On the morning of Monday, October 2, 2017, Americans were struggling to understand the mass shooting that took place in Las Vegas the night before. And as the public received the first details about attacker Stephen Paddock, a 64 year old with no known history of radicalism, people were (and still are) far from certain of his motives.
Meanwhile, Islamic State (ISIS) supporters on Telegram were already celebrating. Included in this activity was a peculiar amount of promotion made for the account of “Turjuman Asawirati,” a name most people wouldn’t recognize, but that any ISIS supporter with an internet connection has long known.
The attention given to Turjuman Asawirati and other high-profile pro-ISIS accounts in such events provides glimpses into the way ISIS operates online, highlighting the gray areas of who and what is officially of IS, and what is merely supportive of the group.
Rallying Around the Channel in Wake of the Las Vegas Attack
IS social media campaigns, while grass-roots-powered in much of their content, are in many ways coordinated from the top-down. Related directives, like designated hashtags or even prompts to start the campaign itself, are not issued directly from IS, but rather indirectly through IS-linked accounts. Such IS-linked accounts have been identifiable prior to the group’s claims for attacks like Paris (2015), Brussels (2016), and even Las Vegas, giving the nod to supporters prior to the group’s claim.
Turjuman Asawirati’s online activity leading up to ISIS’ claim of the Las Vegas attack demonstrates this process. ISIS supporters began forwarding invite links to the Turjuman Asawirati Telegram channel well before 9:00am on October 2. The following invite link, forwarded from the channel at 8:45am that day, was accompanied by an Arabic-language message:
Peace and blessings be upon you all from Allah
We remain to make them sleepless and support the Islamic State
Allah welcomes you to the new channel
Unexpectedly, the Turjuman Asawirati channel was already loaded with celebratory and threatening images pertaining to the Las Vegas attack, such as the following message made in English and Arabic, asking Americans, “Where is your security in Las Vegas?”
The Turjuman Asawirati channel was rapidly posting new content, essentially functioning as a library for ISIS supporters to forward content from amid unraveling social media campaign for the Las Vegas attack.
IS claimed the Las Vegas attack through its ‘Amaq News Agency at 9:52 EST, over an hour after ISIS supporters had already implied its connection by promoting Turjuman Asawirati’s channel and commencing their celebration. After the claim’s release, the celebration only intensified.
A "Face" of the ISIS Online Community
Since no later than 2014, Turjuman Asawirati has been a prominent, if not the most prominent “face” of the ISIS online community. The undetermined number of individuals behind Turjuman Asawirati also operate a media group, similarly named “Asawirati Media,” which creates pro-IS videos, posts, and graphics.
Asawirati Media productions are often graphic in nature, such as the following picture depicting famous British IS executioner “Jihadi John” striking Former President Barack Obama with a knife:
Active across platforms like Twitter and Telegram, Turjuman Asawirati accounts are recognizable by a recurring photograph of famous jihadi fighter and IS official Abu Khattab al-Tunisi, and banner images promoting the number of its account suspensions and subsequent relaunches (Turjuman Asawirati has created hundreds of accounts on Twitter alone).
Turjuman Asawirati accounts are immensely popular among IS supporters, and receive ubiquitious support and promotion across the community. When Turjuman Asawirati’s hundredth Twitter account was created, ISIS supporters on the platform celebrated it with a campaign dubbed, “IslamicState100.”
Turjuman Asawirati’s account regeneration even appeared to get an indirect mention a few days later in a March 9, 2015 official video from ISIS’ Raqqah Province, which discussed the importance of ISIS media online. In the video, an interviewer asked of the United States’ “millions of dollars [spent] to fight the Islamic State through the media,” and one ISIS fighter answered:
Among some of the mujahideen brothers on the internet, their accounts have been deleted, then they re-opened them, then their accounts were deleted, until some of them, their accounts reached the hundredth or more, but they held firm and were patient, and did not allow but to support Allah, Glorified and Exalted be He, and to support their brothers in the Islamic State.
Turjuman Asawirati has even received direct praise from high-ranking Austrian ISIS official and former Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) member Mohamed Mahmoud (AKA Abu Usama al-Gharib). Mahmoud, a long-time famous face of the global jihadist movement, has been either linked to or attempted to motive attacks in the West. He was even featured in an August 2015 ISIS video executing a prisoner after calling for terror attacks:
My brothers, either you follow us here with the mujahideen, or wage jihad in Germany or Austria. It does not require much; take a large knife and go to the street and slaughter every infidel you find.
Turjuman Asawirati and Mahmoud would communicate frequently on Twitter. Between July 13 and October 12 of 2014 alone, Mahmoud tweeted to one of Turjuman Asawirati's handles (@AsawirtiMedia) 56 times. Mahmoud told Turjuman Asawirati in one of these tweets, “I love you for the sake of Allah my beloved brother.”
Notably, in one pair of tweets made on July 17, 2014, Mahmoud included Turjuman Asawirati’s handle (along with others) when requesting that ISIS supporters spam an individual with pro-ISIS content and/or threats, attempting to use Turjuman Asawirati’s popularity to bolster the message:
O you beloved ones, don't be lenient and intensify the "Spam" over him so that he would be an example to others
The devious began to scream and cry, we spoke to you before politely and you refused so we had to treat you forcibly, you reaped what you have sown
ISIS’ media operations are structured in a way that its media workers are, in a public sense, isolated from the larger ISIS community online. This distance is kept to keep the production and publication of official IS media distinct from unofficial pro-ISIS media.
Though ISIS does not provide a designated account for contact or submissions, members have stated that individuals can still contact officials within the organization. By this indirect method, some IS supporters send original essays, graphics, social media campaign announcements, and other items to individuals known to have connections to the group and/or its media workers. Conversely, ISIS officials have done the same, as seen in tweets by Mahmoud.
Support for Turjuman Asawirati has even included a Twitter account which translates all of its tweets. A screenshot of this Twitter account, taken in October of 2015, shows the Twitter account designating a “#Turjman_English” hashtag for their translation:
The same Twitter account also retweeted a tweet by “Skafisti,” an English-writing social media alias once very active within the IS community online, promoting an archive of English-translated tweets by Asawirati Media:
The collected tweets, still standing on Internet Archive, are compiled in plain text, PDF, torrent, and other file-types.
To assess the extent to which an individual(s) like Turjuman Asawirati is a member of ISIS would require a specified definition of ISIS itself: Is it comprised of just its officials and fighters? Or is ISIS also its supporters online spreading its message?
In a larger sense, the influence that Turjuman Asawirati has wielded over the ISIS online community regardless makes it an undeniable staple, which in many ways cannot be entirely separated from the group’s official structure.