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Pathways to Syria

Team Members

Isabel Bramsen, Òscar Coromina, Carolin Gerlitz, Michele Mauri, Sabine Niederer, Carlo, Jacob Groshek.

Tracing escalation


The general idea of the project was to study in how far the conflict escalation in Syria can be traced over time by looking at facebook data.

In a first step we tried to identify the most relevant pages and groups in regards to the conflict in Syria. It quickly became clear that the vast majority of relevant pages and groups are in Arabic, which subsequently posed a number of challenges and constraints on the way in which we were able to analyze the data. The few English pages/groups we were able to identify proved too small or inactive to serve our purposes. Therefore we decided to work with Arabic but limit our study to a micro-analysis of only two weeks of the conflict and only the major fb page.

‘The Syrian Revolution 2011’ was the first big page to declare revolution against Assad. It currently has around 870,000 like (2014-01-14). It was founded on January 18, 2011. For our first exploration, we have chosen to focus on 15 days that where central in mobilization: March 5-20. These dates are chosen to capture the important events that sparked the Syrian revolution. March 6 is a decisive day for the revolution, it was here Assad responded with strong repression against schoolboys who had written “the people want to overthrow the regime” onto a wall.


How can conflict escalation be traced via facebook (fb) data?

- Can we detect a correlation between the intensity with which users are active in certain fb groups or on fb pages and offline activism?

- Is there a correlation between offline escalation and certain keywords in fb communication?


Netvizz: extraction of posts from the page (March 5-20)

Extracting all the data would have taken 48 hours in Netvizz. Therefore we (1) used the numbers of posts from Netwizz and coded them in Excel to see the progress numbers of posts and 2) chose only to look at the posts from the page

Gephi: visualization of Netvizz data over time

Discovertext: harvesting of fb data on Boko Haram case (newspaper page); visualization of keyword mentioning over time

SentiStrength: not used, due to Arabic limitations


Intensity of communication:

The first graph shows the number of posts from the users and the page during the period between the 8th of March and the 18th of March. It becomes visible that the activity peaked at the 15th and the 18th of March. This correlates not surprisingly with the two demonstrations the 15th and 18th of March. However, one would expect that the activity started to go up already up to the 15th but on the graph it indicates that the activity started on that day.

The visualization indicates that around the 6-14th of March only a few users at the ‘Syrian Revolution 2011’ page were active (comments and like). Around the 15th many more users started to engage and there is great activity (posting and commenting). Hereafter the activity decreased again and raised significantly the 18th.

The final graph shows how escalation key words evolves over time in posts on the side.


Radicalised profiles


We looked for recruitment networks on twitter by searching for the words mujahidin (fighter) and "isis" but we found radicalised profiles mainly of fighters on syrian war and also some propaganda networks. Those timelines were crowded with "uncomfortable content" but we thought that the user profile information could be the starting path to a postdemographic approach to those fighters.


Can we actually create radicalised profiles based upon twitter's profile information?

Can we identify european fighters of the syrian war?


We queried twitter for "mujahidin" and "isis" and we found some "uncomfortable timelines", we also found that these users were listed by other users and decided to extract the users of some of the lists focusing on the ones were the names were explicitly refering to fighters or to propaganda networks.

Those were the lists:

Islamic Fighting
Pro Isis
News about mujahidin
Jehad Media Center

We extracted the users of the list using a script that works on a google spreadsheet and we gathered all the information available on the profiles of 485 fighters.

We used the creation date of the profile, interface language, publishing platform and followers metrics to build a visualization.

Also we used last tweet published content for hashtag counting and geolocated the profile url.


  • Main Visualization
  • The vast majority of the profiles were created after the syrian war so it seems to confirm the assumption that those profiles were created at the same time as those users became fighters. A further question related to the layout of the visualization is if we can look at this profile creation date as involvement waves in the conflict.
  • Most of the interfaces languages were in arabic (331 out of 485), followed by english (137 out of 485) and other europan languages (13). The profile name alfabet were mostly arabic (439) and only 39 used latin alfabet. A possible explanation to these would be that they prefer to use twitter in english but to we presented in arabic.
  • Most of the hashtags found on the sample were related to specific factions so maybe our sample had some bias therefore we cannot asume that it is enough representative.
  • Hashtag cloud
  • Publishing platforms (1%)
  • Profile url
  • Profile url location (websites)
  • Another question that we didn't find the time to approach properly would be if we can detect also fallen soldier profiles by looking at the creation date of the last tweet.
  • Do we have any spies on this set of users?


Gerlitz, C., Rieder B. Mining one percent twitter.

