Who is winning the Syrian digital war?

Whether humanitarians or jihadist groups, who is finding “success” online? We ask five experts for their insights.

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20 October, 2016
Free Syrian Army fighters rest in Kvrbasin village of Maarat Al-Nouman, Idlib May 23, 2014. REUTERS/Rasem Ghareeb

The Syrian war has been, for good and often for ill, an incubator for developing new tools and strategies for digital conflict. OpenCanada asked five experts to give their perspectives on actors that they believe have been successful innovators in cyberspace. Whether any of these actors “win” the Syrian war, their digital strategies will likely be with us for a long time.

Amarasingam: The Online Radicalizers

ISIS and other jihadist groups have inspired tens of thousands of young people to travel to Syria to fight or to support ISIS’ efforts from abroad, in part by giving alienated people the social connections they lack elsewhere.


Abu Fatima, not his real name, got a visit one day from British law enforcement. They were concerned about his online activity, his pro-ISIS postings and the individuals he was talking with online. They were paying him a kind of courtesy visit – giving him a warning – before he went too far down the rabbit hole. His father, needless to say, was quite upset and demanded that he shut down his Twitter account. It seemed like an easy choice for his father – close your Twitter page or risk going to jail. But when I spoke to Abu Fatima over KIK messenger as part of my research on online jihadism, he explained that the choice was not easy. “Trust me, I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere until I met the brothers and sisters online,” he said. “I want to be around people who are on the same wavelength as me.”

What cases like that of Abu Fatima make clear is that so-called “online radicalization” is not simply about a one-way consumption of terrorist propaganda. As researchers in the sociology of the internet have learned by investigating Wiccans in cybercovens, Christians engaged in online confessionals, and other religious communities online, the internet can change how individuals experience their faith. In particular, internet use can challenge notions of religious “authority,” and can make it easier for people to find supportive and rewarding social groups. Unfortunately, both of these factors can also foster conditions for radicalization to violence.

First, as I have found by engaging with ISIS supporters online, social media has a “levelling effect” on discussions about orthodoxy, scripture and religious obligation. This follows the observation by Dawson and Cowan that, “the easy coexistence of so many different and openly heterodox views in cyberspace exposes the Net surfer to a more fluid doctrinal environment, one that has the potential to encourage individual religious and spiritual experimentation.” In short, religious authority is de-institutionalized.

As a result, there are very young supporters of ISIS online who call themselves “alim” (scholar) and who opine on the Qur’an, Hadith, nullifiers of Islam, and orthodox belief, but who have absolutely no religious training. Islamic scholars or imams spend years learning to interpret these complex sources. Instead of turning to them, young people turn to each other. On platforms like Twitter, they discuss questions that are immensely complicated and deeply significant. This phenomenon of the “instant expert” can be liberating, but it can also make young people vulnerable to religious teachings that are stripped of nuance and context.

Second, as I and others have argued in several recent publications, terrorism researchers need to take more seriously what internet researchers have known for some time: that the internet is a social space. It is not simply an environment where people go to read the news, watch videos or check their e-mail. It is a space where the range of human experience, emotion and sociality can be found – just like “real life.”

In fact, I have interviewed many supporters of the Islamic State who claim that the online space is more real than their real life. In this space, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook or Telegram chat rooms, they build reputations, form friendships, take risks, and put their real selves out there. Social media enables individuals within certain subcultures to find each other, and develop a renewed sense of belonging and community like never before.

In other words, it is not simply the fact that ISIS produces propaganda that is compelling or persuasive – although they are very good at it – but that the jihadist community, sustained virtually, provides the social and emotional space for these messages to resonate. Many of these youth find a home online, and for some, like Abu Fatima above, it is the first time they have felt welcomed and understood.

These youth, whose very beliefs have been discouraged or criminalized in their societies, do not always feel secure in their “real life.” Their friends as well as religious leaders worry that associating with them will invite scrutiny from law enforcement. Online, they find a global brotherhood and sisterhood which tells them that their sense of uneasiness and lack of belonging is to be embraced; that feeling like a fish out of water is a good thing because the water is polluted.

The Syrian conflict and the rise of ISIS have served as a catalyst, allowing these youth to come together for a common purpose, whether it is to get rid of the Syrian president or to help protect the so-called Caliphate. While much has been written about jihadist media output, and how the speed and scope of it has been forever changed by the internet, we should not lose sight of the very real emotional and social benefits experienced by youth in these online spaces.

