Following Hamas’s 7 October 2023 terrorist attack, Israel conducted a series of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip and, according to the United Nations, ordered a population of approximately 1 million Palestinian civilians in northern Gaza to relocate to the south within 24 hours before an “expected ground invasion”. The United Nations cautioned that it is “impossible” for such a large number of people to move within a tight timeframe “without devastating humanitarian consequences”. Although the ground offensive has not yet occurred, Israeli retaliatory attacks have killed civilians and concerns only continue to grow about the humanitarian crisis. As the conflict continues, a reported number of 3,000 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis have been killed and about 200 people remain as hostages; most of whom are being held by Hamas.
The hashtag #HamasIsISIS began trending and numerous officials also cited ISIS as a reference point when describing Hamas violence and/or Hamas itself. However, as Aymenn Al-Tamimi observes, such comparisons are “lazy and inaccurate.” Aaron Zelin also highlights the fact that IS sees Hamas as “apostates” and “tools of Shia Iran” who “don’t actually implement Shari’a according to IS’s interpretations.”
On 12 October, the IDF claimed it discovered an Islamic State flag in Kibbutz Sufa among Hamas equipment. IS supporters began circulating a photo of the body of an alleged IS fighter draped beneath an IS flag as proof that an IS cell located in Gaza took part in the 7 October attacks. It is important to state that the online environment has become rife with mis/disinformation, including recycled footage of the Assad regime’s war crimes in Syria, doctored photos, and posts containing video game content as actual footage among a huge array of other false claims.
In some rare instances, IS supporters expressed doubts about the reports and plainly stated that they were not sure if IS fighters had been involved in the ongoing conflict. But on the whole, the participation – or lack of participation – by actual IS fighters remains to be independently verified, but such claims have already received thousands of views and IS supporters online are excitedly amplifying these claims in their echo chambers across various platforms. That being said, as noted by Moustafa Ayad, the “black banner with the ‘seal of the prophet’…is not exclusive to IS…and many groups have used it, including some considered enemies of IS.”
Although the task of navigating through the fog of mis/dis and unverified information continues, this Insight focuses on reactions from pro-IS supporters across platforms including Telegram, Instagram, X, and Meta. This brings us to the question – why should we care what IS supporters are saying about the conflict? Tracking such responses matters for several reasons: first, it highlights the wider contentious dynamic between IS and Hamas which directly counters drastically inaccurate misconceptions that IS and Hamas are one and the same. Second, it documents primary source data in the form of pro-IS responses and commentaries at a particularly tumultuous time, in turn contributing to larger efforts to better understand pro-IS activities/narratives. Finally, it directly identifies key narratives and posting patterns among pro-IS online spaces, including a major point of divergence between the supporters themselves.
Limitations of this overview include the fact that I was only able to observe patterns from the pro-IS spaces that I’m already in, but there are most likely other narratives that are not captured in the following report which are being expressed elsewhere.
Pro-IS Supporter Posting Patterns and Reactions
The creation of a group chat
On 7 October, a pro-IS supporter announced the creation of a new group designed to “share some vital news like the current situation in Palestine” and posted a link to the chat. Accounts began sharing news updates, video footage of Hamas attacks, and photos showing civilian deaths and structural damages caused by Israeli strikes. The group currently stands at 120+ members and while this is not a huge number, it demonstrates a clear interest by IS supporters who wish to remain updated on the ongoing conflict even though they hold a great deal of disdain for Hamas.
Responses often incorporated antisemitic narratives calling for violence against Jewish people and using antisemitic slurs. These comments included posts about a Jewish cabal orchestrating world event outcomes and conspiracies about Jews and the Israeli State (often used interchangeably) creating Hamas.
Revelling in violence
Despite IS’s anti-Hamas views, pro-IS supporters revelled in Hamas’s violence that it unleashed during the 7 October terrorist attacks by sharing graphic footage and cheering the mass violence itself, as exemplified by one commenter who stated, “Hamas, I love what they did but they aren’t upon haqq.” In another chat, a supporter shared that the most important takeaway for him was that Hamas was “killing kuffar” (non-believers), whether Christian or Jewish, children or adult; celebrating violent acts regardless of which group carried it out. On a final note, some accounts specifically focused on the topics of beheadings and bragged about Hamas copying IS executions.
Apocalyptic rhetoric and vague promises of victory
Some pro-IS supporters viewed the conflict as a sign of coming end-times. Although there did not appear to be much additional commentary besides a couple of sentences from various social media accounts about ‘Judgement Day’, this interpretation of current events circulated throughout these spaces. In contrast, other supporters parroted vague generic promises of victory for “the muwahideen” and claimed that a victorious outcome had already been predestined.
Disdain for Hamas
Comments criticising and rejecting Hamas have been covered in the sections above, but this Insight includes these prominent narratives within their own category. In addition to IS supporters posting reminders about Hamas’s “apostate” nature, they also recirculated a 2018 Al Naba infographic that specifically outlined the “severe nullifiers of Islam that [the] Hamas movement fell into.” In short, the infographic criticised Hamas for ruling by laws other than God’s law, belief in democracy, engaging in operations against IS, allying with Shi’a, and rejecting “the Book and Sunnah.”
Points of divergence
Some IS supporters expressed indifference to civilian suffering in Gaza and justified the reaction by claiming that these civilians supported the “apostate” Hamas and therefore did not deserve sympathy. However, others countered this viewpoint with the reminder that while Hamas should not be mourned, it is necessary to “care about Muslims everywhere.” Numerous accounts across platforms shared an Anwar Al Awlaki claiming that not caring for the Ummah means that one is dead. It is important to note that those stating their apathy to civilians, whether IS-affiliated or not, are collectively relying on the same line of disturbing reasoning: conflating Palestinians in Gaza with Hamas followed by variations of a dehumanising narrative that they deserve it.
As highlighted by the wide array of pro-IS supporter responses, IS and those affiliated with the group hold strongly negative opinions about Hamas. Solid assessments of both IS and Hamas, as well as their wider online supporter networks, rely on accurate analyses that consider the well-established nature of their rivalries. Even those who know that these groups are ideologically opposed should not invoke the Islamic State when seeking to describe brutality exercised by other terrorist organisations; being referenced as the ‘gold standard’ for violence is something that IS supporters clearly find cause to celebrate, as segments of their propaganda are hyper-focused on extremely graphic displays of violence. This form of external acknowledgement by their adversaries risks becoming a source of further validation as well as directly playing into their propaganda strategies. IS and other Salafi-jihadist organisations do not hold a monopoly on extreme violence, and as Zelin stated, “Hamas has been brutal itself before ISIS was even a group.” Groups such as Al-Qaeda, IS, Hamas, and Hezbollah are not interchangeable and such reductionism does significant harm.
Finally, it is important to remember that extremist groups across ideologies thrive on mis/disinformation. In order to avoid adding fuel to toxic narratives, we must resist the temptation to move quickly on newly emerging information and instead employ due diligence. Amplifying dichotomous narratives, dehumanising rhetoric, justifying the unjustifiable concept of collective punishment, and equating civilians with terrorist groups or the actions of their government only serve to foster dangerous environments both from within and far beyond the conflict zone.