Personal Journeys to radicalisation


It has been often reported that the speed by which young muslims radicalise and decide to go to Syria, Iraq or other warzones to join the Jihad is increasing dramatically. Young Muslims (be they recently converted or Muslim from a young age) can be radicalized in such short time frames as two to three months (source), turning from moderate Muslims to actually traveling to for instance Syria to join radical groups. In Europe, organizations such as Sharia4Holland, Sharia4Belgium, etc. play an important role in actually getting these youngsters to Syria, where the route via Germany and Turkey seems to be one often travelled. There war in Syria currently has “as many as 50,000 people fighting for Jihadists groups, of which at least 1,700 have come from Europe” (Lowells and Mulhall 2013:50). Two fighting groups are very prominent, namely Al Nusra (started in January 2013 as an al-Qaeda supporting group of Syria veterans, and “Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, which literally means Army of Emigrants and Helpers, and is composed almost entirely of foreign fighters” (Lowells and Mulhall 2012:50).

Map with numbers of European fighters in Syria. (Lowles and Mulhall 2012:51)

Lowles, N. and J. Mulhall (2013). Anjem Choudary and the al-Muhajiroun network. London: Hope not Hate.

In this project we follow two young rappers from two different European countries, and track their personal journeys of radicalisation. We selected these cases as both rappers made a radical turnaround, from producing rap music focused on material goods and success with women to becoming increasingly strict muslims and then joining military groups in Syria. In the course of their radicalisation, both continued to use their music to communicate their new values. Despite these similarities, both rappers radicalise at rather different speed and take on different roles in their newly acquired networks.


Taking the example of two young European rappers who are known to have radicalized recently and are currently in Syria, we ask:

What is the speed by which they radicalized?

What are the events that are markers or drivers of radicalization?

What can we identify as ‘radicalisation objects’, by which we may?


Close reading Twitter accounts, Facebook profiles and news coverage, finding traces of radicalisation.

Journey 1: Marouane Boulahyani, also known by his stage name Maru-One from rap group Team Liefde

Journey 2: Denis Mamadou Gerhard Cuspert, also known by his stage name Deso Dogg, his converted name Abou Maleeq and his Jihadist name Abu Talha Al-Almani.

For Marouane Boulahyany, we took his Facebook account and his Twitter account as the starting points. We created a timeline which we annotated with the help of news coverage on his specific case. Both the news coverage and social media content pointed us towards the social media accounts of related actors, Marouane’s close friend Robbin and his mother, who pleas repeatedly in the news media for her son to return. As Marouane, since his travels to Syria, only posts on Facebook through Twitter, Twitter data became central to his account.

Denis Cuspert did not have active social media accounts, so the research focused on reconstructing his radication through various news sources, drawing on social media content provided by other actors. As Cuspert developed to into a public spokesperson for the German jihadi scene, we drew on his various public appearances which were published by German Islamist pr networks like the Globale Islamische Medienfront (GIMF) and Shamcentre.


Radicalisation Journey One: Marouane Boulahyani, from rap group Team Liefde

Marouane journey:
Marouane animated gif: MARU-ONE-GIF.gif

As a 16-year old rapper, Marouane Boulahyani from Arnhem, with his rapper’s name Maru-One, recorded a short rap video which was uploaded to YouTube in 2011. Here, we see a young boy hanging out with his friends, rapping about his neighbourhood and sex. In april of 2012, Marouane Tweets about his Moroccan descent, and for the first time mentions his being Muslim.

In July of 2012, his best friend and fellow rap group member Robbin converts to the Islam and changes his name to Ibrahim. He posts this to (a Q&A platform).

On July5th, their rap group Team Liefde releases a new single Ramadan, in which they sing cheerfully about the “best month of the year” (

During the Ramadan, Marouane, Robbin and their friend Hakim attend Salafist lectures at Al Fath mosque in Arnhem. Marouane tweets some Ramadan tips and tricks, and increasingly tweets about the Islam around this time. The chemical attacks of August 2013 make a lasting impression on both Marouane and his friend Robbin. They have reportedly been exposed to many images of the victims of this attack.

In October, two men from Arnhem, one of whom is Hakim, are arrested in Kleef, Germany. They are carrying fighting gear, cash money, new iPhones and sim cards and are supposedly on their way to Syria. (

On 5 November, Marouane tweets about books he has bought from, referring to them as “answers to life’s questions” and encouraging others to do the same.

On the 11th of november, Robbin is reported missing.On the 16th of November, his mother writes an emotional appeal on her FB page, asking anyone who has seen him or heard from him to contact her. On the 15th, however, Marouane has already posted a Tweet with a picture from him in Turkey. Sitting next to him on the bus is Robbin. On the 17th, newspapers report that Robbin has left the Netherlands with a friend whose phone was traced back to Turkey.

On the 19th of November, Holland’s Got Talent contestant Anouar Tahadi, Marouane’s cousin and fellow rapper, Tweets to wish Marouane and Robbin the best of luck in Syria.

From then onward, Marouane posts images from Syria, and debates with his followers about the Islam and the Jihad. In december he changes his profile picture to one in which he carries fighting gear. His latest posts include images of warriors who have died in battle.

