In his death portrait, the young rebel’s bearded face is fixed with a broad, unearthly grin. The Saudi man had been killed in fighting, and his corpse, with its beatific smile, was photographed and displayed in a Twitter posting inviting others to celebrate his martyrdom.
“He always used to say: ‘Those martyrs smile. What is it they see?’ ” a former comrade wrote in a tribute to the fighter, identified as Abu Hamad al-Saya’ri. In another post, an admirer mused about the good fortune of the fallen and speculated on what the dead must be saying: “Congrats to me, congrats to me, I became a martyr.”
The Saudi fighter is one of hundreds of Islamist veterans of the Syrian conflict whose deaths are heralded in Web postings, many of which feature bloody — and, occasionally, smiling — portraits of the newly deceased. Although the images may strike many Westerners as macabre, they have become one of the rites of service among Syrian jihadists, as well as a popular recruiting tool.
“These guys are celebrated, and to young people back in the neighborhoods, they are heroes,” said Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington nonprofit group that monitors Web sites and news media in the region. “They look at the photos and they say, ‘I can be this guy.’ ”
The memorials for dead fighters are but one manifestation of an explosion in the use of social media by Islamists since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Although jihadists have long used the Internet to communicate messages from leaders or spread images of battle, Syrian rebel groups are flocking to Web sites such as Twitter, Instagram and Flickr to create new ways to recruit, train, raise money, debate theology and coordinate strategy, researchers say.