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The Mystery Tweeter Inside ISIS


When fighters from ISIS spilled out of Syria and took over a string of Iraqi cities, we remarked on how much we didn't know about them, even the real name of their leader, who's nom de guerrer is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a mystery. But there is an anonymous source who has identified him and has had much else to say about the group. It's a Twitter account, @wikibaghdady, that has been telling what purport to be inside secrets about ISIS, and not very flattering secrets, since last December. Jacob Siegel, no relation, has written about this mysterious disseminator of fascinating, if often un-confirmable, information for The Daily Beast. And he joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

JACOB SIEGEL: Thanks for having me, Robert.

R. SIEGEL: First, we don't know who's been writing @wikibaghdady. But judging from the writings, what would you infer about him?

J. SIEGEL: I think that you can say two things confidently. One is that it's somebody who has an intimate awareness of what's going on with ISIS, and particularly with ISIS's activities in Syria. And the second thing you can say is that it's somebody who's seeking to discredit ISIS - either an individual, or a group of people whose aim, through the account, has been to discredit ISIS and really to discredit ISIS to other people in the jihadi community.

R. SIEGEL: Now, I mentioned Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the pseudonym of the leader of ISIS. Who is he, according to the Twitter feed writer? And is the Twitter feed writer correct?

J. SIEGEL: Well, the Twitter feed writer seems to be mostly correct about who Baghdadi is. And in addition, he also pointed out some other biographical details, like the fact that Baghdadi's not actually from Baghdad, but is from Samarra, that were confirmed.

R. SIEGEL: What are some other things that @wikibaghdady has written about over the months?

J. SIEGEL: @Wikibaghdady's provided a fairly detailed, if unreliable, description of the structure of ISIS, describing the way in which ISIS formed two separate councils, basically to purge its enemies- one kind of internal security council, and then a second counsel to seek out its enemies and purge them. And in Syria, its enemy became the Nusra front, which is the al-Qaida affiliated group that ISIS actually helped found but later broke with when Baghdadi tried to assert authority over Nusra and the Nusra leader pushed back.

R. SIEGEL: Now, there is some detail - very interesting, if true - it was from tweets in January. And one example, when we read that the Saudis were deemed the least loyal - they were the ones most often involved, it said - they should be used for suicide bombings, which would be not a recruiting tool for Saudi jihadis. The big theme, though, in disparaging ISIS, seems to be - it's the group's involvement, according to these tweets, with the Baathists, with the members of the party that was Saddam Hussein's party in Iraq - not an Islamist movement, a nationalist movement.

J. SIEGEL: No. The Baathists were a national movement, though Hussein also was more than willing to flirt with Islamism and to invoke religion when he thought that that was tactically advantageous. And what @wikibaghdady says is that Baathists have essentially been key players inside of ISIS from the beginning, and that, in fact, a former Baathist was the real power broker within ISIS at its inception and really pushed Baghdadi into a leadership role.

R. SIEGEL: As the tweets would have it, ISIS is virtually a front organization for the former regime elements, they used to say, in Iraq.

J. SIEGEL: Right. And that's just clearly wrong, that Isis is a Baathist front organization. ISIS is an absolutist, Islamic organization that believes in the global caliphate and sees this state it's formed in Iraq and Syria as the first step in establishing the global caliphate. They're definitely not Baathists. What is true is that a coalition with Baathist elements in Iraq, like the Naqshbandi and General Military Council elements, has been critical to ISIS's takeover in Mosul, and in Tikrit and in the other cities where you saw them sweep through and very quickly establish power.

R. SIEGEL: So six months worth of tweets, some of it's information, some of it's misinformation. How valuable is it, actually?

J. SIEGEL: I think it's valuable in pointing to the fact that ISIS's rapid takeover in northern Iraq was very much based on a coalition between ISIS and Baathist groups. @Wikibaghdady had been writing about that for a long time in an exaggerated way intended to smear ISIS, but not without a very significant kernel of truth. The second reason why I think it's significant is it points to how important social media has become as a platform for jihadist groups to air their disputes, air their propaganda and try to attract new followers, new recruits and new financing. And these disputes between different jihadi groups, that's taken place over social media.

R. SIEGEL: That's Jacob Siegel, a reporter and editor for The Daily Beast. Jacob, thank you.

J. SIEGEL: Thanks, Rob. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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