His journey can be characterised as one happening very rapidly, some time between July and November, where an increased interest in the islam and the conversion of a Dutch friend first can be pinpointed with a song serenading the Ramadan. During the Ramadan of 2013, the boys seem to undergo a collective process of further radicalization, fed by attending Salafist lectures in the Al Fath mosque in Arnhem. (Their family has mentioned how Marouane and Robbin would get together and would watch online videos of victims of the chemical attacks. In his later tweets, Marouane often refers to Assad gassing babies and raping women. )

In October, Hakim travels to Syria but is arrested in Germany. In November, Robbin and Marouane travel to Syria.

Radicalisation Journey Two

Denis Cuspert aka Deso Dogg aka Abou Maleeq aka Abu Talha Al-Almani.

The Jihadi Poster Boy

The German Denis Mamadou Gerhard Cuspert, born 1975 grew up in Berlin and took on the artist name Deso Dog in 2002 when working as a rapper. His radicalisation starts in 2010 with his conversion to Islam, following from a near death experience following a car crash and his contact with the German Islamist Preacher Pierre Vogel. He continues to work as singer and produced new music embracing radicalist positions, showing off with weapons and getting involved with various Islamist PR networks like Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) and Shamcentre. He and other continuously document his radicalisation and due to his previous popularity, he increasingly turns into a German jihadi spokes figure. In March 2011, Arid Uka, Muslim Kosovo Albanian shot 2 US Airforce soldiers and wounded several other ones at Frankfurt Airport. Uka was a friend and fan of Cuspert on Facebook and reported that his acts were majorly influenced by him. In 2012, Cuspert flees Germany to Egypt, being involved in the building of a German Jihadi Colony. Now he directly addresses German mainstream media, sending thread videos to the public broadcaster ZDF. In spring 2013, first reports appear that he is fighting for Al Nusra in Syria and continues to promote his cause. In late 2013, he is shot and reported dead, but reappears in public interview material, calling German Muslims to join the jihad, at home, in Syria, alone or with their families.


Syria on Twitter Mobile vs. Web


Mobile communication has intersected with online and social media in such a way that has made these spaces anything but separate. However, just as communicating face-to-face facilitates conversations unique (Baym, Zhang, & Lin, 2004) from those over electronic media (whether analog or digital and audio-only or video-enabled) there are crucial but often overlooked questions of content creation on mobile versus stationary devices.


1. Is there a difference in the use of escalation words between mobile and web-based (static) users when tweeting about Syria? In other words, where can we expect people to be speaking with more escalative terms?

2. In what ways is the difference of interface (mobile/web) and space evident in most commonly used phrases when networked across groups?


Here, public content on Twitter that mentioned "Syria" was harvested from the last three months into a corpus of approximately 5.25 million Tweets. And random sample of 524,520 (10%) was extracted to attempt to understand what was being said in this space, as it may have differentiated from those Tweeting from mobile or (relatively) static devices.

This analysis provides some additional insights on the basis of considerations of mobility, and how being on-the-go may well shape not only what is said but also the intrinsic features of that communication.

Critical markers of topic (what is being discussed) were compared and contrasted with QAP correlations (see Vargo et al., 2013) to produce statistical as well as visual representations of differences in these communicative networks. The QAP coefficients were signficant (p = .005) but the overall relationship between these two matrices very weak (r = .063).


Hashtag network for tweets send from the web

Hashtag network for tweets send from mobile devices

Key finding for rq1: The difference is notable, and from the escalation words derived for our group inquiry, web-based posts contain more escalation words by proportion. Some central words from each list.

Keyword Mobile Web

Weapons .4% .8%

Killing .7% 1.1%

Terrorist 0% .7%

Bomb 0% .2%

Rebel .4% 1%

Though this list is not exhaustive, it is reasonably clear that static web-based users were raising words and topics that escalated moreso than mobile posters, who mentioned these words far less, and in some cases, not at all.

Key finding for rq2: Network conversations change whether mobile or web based. This can be seen visually as well as by QAP correlation measure, which shows almost no similarity between how phrases were used and connected to other phrases within users' posts.

Interestingly, neither corpus contained many escalation words, though the distributions and co-occurences both suggest certain mobilizating information. Also somewhat surprisingly, the mobile posts were more "newsy" with more observable references to news organizations.


Baym, N., Zhang, Y. B., & Lin, M. (2004). Social Interactions across Media: Interpersonal Communication on the Internet, Telephone, and Face-to-Face. New Media & Society, 6(3), 299-318.

Vargo, C., Guo, L., Shaw, D., & McCombs, M. (2013). Network Issue Agendas on Twitter during the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. Paper presented at the Political Communication Division of the AEJMC annual conference, Washington, D.C., August.
Topic revision: r9 - 21 Jan 2014, ocoromina
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