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

ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

How the refugee crisis became invisible

Since the failed coup in Turkey, there are on average 200 refugees a day arriving in Greece. But the world's media has gone home.

The image was familiar for the volunteers in Lesvos that still man the beaches where refugees arrive by boat from Turkey. It’s been many months since boats carried 256 people in a single day across the narrow passage of sea. The refugee crisis seems to be giving way to much larger geopolitical issues to the east of the Greek coastline. Those refugees stuck here might soon be joined by the thousands that remain in Turkey as the situation in Syria deteriorates. There is no solution is on the horizon for the bloodshed.

Almost 300 people arrived that Thursday last week, a number not seen since a deal between the EU and Turkey was reached this spring to curtail the flow of refugees heading for Europe. Following the failed coup attempt in Turkey last month, however, something has changed. 3,300 people have arrived on the islands of the eastern Aegean since, according to the official data released by the Greek state, averaging around 200 a day. Reports on the ground suggest that the traffickers operating in the area are expecting a new wave of refugees leaving Turkey soon, a card for Tayip Erdogan to play in his bid for visa-free entry to Europe for Turkish citizens.

Since the deal – and unlike last year, which saw more than a million people passing through Greece and heading up the Balkan corridor towards Germany and the prosperous north – the crisis has taken a new shape, and it’s now largely invisible. Lesvos, the island formerly seen as the frontline of the refugee crisis, is unseen, abandoned by the media and the tourists that used to be its main source of income.

The refugees unlucky enough to be stuck in Greece after the borders to Macedonia closed are distributed in camps across the country. The camps established at the points of arrival, known as “hotspots”, are overcrowded to breaking point, with violence often erupting between refugees, locals and the police. Instances of violence against unaccompanied minors by police were even recorded in the Moria camp in June.

Now, for the close to 60.000 people who in limbo while their asylum applications are processed, it’s a waiting game that looks more like prison than anything else. Meanwhile, deportations back to Τurkey have effectively stopped because of the political insecurity and terrorist attacks there, despite the fact it is still deemed a “safe third country”.

Forty-nine camps have been set up across Greece, but the government has announced that more are on their way. Local business owners in Crete have already protested the news of a camp for 2,000 refugees established on the island. After what happened in Lesvos the tourism industry – arguably the country’s most important, contributing close to 10 per cent of the GDP – is nervous.

Inside the camps, reports of overcrowding, poor hygiene, illness, violence, trafficking and drugs are on the rise. Even in Greece, Yazidis are not safe in the camps, and special arrangements have had to be made for them. The Greek and Albanian mafias have infiltrated camps on the mainland, especially around Thessaloniki, and are pushing hard drugs, which have become a solution for some of the refugees stuck there. Around the downtown area of Victoria in Athens, reports by the BBC and Refugees Deeply have found underage boys prostituting themselves in the nearby parks for 5 euros.

Here is the real problem: while the numbers arriving are nowhere near those of last year, the infrastructure available to take them in is now so strained that every new arrival counts. The margin for the most vulnerable between safety and harm, has narrowed to nothing. The Katsikas camp, near my hometown in north-western Greece, paints a grim picture. Set up hastily on the site of an old military airport, it is almost entirely unsuitable to host the simple military tents the refugees are expected to live in. The ground turns to mud every time it rains, and it rains often. There are scorpions and snakes wandering the camp.

Living conditions are so horrible that according to the camp’s director, Filippas Filios, 200 people recently walked out and abandoned it, preferring to try their luck crossing the Albanian or Macedonian borders on foot. From the 1,020 people that were transported here between March and April, just 520 remain. Another space is being prepared to take those remaining before September – an abandoned orphanage. Unlike most of Greece, the weather here is rainy and cold. If preparations stall and they are caught outside, these people are unlikely to remain in the camp under such conditions. Traffickers who have been active in the area for decades, are banking on just that.

The EU, via Angela Merkel saying that “we must agree on similar deals with other countries, such as in North Africa, in order to get better control over the Mediterranean sea refugee routes”, is hinting at a similar deal to that with Turkey to try and deal with the flow from Libya. With the current arrangement looking shaky, and those living with the consequences being ignored or even blamed for their predicament, we are on perilous ground. There is hardly anything more that Greece can do.

What’s worse is that in the last few months – under pressure from the EU – the Greek government has been dismantling the solidarity networks that alleviated much of the weight of the crisis last year. But they too, where they still hold, are creaking under the weight of the situation. The conditions in some of these informal camps resemble those in the official camps. The more these people are trapped in either situation, the more likely they are to become victims again, be it of trafficking, drugs or violence. For now, the pro-refugee sentiment still holds in Greece, but the illusionary structure of a “dealt with” crisis might come crashing down sooner than most realise.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.