The selfie jihadi: Inside al-Qaeda's Snapchat network

The selfie jihadi: Inside al-Qaeda's Snapchat network
In-depth: Al-Qaeda’s leadership has warned fighters in Syria to avoid Snapchat, which, though popular with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, could allow Western intelligence agencies to spy on them, reports Austin Bodetti.
4 min read
19 September, 2017
Al-Shabwani's Facebook page is a showreel of his Snapchat photos from Idlib [FB/TNA composite image]
Teenagers may use Snapchat to buy weed and sext one another, but terrorists have other ideas.

Abu Ali al-Shabwani, a member of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham - formerly known as the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise - considers the mobile app crucial to his propaganda.

"Snapchat helps us let the world see the truth and what happens here," he told The New Arab over Telegram, a mobile app favoured by clandestine armed groups.

According to al-Shabwani, "the people here, who have the whole world fighting against them - nobody helps them". Snapchat allows him to broadcast his "work to help poor and weak people defend themselves". It is a dubious enterprise, given the wider implications of a Western-labeled terrorist organisation using social media to promote its worldview.

While al-Shabwani spends much of his time on Snapchat talking into the camera, seated next to another fighter or an AK-47 assault rifle, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and its Nusra predecessor have frequently posted videos of grisly beheadings.

The New Arab
confirmed al-Shabwani's role as a fighter and propagandist in Jabhat Fateh al-Sham by documenting his widespread use of Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube.

One of his YouTube videos depicts an engineer, likely employed by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, operating a remote-control, scoped machine-gun through a PlayStation 2 console and controller during the Battle of Aleppo. The video recommends that viewers follow him on Snapchat, where, unlike on other mobile apps, al-Shabwani can live-stream details of his life in pictures and videos glorifying Islam, jihad - and martyrdom.
I don't help recruit new people because it's not my business... I've never talked to an American, thank God
- JFS Snapchat propagandist 

Another Jabhat Fateh al-Sham propagandist, Sraqa al-Maki, whose identity The New Arab verified just as it had al-Shabwani's, relies on Snapchat to "share the benefits of some religious verses and traditions".

He posts quotes about the Quran and the Hadith, the collected sayings of Muhammad, in addition to answering viewers' questions about Islam on his Snapchat story, turning his daily compilation of Snaps into what resembles a bizarre talk show with much more showing than talking. He sometimes adds gory pictures of "martyrs" killed fighting the Islamic State group or Syrian government troops.
  thermal scope sale on hayat tahrir al-sham snapchat [twitter/@johnarterbury]
Thermal scope for sale on Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's Snapchat

reported earlier this year that Syrian rebels, including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, were using Snapchat to buy and sell weapons (and even falcons). The two rebel groups denied it to The New Arab: "It's not true that the mujahideen are selling weapons over Snapchat," al-Maki, who also goes by the name "Abu Salman", said via Telegram.

"I haven't seen it." Al-Shabwani also said. "This is not true."

Al-Maki and al-Shabwani also rejected the suggestion that they might recruit Westerners over Snapchat as IS has using Facebook, Telegram, and Twitter. "I don't help recruit new people because it's not my business," claimed al-Maki.

"I've never talked to an American, thank God."

Al-Shabwani meanwhile noted that he had never learned English, a skill necessary to recruit Westerners.

Whatever threat armed groups using Snapchat may pose to the Western world, al-Maki and al-Shabwani might have put themselves at risk by taking advantage of the mobile app.

They declined to conduct their interviews over WhatsApp - which would have required them to send The New Arab their phone numbers - instead answering questions over Snapchat and Telegram. Both mobile apps, though, have proved less secure than a terrorist organisation against which the West has launched airstrikes would hope.
Snapchat's community guidelines and terms of service prohibit 'illegal shenanigans'

Snapchat in particular could allow American signals intelligence agents to track terrorists' locations, relaying that information to US air force assets within strike range.
Snapchat has said it works with law enforcement and
intelligence agencies to fight terrorism [NurPhoto]

Al-Qaeda's leadership has warned fighters in Syria to avoid Snapchat, noting that the mobile app, though popular with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, could expose fighters' locations and vulnerabilities.

Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for Snap Inc., the technology company that owns Snapchat, confirmed in an email: "We work with law enforcement and NGOs to fight terrorism and remove it from our service." She added: "We abhor terrorism and it should never have a voice on Snapchat."

She referred The New Arab to the mobile app's community guidelines and terms of service, which prohibit "illegal shenanigans".

For now, the two ideologues seem content to play with the mobile app and spread propaganda despite the risks. Considering that few official sources appear to have recognised the problems that could arise from terrorists on Snapchat, it may be a long time before al-Maki and al-Shabwani have to rethink their mobile app of choice.

Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the greater Middle East and a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College majoring in Islamic Civilization and Societies and studying Arabic and Persian. 

He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.