Amarnath Amarasingam is a Fellow at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. He tweets at @AmarAmarasingam.

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Anzalone: The Forces of Sectarianism

The Syrian conflict is not at its heart a war between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, but on the physical and media battlegrounds the proponents of sectarian hate and apocalyptic conflict are gaining ground.


If any single group is ‘winning’ the Syrian conflict online, it appears to be the ideologues of division, religious intolerance and sectarian hate. Thousands of social media users post sectarian rhetoric and factional vitriol on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and online discussion forums. Many argue for the inevitability of an apocalyptic ‘final’ battle pitting Sunnis against Shi’ites and Alawites. But by framing the conflict as both primordial and unavoidable, they obscure the contemporary economic grievances, states’ interests and geopolitical gamesmanship that are at play.

There is little doubt that the Syrian civil war has both inflamed and been fueled by sectarian rhetoric and religious conflict. That antagonism between different religious communities is not only playing out in the Middle East, but also in the wider Muslim-majority world and even among religious communities in North America and Western Europe. To address the war in Syria and the wider social and political upheaval, there will need to be some drawdown in these chauvinistic religious identities and vitriolic sectarian messages.

Sectarian narratives not only provide an “us versus them” frame for factions in the Syrian war, they are also used by groups to bestow a sense of sanctified historical legitimacy to their military actions.


Take the image above. The poster, used to rally Shi’ites to participate in the Syrian war, shows the seventh century Shi’ite hero and martyr Abu Fadl al-Abbas as he leads today’s camouflaged militiamen forward under a blood red sky. Behind them is a shrine to the south of Damascus, the burial place of a Sayyida Zaynab bint Ali, a revered Shi’ite heroine, which they are set to defend. The modern militiamen, the poster argues, are the contemporary descendants of the Shi’ite hero of old. Just as he defended the ‘true faith’ in the past, so they must do so today. Similarly, ISIS and other sectarian Sunni groups seek to give the war a historical, religious and even existential importance. They paint a selective picture of historical Shi’ite perfidy toward Sunnis, and frame contemporary instances of Shi’ite hostility as being inevitable extensions of the past. The destruction of a shrine, as shown in the screen capture of an ISIS image below, thus represents triumph over an existential foe.

ISIS video

While sectarianism is important in the Syrian conflict, it is necessary to remember that the mass protests that led to civil war were not initially driven by sectarianism. The poor state of the economy, the unequal distribution of wealth, and years of political repression were the key grievances.

Rather than address these, the Syrian government doubled down on its divide-and-rule policies toward certain geographical regions and ethnic minority communities, including Isma’ili Shi’ites, Druze, Christian denominations, and Assad’s own Alawite community. The government further magnified the sectarian divide by cracking down on protests with security forces that had a decidedly sectarian cast: both the upper ranks of the military and the vicious paramilitary forces known as the ‘Shabiha’ tended to be Alawite and the government continues to play off of the fears of Syrian Christian communities in a bid to gain their support.

Similarly, government opponents in the early days of the Syrian revolution included Shi’ite and even Alawite voices, but large swaths of the armed opposition has taken on an increasingly extreme Salafi Sunni disposition. This came about through the influx of foreign fighters and funding from Salafi organizations in the Gulf.

The sectarian divide has also been amplified by the geopolitical competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a conflict that itself is only partly driven by religious difference. Saudi Arabia funds sectarian Syrian rebel groups, while Iran and its allies claim that theirs is a war against “Wahhabis,” Salafis, and “takfiris” (excommunicators of other Muslims). In truth, it is clear that the two countries are locked in a battle over political and economic primacy in the region.

But even as the clash of sectarianized religious narratives and identities increases, there continue to be divisions within and collaboration across sectarian lines. There is, in short, no clear-cut separation along “Sunni-Shi’ite” lines among actors in the Syrian conflict. For example, there are ongoing internal disputes among Sunni religious leaders and groups over who can claim to represent ‘true Sunnism,’ as became clear at a controversial conference of prominent anti-Salafi Sunni religious figures last month.

Similarly, Shi’ite Islamist groups involved in the Syrian conflict, despite their shared interest in keeping the Syrian regime in power and expelling ISIS from Iraq, also engage in competitions with one another for political, social and economic power.

Contradictions are also apparent in online images and narratives that portray the conflict’s deep historical and religious roots. Competing groups claim that they are following in the footsteps of esteemed Muslim historical figures, but they often end up drawing on similar figures and stories that are revered by both contemporary Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.

