Syria's Rebels Raise Funds Online
In a small house in Reyhanli, Turkey, three miles from the Syrian border, one of the financial battles of Syria’s civil war is being fought. Abu Mohammed al-Mohandis (his nom de guerre) opens “The Martyrs of Aleppo Brigade Spec-Ops,” a Facebook page dedicated to the exploits of his unit, one of many fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Seated cross-legged on a mattress on the living room floor, Abu Mohammed scrolls through the list of links on his laptop and opens one of the videos he shot. A revolutionary song fills the small room; the footage shows men in cars heading to battle. It’s designed to impress would-be donors to the Martyrs of Aleppo.
Before the war, the engineer-turned-fighter’s only experience with filmmaking was taking home movies. Now he shoots footage of rebel military operations, captured government soldiers, and slain fighters. “When I’m carrying a camera, the camera itself is a weapon,” he says. Abu Mohammed has grown adept at shooting videos, editing them, adding text and his brigade’s logo—a falcon flying under a white banner praising God and the prophet Mohammed—then uploading the videos to the brigade’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.
The localized, disjointed nature of the rebel forces makes it impossible to know how much money and equipment have been donated, either via the Web or by other means. Media reports and recent interviews with brigade officers indicate donations come from wealthy individuals, businessmen, and clerics from the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and Europe. Donors can contact brigades directly, as each Facebook page has an administrator who can be messaged about receiving funds or supplies. “Part of being a respected brigade and attracting interest, be it political, media, or financial, is making a name for yourself. And high-production-value videos showing off your brigade’s capabilities is one of the ways to do it,” says Eliot Higgins, a journalist whose blog, Brown Moses, tracks social media from Syria. “In one way, it’s advertising to potential investors.”
The increased sophistication of the rebel brigades’ Internet presence speaks to the value they place on the digital war effort. The Falcons of the Shams, a large brigade operating in the province of Idlib, maintains its own website. It features a mission statement, the brigade’s command structure, and an interview with the commander spelling out the brigade’s ideology of creating a moderate Islamic state “without imposing it on society.” On the home page a separate link asks for financial support and supplies, including walkie-talkies, satellite Internet connections, GPS tools, and first-aid kits.
On the Turkish-Syrian border rebels now control four crossings, and brigades say they receive money and supplies by courier. According to brigade officers, most weapons are bought on the black market inside Syria. Commander Ammar al-Dadikhli of the Northern Storm Brigade, which controls a crossing, says stacks of dollars and euros are hand-delivered through trusted networks. The money is needed for more than weapons: He says it costs him €250,000 ($322,000) per month to feed and care for his 1,200-strong brigade of fighters. Supplies for a 10-day military operation can run the same amount.
Abu Ganas, a former IT worker who did not want to give his real name for fear of reprisal from Assad’s regime, trains members of various units to use social media. “When people see the results by viewing video clips, it’s a way to collect money for future operations,” he says, explaining that fighters come to his house near the Turkish border for about a week’s worth of instruction. He teaches them how to edit and upload videos, create YouTube channels and Facebook pages, and maintain Internet security.
Many units have one person designated to film military operations. Some have cameras, while others use their cell phones. In editing, Abu Ganas cautions against showing actual killing, only the end result. The former IT specialist holds his 3-year-old daughter in his lap as he explains how he teaches the cameramen to keep speaking as they film to prevent any other group from reposting the footage and claiming responsibility for an attack they didn’t carry out. Some fraudulent groups pretending to be brigades stage mock battles for the camera, he says: “There are some units who will just execute an operation on the ground, from one side, when in reality there is no war.”
Videos don’t just show the rebels in battle. In one video from Rastan, a town north of Homs, fighters of the Farouq Brigade march down the street with a tank they captured, chanting purposefully at the camera. Higgins sees it as a show of strength, as well as a call to donors. “To me this is them saying we are organized and we are well-armed. We are a sure bet,” he says.
Abu Tarek al-Hamwe, a rebel commander, says he is angry at the use of social media. He says some donors want to see videos as proof brigades are working on the ground. “This is one of the reasons our revolution became weak,” he says. “Not all missions can take videos, but they lose support if they don’t make videos. If the cameraman breaks the camera or if there’s no Internet, there’s no money.”
Back in Reyhanli, Abu Mohammed laments the lack of funding his brigade has received so far, noting it has only one Sony camera, which doesn’t film at night, even though he says the Aleppo City Martyrs Brigade runs primarily night raids. He must travel to Turkey to upload videos because his band does not have its own satellite connection. “It’s sort of a competition, but I can say it’s an honest competition,” he says, adding that everyone is trying to liberate the same country.