By Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg
Identifying ISIS and Militant Jihadist Supporters on Instagram
Identifying those supporting jihadist ideology and groups on Instagram is a relatively simple task. By searching on Islamic terms and names often associated with ISIS, like khilafah, tawheed, and dawlah and even Awlaki, many posts including those hashtags appear, as they were posted by users with public accounts. Among these, most public posts did not include explicit advocations of militant jihadist violence, but rather promoted conservative views such as the requirement for women to be fully covered in niqab, with the implication that women who show their faces at all were sexually promiscuous and that unmarried women who interacted with men were asking to be sexually assaulted. While these views are not necessarily extremist, there could then be found among them ISIS supporters who posted more violent and extreme ideas on their stories or secondary private accounts which made it clear they sympathize with ISIS.
For instance, one commonly shared meme on public pages contrasted “The Hijabi Queen,” a woman who has never had sex before marriage and dresses modestly, with the “Western Thot [Internet slang for a slut or whore],” a woman who is seen as “a pump-and-dump” and “has slept around with countless random guys in her youth, then settles down with someone she’s not even attracted to.” The conservative Muslim woman is portrayed respectfully while the Western woman is dehumanized and degraded, which is not itself violent extremism, but in some cases, it relates to violent suggestions for dealing with Western women’s violations of the poster’s conservative views. For instance, one account posted a photo depicting a man asking, “Is burning the only solution for the feminists?” and another responding, “So it seems. So it seems.”
Other posts advocated violence against members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially during the month of June, which is Pride Month in the United States. Many of these posts appeared at first to advocate tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality until one looked more carefully at the details of the photos. This photo was posted by an account which frequently posted other homophobic content and advocated a broad expansion of the global Caliphate but did not believe that ISIS was the group capable of doing so. This view is akin to many others supportive of militant jihad and the idea of an Islamic State Caliphate but who are opposed to ISIS’s propensity for attacking other Sunni Muslims. Below are some posts of memes illustrating such views.
More violent content criticized the relatives of victims of the mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand for forgiving the white supremacist terrorist instead of punishing him according to shariah. Other posts refer to takfir, which is the extremist Islamic practice of excommunicating others for not following their extremist interpretation of Islam, a common practice in ISIS that included the claim that those takfired should be executed as infidels. An example of a post including a meme promoting takfir refers also to the taghut which are, according to ISIS, tyrannical powers that deny and defy Islam, and mushrik, meaning those who reject the oneness of God and who are idolaters. The post is here:
Other posts were anti-Semitic memes accusing figures like the Rothschild family and George Soros of creating the COVID-19 pandemic and inciting race wars which could be found on both far right and militant jihadists sympathizers accounts, again not necessarily denoting militant jihadist sympathy per se. However, among these were also Muslims who appeared to be ISIS supporters based on a video of a man preaching the “ruling of caliphate.”
The account mentioned above, which appears to be an ISIS supporter, posted a meme depicting various high-profile media personalities with Stars of David on their foreheads, below a photo of Jacob Rothschild holding a fan of cash, with an illuminati symbol on his forehead. The title above the photo reads, “The media moguls are highly-paid agents of Rothschild Zionism, hired and paid handsomely serve their global agenda [sic].”
Under the hashtag taghut, denoting tyrannical powers who deny worship of anything other than God and defy Islam, many Instagram users posted photos of Arab leaders, most notably those from Saudi Arabia, accusing them of hypocrisy and Westernization which aligns with the jihadist messaging from al Qaeda, al Shabaab and ISIS, but does not necessarily mean they are militant jihad or ISIS supporters themselves. Messages warning followers not to participate in democratic elections were also posted with the taghut hashtag although this could also be seen as a very conservative, but nonviolent, Salafi view.
One such post featured a Guy Fawkes mask next to the words, “Dumb politicians are not the problem. The problem is the dumb kuffar [disbelievers] that keep voting for them.” The caption specified the leaders of Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia as polytheists and their supporters as kuffar. The same account posted photos accusing Bill Gates of injecting people with the COVID-19 virus in order to sell them a vaccine; referred to Jews, Shias, Sufis, Brelwees [sic], and Christians of being idol-worshippers; and declared takfir on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for her participation in the U.S. government. Many photos posted by the account featured firearms, though the poster stated that they did not support ISIS specifically.
Of the public accounts that did explicitly advocate for violent jihad, most did not mention ISIS, which may be due to the profile owners’ concerns about avoiding takedowns. Rather than directly mentioning ISIS, they posted photos and quotes from ISIS and al Qaeda English-speaking ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki or exaltations of the Taliban, which seemed to be a far more socially acceptable group, or safer to explicitly post, than ISIS within the jihadist sphere on Instagram.
One post featured a video of Anwar al-Awlaki speaking about jihad, captioned, “Beautiful beautiful reminder, Whoever is going to follow a path should follow the path of the ones who’ve died.” Another post on the account featured only the bottom half of al-Awlaki’s face, presumably to avoid takedown software, as the caption began, “Kuffar deleted this post.”
