A kitten and a gun, as posted on Instagram by a jihadi fighter with the hashtag #CatsOfJihad.
Show Hide image

Why terrorists tweet about cats

It used to be that extremists used Facebook and YouTube to post recruiting videos - but Isis and its fighters have become adept at using social media to show their side of war.

In April, British Pathé uploaded its entire collection of 85,000 newsreels to YouTube. From 1908 until the late 1940s, when television gradually supplanted them, these reels gave the public what newspapers and radio couldn’t: a visual, moving record of current affairs. The iconic footage from the Second World War – including Hitler’s early speeches and the bombing of Hiroshima – were also useful for the government’s propaganda effort. In those days, controlling the narrative was as simple as keeping an eye on a few newspapers, a handful of movie studios and the BBC.

One of the wonders of the internet is how irrelevant it makes the distinction between “people” and “the media”. Was it a journalist or a blogger who broke the story? Who cares, if it gets a minister sacked? Today, a smartphone can be as powerful as a media agency.

Consider that 11 years ago many of us saw the US-led invasion of Iraq through the eyes of John Simpson, who spoke to BBC viewers live via satellite phone from a road near Mosul and explained that it was “a bit of a disaster, I have to say” that the Americans had bombed one of their own convoys and killed around ten people. The broadcast was remarkable for its intensity and candidness – at one point a soldier interrupts Simpson to point out that the journalist is bleeding – but at root, the footage is little different to a Pathé newsreel. It might be more immediate and more explicit but it is still war reportage by a journalist whose job is to tell us what he thinks we need to know.

It is too dangerous for most journalists to report from Syria or Isis-controlled territories in Iraq. Our perception of what is happening comes instead from the fighters themselves. They are using Twitter and Instagram and relying on the disturbingly well-organised Isis public relations team – which knew, for instance, that the best way to spread videos of the murder of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit was to upload them to sites such as LiveLeak, rather than to send them to major media outlets.

Different Isis groups each have their own “corporate” Twitter accounts – which brag about victories both real and imagined. Individual fighters use apps such as WhatsApp, Viber and Kik to communicate with each other and social media sites including Twitter and Ask.fm to troll their critics. There’s a subgroup of fighters who Instagram photos of their guns, snacks and cats.

Many of these young men are showing off because they want to prove to their friends – some of whom are in the west – that joining Isis is fun. Like execution or recruitment videos, social media jokes are an exercise in propaganda. No wonder an Isis fighter tweeted: “Praise be to Allah, who gave Twitter to the mujahideen so that they may share their joys and not have to listen to the BBC, al-Arabiya, al-Jazeera.”

And no wonder that from 13 June, the Iraqi government began blocking social media and video sites across the country. Isis has a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of soft power.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Hamzah al Zobi
Show Hide image

Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".