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Iraq Turmoil: How Extremists Use Social Media To Gain Support


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Michel Martin is away. We want to begin the program today talking about Iraq. Militants attacked and now reportedly control much of the countries north - much of the northern part of the country and violence continues to spread. By now you may have heard of ISIS, the militant group behind the recent violence. It's a group of Sunni fighters that want to create an Islamic empire across the Middle East. We wanted to hear more about how this group is gaining ground in Iraq using part social media tactics and obviously violence and what its rise there could mean for the rest of the Middle East. Joining us now to talk more about it is Shadi Hamid. He's the Brookings Institution fellow for the project on U.S.-Islamic world relations. And his new book is called "Temptations Of Power: Islamists And Illiberal Democracy In A New Middle East." Shadi, welcome to the program.

SHADI HAMID: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: And also here in the studio is Nadia Oweidat. She is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and researches youth and internet in the Arab Spring. Welcome to the studio.

NADIA OWEIDAT: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So, Shadi, I'm going to start with you - give you a little advantage because you're on the phone here, refresh our memories about exactly who ISIS is and how this group came to flourish in Iraq.

HAMID: Sure. So ISIS is actually a product of previous conflicts. They gained a lot of ground in the Syrian conflict and they actually became so extreme that al-Qaida central disavowed them. No one's more vicious and brutal in their tactics and in their harsh implementation of Sharia law than ISIS. But ISIS is different in the sense - it's not like old-style al-Qaida, 9/11 and after that, where it was pretty much about destroying things. ISIS has been able to control territories. It's trying to govern, its providing security for citizens, often in a very harsh way - but it is a bit of a different model than the kind of terrorists blowing up model that I think a lot of Americans were used to previously.

CORNISH: And Nadia I want to talk a little bit more about this because obviously there is a very rocky connection between ISIS and al-Qaida. And as we just heard Shadi say that al-Qaida sort of rejects the ISIS theology...

OWEIDAT: I disagree actually.

CORNISH: What's the connection there?

OWEIDAT: Basically what happened between ISIS and al-Qaida is really a power-play. People - there's a lot of big egos from within the jihadist scene and they're competing for power. And somebody refused to give blind obedience to Baghdadi, who is now the head of ISIS. He ridiculed Zawahiri and he wanted actually to assassinate al-Qaida - all of their members in Syria. So you have somebody who's so brutal he cannot tolerate dissent. So it really is a power-play. It really is a group that wants to rule alone. It's very authoritarian. So it's not so much that they are too violent for al-Qaida - al-Qaida has no problem killing civilians. It killed with cold blood 3,000 plus civilians. It really is about who's in control. And we will see this go on because there's so much infighting in fact that is now being covered by - wiki-Baghdadi. Basically somebody from within leaking this infighting. You can see it. It happened in Afghanistan, it happened again in Iraq - which caused the Sawah councils, it happened in Syria. And it will happen also in Iraq.

CORNISH: Shadi I want to talk more about this, you just heard Nadia saying wiki-Baghdadi - which is someone releasing documents from inside ISIS. But this gets at the issue of Sunni extremism and Sunni militants. Who exactly is the constituency for ISIS within Iraq - who's really supporting this group?

HAMID: Sure. Well I think we're entering a salafi jihadist moment - if you will - where more moderate Islamist groups across the Middle East have lost popularity. They try to come to power through democratic elections, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but for a variety of reasons that didn't work out so well. So now were seeing this jihadist groups that are quite violent and they're essentially saying to their constituents that violence works. Violence is the only way - democratic elections are a waste of time. And that has some appeal. But I think more generally, in a place like Iraq, you have such anger at the central government which is dominated by the Maliki government, which is Shia, so there's a real sectarian element. Where they look at Maliki and they can't stand him so they're being pushed into the arms of Sunni extremist groups. Now if these Iraqis live under ISIS rule they might change their mind but at least in this initial phase there has been some embrace, on the local level, of the Sunni militants. And it's not just ISIS but also a number of other smaller groups as well.

CORNISH: If you're just joining us were talking about recent violence in Iraq and the rise of a militant group ISIS. With us now, that's Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution. And now, here's Nadia Oweidat of the New America Foundation. And Nadia I gather you have a slightly different take on sort of where the moderates are in all of this.

OWEIDAT: I do. If I may first comment on my colleague's observation - you know, we've actually never had democracy in the Arab world, we've never had equal citizenship. And even when the Brotherhood were in power they very much disenfranchised everybody else. So I would not say that this salafi jihadist movement is a reaction to the fail of democracy because democracy never actually took place.

