A tweet from a member of ISIS following the death of an Al Nusra Front leader.

After a major offensive in northern Iraq, fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS – which recently started calling itself simply ‘the Islamic State’ – are now also making gains in eastern Syria. In this country, their main target is not President Bashar al-Assad’s troops, but the Al Nusra Front - which is a branch of al Qaeda. The two jihadist groups are waging a bloody battle, both on the ground and on social networks.

The war has spilled over from the battlefied onto social media networks, where fighters on either side trade insults. ISIS fighters have called the Al Nusra Front – which means “the Victory Front” – “the Losers’ Front” and “the Traitors’ Front”. While the Al Nusra fighters relentlessly mock ISIS for declaring a caliphate in Iraq, which they see as a “farce”.

ISIS and the Al Nusra Front are both Sunni jihadist groups and were brothers-in-arms. But now they're swarn enemies. Up until April 2013, they were part of the same organisation: the Islamic State of Iraq. At that time, the Al Nusra Front was the organisation’s Syrian branch. Its fighters won many battles against al-Assads’s army, and quickly gained in strength – and autonomy – on the ground.
In April 2013, when Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, tried to re-group his troops under the banner of ISIS, the Al Nusra front refused, and decided to officially join al Qaeda.

The head of al Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, ordered ISIS to leave Syria. ISIS declined. The group then expanded into Iraq, quickly taking a series of cities in the north. Since the start of the summer, it has also made gains in Syria. Today, it controls nearly the whole province of Deir Ezzor, which until recently was under the control of the Al Nusra Front.


Controversy surrounding a photo of a dead Al Nusra Front leader

One of the most recent examples of this Twitter battle is the case of Abu Hazem, the leader of the Al Nusra Front in the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. He was killed when ISIS took over the city on July 14. Following the announcement of his death, an ISIS fighter in Deir Ezzor posted photos of his body on Twitter. He wrote that Hazem had been shot when he tried to flee the town after the takeover.
 

According to this ISIS fighter, Hazem was stopped at a checkpoint trying to flee. ISIS stated that he was dressed in women’s clothing, sitting in a wheelchair, and wearing an explosive belt. In the photo, Hazem’s body is lying next to a wheelchair; his beard is shaved off with stacks of bills on his chest.

Abu Hazem. Photo published on social networks. 
Al Nusra Front fighters, however, denounced this photo as being staged. While they didn’t deny Hazem was the man in the picture, they claim he did not try to flee, but that he was executed and shaved as a sign of humiliation before being photographed. The money on his chest, they believe, was a way to discredit him by accusing him of being a mercenary rather than a true jihadist.

Whether the photo was staged on not, ISIS publishing it online appears to have two goals: scaring their enemies and making their leaders look like cowards.

The Al Nusra Front angered by a fake ISIS video

This communications war between the two jihadist groups has been fueled by fake or manipulated images.
The edited video that was decried by the Al Nusra Front chief. 
This video, for example, which was shared by many online, was presented as having been filmed in Syria. It supposedly features an ISIS fighter. The man in the video says he and his comrades will slice the throats of the men, and that women will be considered “war booty”, no doubt meaning that they’ll become sex slaves. The Al Nusra Front chief, who said this video was addressed to his fighters, denounced these threats in a speech.
However, this video wasn’t filmed in Syria, and it wasn’t aimed at Al Nusra fighters. The young man is actually from Libya, and filmed himself on a beach in Derna, on the Libyan coast. He purposefully pretended to be from ISIS. In the original video, he threatens all of Syria’s Shiites: “I swear to you Alawites and Shiites, we will come slit your throats if you don’t repent, we’ll take you captive and your wives will become our prisoners […].” This video was later edited by Internet users who deleted the part about Shiites to make it seem as if the man was addressing Al Nusra fighters.

An Internet sleuth points out the parallels between a photo of a ruin on a beach in Derna and a screen capture from the video. 
It is difficult to say whether the Al Nusra chiefs really believed this perceived threat, or if they took this opportunity to make ISIS look bad.
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Though this online war is mainly between fighters from the two groups, the goal is propaganda. Information published on Twitter by the jihadists is often reposted on Facebook by local activists, thereby reaching a wider audience.

Post written by FRANCE 24 journalists Wassim Nasr and Ségolène Malterre.