Months after the Russian authorities moved to ban pro-Islamic State (IS) group accounts on Russia's VKontakte social network, Russian-speaking IS militants and their sympathizers have returned in force to create a large pro-IS network on the site.
In October, Russia's prosecutor-general ordered the closure of pro-IS accounts on VKontakte, telling the TASS news agency that seven Russian-language pages contained "calls for extremist and terrorist activities."
However, not only were the seven pro-IS pages banned by order of the prosecutor-general a mere drop in the ocean of pro-IS accounts on VKontakte, the ban came a month after VKontakte itself also carried out a mass banning of pro-IS accounts. The move by VKontakte appeared to come in the wake of a September 11, 2014, article by the Apparat news site that explored the use of VKontakte by IS militants.
VKontakte's ban included the popular ShamToday page, which at the time of its banning had over 12,000 members and was run by Russian-speaking North Caucasians close to IS's military commander in Syria, Umar Shishani. VKontakte's ban also included accounts run by or supportive of other jihadi groups in Syria, chiefly the Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), which considers itself a branch of the North Caucasus-based militant Islamist group Caucasus Emirate.
Back To VKontakte
As of January 19, however, a number of new pro-Islamic State and pro-JMA accounts are up and running on VKontakte and are openly posting pro-jihadi material including IS videos and photographs.
While the VKontatke website continues to ban accounts belonging to individual militants -- in late 2014, the site banned the accounts of at least two Chechen militants who are fighting alongside Islamic State -- both it and the Russian authorities appear to have turned a blind eye to the pro-IS and pro-JMA accounts.
One of the largest pro-IS groups, HalifatNews, has over 17,800 members as of January 19, making it larger than ShamToday at the time of that group's banning in September 2014. HalifatNews takes its name from the Arabic word for "caliphate," the Islamic State group's name for the lands under its control in Syria and Iraq. The propaganda shared by the group includes IS videos, updates about Islamic State victories and gains in Syria and Iraq, and also other news related to the Islamic world, including in Russia. The latter news items appear to aim to show that Muslims around the world are being oppressed by non-Muslims. (One recent item shows old, undated photographs of two men, each holding aloft a disembodied head. The caption, in Swedish, says that the men are French soldiers. Halifat News' Russian-language caption reads, in all capital letters, "This is France and its democracy! But where are the Muslims and their jihad?!!!")
In recent days, the group has focused heavily on reactions to the January 7 shootings in the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, featuring videos from militants including in the North Caucasus.
Creating New, Diffuse Networks
VKontakte's banning of pro-IS groups has led the groups' creators to create methods of protecting themselves against future bans. These methods have involved creating "reserve" groups that lie more or less dormant until a main group is banned. Another method has been to distribute pro-IS news more widely across a larger number of accounts, to avoid drawing the attention of the VKontakte moderators with a large, dedicated pro-IS page.
One new page, Caliphate News, which has gained almost 1,000 followers since it was opened on January 7, appears linked to the banned ShamToday group. The page explains that it is an "unofficial" group and offers its members advice on what they should do if and when VKontakte bans it. The page explains that pro-IS members of VKontakte post news tagged with a variety of searchable hashtags -- such as #caliphate, #ISIS, and #shamtoday -- that VKontakte members can use to locate news.
"These are called hashtags, so you can stay in the know about events related to the Islamic State!" the page explains.
One group, "Pobeda ot Allaha" (Victory from Allah), includes a photoshopped image of "Jihadi John," the British militant believed to be responsible for beheading a number of Western hostages. In the image, "Jihadi John" wields a serrated knife and is depicted as a giant whose upper body rises up out of a ball of fire. This group includes links to audio lectures run by the ShamToday group via the Zello social networking site and later posted on the vid.me site. The lectures include discussions on questions such as whether it is mandatory for North Caucasians to go to Syria to wage jihad.
Preaching To The Converted?
The audiences for the VKontakte pro-IS pages and the propaganda to which they link appears to be predominantly Russian-speaking individuals who are already more or less radicalized to adopt a militant Islamist worldview and who are interested in events in Syria and Iraq. The ShamToday lectures on the Zello network to which several of the pro-IS accounts on VKontakte link often cover topics related to issues of waging jihad and what is permitted and expected.
The banning of pro-jihad accounts on VKontakte has had little effect on Islamic State's ability to spread its propaganda -- the banned accounts have simply reopened under different names and have found ways to expand onto other sites and social networks, such as Zello and vid.me, in order to more effectively disseminate propaganda.
The regrowth of pro-IS accounts on VKontakte has also come while Islamic State's official Russian language propaganda site, H-Center, has been taken offline. H-Center was the Russian-language site of the Islamic State group's Al Hayat media wing. The site's domain was registered in the United States and appeared to use the Israeli-headquartered Wix.com website builder and hosting service.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk