The photos show young men brandishing AK-47s or posing in front of a tank in territory claimed by the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.
IS fighters upload these “jihad selfies” to justify their decision to join the group to friends and family back home, says Muhammad Syauqillah of the Jakarta-based Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace.
But as such images spread through social media, they serve as a recruitment tool to convince young people that joining IS is cool.
“The response is positive, as can be seen from the amount of ‘likes’ and comments on the pictures,” Syauqillah told BenarNews.
“I see jihad selfies as part of recruitment, to arouse interest in IS. And those who have already joined get increasingly motivated to go” to Syria, he said.
News of an IS fighter’s death typically gets heroic treatment on social media. The slain militant is praised as a martyr, added Syauqillah, a researcher with the institute.
Jihad selfies also serve to showcase the lives of young people from different countries who have joined IS, said Al Chaidar, a terrorism expert at Malikussaleh University in Aceh.
“They want to invite other young people to join,” he said.
Misuse of a holy word
But the use of the word “jihad” to describe these photos is incorrect, says Muhyiddin Junaidi, head of cooperation and international relations for the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), Indonesia’s most influential clerical body.
“Jihad means to strive hard to reach a noble goal in line with true Islamic law,” Muhyiddin told BenarNews.
IS principally targets young people who do not have a firm understanding of religion and who are in the grips of a personal crisis, he said. These factors influence them to interpret verses of the Quran to suit themselves, he said.
“But in fact, life there is very difficult and depressing,” he said of territory that IS has claimed as its caliphate.
He urged young people not to be easily influenced by IS propaganda, including pictures on social media.
Authorities in Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia, meanwhile, say that their countries face a growing threat from the Islamic State, which uses Twitter and Facebook as potent tools to recruit young people for the jihadist cause via the internet.
Yet in the opinion of Agus Sudibyo, a media analyst and former member of Indonesia’s Press Council, media consumers don’t just swallow information whole. To suggest that media by itself can turn someone into a radical is an oversimplification, he said.
He also expressed doubt that selfies uploaded by IS recruits were a determining factor in the decision to leave home and fight alongside the extremist group.
“Other factors must be considered, such as economics, environment, and family,” he told BenarNews.
In fact, uploading photos to social media can be counter-productive for IS members, since it allows their location to be traced through geo-tagging on social networks, Agus added.
And the government can take steps to prevent the spread of IS propaganda by monitoring or closing related accounts, he pointed out.
“The government should be able to ask Twitter and Facebook to hack those accounts, he said.
Arif Rachman, a student of communications at Al-Azhar Indonesia University (UAI), said he had never seen jihad selfies on social media. He knows about IS from television news.
As a result, “I wanted to know why IS exists, what type of Islamic movement is it, and why its members are so despised and have to be arrested,” Arif told BenarNews.
“But that didn’t make me interested in joining, because some of the things they do make no sense in Islamic law, such as justifying killing your own parents,” he added.