December 22, 2014 | Quote

A 24-Year-Old Executive Created An Alarming New Model For Online Jihadists

Until a week ago, the most influential English-speaking Jihadist on social media was Shami Witness, a Twitter account with 17,000 followers — a group that included scores of western analysts and journalists along with an estimated 2/3rds of all Islamist foreign fighters active on the social media site.

As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies explained to Business Insider, Shami Witness gained much of his initial prestige from his usefulness: The account was a readily available source of granular information about the conflict in Syria that was of obvious interest to western analysts and journalists.

“He came into following Syria at a a time when there were fewer Syria watchers,” says Gartenstein-Ross. “The value of a Syria watcher with good information was higher than it is now.”

His inside track on an increasingly important aspect of the Syria conflict earned “follow Friday” endorsements from prominent terrorism analysts. Even top-level experts occasionally grouped Shami with serious academic analysts and other observers with no appreciable pro-jihadist agenda.

Shami Witness first appeared on Twitter in November of 2011, early into the Syria conflict. He proved his worth as an observer of the war. “He followed this stuff obsessively and tweeted about it obsessively,” recalls Gartenstein-Ross. “Sometimes he had ahead-of-the-curve analysis. He often had some inside baseball musings.”

Gartenstein-Ross believes that Twitter and the level of expertise around the Syria conflict have significantly changed since Biswas's emergence in late 2011. Study of Syrian Islamist groups has advanced far beyond the point where a figure like Biswas could be considered necessary or even all that helpful to researchers and journalists. And Twitter users has become better at rooting out at a Shami Witness-type character — a detached and anonymous amateur with uncertain motivations and highly suspect sympathies.

“Twitter becomes massively more professionalized all the time,” says Gartenstein-Ross. “The barriers to credibility thus go up and people's ability to ferret out Islamic State supporters and recognize them in their early stages also goes up.”

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