To the untrained eye the al-Qadisiyah Men's Army Facebook page appears to advertise a well-resourced Iraqi insurgent group. It has its own crest — a polished illustration of an eagle overlaid onto an arcing Baathist flag. Peppered with trophy images of bombed-out husks of vehicles and the occasional dangling corpse, it could be mistaken for a sophisticated rival faction to the Islamic State. To Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, however, something is clearly amiss.
"This is somebody who calls itself the al-Qadisiyah Men's Army, claiming to be some kind of Baathist insurgent group," he says. "But if you just look at all the photos they put out, for a large part they just plagiarise them from the Islamic State then present them as their own."
The al-Qadisiyah Men's Army is a phantom insurgent group — a faction that doesn't exist in anything like the way it projects itself online. It's one quirk of a conflict that, perhaps more than any other, has been played out on social media. While hyperbole and propaganda are hallmarks of the Islamic State's online presence, al-Tamimi believes this group, which has gathered more than 3000 likes, goes even further — it is probably little more than one enterprising individual behind a computer manicuring a Facebook page.
"I think that in the general world of Iraq insurgent social media there is this tendency to downplay the Islamic State if they don't want to admit how dominant it is in the insurgency," he says. "And, you know, in particular with the Baathists, they keep going on about how they're supposedly the biggest group, and the biggest fort, and they liberated Baghdad from government control — you know, it's not really in their interests to admit to the IS presence in any way."
"They're claiming to be a real military formation but really they're no such thing."
Phantom insurgents are just one hazard for al-Tamimi, who makes a living tracking extremists online. He is part of a set dubbed the jihadi hunters - a new breed of completely self-taught researcher who comb the social networks for information about extremists and then post their findings to blogs.
The 22-year-old divides his time between London and Israel, where he is a researcher at private university IDC Herzliya. He has only been doing this since last spring, but his work is regularly quoted in media including Al Jazeera, the New York Times and occasionally VICE News. He recently appeared before the UK House of Commons Defense Committee to advise on the Islamic State and Iraq.
A typical day will involve him browsing Facebook and Skype, establishing contact with some of the rebel groups in the area, and plugging them for information. VICE News Skyped him to find out more about his work.
VICE News: How do you get into this line of work?
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi: I'd always been interested in Iraq and Syria, but prior to doing all this the research I did was more broad — producing articles in news outlets and so on. Using social media can really give an in-depth view at the microscopic level. Using Facebook in particular as a resource is quite a novel approach because you don't necessarily associate it with armed groups. At this very moment I'm just typing up an interview I did with a military commander on the pro-regime side in Syria. I did that over Facebook.
What's been your most significant discovery so far?
I would say identifying the ex-Guantanamo detainees in Morocco who were fighting in Syria. That was from going through Facebook, through jihadi pages. They posted a comment on a thread of a fan page, they said who is this, and they posted a response on Facebook in Arabic.
I then put the name on Youtube to see if there were any videos of the individual and sure enough it was an exact match. That instantly checked out. It was pretty awesome. And that was through prying into the world of jihadi Facebook pages.
Why do you think the Islamic State has rapidly outgrown other insurgent groups? What do you see as its most important achievement?This projection of itself as the caliphate and the state. That was something they'd been getting at for quite a while, with the social open source advertisement even since the August or September of last year. Back then everyone did think that ISIS was part of al-Qaeda, but I think the way they were pushing this caliphate agenda — this idea that they were going to lead — really did show their intentions of the refusal to disband ISIS. That really did show the real break off from al-Qaeda. it really did come i think before the official disavowal of links in February in that statement from al-Qaeda central.
Recently you faced criticism for getting too close to your sources. How do you address those critics?
I guess there are certain things I shouldn't have said in an attempt to try to win the trust of these IS guys and their supporters, but it's one thing to say that it's not being so ethical, and quite another then to go to take that further and say it compromised my analysis. It's notable that [the critics] don't actually quote from the writings I put out on my website, and actually you can see from what I've done that a lot of it isn't even about IS necessarily.
I mean, I write about different insurgent groups that involve contact with different people of a variety of orientations, whether they were FSA or whether they were Islamic Front or whether they were independent groupings, so really I find the contention that firstly speaking to IS people was the key part of my work... no, it was a handy addition to my work. It wasn't a key aspect of what I did, and therefore I do stand by the work I've done.
I guess one of the realities of contacting extremists on social media with a view to turning them into sources is that you will inevitably build a relationship with them.
If I do call someone I just tell them that I am a researcher that came from Oxford University, so I am interested if they want to do an interview. I can't bring myself to go about talking to people under a fake account. I can't bring myself to do that. but i can tell you that a lot of these researchers they do do that.
There's considerable debate about it in this field and some agree with it, some don't. if someone wants to pry into the world of the jihadis and they want to use a fake account I"m not going to go and openly condemn them for it.
Do you think there is a case for engaging with the Islamic State, as [Tony Blair's former chief of staff] Jonathan Powell has argued?
I don't think the West should engage, because in the end it's an entity that's committed genocide of the Yazidis. That's a very important issue to note — they themselves have been advertising what they do to the Yazidis in terms of enslavement.
It's part of a conscious effort to end the existence of the Yazidi people, with the enslavement of women and so on and the forced conversions to Islam and so on, so i don't really think this is an entity that the West should engage with, no.
How do you see the future of Islamic State?
I think they're going to keep expanding territory. I think particularly Anbar is a place to watch. Parts of Diyala province. The timescale I see is that if the Islamic State is going to decline, then it's over a timescale of years rather than the next six months.
Follow Ben Bryant on Twitter: @benbryant