CORNISH: You're talking about a liberal democracy the way maybe Americans think of it?

OWEIDAT: Exactly. Right. But what is happening in Iraqi - he's definitely right about the government of Maliki which could not possibly be part of the solution. If this U.S. thinks it can wrap this problem with Maliki they are really not in touch with reality because Maliki so unpopular, he is so part of the problem, that he is causing sworn enemies to be united against him. Sufis, who are, again, all jihadist from their inception in the '80s, were very much against Sufis and Ba'athis when I was reading al-Qaida papers, that came out of Afghanistan, the Ba'athists were number one enemy - sworn enemy to al-Qaida. And both are uniting with ISIS against Maliki's government and practices. So Maliki cannot depart of this solution. On the moderates, if you look for example 80 percent of the Arab world is under 40 and 70 percent is under 30. And most of whom are not married. If you look at the most popular Facebook pages, the most popular YouTube channels, they're very secular. They're very, very much secular. The top five, for example, Facebook pages include following Hollywood movies, includes National Geographic in Abu Dhabi. So includes one page called "Educate Yourself" so this does not reflect the inclination of the majority but they do reflect funding and support by certain groups to such tendencies.

CORNISH: Obviously there's going to be more conversation about those sectarian divisions over the coming weeks and you are hearing lawmakers talk more and more about whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should go. I want to jump on something you mentioned there, Nadia though, about social media. Obviously social media has been very popular with Islamist extremists around the region. Shadi Hamid, what does ISIS do differently - why do they stand out?

HAMID: Yeah. So I think the important thing about social media to understand is, you know, after - when the Arab spring started there was a lot of excitement that these are young English-speaking revolutionaries who are using Twitter and Facebook and we saw technology as being part of this great future. But the point about social media is that the bad guys can use it too - including terrorists in this case. And they've been able to have a presence on Twitter and Facebook to be able to distribute their messages in real-time to a larger audience through a variety of different accounts. Presence on Twitter and Facebook and to be able to distribute their messages in real-time to a larger audience through a variety of different accounts it's hard to always track which account belongs to which group and so on but the presence is definitely there and we see jihadist, more generally post-9/11, really being able to adapt to new kinds of technologies. I mean, these are some really technologically savvy guys as retrograde as they might otherwise be.

CORNISH: Just to let Nadia jump in here this is a group that has hashtag campaigns, they had an app in the android store. What are they doing here that's so striking?

OWEIDAT: Well, actually, again all jihadist, and in fact political Islam in general, have always been media conscious - have always paid extra, extra action attention to their picture in the media to their propaganda. So they've had 20 years to really hone their skills and be really good at it. But I want to say that because of that they were in fact most of the time ahead of the game. They were the ones who were monopolizing the Internet in Arabic. So a few years ago the only thing you could see in Arabic, in addition to maybe some newspaper websites, or Islamist and jihadist and wahhabi content - that's it, it's monopolized. The new development in fact is not that, oh they are using the Internet. The new development is that, oh the Internet is also now being used by liberal forces and human rights forces. And in fact again they are - again, they have way more audience. It's important to keep that in mind that if you look at the entire presence they are losing in fact. They don't have - not even close to being popular by even a big minority.

CORNISH: But they've certainly drawn tremendous attention with some of the grisly videos that they've posted.

OWEIDAT: They have.

CORNISH: Of mass execution. And people trying to verify this. I mean, they're very savvy.

OWEIDAT: They are very brutal. And in fact their brutality shows there - how disconnected they are from the wider Arab audience. Because if they think this will gain them popularity they are truly disconnected.


HAMID: If I could just jump in yeah I'm not sure if popularity really matters to these groups. They're not trying to be these mass populist movements that are well-liked and adored. They believe that violence works in the sense they instill fear in the local populations and that creates for them a better situation as they see it. Where they're able to control and so if you judge it based on that there has actually been considerable success. I mean, we're talking about a very large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria that are governed directly by these groups. Liberals can't claim that anywhere in the Arab world and as I said before, the more moderate Islamist groups haven't been able to claim territory either. So, I mean, unfortunately we're living in a time and in a region where violence works. That's the sad fact of it.

CORNISH: I'm sorry. Unfortunately we're going to have to leave it there. Shadi Hamid is a Brooking's Fellow for the project on U.S.-Islamic world relations. his new book is called "Temptations Of Power: Islamists And Illiberal Democracy In A New Middle East." He joined us from Oslo, where he is traveling. And Nadia Oweidat, she's a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and researches youth and Internet in the Arab Spring. She was with us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you both for joining me.

OWEIDAT: Thank you.

HAMID: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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