Islamic fighters waging war in Syria claim YouTube as their new frontline, posting increasingly slick films to advertise their triumphs on the battlefield and competing for funding and recruits.
The dearth of independent reporting of the Syrian war extends the reach of the jihadis’ online creations. Their offerings are sanitised, and one sided. They always win. There’s never much resistance. We rarely see what happens to the soldiers they fought, or any civilians they may have involved in their operation.
There’s even a suggestion that the kind of war they’re fighting is being defined, in part, by its filmic potential. They’re choosing targets in the countryside, where the landscape lends itself to big-screen epics.
In true Hollywood style, fighters can appear silhouetted by golden light, as they fire their automatic weapons from the red clay trenches they’ve dug.
An attack in no-man’s land on a poorly defended air base provides more dramatic potential than the comparatively cramped screens of another day’s street-fighting in the back blocks of a Syrian city.
Take the example of Minnagh airfield, near Aleppo. After an extended campaign targeting the roads leading to the airbase, as well as the base itself, hundreds of fighters, from more than six jihadi groups, combined in August to overrun the facility.
Within hours of that happening, a slick video had appeared online. That teaser featured the most impactful scenes, and promised more would be “coming soon”. It was the al-Fatah brigade which led the operation, and so the al-Fatah brigade logo appears in the top left hand corner of most of the footage.
As well as the snippets and teasers, and moments captured on film, and posted online, there are the finished videos, with flashy graphics, emotive soundtracks and the kind of post-production you’d expect from a well-funded advertising campaign. They’re reminiscent of video war games, with similar imagery, objectives and outcomes.
Dr Zahera Harb, from London’s City University, says that highly polished video is designed for multiple purposes. It’s become an integral part of the war, she says. It’s designed by groups to show their power, to recruit, and to demonise their enemies. It’s also about money.
“In many cases, it’s not for strategic reasons. It’s a showcase also for the funders, so it’s a message for funders, mainly in the Gulf region, saying that we are capable, and with only what we have this is what we can do, but if you give us more, you can get more than this.”
By showcasing their achievements online, complete with a slideshow of the booty they’ve plundered, different jihadi groups take the fast track to greater power, sucking in smaller groups, which are then starved of weapons and money.
But it’s not only the trophies that count – the stacks of ammunition, the MIG fighters, the scud missiles, even the helicopters. The videos also define and revile the jihadis’ enemies.
There’s even one YouTube celebrity, Abu Jandal – the killer – who regularly appears at the end of a conquest, to rage against the regime, the Assads, the Allawites, the Shias. At Minnagh Airbase, another fighter brandishes a sword as he walks onto the airfield, threatening to “butcher them all”.
It’s a set piece in virtually every video, even though it can only harden opposition to the jihadis as much as winning them support. Dr Zahera Harb terms it a PR disaster for the rebels.
“These are the kind of videos that the regime is using in order to say that this is a terrorist revolution and it’s not a people’s revolution.”