A series of videos has appeared on VKontakte and YouTube featuring eastern Ukrainian militia in Donetsk and Luhansk, mixed with footage of ISIS militants in Syria and North Caucasian fighters in Russia. The montage has a soundtrack and everybody's smiling, trading Takbirs (the Arabic expression, “God is Great!”). In the corner of the frame, the videos are stamped with the flag of the Donetsk People's Republic, plus two crossed Kalashnikovs and the Shahada (an Islamic “testimony”).
These strange videos belong to a phenomenon known as the “Islamic State of the Donbas and Lugant,” a virtual entity that emerged in July, earlier this year. At first glance, the YouTube users contributing to this production seem to be strong supporters of Ukraine's separatists. Some of these individuals even claim to be involved in collecting donations for the rebels. (Often, the other videos they post are viciously anti-Kyiv.)
There's even a Vkontakte group dedicated to creating fan art and new flag designs for the Donbas’ “Islamic State.” The community is a trolls’ nest, with content designed to be ridiculous. Visitors can expect to find edited photographs of former rebel field commander Igor Strelkov, a devout Orthodox Christian, in a full beard, promising to “cleanse the holy Donbas of Kafirs.”
Some Internet users believe the videos and images are the work of pro-Kyiv activists trying to smear Ukrainian rebels with ISIS affiliations. Others are convinced the rebels’ supporters are behind the strange content, ironically intending to mock Kyiv's insistence that they're “terrorists”:
Of course it is true that Donbass fighters have shouted ‘الله أكبر’ (allahu akbar) half jokingly and half seriously, as some of our comrades are Muslim and fight against NATO for the same reasons the rest.
Not all the rebels’ supporters welcome the attempt at humor, as some YouTube comments indicate:
не выкладывайте такое,хохлы же реально поверят и побегут рассказывать о ордах чеченцев на Донбассе
Don’t upload these, the khokhly [a derogative for “Ukrainians”] might actually believe them and run around yelling about hordes of Chechens in the Donbas
This past September, RuNet Echo's Karena Avedissian looked at evidence of Chechen militants’ participation in the Donbas, concluding that there is a high likelihood that the rumors are true.
One Internet user blogging for tltpravda.ru thinks he can explain the “Islamic State of the Donbas and Lugant”:
И, наконец, уже позднее лето. Клип от «Исламского Государства Донецка и Луганта». Абсолютнейший, тончайший троллинг ополчения на тему истерик в украинских СМИ о том, что «на Донбассе воюют исламские террористы». Троллинг настолько хорош, что даже в России многие решили: это провокация Украины, направленная на создание иллюзии о присутствии чеченских дивизий под Донецком.
Finally, these videos were uploaded in late summer. A clip from the “Islamic State of Donetsk and the Lugant.” The separatists’ most incredible, subtlest trolling of the hysteria in the Ukrainian media that there are “Islamists fighting in the Donbas.” This trolling is so good, even in Russia many people decided this is a Ukrainian provocation, designed to create the illusion that Chechen divisions are outside Donetsk.
A parody account of Joseph Stalin noted on Twitter how ridiculous the involvement of Chechens was in the first place.
Чеченцы приехали на Донбасс защищать русских от украинцев. Даже Бог не знал, что такое возможно… Этот безумный, безумный, безумный мир!
— Иосиф Сталин (@StalinGulag) May 7, 2014
Chechens came to Donbas to protect Russians from Ukrainians. Even God wouldn’t have known this was possible. What a crazy, crazy world!
The “Islamic State of the Donbass and the Lugant” is a prime example of how dark humor—particularly among Internet trolls—thrives on fears, stereotypes, and misinformation. The conflict in eastern Ukraine has all three in ample supply.