Another account was dedicated entirely to posting al-Awlaki quotes, with a link to a collection of audio lectures in the bio. According to the account holder, he or she was posting the quotes on behalf of jihad and linking to the audio lectures because “YouTube is deleting the videos of the Sheikh cause [sic] it contains Islam in its purest form.” While many of al-Awlaki’s early videos do address many matters about life in Islam, his later videos promoting endless jihad with the West are the actual reason his videos have been taken down.
One of the most prolific Taliban-supporting accounts frequently posted violent and graphic videos as well as photos boasting of the Taliban’s success. For instance, one photo was accompanied by the caption, “Taliban Lions captured a checkpoint in the Antan area of Siagard in Begha Parwan province, killing and wounding soldiers and looting a large number of arms. Allab Almighty gives us enough weapons in one post to suffice to conquer a large bases… [sic].”
The same account frequently expressed anger toward ISIS, however, citing an oft-referenced conspiracy theory that ISIS was created by the United States and Israel to destroy the Muslim people. The photo below was posted alongside a caption claiming that Edward Snowden had revealed that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is really a Mossad agent named Elliot Shimon.
There were, however, a few public accounts that were clearly and unashamedly pro-ISIS. Most focused on the women imprisoned at the al-Hol camp in Syria. One account was even purportedly run by women in the camp who raised money through other accounts to finance their escapes. These accounts threatened punishment for the unbelievers who held them captive and yearned for the return of the Caliphate.
An account seemingly run by a woman in al-Hol wrote, “Remember my sisters no matter what state we are in, no matter what the world think of us. The world still trembles at the mention of us, we have left a deep scar that will never heal and we remain a thorn in the side of kufr.”
One account posted in English, Arabic, and German, raising funds to be smuggled out of Camp al-Hol. This account also provided links to other accounts, which posted links to a PayPal account where supporters could donate to the women or write them letters. On June 12th, 2020, one of the associated accounts posted a video claiming that it was taken while the women were leaving the camp. The account also posted graphic photos of bloodied male faces, claiming that “some sisters from the camp recognized their husbands and their husbands were in Hasakah prison.” There were multiple riots and attempted escapes at Hasakah the days and weeks before these photos were posted. The primary account has either been deleted since then or has blocked the account through which ICSVE was following it.
Another account run out of al-Hol, which was not associated with the German account mentioned above, posted in English only. The account posted about fundraisers through Telegram, but did not link to the fundraising websites themselves, likely to prevent the websites from being taken down. The account also lauded ISIS fighters who were captured in ISIS’s last stronghold of Baghouz, fighting until the very end. They also posted about teaching their children to throw rocks at the camp guards and referred to Camp al-Hol as “the cradle of the new Caliphate.” This account has also either been deleted or blocked the account through which ICSVE was following it.
Most accounts that openly supported ISIS were private, though many of these could be identified as likely ISIS followers by a black flag emoji and an index finger emoji in their bios, both common but not unique symbols for ISIS. Notably, proponents of other jihadist groups like the Taliban did not use these symbols in their bios. These pro-ISIS accounts posted photos of weapons and included more provocative messages, such as those denouncing others as unbelievers, in their Instagram stories. Some photos also included selective Islamic scriptures arguing for severe punishment of unbelievers which also aligns with ISIS ideology. Many accounts also posted black and white videos of men with guns on horses with the identifiable black flags of ISIS and women dressed in niqab, expressing nostalgia for the Caliphate. One account even included a story called “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” which included, “Praying to Allah to reward you with martyrdom,” “financing a mujahid [a jihadist warrior] ,” and “arms training.” Another account was dedicated to inspiring hope for the resurgence of the ISIS Caliphate. Under a photo of Bashar al-Assad, the user commented, “The oppressive rule of these tyrants is on its last legs. Their nations are failing, the people want change. The Khilafah is coming very soon, as prophesized. Why don’t you help re-establish it?” Another post read, “The Khilafah state could easily liberate all oppressed Muslims and protect every Muslim living within it. It’s that simple.” Another account used a photo of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as his profile picture and posted videos of sermons on his story, as well as other videos praising ISIS fighters and promising that “Allah will grant you victory.” Another post by the same account featured a drawing of the ISIS flag over the earth. Many of these accounts accepted follow requests from the ICSVE-run The Real Jihad account, likely without looking at the account’s posts, which all contain counter narrative material.
It should be noted that many of these accounts are taken down within weeks of discovering them, although new and similar ones quickly replace them. In the study of terrorist activity on social media, Instagram may well be a new frontier where younger people are able to post anonymously about their violent extremist beliefs. The Instagram “Discover” page also serves as an echo chamber for these individuals, suggesting posts and accounts to follow that are similar to accounts one already follows. Indeed, many of the accounts followed by The Real Jihad were found not by searching on hashtags or perusing other users’ lists of followers, but by simply looking at the “Discover” page without searching anything at all. Thus, as soon as a user reacts to a militant jihadist account, he or she will be recommended to follow other such accounts and will not be exposed to any counter arguments unless accounts like The Real Jihad insert themselves into the echo chamber by tagging counter narratives with militant jihadist hashtags.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. Follow @AnneSpeckhard
Molly Ellenberg, M.A. is a research fellow at ICSVE. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego.