Virtual Jihad: Chechnya's Instagram Insurgency

Foreign jihadists are using Chechnya's insurgency for propaganda points... on Instagram.

The continuing anti-Russian insurgency in Chechnya briefly returned to American newspapers after the Boston Marathon bombings, thanks to the Tsarnaev brothers' roots in the Caucasian Mountain region, but it's nothing new. Over the past decade, a rebellion against Russian rule has taken on an increasingly jihadist cast as local rebels such as the Caucasus Emirate forged alliances with international militant Islamist forces. Pictures of Chechnyan fighters and casualties have become an unexpected hot currency on Instagram's jihadist underground, where Al-Qaeda and Taliban sympathizers eagerly swap pictures and propaganda.

In fact, Anti-Russian jihadist rebels in Chechnya and neighboring regions, along with Islamist sympathizers worldwide, have increasingly turned to Instagram to disseminate propaganda and martyr photographs. A cursory search of the photo-sharing service's #jihad tag found numerous graphics which appeared to be of Chechen or neighboring Dagestani origin; because Instagram does not normally share the national origin of users, it was impossible to confirm. However, captions to many photos found were written in Russian and other photos portrayed Chechen volunteers who died in the conflict in Syria.

However, very few of these Chechnyan fighter pictures appear to be posted from Chechnya, judging from the extremely well-trafficked #chechnya hashtag and the Russian-language #Чечня́ hashtag, which are filled with innocuous food shots (Chechnyans apparently love sushi), self-portraits, landscapes, and the other usual Instagram fodder (albeit with more memorials to war victims and 19th century anti-Russian rebels than an American might expect to come across in their Instagram feed). Instead, Chechnyan rebel pictures are posted and traded like baseball cards among members of an underground jihadist subculture. Virtually no Instagram accounts exclusively feature Chechnyan rebel picture and propaganda; they are instead mixed-and-matched with content from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and many other troubled lands.

Chechnya Basics

Chechnya is a constituent republic of Russia located in the Caucasus Mountains. Christopher Swift, a national security expert at Georgetown University, told Fast Company that “The Caucasus Mountains are very rugged—as if someone dropped the Rocky Mountains into an area the size of New England,” and are home to many different ethnic and cultural groups. The Chechnyans, primarily Sunni Muslims with a distinct language and culture, have intermittently fought Russian rule since the late 18th century. Following two anti-Moscow wars when the Soviet Union collapsed, the war-fatigued land accepted a new pro-Russian government under former separatist leader Akhmad Kadyrov. Akhmad's son Ramzan came into power after Akhmad was assassinated via a land mine hidden in a soccer stadium in 2004. An insurgency continues in Chechnya and nearby regions against the Russian government, fought by a mix of local nationalists and imported violent jihadists.

The Instagram President

When Chechnyan President Ramzan Kadyrov wanted to issue an official statement distancing his homeland from the Tsarnaev brothers, who have roots in the region, he did what many world leaders do: He turned to the Internet. But instead of issuing a statement via Facebook or posting a discretely truncated Twitter link, he posted a selfie on Instagram, accompanied by a long statement blaming the Boston attack on American culture.

As these things go, Kadyrov is an Instagram superstar with over 130,000 followers. Kadyrov's posts to Instagram are an odd mix of self-portraits, glamor shots, and on-the-job pictures that The Guardian's Miriam Elder characterizes as “cuddly oversharing,” including one picture of him shaking hands with a white tiger. Kadyrov has also come under fire for alleged abuses of power and his advocacy of honor killings.

Swapping Jihadist Photos Like Baseball Cards

Since Instagram is a relatively new social media service—the now-Facebook-owned company only launched in 2010—relatively few studies have been done on jihadists on Instagram. However, Fast Company noted earlier this year that trends indicated jihadists are migrating to Instagram.

