By THOMAS HEGGHAMMER DEC. 18, 2015, New York Times
Image from article, with caption: In an Islamic State propaganda video, a Canadian, Andre Poulin, urged other to join the fight
Oslo — AFTER Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the
predecessor to the Islamic State, reportedly beheaded the American hostage
Nicholas Berg in 2004, he became known in jihadi circles as the Slaughterer.
Few people in the West are aware that he also went by the nickname He Who
Weeps a Lot. Mr. Zarqawi was known for weeping during prayer and when
speaking about Muslim women’s suffering under occupation.
The Slaughterer’s brand of radical Islam was brutal even by jihadi
standards. Under Mr. Zarqawi’s command, Al Qaeda in Iraq executed so many
hostages and killed so many Shiite civilians that Al Qaeda’s leadership
reprimanded him. But in his public displays of emotion, He Who Weeps a Lot
was not an aberration. For radical Islamists who view crying as a sign of
devotion to God, communal sobbing is as common as car bombing.
A foreign fighter in Syria who wrote a blog post in March about an imam
crying while making an invocation wrote that “brothers were crying with him,
some audible, and others would have their tears fall silently.” Jihadis also
weep when listening to religious hymns, watching propaganda videos,
discussing the plight of Sunni Muslims or talking about the afterlife. Some
weep more than others, and those who do are looked up to by those who don’t.
Why have tens of thousands of people from around the world chosen to
live under the Islamic State’s draconian rule and fight under its black flag? To
understand this phenomenon, we must recognize that the world of radical
Islam is not just death and destruction. It also encompasses fashion, music,
poetry, dream interpretation. In short, jihadism offers its adherents a rich
cultural universe in which they can immerse themselves.
For the past four years I have been studying what jihadis do in their spare
time. The idea is simple: To really understand a community, we need to look at
everything its members do. Using autobiographies, videos, blog posts, tweets
and defectors’ accounts, I have sought a sense of the cultural dimensions of
jihadi activism. What I have discovered is a world of art and emotions. While
much of it has parallels in mainstream Muslim culture, these militants have
put a radical ideological spin on it.
When jihadis aren’t fighting — which is most of the time — they enjoy
storytelling and watching films, cooking and swimming. The social
atmosphere (at least for those who play by the rules) is egalitarian, affectionate
and even playful. Jihadi life is emotionally intense, filled with the thrill of
combat, the sorrow of loss, the joy of camaraderie and the elation of religious
experience. I suspect this is a key source of its attraction.
The corridors of jihadi safe houses are filled with music or, more
precisely, a cappella hymns (since musical instruments are forbidden) known
as anashid. There’s nothing militant about this traditional genre, which dates
from preIslamic times. But in the 1970s, Islamists began composing their own
ideological songs about their favored themes. Today there are thousands of
jihadi songs in circulation, with new tunes being added every month. Jihadis
can’t seem to get enough anashid. They listen to them in their dorms and in
their cars, sing them in training camps and in the trenches, and discuss them
on Twitter and Facebook. Some use them to mentally prepare for operations:
Ayoub El Khazani, a 25-year-old Moroccan man who attempted a shooting
attack on a Paris-bound train in August, listened to YouTube videos of jihadi
anashid just minutes before his failed operation.
Anashid are closely related to poetry, another staple of jihadi culture.
Across the Arab and Islamic world, poetry is much more widely appreciated
than it is in the West. Militants, though, have used the genre to their own ends.
Over the past three decades or so, jihadi poets have developed a vast body of
radical verse. Leaders from the Islamic State’s spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani
to Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahri often include lines of poetry in their
speeches and treatises. Foot soldiers in Syria and Iraq sometimes hold
impromptu poetry performances or group recitals in the field.
In any large jihadi group there might be a few people who specialize in
composing or memorizing poems. These poets can be anyone from within the
movement, men or women of any rank. The Islamic State’s most famous poet
is a Syrian woman in her 20s who goes by the name Ahlam al-Nasr, or Dreams
of Victory. (While jihadi women generally socialize separately from men, the
Internet has allowed women to take a more active part in the movement’s
cultural life.) Her most famous collection, “Blaze of Truth,” contains lines such
as “Shake the throne of the cross, and Extinguish the fire of the Zoroastrians /
Strike down every adversity, and go reap those heads.”
Perhaps more important than poems for jihadis are dreams, which they
believe can contain instructions from God or premonitions of the future. Both
leaders and foot soldiers say they sometimes rely on nighttime visions for
decision making. Omar Hammami, the Alabama-born man who fought with
the Shabab in Somalia in the late 2000s, said he thought of defecting, “but it
was really a few dreams that tipped the scales and caused me to stay.” Mullah
Omar, the mysterious one-eyed Taliban leader who died in 2013, reportedly
made no consequential strategic decision before getting advice from his
Jihadi culture also comes with its own sartorial styles. In Europe, radicals
sometimes wear a combination of sneakers, a Middle Eastern or Pakistani
gown and a combat jacket on top. It’s a style that perhaps reflects their urban
roots, Muslim identity and militant sympathies. The men often follow Salafi
etiquette, for example by carrying a tooth-cleaning twig known as a miswak,
wearing nonalcoholic perfume, and avoiding gold jewelry, as they believe the
Prophet Muhammad did.
As new recruits shed their jeans and track suits for robes, as they
memorize the words to the Islamic State’s anashid and learn to look for
glimpses of paradise in dreams, they discover a whole new lifestyle. Music,
rituals and customs may be as important to jihadi recruitment as theological
treatises and political arguments. Yes, some people join radical groups because
they want to escape personal problems, avenge Western foreign policy or obey
a radical doctrine. But some recruits may join because they find a cultural
community and a new life that is emotionally rewarding.
As the West comes to terms with a new and growing threat — horrifically
evident in the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. — we are not
only confronting organizations and doctrines, but also a highly seductive
subculture. This is bad news. Governments are much better equipped to take
on the Slaughterer than they are He Who Weeps a Lot.
Thomas Hegghammer is director of terrorism research at the
Norwegian Defense Research Establishment.