The last time VICE checked in on British jihadists in Syria, their war seemed, in many ways, more like some college kids’ spring break than a brutal civil conflict. British fighters posted snaps of themselves messing around in swimming pools, hoarding Easter candy from home, eating kebabs, and generally having a good time. But this year, everything changed. The renegade al Qaeda offshoot that most Brits join—the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, or ISIS—alienated other rebel groups due to its tendency to attack them and kill their commanders.
By January, the less radical rebels had had enough, with even Jabhat al Nusra—the official Syrian al Qaeda franchise—joining the rebels of the Islamic Front and the relatively moderate Syrian Revolutionaries Front, in a campaign to rid the rebel-held north of ISIS. Now ISIS has been pushed back into a swathe of territory along the Euphrates river valley in eastern Syria and the thinly-populated Homs desert region in the west.
But battlefield setbacks haven’t hampered their social media outreach effort. If anything, British ISIS fighters have been busier uploading videos and photos of their exploits than ever; only now the tone is different. Driven away from the creature comforts and internet cafés of Atmeh on the Turkish border, British fighters are now uploading darker, more disturbing images from their desert strongholds.
You may find some of what follows distressing.
Under the name Rayat al Tawheed, two ISIS fighters from London, Abu Abdurrahman al-Britani and Abu Daighum al-Britani, have been busy uploading a constant stream of expertly-photoshopped motivational image macros for their adoring British fans.
And they’re keen to make it completely clear what they’re fighting for.
They haven’t just stuck to memes. They have also filmed recruitment videos. Note the flawless London English in this one:
But their recent posts are the darkest images yet to emerge from the strange milieu of British jihadist fighters in Syria.
While their Facebook posts have always displayed a willingness to mutilate and degrade the bodies of dead government troops, their latest Instagram posts reveal a degree of bloodthirstiness unusual for British ISIS fighters, many of whom can come across more like unworldly idealists than hardened killers.
This recent—and very graphic—Instagram video shows the Rayat al Tawheed crew playing around with a collection of severed heads, purportedly from government troops.
When we said some of this might be distressing, we meant this video:
The comments from their adoring British fans seem to express disappointment that the heads formerly belonged to regime forces, rather than their old rebel allies in the FSA—who are now, obviously, their bitter enemies.
It’s hard to know whether these images are an expression of war’s ability to brutalize ordinary British kids, or whether it takes a certain sort of Brit to seek out and join a group despised even by al Qaeda for a willingness to behead first and ask questions later.
Many British jihadists are returning home now that the war has gotten too tough, to the contempt of their fellow fighters.
The ones who choose to stay are, no doubt, the most committed to the cause, willing to die in their pursuit of installing and maintaining Sharia law in Syria.
The British security services estimate that half the British fighters who travel to Syria will die there, and with their group now at war with every other armed faction in the country, the odds aren’t in favor of Abu Abdurrahman and Abu Daighum’s survival. Until then, their increasingly grisly social media feeds offer a darkly compelling window into Syria’s tragedy.
Follow Aris Roussinos on Twitter.