These contradictions and conflicts show that the Syrian war cannot be understood through a dualistic lens that reduces it to an ‘eternal Sunni-Shi’ite battle.’ Such narratives often obscure what is happening in the conflict and misdirect policy responses that seek to end the violence.

Christopher Anzalone is a Research Fellow with the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and a PhD candidate (ABD) in Islamic and Middle East studies at McGill University.

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Berti: The Digital Humanitarians

Amid great difficulties, local and international groups have used digital tools to bring aid and attention to Syria’s humanitarian tragedy.

the actual benedetta

Syria’s prolonged and bloody conflict extends beyond the physical battlefield into the virtual one. In the war-torn country, all major parties involved in this tragic war rely heavily on the internet to promote their own narrative, project power and mobilize supporters. Outside of Syria, foreign patrons and backers use digital platforms to support their military forces and allies on the ground, replicating the international proxy war in the cyber-space.

But the digital domain has not just been used by the warring parties and their allies: international and domestic civil society and humanitarian groups have also been active in the digital sphere.

After five years of bloody and prolonged war, the war has resulted in an unmitigated humanitarian catastrophe. To respond to it, humanitarian actors have had to develop new ways to provide assistance and to bear witness to the suffering of ordinary Syrians. While it might be going too far to say that these digital humanitarians are “winning” the Syrian digital conflict, their ingenuity and courage ought to be recognized.

Before describing some of innovations by humanitarian groups, let’s be clear about what they are up against.

The work of domestic and foreign humanitarians actors in Syria is incredibly dangerous and difficult. Amid rapidly shifting battle lines, widespread atrocities, deliberate violence against civilians and overwhelming destruction of civilian infrastructure, Syria is probably the worst humanitarian emergency the world has witnessed in the past decades. What is more, as highlighted by the appalling September 19 attack on an aid convoy bound for Aleppo, the war has seen the systematic targeting of hospitals and humanitarians, along with deliberate withholding of humanitarian access by warring parties. This has made the delivery of aid especially complicated.

And yet, despite the devastation in Syria, humanitarian actors face many obstacles when trying to rally attention to the war’s human toll. International media outlets frequently focus on on military engagements rather than the consequences for ordinary people. Among other reasons, media organizations face the problem of compassion fatigue, as Al Jazeera described in an article titled: “You probably won’t read this piece about Syria.

For its part, the Syrian regime has tried to downplay the country’s humanitarian tragedy, going so far as producing tourism videos titled “Syria—Always Beautiful.” Even worse, the Syrian government and other factions in the conflict often dehumanize or vilify the people being injured, starved and killed, portraying them as “terrorists” rather than as civilians and suffering human beings. Partisan media echo such claims. As Elizabeth Dickinson wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, these partisan news media “don’t just report the violence. With inflammatory language and provocative storylines, they actively incite it.”

For these and other reasons, humanitarian organizations have struggled to get civilians the aid and the attention they deserve.

To cope with these challenging circumstances; many local and international actors have responded through innovative uses of the internet in general and social media in particular.

For example, human rights and civil society organizations have invested in digital tools to more accurately map the dynamics of the ground, including by relying on crowd-reporting and satellite imagery to document attacks and their consequences. Humanitarian organizations have also improved their digital tools to help address the refugee crisis triggered by the Syrian war. These include an app to improve access to UN services for refugees, developed by Vancouver-based PeaceGeeks, and tools to improve coordination and data collection by actors on the ground. These tools are especially important in a context like Syria, where many international organizations cannot send their staff on the ground and thus rely on remote management, often requiring digital technologies to coordinate their efforts with local partners.

Humanitarian organizations have also mounted compelling digital campaigns to generate solidarity with Syrians, to raise funds and to pressure the international community to meet Syrians’ humanitarian needs. For example, Kickstarter partnered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in a crowdfunding drive, and celebrities have gone to Twitter to encourage donations for civilians affected by the conflict. Many individuals and small organizations, such as NuDay Syria (profiled by OpenCanada in this series), have been able to raise and deliver goods almost entirely through social media like Facebook and WhatsApp.

This list of innovations could go on. Furthermore, while I’ve focused on the humanitarian sector, local and international actors that promote reconciliation and non-violence have also leveraged digital technologies to get their messages out.

So, while it is true that the digital space is used by warring parties to extend the military confrontation to the virtual sphere, it is also true that humanitarian actors have turned to digital technologies to raise and deliver assistance. Continued innovation in digital humanitarianism is thus important for Syria and for other complex humanitarian emergencies worldwide.

Benedetta Berti is currently a Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a TED Senior Fellow, a Robert A. Fox Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), a Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point, and a contributor to SADA (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace).

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Carvin: The Cyber Hype

The Syrian conflict is not a “cyberwar” but a war with cyber in it. But at least one aspect may be indicative of future cyber-trends.

Carvin 3

Much has been made of the fact that “cyber” capabilities are being used by almost all parties to the Syrian conflict. The Syrian regime is backed by the Syrian Electronic Army, the U.S. is using various cyber tools to disrupt Islamic State capabilities, and ISIS has a ‘”cyber caliphate” but has also had war declared against it by Anonymous. But can the Syrian conflict truly be called a “cyberwar?”

This is a difficult question, mostly because there are few definitions for what a cyberwar actually is. The notion evokes ideas of hundreds of uniformed hackers sitting in a dark room, sending code across the internet. But in reality it is not clear that a “cyberwar” is a thing that can actually exist in the Syrian context or elsewhere – at least for now.


A vision of cyber-war. Still from the 1983 film WarGames.

There are some novel elements to cyber as it relates to conflict. As David Betz and Timothy C. Stevens note in their book Cyberspace and the State, “cyberspace” is the only entirely man-made environment (if one forgets that such space is highly dependent on the very physical tubes and wires which enable the internet to function). Additionally, Eric Gartzke observes that “cyberwarfare is unique in that opponents who utilize the strategy are not limited by financial or physical constraints.” This reduces the time and space it takes one actor to reach another whereas they may have previously been divided by territory. As such, the speed of conflict is potentially faster.  

However, as the actual use of digital technologies in the Syrian war shows, cyber is best considered a tool, not a strategy, and not a separate domain of conflict. The use of cyber-tools thus far has not been transformative. State and non-state actors have typically used cyber-tools to enhance their existing capabilities and tactics, rather than creating new ones.

State parties to the conflict are reportedly using cyber tools in order to learn about the plans of their rivals and/or to target individuals. For example, it has been shown that actors allied with the Syrian regime have used malware to hack into the computers and social networks of Free Syrian Army activists and fighters’ computers. Unfortunately, these and other hacks have led to the arrest and torture of many individuals. Nevertheless, this is essentially an enhanced form of traditional espionage conducted by all states in times of war. Similarly, states and state-backed groups are using cyber tools for the age-old practice of spreading disinformation and propaganda.

Additionally, non-state actors have used cyber-tools in a variety of ways, as other participants in this collection have described. Violent non-state actors have used social media to distribute propaganda, recruit fighters and facilitate the movement of people and supplies. Sectarian ideologues justify the use of violence to larger audiences. Humanitarian groups and activists use social media to fundraise, campaign and target assistance to those in need.

The threatened “wars” between a new species of actors, non-state cyber groups – such as Anonymous declaring war on the Syrian Electronic Army or the Islamic State – have not made a tangible difference in the overall conflict.  

Overall, Syria is not a cyberwar, but a war with cyber in it: traditional activities are made easier and occasionally more public. Indeed, the tragic story for the people of Syria is that their lives have been ruined by physical, low-tech weapons like barrel-bombs and AK-47s and centuries-old strategies like the siege and starvation of Aleppo.

Yet, despite this cyber-skepticism, there are important implications to consider for the near to medium term. In particular, state-allied non-state actors like the Syrian Electronic Army are an interesting new dimension and may represent an emerging trend in cyber-empowered conflict. Such groups have used rudimentary cyber-tools to attack and assert control over the social media accounts of several major news organizations.

These state-allied or state supported hacking groups are becoming an important tool in the arsenal of states, because it can be difficult to prove who committed the attacks, and how they relate to governments. While they are prominent in the Syrian conflict, they also include the Russia-backed hackers who acquired and leaked files from the Democratic National Committee and several voter databases, and that mounted a widespread propaganda and disinformation campaigns. While these activities may not re-define warfare, they have proven to be a considerable threat to the U.S. election and may play an increasing role in hostilities in the future.

Stephanie Carvin is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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Veilleux-Lepage: The ISIS Brand

The Islamic State’s military successes may be reversed, but its branding campaign and social media strategy are innovations that are here to stay.


In the early days of the Islamic State’s offensive into northern Iraq, Twitter was inundated by a mixture of combat photos and innocuous photos of ISIS fighters swimming in the ocean, playing soccer, hiking, eating Nutella and playing with kittens. Rather than being part of what CNN Newsroom anchor Carol Costello interpreted as a plot to lure young women to the Caliphate, these pictures instead constituted attempts by ISIS rank-and-file fighters to document their experience. While the existence of such photographs is not unsurprising – remember the iconic pictures of men playing hockey on the flight decks of aircraft carriers during WW2? – what is particularly interesting is that these pictures were almost entirely gone from the Twittersphere by late 2014.  

This disappearance was only partly due to actions by Twitter, or to U.S. forces dropping bombs on ISIS fighters who carelessly forgot to disable the geotagging function on their camera. The crackdown was primarily part of ISIS’ own media strategy, to centralize and standardize propaganda, and thus to improve the ISIS brand. 

Aleppo twitter

Twitter photo of French IS Fighter, Abu Muthanna, posing with jar of Nutella in Aleppo.

Since late 2014, ISIS media products have generally adhered to certain standards in quality, content and style in order to achieve uniformity or “brand recognition.” ISIS has been able to do so because it can produce content “in-house,” unlike most jihadi groups that rely on unofficial backers or “fans” to create supportive online content. While it might seem counterproductive to discourage fans, doing so gives ISIS several advantages. For instance, its official content is more easily recognizable as “genuine,” and its messaging can be tied more tightly to changing organizational policies and aims.

While unaffiliated sympathizers of ISIS are discouraged from being content producers, they do play a central role in ISIS’ social media strategy as content publishers, by re-tweeting or re-posting the material as widely as possible. Among other tactics, these unaffiliated sympathizers routinely engage in “hashtag hijacking,” adding ISIS content to popular but unrelated hashtags which are trending at a given moment in time – like the World Cup hashtags. This strategy allows messages crafted by only a handful of ISIS propaganda agents to reach millions of Twitter users, including those who might not otherwise seek them out. The combination of unified and strategic messaging, combined with “crowd-sourced” dissemination, is a ground-breaking strategy with no clear precedent.

Although the use of unaffiliated sympathizers has recently attracted the attention of researchers and social media platforms, an effective response to this strategy remains unclear. A popular view is that social media companies should more thoroughly police messages on their platforms and remove those with jihadi content. For instance, last April Twitter updated its stance on abusive behaviour to include statements “threatening or promoting terrorism.” However, reporting and banning accounts can only be a short-term solution as ISIS supporters often replace banned accounts within hours, quickly regaining their pre-suspension status. That being said, there is evidence that repetitive suspensions can hamper ISIS Twitter users, costing them valuable time and resources, and thereby diminishing the amount of jihadi propaganda on social media networks.  

Leaving this entirely to social media companies is problematic as it would give these companies the power to control public knowledge and discourse. As the Arab Spring has shown, the democratizing power of social media comes from the fact that it’s not censored by corporations or governments.

Interestingly however, none of the so-called “lone wolf” attacks in Western countries were perpetrated by individuals who were actively involved in disseminating ISIS propaganda. In fact, it may well be that distributing jihadist material is an alternate mode of participation for individuals who are unwilling to engage in actual violence. Sympathizers rarely, if ever, contribute both to terrorist attacks and online propaganda, as the former requires discretion and the latter seeks exposure. In this vein, while it appears that Canadian attackers Martin Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau were consumers of jihadi propaganda, neither was involved in its dissemination.

In contrast, Aaron Driver was a prolific disseminator of ISIS propaganda on social media until he was subjected to a peace bond that prevented him from doing so by prohibiting him from using a cell phone or computer or accessing social media accounts. It was under these conditions that he allegedly turned toward direct violence.

Addressing unaffiliated sympathizers is crucial to reducing the online presence of ISIS and other terrorism-supporting groups. But rather than just silencing these sympathizers, efforts should instead focus on countering their narrative on social media. To achieve this,  heavy-handed efforts by Western governments  like the now defunct Think Again Turn Away campaign by the U.S. State Department — will be ineffective because they lack credibility in the minds of most of their audience.

Jihadi narratives are better countered by more credible voices, such as repatriated foreign fighters from Syria, who can talk about their experiences and why they chose to return home. Ultimately, an effective response to extremist messaging cannot rely on silencing voices or presenting one-sided, government-issued monologues, but must promote an honest dialogue within targeted communities.

Yannick Veilleux-Lepage is a PhD candidate at the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews, and a junior research affiliate of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society. His research focuses on the historical antecedents and the evolution of modern terrorism.

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