A year ago, at the height of Isis's social media rampage, a shy, 19-year-old Finnish convert to Islam, who had never even been to the Middle East, was one of the terror group's most devastating propaganda weapons.
Abdullah was prolific. His Mujaahid4Life Twitter account, with close to 11,000 followers, was the second most-followed English pro-Isis account after Shami Witness. He tweeted graphic photos and videos, snippets from religious texts, battlefield updates and violent, hateful propaganda.
Abdullah has recanted his support for Isis and says he wants to help other acolytes do the same. He's one of few people to renounce his violent extremism, and, to those combating online jihadism, he brings a rare view from inside its echo-chamber. "When I was in that Isis bubble, I was thinking so emotionally," he says. "When you're younger you don't have the intellectual capabilities to process it. It was an obsession, just blind devotion."
By the spring of 2013, Abdullah was tweeting support for Jabhat al-Nusra.
By summer, he was doing press-ups and crunches, packing a bag and planning to go and fight in Syria. Agents from Finland's security services, Supo, were soon at his door: they had noticed his activity online and asked him not to go. Rumbled, Abdullah continued to support Nusra's jihad from afar.
When Nusra and the upstart Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham (Isis) came head to head in late summer 2014, Abdullah felt he couldn't remain neutral; he had to choose a side. He chose Isis, and waded deeper into an online community built around sharing what he now describes as a "cherry-picked" interpretation of Islam.
As his profile rose, Abdullah knitted deeper into this community. For someone who had been bullied viciously in primary school, the sense of being part of something important resonated. "What drew me in was actually doing something, explaining stuff. You disseminate that propaganda, so it makes you feel part of something bigger. Especially after Isis declared the caliphate," he says.
Charlie Winter, a researcher with the Quilliam Foundation think tank, says this is a common feeling among online propagandists: "It's an easy way to take part in jihad without putting themselves at risk." In Finland, disseminating propaganda the way Abdullah did isn't illegal unless there is an overt recruitment element – something Abdullah says he carefully avoided.
According to Supo, the Finnish Security Intelligence Service, a little more than 60 Finns have travelled to Syria to fight, and, already, a third of them have returned. Supo's Tuomas Portaankorva says: "The possible threat from the returnees is our priority at the moment. Web monitoring is only one line of our work. What we see online is mostly connected to those who have travelled, or are about to, or are returning."
Although Supo reached Abdullah before he could go, there's no telling how many of the foreign fighters who continue to stream into Syria were inspired by him, or others like him. The agency won't comment on individual cases, but Portaankorva admits that the issue of how to handle online supporters is a thorny one. "Without these individuals, there would definitely be, in general, fewer travellers," he says.
Abdullah began to question Isis when the group killed the British aid worker Alan Henning in October 2014. He looked to classic scholarship for justification for the violence but couldn't find any. He tried to start discussions around theological texts, but no one wanted to talk: "It's all see no evil, hear no evil."
By the end of the year, Twitter was shutting down pro-Isis accounts and Abdullah wasn't interested in the daily scramble to create a new account and propagate a worldview to which he no longer subscribed: "When I went back to what Islam teaches, I saw no justification for these things. My message to young people is to go back to Islamic roots, stop living in the bubble. As Muslims we should go back to the religion itself, not what anyone claims."
Abdullah's experience points to a need to counter Isis on an ideological level – one that feels authentic to participants and has the theological authority to give them something to hold onto as they reject extremism.
Muslim comments on the net about him ...
- A Kurdistani wrote on a public forum on twitter called Syrian Civil War:
I've talked to this kid before he was radicalized we would talk about the Syrian war when it first started..
I argued with him like crazy during his ISIS loving period and I'm glad he snapped out of it.
He was never the type of person to be a mad terrorist. Plus I don't think he ever had the balls to go fight.
- Billybookcase wrote on the same forum:
He got out because he got a visit from the authorities.
- Tony_AbbotPBUH from Australia wrote from the same forum:
should be fucken lynched