November 5, 2013

Islamist rebels in Syria use faces of the dead to lure the living

Among the most striking features of the conflict is the profusion of social-media postings devoted to individual fighters, both living and dead.

By Joby Warrick
The Washington Post

In his death portrait, the young rebel’s bearded face is fixed with a broad, unearthly grin. The Saudi man had been killed in fighting, and his corpse, with its beatific smile, was photographed and displayed in a Twitter posting inviting others to celebrate his martyrdom.

“He always used to say: ‘Those martyrs smile. What is it they see?’ ” a former comrade wrote in a tribute to the fighter, identified as Abu Hamad al-Saya’ri. In another post, an admirer mused about the good fortune of the fallen and speculated on what the dead must be saying: “Congrats to me, congrats to me, I became a martyr.”

The Saudi fighter is one of hundreds of Islamist veterans of the Syrian conflict whose deaths are heralded in Web postings, many of which feature bloody — and occasionally smiling — portraits of the newly deceased. Although the images may strike many Westerners as macabre, they have become one of the rites of service among Syrian jihadists, as well as a popular recruiting tool.

“These guys are celebrated, and to young people back in the neighborhoods, they are heroes,” said Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington nonprofit group that monitors websites and news media in the region. “They look at the photos and they say, ‘I can be this guy.’ ”

The memorials for dead fighters are but one manifestation of an explosion in the use of social media by Islamists since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Although jihadists have long used the Internet to communicate messages from leaders or spread images of battle, Syrian rebel groups are flocking to websites such as Twitter, Instagram and Flickr to create new ways to recruit, train, raise funds, debate theology and coordinate strategy, researchers say.

To some Syrian rebels and their supporters, Twitter is not just a communications tool but also an online cash machine, useful for soliciting donations or even running auctions for donated cars and jewelry. Others use Skype accounts to conduct interviews with potential recruits or to share advice on military tactics. Still others employ YouTube or Facebook to trumpet their battlefield successes or to document alleged atrocities by their opponents.

The sites’ growing popularity among the more extremist Syrian groups — including some with ties to al-Qaida — has prompted calls for more stringent policing by the U.S. companies that own them. A handful of accounts have been blocked, but the vast majority continue to operate, providing a rare window into the thinking, planning and tactics of jihadists groups in Syria and beyond, analysts say.

“What’s interesting in the age of Twitter is that the normal jihadi cultural material — previously confined to private discussion forums — is being broadcast more widely where everyone can see it,” said William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar who studies the Islamists’ use of the Internet. “The closed jihadi community is coming out into the light of day and inviting others to join.”

Among the most striking features of the Syrian conflict is the profusion of social-media postings devoted to individual fighters, both living and dead.

Since the arrival of the first foreign jihadists in Syria more than two years ago, rebel volunteers have used Facebook and Twitter accounts to keep their friends and relatives updated about their experiences, just as U.S. troops did in Iraq and Afghanistan. When fighters are killed, the same websites offer a way to spread the news to family and friends and pay tribute to the fallen, researchers say. With flowery language and photographs that sometimes border on ghoulish, the online tributes seek to reinforce the Islamist belief in martyrdom as a high calling — a noble death that guarantees a place in paradise.

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