This Insight aims to depict the work of Idlib-based Western Islamist ‘backpack reporters’ who have specialised in reporting news from the northwestern Syria battlefield, from 2017 onwards. Such foreign ‘news correspondents’ aim to provide what they depict as ‘objective coverage’ of the Syrian crisis, though they actually promote a salafi-jihadi leaning narrative of the events, which blurs the line between news reporting and propaganda dissemination.
Wearing a thick, trimmed beard with a beanie tight on his head, war reporter Moussa (names have been changed) is on air. In this very first video, published on his Telegram channel in January 2019, the smiling young man introduced himself as a ‘French reporter in Syria’ and mimicked the use and customs of a news correspondent in a war zone, after saying the usual religious greetings. He stood in front of a blue road sign giving the way to the Syrian cities of Ariha, Idlib and Damascus. For the first time since the beginning of the Syrian crisis eight years ago, he enthusiastically states, French audiences will be receiving “the news coming from the ground in one of the most dangerous areas of the world: Idlib and its surroundings.” As the footage goes, he adds: “We will do whatever it takes to make sure you will get the whole information just like you were there.” The announcement on Telegram of the launch of Moussa’s new French-language media was greeted with enthusiasm in small yet super active jihadi circles as hundreds of such accounts were sharing his video. Moussa’s initiative targeted and received a warm welcome within Islamist and jihadi spheres eager of receiving both ‘factual’ and ‘halal’ news straight from the field based on a 24/7 news channel template.
Though skilled and hardworking, Moussa was not the first to set up an initiative like this. He followed in the footsteps of several other channels that have been created and successfully reached their audience on Telegram, a movement that has been on the rise since the fall of Islamic State (IS) in Raqqa and Mosul in 2017. Back then, Telegram channels such as ‘French-Reporter’ were offering positive coverage of jihadi combats and ‘resistance’ in the Levant, before eventually being erased from the platform. Moussa’s initiative had been directly inspired from an American jihadist’s Telegram channel, named ‘On the Ground News’ founded by a former CNN correspondent called Bilal. The latter converted to Islamic fundamentalism and, in 2017, became the first jihadi video journalist on Telegram. Being a strong supporter of salafi-jihadi views as his reports show, Bilal, just like Moussa, claims to not be tied with any armed factions in the Syrian crisis. This may aim to rally support among European Islamist and jihadist propagandists who might be otherwise less receptive to the divisions between the jihadi groups occurring in northwestern Syria.
Bilal and Moussa’s channels imitate real news agency productions, highlighting video contents, photographs, news broadcasts and short reports. As opposed to IS production format, which made clear the video had been produced by the organisation itself, these channels constantly rely on a so-called factual, neutral, objective rhetoric. They deal with a wide range of Islamist-favoured contents, ranging from the civil war in Syria to religious preachers and military leaders in the whole Muslim world. In 2020, Bilal broadcasted an interview with Hani al-Sibai, a well-known Egyptian jihadi preacher. In the same vein, on 15 May 2019, Moussa favourably interviewed two military leaders belonging to jihadi groups located in the city of Hama, namely Jaych al-Izza and Ahrar al-Sham. In a February 2019 archetypical sample of these activists’ work, Moussa documented the immediate aftermath of a regime airstrike on Khan Shaykhun in Syria, reporting from a destroyed building. In his report he featured several horrific photographs of wounded children and mangled bodies, while stating: ‘45 missiles hit the ground in the past few days, killing 9 people and injuring others (…); different kinds of weapons had been used by Bashar al Assad’s regime, giving no chance to the civilians’. Similarly, on 1 September 2019, he reported how the Russian army had ruined a hospital. The dramatic scenes captured in Bilal or Moussa’s reports are aimed at generating a feeling of awe and disgust among the viewers meanwhile their cold comments give a sense of objective coverage that reminds that of international cable news correspondents.
Then, these private channels dedicated to Islamist newsmongers were also repeatedly used to popularise fundraising campaign in support of jihadi women detained in Syrian camps and their families. The success of these secretive fundraising depends on international solidarity and the mobilisation of people committed to the cause, and are becoming an increasing source of concerns for the authorities. In September 2020, 29 people were investigated in France as part of a case of cyber financing of jihadi activities abroad (according to the French Counterterrorist Court, most of them were relatives of jihadi women and children detained in Syria).
Moussa and Bilal’s ‘embedded’ reporting led them to face troubles on the ground which they used as further evidence either of their ‘neutrality’, or of the persecution they endure from Muslim ‘apostates’ and ‘non-believers’ alike, or of the campaign against the ‘truth’ that the world is allegedly facing. In April 2020, Moussa explained in a short video that because of the large numbers of geopolitical events occurring in the region, he could not offer a 24/7 coverage of the situation. As for Bilal, he was jailed in August 2020 by al-Qaida-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). HTS arrested him in Atma, the northern part of Idlib region for unclear reasons. He was assaulted and taken to an unknown location by masked HTS members.
Bilal and Moussa define their work as ‘committed journalism’, emphasising the idea that the spread of digital tools and platforms allows ‘everyone to be a journalist’. Compared to past Islamist online activities, it is noteworthy that Moussa or Bilal did not create a blog or a forum as was common in the late 2000s, but a small media channel. If they hardly support a specific group’s propaganda per se (such as the arrest of Bilal by HTS shows), contents are produced so as to provide opinionated and cherry-picked coverage of the reality, further validating a salafi-jihadi narrative and world view. This serves the ultimate aim of convincing people of the legitimacy of jihadist militancy in the Levant. The use of concepts and references belonging to the jihadi ideology, further underline their activist bias, which is, however, harder to detect than classical jihadi group propaganda.
Their activism and visibility highlight the role that ‘committed’ jihadi journalists now intend to play in reporting for the European public. It should be understood as a change, both in scale and in reach, that new digital means is playing in the diffusion of jihadism, not only as an ideology but also as a form of action and means of emotional involvement.
The quotes and unreferenced information in this article are based on online field observations and/or direct discussions on Telegram, Twitter and YouTube during 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 as part as Brune’s PhD research at the ENS in Paris.