self-taught, first using resources available online, then by talking to a lot of arms specialists and learning as I went. I’d look at a video, see something new and then learn as much about it as possible. There are huge amounts of information about the Soviet weaponry used by the Syrian government and opposition online.
You have presented a lot of evidence that firmly suggests the Syrian government is behind the recent sarin attacks. Can you talk me through your conclusions?
The one thing you expect to find after a chemical attack is the remains of the munitions used. Unlike conventional munitions, the warheads on these weapons don’t explode, but disperse the chemical agent using different methods—for example, a small dispersal charge that pops it open. So instead of being blown into tiny pieces, you should find the remains of the munitions used.
In the case of the attacks in Damascus, there are two different types of munitions that have been found by activists. The first is an M14 140mm artillery rocket fired by the Soviet BM14 multiple rocket launcher. One warhead type for these munitions carries 2.2 kilograms of sarin, and the remains of the munitions recorded by activists were in very good condition, suggesting this might have been the warhead used.
What’s far more interesting is the second type of munitions, several of which have been filmed at the August 21st attacks, as well as previous alleged chemical attacks. These munitions are unique to the conflict; the many arms and chemical weapons specialists I’ve spoken to do not recognize it as appearing anywhere else in the world.
Are Chemical Weapons Actually Useful in a War?
Chemical warfare is actually pretty rare. When Syrian government forces allegedly attacked rebels in Ghouta with nerve agents last month, it was the first major recorded use of chemical warfare in a quarter of a century. The previous time was the bombing of Halabja, Iraq, by Saddam Hussein in 1988, which killed roughly 5,000 people. Before that, chemical weapons only really saw the light of day in the Iran-Iraq war, the Yemeni civil war, and both World Wars.
However, as little as they’ve been used in the grand scheme of things, their deployment in Syria wasn’t a huge surprise. The civil war-torn country is one of only seven nations in the world that still refuses to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. And while everyone else was getting rid of their reserves, establishing their use as a “red line for the world,” Assad and his regime kept themselves busy loading up on precursor chemicals and building one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world.
One of the main problems with chemical weapons is that in relative terms they’re incredibly easy to make. Mustard gas and chlorine could probably be whipped up by some of Walter White’s more attentive students, and even the ingredients for Sarin aren’t too difficult to obtain, although actually making the stuff is trickier. Pretty much any country with a laboratory and a competent chemist can get hold of all the toxic gases and nerve agents they want, though. So, considering the number of abjectly immoral, lawless, and evil people in the world, why aren’t they used more?
The answer is that, today, they’re not a particularly effective way of killing people. Chemical warfare came of age in the First World War, in many ways the ideal environment for it to thrive—soldiers back then were sitting ducks, massed together in low-lying trenches, static targets for weeks or months at a time. The technology of death was rapidly improving too; chlorine gas was quickly surpassed by phosgene and later mustard gas, each horrible in its own way. Chlorine reacted with water in the lungs to form hydrochloric acid, while mustard gas damaged membranes and inflicted terrible chemical burns across the skin. Advances in chemistry were matched by improvements in ballistics and flight, allowing chemical munitions to be accurately targeted and deployed for the first time. Chemical weapons had the potential to reshape the battlefield.
Did the Syrian Regime Just Unleash the Worst Chemical Attack in Decades?
The attack came at perhaps a strange time. Over the last few weeks, the Assad regime seemed to be gaining the upperhand in Syria’s complex, protracted civil war. UN Inspectors were in Damascus on a fact-finding mission to verify previous claims of the use of chemical weapons earlier in the year.
But in the early hours of Wednesday, August 21, reports began to spread on social media that chemical agents had been deployed in a number of towns in East and West Ghouta, districts on the eastern outskirts of Damascus. Harrowing videos surfaced on YouTube and Facebook showing panicked civilians on suburban streets struggling desperately, gasping for breath as others lay motionless on the ground around them. Other videos showed children foaming at the mouth, eyes open but lacking sentience, convulsing uncontrollably in overcrowded hospital wards. What’s depicted in these videos hasn’t been corraborated, but by the end of the day most of the videos showed rows of corpses, with bodies and faces unblemished as if in sleep, wrapped in white funeral shrouds. Children in diapers are side by side with men, noncombatants beside combatants.
As the sun set on Wednesday, the UN Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting in New York and estimates for the total dead ranged from 500 to 1,300 in what, if verified, would constitute the world’s most lethal chemical attack since Saadam Hussein sanctioned gas attacks in Halubjah in 1988, killing between 3,000 and 5,000 Kurds.
The Syrian rebel leadership was quick to hold the government responsible.
Inside Aleppo, Syria’s “Stalingrad”
I am traveling with the Free Syrian Army on the front line of the al-Arqub neighborhood in Aleppo. Sniper rounds crack as the bullets zip over our heads. The acidic taste of gunpowder scares my throat and burns my waterless tear ducts. Just a half mile from the gutted and destroyed Dar al-Shifa hospital, we are traveling in an area known by the locals as Stalingrad. The reference plays on the macabre similarities between the Nazi’s relentless bombardment of the Russian city during the Second World War, and the unforgiving attacks this part of Aleppo has seen during Syria’s uprising. One group of fighters here is so conservative they refuse us the luxury of smoking a cigarette while escaping death on the hollowed streets.
The only signs of life come from atop a bleeding tree scarred and bent by bullets and shrapnel. This bleeding tree offers me a moment of solace, because the pathetic little spruce has refused to die. In defiance of war and the death that follows, this ugly thing sprung two new leaves—green specks of life on the naked branches that defy man’s destruction. This sight offers me a faint memory of what the allure of life was before this inhuman war.
The roots of the conflict in Syria stretch back centuries—namely to the battle between the Sunni Muslim majority and a mystical-Shia sect known as the Alawites. This timeline provides some context to the recent bloodletting and its supremely convoluted backstory.
Ground Zero: Syria - Allepo Field Hospital
The atrocities and war crimes currently ripping Syria apart at the seams are evident at a field hospital in Aleppo, the country’s largest city. Inside the hospital exhausted doctors indiscriminately treat civilians, members of the Free Syrian Army, and captured Syrian Army troops alike.