On Telegram, pet care, gardening, and corruption scandals have replaced religious fervor.
By Vera Mironova, a visiting fellow at Harvard University.
JULY 8, 2021, 3:38 PM
Little is more telling about a group of people than their private communications. And for understanding the remnants of the Islamic State in Syria, there are few better sources than the Telegram chats of female members currently in Syrian detention camps. Cell phones are prohibited there, and the punishment for having one can be severe. Yet, text chains find their way.
Among the foreign fighter threads, Russian-language chats are the largest (with more than 400 members) and most active, with up to 200 new posts a day. To join the group chat, one has to be recommended by a current member. Like in many online chats, its members do not use their real names, but screen names range from Islamic kunyas like Umm Yusuf (mother of Yusuf) and Sumaya Uzbeki (Sumaya from Uzbekistan) to Islamic State-inspired nicknames like Muhajira (a foreign group member) and Prisoner_in_Dunya (prisoner in this life). Many screen names are openly pro-Islamic State, such as Rabbani_IS and even See_you_in_Dabiq, referring to a town in Syria where, according to the Islamic State, the last battle with infidels is supposed to take place. Profile pictures also range from neutral natural landscapes to lionesses (which Islamic State female members often compare themselves to) to black flags and weapons.
Because women have now lived in those detention camps for more than two years, the main issues discussed online are mundane. The sale of food, tents, clothes, jewelry, medicine, and even animals are very common. Because many women keep pets, there are plenty of messages having to do with breeding rabbits (messages like “Who has a male rabbit of interesting color? I would like to borrow it for a day for breeding” are not rare) and desperate searches for lost and stolen cats. Other posts revolve around gardening. This summer, one woman managed to grow a watermelon from a seed, shared a photo, and was congratulated by others.
Looking for ways to earn money in the camps, many women have opened businesses and use online spaces for advertising. Different women advertise classes for kids, illegal money transfers, laundry services, and kids’ swimming pool rentals. There are also ads for aerobic classes (very popular in camps) and even classes for Kegels. A Kyrgyz owner of a nonalcohol cocktail bar has professional-looking advertising for her “Taste of Caribbean in al-Hol Camp” bar, including a picture of a beautiful sea—a sharp difference from realities of the camps.
Although the majority of the posts deal with economic issues, it is hard to avoid religious topics even in that context. For example, the most heated discussions are usually about prices, particularly on such essential items as food, tents, and cooking stoves. Often, sellers are accused of setting prices too high, and although some women defend free trade and a seller’s choice to set a price based on demand, others refer to religion and the need to help poor sisters, essentially accusing sellers of not following Islam.
Posts about corruption scandals are also not rare. Islamic State leadership and supporters of the group abroad help the women by sending money through a few women in the camp. But the women in charge of distributing money are often accused of pocketing it instead and neglecting those women most in need. So although these money transfers are supposed to be secret, when corruption is revealed, many women are so outraged they stop caring about who sees the posts.
On the other side, chats are also often used for security. For example, in real-time, women can tell one another where camp guards currently are so those nearby can hide their phones. They also discuss which journalists and home-country officials are seen in the camp and what they were asking.
With time in the detention camp wearing on and money running low, crime is also an urgent problem. Gangs of young boys have started robbing tents at night, and it has become a major topic of online discussion. Some women are threatening the thieves online, saying they will ask God to punish them; others are trying to catch them themselves or at least are organizing a guard to protect their belongings. They also discuss what they can do with those they catch. At the same time, the most radical camp inhabitants seem more concerned that boys who rob the tents might see them sleeping without a hijab and niqab and, as a result, advise women to sleep fully covered.
Those same radical chat members are also often reposting news about catastrophic events in the West, like wildfires in California. These posts are followed by comments expressing happiness, although now with significantly less enthusiasm than in the past. Although many chats are for Russian speakers, news from France is the most popular ever since the beheading of a teacher there by a Chechen immigrant, something radical camp inhabitants were very proud of.
They also often post different long religious advisories ranging from how to raise kids to the importance of jihad, but these are often ignored or met by complaints from women arguing that strings make the chat less useful.
In general, both pro-Islamic State and anti-Islamic State members try to stay polite and on point in the chats, realizing that by living next to one another, they have to cooperate despite their disagreements. But the politeness is volatile. It only takes one spark, and divides become apparent. On that score, the most dangerous chat topics involve acceptable dress for women in the camp, permitted types of interaction with male camp workers, opinions about possible repatriation, and whether particular Islamic State personalities are true Muslims or not. If those topics are touched, chats immediately disintegrate. Several times, threads have had to be deleted and new ones started to stop the fighting.
In the past, attempts were also made to have separate online marketplaces for pro- and anti-Islamic State women so they could communicate and trade only among themselves. Messages like “I am renting a gigantic pink kids’ swing in the shape of a butterfly but only to a sister who is afraid of Allah” (pro-Islamic State) were not rare. But driven by economic rules that often do not honor ideological differences, separate marketplaces and other attempts immediately failed and everyone congregated on the biggest online marketplace where more was offered.
Years of online communication from jailed Islamic State members show that, with time, women become less and less interested in radical topics and more interested in everyday issues. Even kids throwing stones at camp guards are now met online with more criticism than support. This could be the case either because the most radical women are already repatriated (or have managed to escape) or simply because women in the camp are realizing that radicalism is not sustainable in such close quarters. In the end then, the decline of the Islamic State may come down to room-sharing.
Vera Mironova is a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Twitter: @vera_mironov