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Erstwhile Allies and Community Convergence: A Preliminary Study of Online Interactions Between Salafi-Jihadists and White Supremacists

Erstwhile Allies and Community Convergence: A Preliminary Study of Online Interactions Between Salafi-Jihadists and White Supremacists
31st August 2021 Meili Criezis
In Insights

Recent research has begun to explore the overlaps and interactions between Salafi-jihadist and white supremacist movements and their supporters. Examining a series of case studies, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Blackmen found “the existence of fringe fluidity [in] the pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism,” which the authors argued sets an “historical precedent that allows some adherents to reconcile inconsistent aspects of the two ideologies.” Within online milieus, Ben Makuch notes instances of white supremacists expressing admiration for Salafi-jihadists, for example praise for the Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan. Moustafa Ayad and Emmi Kuhn documented Salafi-jihadist sympathisers utilising meme formats more frequently associated with far-right and white supremacist spaces where these memes are, as Chelsea Daymon states, “helping shape extremist virtual communities.” Ayad has also expanded on the relationship between the development of these “online subcultures” and the influence of Generation Z. In another study by Meili Criezis, white supremacists have been observed sharing Islamic State videos in Telegram channels and chats, co-opting Salafi-jihadist terminology, and circulating al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) recruitment and bomb-making instructional manuals.

As demonstrated elsewhere, interaction across ideological spectrums is not a new phenomenon. However, the affordances of digital communication technologies enable—and perhaps even provoke—the formation of new communities where cross-ideological aesthetics blend. A variety of socio-technical conditions drive this trend. There is the deep infrastructural character of the networked web, in which any node or data point is, in theory, conterminous to any other. There are the design and feature choices engineered into platforms like Telegram, which affords easy forwarding of material across channels. Then there is what Japanese philosopher Hiroki Azuma termed the “database culture,” a mode of producing cultural artifacts in the digital age, which delights in fragmentation and recontextualisation.

A diverse array of extremist sub-ideologies interact in central chatrooms, and proponents across the ideological spectrum make virtual points of contact where they may learn from as well as debate one another. The key point, regardless of the nature of the exchange, is that they are directly interacting signifying a social process that goes beyond adopting aesthetics for propaganda purposes or terminology-borrowing. As has often been pointed out, exploring the role of the Internet in radicalisation processes should not revive the long discredited “hypodermic” theory of communication which posits that messages directly influence audiences upon their receiving them. Radicalisation is a highly social process, even when it exhibits a strong online component. It is therefore not the shared exposure to content which represents the greatest threat here (though this should not be dismissed either). Rather it is the social processes of these distinct extremist tendencies occupying shared social space and participating in shared social activities.

The following preliminary overview aims to identify key sentiments and narrative points of convergence that display characteristics of “fringe fluidity” between the groups mentioned above. Characteristics include: users with distinctly Salafi-jihadist or white supremacist usernames cohabiting in the same online chat space, self-identified Islamic channels promoting white supremacist content, and Salafi-jihadist sympathisers discussing white supremacist themes or concepts. These preliminary observations come with the caveat that findings are representative of a handful of Telegram extremist spaces and interactions with similar dynamics may differ in other sub-spaces and/or on other platforms. However, in this case, small does not mean insignificant. Political violence of the sort posed by these groups is defined by its outsized impact relative to its popularity. A single lone actor can commit substantial violence. A small cadre of propagandists can make their presence felt in the larger online culture.

Antisemitic memes represent one very common element found in fringe-fluid Salafi-jihadi channels. These are frequently recycled from more ideologically uniform far right/white supremacist channels where chat comments highlight both groups’ shared hatred of Jews. There are also points of contention. Discussions of who qualifies as a ‘white Muslim’, whether Islam should be embraced by white Europeans, and if it is acceptable for Muslims to adhere to ideas of racial hierarchies are topics of ongoing debate. Some channels highlight photos of white Muslims from Balkan countries, Russia, Chechnya, sometimes Turkey, and white converts. Despite the rejection of nationalism, which is more typical to Salafi-jihadist thought, these channels and users build community centred on white racial identity and nationalism – chats may even enact bans on non-whites joining. Of course, this is impossible to enforce within the parameters of the virtual spaces, but the white supremacist intention is clear.

Unsuspecting visitors have expressed confusion upon entering this sub-milieu – as one individual questioned, “Is this a white supremacist Muslim chat?” But those who are in-the-know have few illusions as to the dynamics at play. Leaders in these spaces have encouraged some limited collaboration with their erstwhile allies. This includes acknowledgement of a shared vision, forwarding content, and the purposeful sharing of ‘tips’ and ‘intelligence’ regardless of mutual animosities. The vagueness of the terms ‘tips’ and ‘intelligence’ hints at conceptions of a shallow symbiotic relationship further demonstrating the mutual understanding that any possible agreed upon social contract will have its set of limitations. In another instance, a Salafi-jihadi channel admin admits that they are friends with the admin of a well-known far right channel.

Stakeholders from law enforcement, civil society, academics, and the tech platforms themselves should note when and where these emerging spaces of ‘fringe fluidity’ appear. Likewise, it is imperative to begin tracing how these various communities are networked now before they metastasize further and render such a project more difficult. Weighing the strategic advantages of co-opting popular meme formats and propaganda aesthetics across ideological boundaries must also be taken into consideration. We might begin by identifying which users appear in both Salafi-jihadist chats and white supremacist chats. It is equally important to note narrative overlaps, such as the common desire among white supremacists and Salafi-jihadists alike to “return to tradition.”

Any single piece of content shared across these fringe-fluid channels will almost certainly signify something different for white supremacists versus Salafi-jihadists. However, these differences in meaning may be increasingly narrow. Even their surface-level similarity indicates an appeal that transcends its applied subjective meaning. Presuming the varied intentions of individuals promoting cross-pollination goes beyond the evidence on which this article is based. Spaces exhibiting multi-ideological presence certainly warrant further and continuous examination. These milieus shift quickly, and it will be crucial to track how these interactions between users change in the near future and beyond.

A more in-depth study of this topic is forthcoming based on Criezis’s and Hughes’s preliminary findings.