One of the only studies to date, Online Jihadis Embrace Instagram, was published in March by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). MEMRI is a right wing-leaning media translation service which has been accused of selectively choosing Arabic-language content to translate, but whose translations are generally accurate. Owing to MEMRI's Middle Eastern focus, the report primarily studied Arabic-language propaganda on Instagram along with English-language captions aimed at the outside world. Although the bulk of the content in MEMRI's report came from Syria and Iraq, photographs of dead Chechen fighters were also included.

In a telephone conversation with Fast Company, MEMRI's Steven Stalinsky said that his organization studied Instagram accounts at the end of 2012. Using the Statigram web search engine for Instagram, the organization found numerous accounts sharing jihadi-associated content including martyr pictures, inspirational Photoshop art, and photographs taken from battlefields worldwide. Much of this content, Stalinsky said, also appeared on other corners of the Internet—they were shared through other forms of social media, and were not exclusive to Instagram. Since MEMRI's report was published in March, numerous other accounts beyond those named in their report also began posting jihadist content to Instagram.

Although accounts with jihadist or terrorist content appear to be shut down by Instagram on a regular basis, searches of Instagram's archives with services such as Statigram bring up many users posting Chechnya-related jihadist content. For instance, one Dagestani user posts to Instagram under the user name Caucasus Emirate—the actual Caucasus Emirate is an Al-Qaeda-associated terrorist group which seeks to establish an Islamist state in the Caucasus Mountains. That user's Instagram feed includes numerous pictures of guns and weaponry copied from jihadist websites. Another user posts pictures of Chechen rebels alongside pictures of Taliban fighters and Syrian jihadists. The anti-Russian insurgency is responsible for a considerable amount of the photo content reposted to Instagram by terrorist sympathizers—but the bulk appears to be from Syria. Some of these pictures include portraits of foreign jihadist sympathizers who died in Chechnya, such as this portrait of Ibn al-Kittab, a Saudi volunteer who died in the anti-Russian insurgency.

Chechnya's Social Media Jihad Star

The Chechen conflict even had its own social media star on YouTube and Twitter. Said Buryatsky, a Siberian Buddhist convert to Islam, linked up with the Caucasus Emirate in 2007 and quickly became the organization's public face. Foreign Policy profiled Buryatsky shortly after his 2010 death at the hand of Russian security forces; author Paul Quinn-Judge noted that his target “was an audience yet untapped by the Chechen rebels' media: The young, well-educated urban youth in the Muslim areas of the former Soviet Union.” Buryatsky and his acolytes eagerly uploaded dozens of videos to YouTube and posted links on Russian-language web forums; to this day, this videos are easily viewed on YouTube. In his videos, Buryatsky mixed religious instructions with calls for the violent expulsion of the Russian government from majority-Muslim areas.

Swift told Fast Company that Caucasian insurgents have been infused with militant Salafi ideologies over the past decade. The appearance of Chechen rebel content on Instagram where it is interchangeably displayed with photos from Syria and Afghanistan is part of what he calls the “individualization of global jihad, and self-identification with the jihad,” where small local conflicts such as Chechnya are subsumed into a larger global narrative that may have little to do with the local conflict. He adds that much of the content goes through multiple channels, and is posted by individual sympathizers who may not have any meaningful connection with the Caucasus Emirate's actual leaders.

The Caucasus Emirate, as befitting a 21st-century insurrection, maintains their own multilingual website and Twitter feed. Despite the fact that the Caucasus Emirate is primarily composed of Russian-speakers rebelling against Russia, much of the site's literature contains Russian grammatical errors and appear to be translated from English or Arabic into Russian. Much of the content also focuses on jihadist struggles outside of the Caucasus, with a heavy amount of attention focused on Syria. The Emirate's site, Kavkaz Center, also includes YouTube propaganda videos that include the violent death of Chechnyan government soldiers.

[Top Image: Wikimedia user Mikhail Evstafiev, Kadyrov Image, Instagram user Kadyrov_95, Collage Image: MEMRI, Other Images: Statigram]

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