Unlike other actors in the current Syrian conflict, gaining access to Jihadists is fraught with security concerns on all sides.
Broadly, a “Jihadist” is a Sunni Muslim pan-Islamist who subscribes to a worldview that taking part in a violent, military holy war, or Jihad, in the name of Islam is the best means for bringing about the end to “apostate” regimes. The Jihadists then aim to replace these governments with ones that administer Islamic Shariah law based on their interpretation. While Jihadists have been most associated with al-Qaeda over the past decade, not all Jihadists are al-Qaeda and not all Jihadists agree with its global focus even if there is some ideological overlap.
For journalists and researchers, there is hesitation about coming into contact with Jihadists, due to the potential of kidnap or even execution. For Jihadists, concerns over operational security and the potential for infiltration and espionage has loomed large when meeting unknown outsiders.
But there is another way to understand them, and gain access to the Jihadist mindset, conversations and ideology: the Internet. Jihadists provide extensive information about themselves in online forums, on websites and social media platforms — information that can be used to better understand their ideological debates as well as the activities they are conducting on the ground.
The Syrian case is no different. The changes in focus and messaging over time helps one better understand how Jihadists entered the conflict and how far they have come in the past 19 months.
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