On 30 November 2022, the official Islamic State spokesman, Abu Omar al-Muhajir, confirmed the death of Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi and named his successor, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi. In the audio speech, al-Muhajir stated that Abu al-Hassan was “killed going forward and not turning back as he conflicted with and fought the enemies of God” and urged adherents to pledge allegiance–known in Arabic as bayʿat –to the new so-called caliph.
This Insight focuses primarily on pro-IS reactions to Abu al-Hassan’s death on Telegram and shares data findings from one channel which collected and disseminated over 400 pledges of allegiance sent in by pro-IS supporters. Although it remained active for less than 24 hours before being deleted, interesting patterns emerged from bayʿat messages concerning the national or ethnic origin of message senders, content moderation strategies, and the incorporation of specific types of emojis. We also include a brief section on pro-Al Qaʿida reactions to the news.
Previous pro-IS online reactions to caliph deaths and other major IS-related news events, such as the Ghweran Prison siege, have included supporters sending photos of their and messages of support written on pieces of paper. However, reactions to Abu al-Hassan’s death seemed to remain restricted to online messages from what we were able to observe.
In response to the 30 November 2022 announcement, pro-IS supporters organised distribution Telegram channels and directed others to send their own bayʿat to designated contact accounts within the wider pro-IS community (Fig 1):
One of these larger channels received over 400 pledges of allegiance – many of which included clues about the senders’ backgrounds and/or general locations as indicated by their individual kunya (nom de guerre). Many of the messages forwarded by the channel noticeably consisted of ‘copy and paste bayʿat’, demonstrating the importance of the act of making bayʿah over the specifics of the message itself. The relatively low level of risk and overall ease of being able to submit pledges of allegiance from anonymous Telegram accounts further contributed to the popularity of this bayʿat ‘campaign’. Fig 2 shows the breakdown of message senders’ countries or national/ethnic origin for those who decided to add such indicators in their personal kunya (in a total of 284 provided noms de guerre):
Notable points of observation emerged from the bayʿat data:
- There were variations in how specific message senders were willing to be about their locations, national origin, and/or ethnicity. For example, some revealed their specific country while others chose to use more generic geographical identifiers.
- Some individuals highlighted their status as a ‘muhajir’ by indicating their national origin and implying they travelled a great distance from their home country to their current geographic location.
- There was frequent usage of emojis embedded within bayʿat messages. Examples include: 🏴 ☝ 🦅 ⚔ 🌹 . As Moustafa Ayad noted, IS supporters incorporate emojis into their messaging as a method of content evasion: “They are linked to a wider unofficial ISIS news ecosystem that has figured out specific evasion tactics, even despite social media takedowns, to thrive and to continue to do so.”
- Four bayʿat messages were ‘signed’ by individuals using “Umm.” Although it is often impossible to verify the gender of the actual person or people behind accounts, the senders thought it was important to highlight that they are women and the channel posting the bayʿat wanted to include them in the posts (even though women in pro-IS spaces frequently encounter gender barriers limiting their ability to participate in these online spaces).
- Although most messages did not create breaks in the text between letters, some senders did apply this content evasion tactic such as the partial text screenshot provided (Fig 3):
As with other pro-IS reactions to the deaths of previous caliphs, responses emphasised the enduring nature of their ideology among supporters: “They can kill the caliph but they cannot kill the idea of the caliphate” and “deen is not dependant on personalities.”
Other narratives included words of consolation, reminding fellow supporters that ‘martyrdom’ is one of the highest achievements of the faithful and that Abu al-Hassan’s death is part of a divine predetermined destiny. Supporters also circulated past photos of IS fighters who had been killed on the battlefield, demonstrating the continuing importance of emotionally-charged content surrounding the ‘martyrdom’ of these fighters. As David Cook writes, the enduring focus on martyrdom within the context of Salafi-jihadist organisations reflects the legacy left by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the former head of Al Qaʿida in Iraq who transformed “the Iraq conflict into an apocalyptic Internet-based spectacle” as part of his larger contribution in bringing “the myth-making narratives promulgated by [Salafi-jihadist] leaders” onto the “uncontrolled environment of the Internet.”
His enduring legacy and influence are reflected in pro-IS online spaces. Although they continue to adapt and evolve, the central focus on online propagandising and memorialising Islamic State narratives via audiovisual and textual mediums is a crucial element of these virtual communities.
Pro-Al Qa’ida Reactions
Moving beyond IS supporter reactions, it is also interesting to observe some responses from pro-Al Qa’ida (AQ) online spaces. Their messages included: mocking IS’s media department for delaying the announcement of Abu Al Hassan’s death; criticising IS supporters who were unaware of the news making bayʿat to a dead man; delegitimising the leadership credentials of Abu al-Hassan and Abu al-Hussein, and taunting IS media for heightened security precautions such as blurring faces and background locations. Other AQ supporters stated their belief that Abu al-Hasan’s death was a consequence of the deep intelligence infiltration into IS ranks. IS’s general secrecy regarding its leadership drew particularly sharp criticism:
“An unknown speaker speaking from an unknown place accepts the pledges of the unknown to an unknown and hidden caliph… What kind of obedience are you talking about? Tell the people first who you are, your qualifications and your beliefs, and then talk about obedience and abandonment.”
Online networks of IS supporters remain ready to mobilise in response to major events. Previous reactions and this more recent demonstration of virtual coordination regarding the bayʿat display the importance of presenting a show of force through their multi-platform presence and the continuous generation of pro-IS messages. Through virtual ‘activism’ and engagement, they seek to signal the presence of a global pro-IS support base. It will be interesting and important to observe how these various networks respond to future significant developments regarding IS – especially if new patterns of online behaviour and/or platform evasion tactics develop or evolve.
Reference: Full country and nationality labels corresponding with the bar graph
- Arabian Peninsula
- Saudi Arabia
- United States