The High School Student Who Maps ISIS’s Lightning-Quick Advance

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A map by Thomas Van Linge showing the situation in Syria on June 5, 2015. Thomas Van Linge

Thomas van Linge’s colorful, detailed maps showing which parties control which parts of Iraq, Libya and Syria are a hit whenever he posts them on Twitter. They have been cited on news stories in the Huffington Post, Lebanon’s Daily Star and Vox, as well as on the University of Texas at Austin’s website. But van Linge isn’t a policy expert and he’s never been to the region: In fact, he’s just a Dutch high school student who tracks the war on social media.

Van Linge, who goes by @arabthomness on Twitter, has amassed nearly 11,000 followers since joining the platform in January 2013, the year he published his first map. Many of his followers work for influential think tanks or suggest policy for the region he maps.

Van Linge’s latest map of conflict-ridden Syria, updated June 5, 2015, illustrates just how complex the situation in the country has become. In northeastern Syrian Kurdistan, a tip of yellow is mainly in control of the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), while the country’s west is a mix of red—representing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—and varied green blotches representing the Free Syrian Army and mixed rebel and jihadi-controlled countryside. The city of Aleppo is a palette of colors representing myriad forces like Jabhat al-Nusra, Islamic Front and government soldiers vying for power, making normal life for civilians a deadly struggle.

The rest of Syria is a vast swath of countryside, colored gray, controlled by the militant group Islamic State (ISIS), and punctuated with black circles denoting ISIS-controlled towns and cities. The map is corroborated by news reports from last month that say ISIS now controls around 50 percent of Syria.

Thomas Van Linge/Newsweek

“I want to inform people mostly and show people the rebel dynamics in the country,” Van Linge told Newsweek, referring to his motivation for creating his maps. “I also want to inform journalists who want to go to the region which regions are definitely no-go zones, which regions are the most dangerous, and also to show strategic developments through time.”

Van Linge’s interest in the region was first sparked by the events of the 2011 Arab Spring, particularly the Egyptian revolution. He started following trends in Libya and Syria and made his first map showing the situation for the YPG and Kurdish forces in Syrian Kurdistan in December 2013. Then someone asked him to make a map of Syria as a whole.

“I hadn’t really considered it at the time, but I was annoyed by other maps that didn’t make the distinction between rebels and ISIS groups of areas, which were still at the time intertwined,” he said. In the past 16 months, he’s also made maps of Eastern Ukraine, Somalia, the Palestinian territories and the northern part of Mali, which saw fighting between Al-Qaeda and Tuareg rebels, although the Syria maps get the most attention.

When he starts a new map, which usually takes several weeks to finish alongside his schoolwork, Van Linge takes a large file of a blank map and uses the most humble of tools to start coloring it in: Microsoft Paint.

“I’m not very sophisticated with computers,” he said.

Thomas Van Linge/Newsweek

The sources for Van Linge’s maps include Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as well as personal contacts in the region, including within the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo and others in the Kurdish region north of Aleppo. He estimates he has around 1,000 sources for all his maps, which he uses to corroborate claims of territorial control.

“When I see, for example, a status update of a rebel group on Facebook in which they claim they’ve captured a small village, then I usually wait until either other sources report it or footage from rebels within that village shows up on YouTube before I make the edit on my map,” said Van Linge.

He then uses a map tool on Google Earth to make and edit shapes of controlling territories, like the mint green boomerang shape showing a low amount of rebel-controlled countryside in southwestern Syria, which he replicates in the Paint file.

The finished product is shared on Twitter and is often retweeted several times. Pieter Van Ostaeyen, the Belgian jihadist expert described by the Financial Times as an “armchair terrorist tracker,” has also started republishing the maps on his website.

Despite Van Linge’s age and relative inexperience in the world of foreign affairs, some Middle East experts have applaud his maps. Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said he finds the maps “among the most useful,” mainly due to the color blocking system employed by Van Linge. Most mapmakers, Landis says, use “spindly strands of highway control” to show the areas run by ISIS, which might underestimate the group’s power.   

“Controlling large swaths of desert, where few people live, is strategically important. No one would make a map of Algeria or Saudi Arabia like this, only ISIS,” said Landis. “By updating his maps frequently and sticking to tradition by trying to depict how much actual territory ISIS controls, Thomas van Linge does us all a favor.”

Rana Khalaf, a researcher at the Centre for Syrian Studies at St. Andrews University, also found the maps useful, but said it would be helpful to highlight the uninhabited desert regions, as well as to use intersecting lines to show contested areas where control can change overnight.   

Van Ostaeyen, who publishes Van Linge’s maps but primarily uses Twitter to track and communicate with jihadists, also spoke of how helpful the maps are.

“I found it really interesting to see the evolution of everything going on,” he said. “Thomas’s maps are one of the best published on what’s going on in Syria and Iraq.”

At the start of their correspondence, Van Ostaeyen didn’t know Van Linge’s age and was impressed when he found out he was a teenager. He wasn’t, however, surprised.

“I’ve seen so many weird things, like the Shami Witness case [Van Ostaeyen was in close contact with Mehdi Masroor Biswas, the man behind the pro-ISIS account, who was arrested in Bangalore, India, last December], that I can’t be surprised anymore by something,” said Van Ostaeyen.

Van Linge’s Twitter feed is more than just maps: it’s also a valuable resource for news of ongoing humanitarian crises in the region and around the world. He posts photos of the aftermath of shelling and retweets activists who post graphic photos of children killed by weapons in Syria. He says he does this to raise awareness now that the international media is largely ignoring daily bomb attacks.

“By tweeting every bombardment, every victim of the Assad regime or ISIS, I believe you’re reminded of these crimes, these events,” said Van Linge. “They’re ongoing everyday even though they don’t make headline news anymore.”