“And if I stay, I post”: The Latest Case of German ISIS Supporters and Their Media-Jihad

With the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq in 2019, the online propaganda efforts of its supporters in the West have become even more central to the group’s media strategy. The group’s propaganda for an international audience is no longer published through “official” ISIS media offices, but by “officially unofficial” support groups. Members of one such group targeting German audiences were arrested in Germany and Switzerland in June and October 2022. The higher regional court of Celle, Germany, recently announced the verdict in the trial against the two German members of the group. The trial against the Swiss members of the group has yet to start. Two of them have been in pre-trial detention since their arrest, while a third and minor suspect was released shortly after his arrest. With these arrests, the authorities were able to disrupt the largest German speaking ISIS online propaganda network in recent years.

How it Started

When ISIS fighters attacked al-Sinaa prison in Hasakah, Syria, in January 2022, a marked increase in the activities of German-language channels linked to ISIS occurred on Telegram. Part of this increase in activity was the recreation of new Telegram channels after others were banned, the timely translations from Arabic to German of ISIS-linked propaganda material regarding the attack, and sustained efforts to cover the event almost 24/7, which was unique for the German language jihadist online ecosystem at the time.

The manner and extent with which ISIS-linked propaganda channels covered the attack in Hasakah on Telegram was one of the most striking examples of how ISIS uses its supporter media (munasirun) to bolster its operations on the ground. Interestingly, the first hours of the attack were not covered by “official” ISIS-linked channels, but only by the group’s media supporters online. This indicated the key role that the group affords to its online support networks in its media strategy. This is particularly the case since following its territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq, ISIS-core is currently unable to maintain propaganda outlets itself in a range of languages. Although supporters outside of Iraq and Syria already contributed to ISIS official media releases when the group still had its international media outlets like al-Hayat, ISIS now depends on networks of online supporters from all over the world that publish translations for an international audience. One such website is the I’lam Foundation, which features translations into more than 25 languages. Many branded ISIS media supporter groups, like Sahr al-Khilafah or Halummu, publish their work through I’lam Foundation.

How the Network Functioned

When I’lam Foundation’s website opened a section for German translations in early 2022, there was immediately reason to assume that those translations were connected to the individuals who ran the German Telegram channels that covered the attack in Hasakah. The new, regular, and branded translations represented a new level of professionalism among German-language ISIS media supporters, which had not been observed since ISIS lost its territory in Syria and Iraq in 2019. However, this effort lasted only a month, with the first German translation on the website appearing on March 22 and the last on April 12, 2022.

Following the arrests of four individuals—three in Switzerland and one in Germany—in June 2022 and an additional arrest in October 2022 in Germany, it was confirmed that these individuals were connected to the German-speaking networks that operated via the I’lam Foundation’s website and the translators for the ISIS-propaganda coverage of the Hasakah attack on Telegram.

The profiles of those arrested offer important insights into the functioning of these online networks of supporters. Aleem N., arrested in June 2022 in Germany, was 61 years old and a veteran foreign terrorist fighter. He joined the Bosnian forces during the Balkan War in the 1990s. He returned to Germany after the end of the war and began organizing support, as well as recruits, for al-Qaeda in Waziristan, Pakistan. These activities led to an eight-year prison sentence for him in Germany in 2008. The second German-speaking ISIS supporter, Mahmoud Abu S., arrested in Germany in October 2022, was 27 years old and had also served a prison sentence in Germany on ISIS propaganda  charges for offenses he committed in 2017. Back then, he had designed posters in support of ISIS and published them on various social media platforms. These posters called for attacks on Christmas markets in Western countries and were featured in international news reports about the terror threat posed by ISIS at the time. The two Swiss individuals who are in pre-trial detention since their arrest in June 2022 seem to have been linked to jihadist circles in the Swiss city of Winterthur for several years prior to their arrest.

The trial against the two Germans, as well as media reports, confirmed that the observed activities on the various German-language Telegram channels and I’lam Foundation website were indeed connected to Aleem N. and Mahmoud Abu S., who called himself “Abu Omar.” The translations published on the website were made by Aleem N. and stopped after only a month because his associates were not satisfied with their quality. According to news reports, all the arrested had plans to join ISIS in Syria. Abu S. contacted ISIS personnel in the region on behalf of the group to prepare their journey when authorities in Germany and Switzerland made the arrests. Aleem N. had already tried to join ISIS in Syria 2020. In 2021, he tried to join the group in Pakistan. He was sentenced to six years in prison, while Mahmoud Abu S. received a four-year prison sentence.

Effective Disruption but Only Temporarily

After the arrests, most German-language ISIS propaganda activities came to a halt for several months. Even important announcements, like the death of its then leader Abu Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, were neither circulated nor translated in public German Telegram channels. However, before the verdict was announced, German translations were back on the I’lam Foundation’s website. This indicates the presence of additional German-speaking support networks, willing to become active on the “media front.” In many recent cases of arrests of ISIS supporters in Germany, local authorities were tipped-off by partner nations’ security services, which then led to German investigations and arrests. The FBI also provided some information in the case against Aleem N. and Mahmoud Abu S. Therefore, security cooperation on an international level remains crucial.

This case demonstrates that the more professional media supporters can have direct links to the terror group and function as a multiplicator for official ISIS propaganda. Although ISIS portrays this so-called “media-jihad” as equally rewarding as its armed counterpart on the ground in various conflict zones, the members of this particular support network viewed their online propaganda activities for ISIS as only temporary. Their ultimate goal was to join the group’s ranks in Syria, indicating these individuals posed a significant terrorist threat beyond their online propaganda activities. With this type of media-jihad, ISIS offers a low-threshold opportunity for motivated supporters to be an active part of the organization. It can use them to expand its online presence to attract new sympathizers. However, as this case demonstrates, online propaganda activities can also be conducted by individuals that see this as a temporary segue before they are able to join the offline terrorist operations of the group. Therefore, continued monitoring and disruption of such online propaganda activities remains a key aspect in the fight against this global terror network.

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