“What if the Caliphate Falls?” The IS Outlook in Early 2019

التقاط

By Seth Cantey and Nico Prucha

As outlined in our last post, around the time that al-Kuwaiti ended his life, a document written by an author using the pseudonym Abu Mawadda emerged. Titled “What if the caliphate were to fall?”[1] the article featured a banner showing a mighty tree, weathered by what appears to be a storm, yet firmly rooted to the ground. As IS has emphasized in several propaganda releases, physical territory is not required in order to act on behalf of “prophetic methodology,” which includes losses and defeat.[2] The relationship to physical territory is relative and fluctuates as jihadists are tested by God, and where only pure and true believers succeed either in this life or the afterlife.[3] What matters is the struggle and overcoming any tribulation (ibtila’) and strife (fitna). These stages clarify who is a true believer and steadfast and who is a hypocrite (munafiq) or weak in his/her belief. For Sunni extremists, steadfastness, in Arabic thibat, is detailed within a strict theological framework. No true believer can have thibat without physically proving so, and only those who are steadfast can overcome fitna or deviation. Fitna is part of creation and a means to separate humans into groups, ranging from true believers to various stages of disbelievers, hypocrites etc. Thus, fitna is a tool to ensure human purity and sincere intention to be in the service of God, and therefore to act on God’s behalf to implement, safeguard, and spread divine laws. “For God, high and exalted he is, crafted fitna in his creation to separate the sincere believers from the hypocritical liars.”[4]

Following classical jihadist literature, this claim is backed by holy scripture, the Qur’an, which is cited as proof and confirmation. “For us, we have been instructed on how to learn about those who are sincere, who are mentioned and brought to attention in the noble verses [of the Qur’an] (…), proof for those who are sincere is clearly stated. God, all praise is his, said, “The true believers are the ones who have faith in God and His Messenger and leave all doubt behind, the ones who have struggled with their possessions and their persons in God’s way. They are the ones who are true.”[5]

The 2016 document, foreseeing the obvious, that the height of IS territorial conquest cannot be sustained for the foreseeable future, highlights the main achievement of “the state.” “As God – high and exalted he is – declared you as those who believe in God and his messenger. Having realized the conditions of faith (shurud al-iman) to establish the religion of God, with the enabling by God of those who firmly believe [in the conquering of] territory.”[6] The document continues on the topic of the conquest of territory: “They [IS] have enforced obligatory prayers, the giving of alms (zakat), and are those who are commandeering good and forbidding what is wrong.”[7] The last part is a direct reference to the principle of ‘Al-amr bi-l-ma’ruf wa-nahiyy ‘an al-munkar’, with the important difference that IS uses the active verb, implying they are the ones who actively and by human effort command good (amirun) and actively forbid evil (nahun).  In this claim, the group seeks to draw on the authority of Qur’an 3:104: “Be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong. Those who do this are the successful ones.”[8]

The current legacy of IS, which is of dire importance to the group as it loses territory, is at least twofold. First, IS was able to reformat physical territory based on its understanding of annihilating people and cultural heritage, vindicating (from the group’s perspective) its theology of violence. Second, its actions were documented in full HD videos, and these images are being re-shared in a context of nostalgia. Thus, IS asks “how can the disbelievers and hypocrites claim that the Mujahideen are dissuaded when losing a city or province, or when an amir or minister is killed? (…) By God, certainly not. The loss of Raqqa, Mosul, al-Khayr, Homs, even losing all provinces of the caliphate in Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, East Africa and elsewhere [won’t affect us], God is in command of what has been and what is to come. (…) [Territorial losses] are only going to mislead the hypocrites (…) not the sincere muwahhideen. They are the ones continuing the insurgency, unimpressed by the killings of their leaders or losing their cities.”[9] The legacy of the first generation of leaders, ministers, and key theological figures endures in the form of their writings, audio-speeches, videos, and pictures online, where jihadist media supporters continue to (re-) post and (re-) share content across a wide range of platforms. “They suspect and imagine that the death of our leaders is the end of the caliphate. If this umma were to die with the death of the caliph, it would have died with the death of Prophet Muhammad.”[10]

This sentiment was reinforced in a document published in April 2018 that mocked the global coalition against Daesh as “having amassed many states, yet the Islamic State stays on top.”[11] It further mocked “the continued declared victory by this campaign here and there, claiming that the state of Islam has collapsed and is eliminated.” The mindset for IS is that their adversaries have lost the desire to fight. The group claims to find this unsurprising, as reflected in the quote: “How can they be patient in a war against those who love death on the path of God, just as they love life? They are fighting men who are dedicated to paradise, seeking to satisfy their lord.” For jihadist supporters and actual fighters, one key slogan is that the Islamic State will remain (baqiyya). Proof that this is the case for over a decade is expressed in comparing the coming and going of U.S. administrations over time. “The Bush administration claimed victory. The administration left, and the Islamic state remained. Obama came to power and did the same thing, yet the Islamic State remained. Now the old man Trump came and wants the same thing, and as before him, he will be unable to achieve victory.”[12]

Sunni extremists continue operating freely online, expanding existing databases of texts (theory) and videos (practice) for future generations. Organization on platforms like Telegram allows for a swarming to other platforms, social media sites, and the internet in general. Jihadists believe in the divine obligation of da’wa (proselytizing) to indoctrinate future generations for their cause. Groups such as IS operate conveniently online, their clandestine networks protected by, as outlined before on this blog:

  • A linguistic firewall: Arabic language skills are required to access clandestine networks. (The ongoing paucity of these language skills among researchers is appalling.)
  • An initiation firewall: knowledge of the coherent use of coded religious language and keywords, which few researchers, even those who do speak and read Arabic, can demonstrate in their writing.
  • The challenges of Telegram, where IS succeeded in shifting and re-adapting its modus operandi of in-group discussions and designated curated content intended for both public and private audiences (as part of a wider da’wa).

Media raids ensure that dedicated content gets pumped to the surface web, ranging from Twitter to Facebook, while the IS-swarm can (re-)configure and organize content related to what is happening offline on the ground. This ensures that the cycle of offline events influencing online materials is uninterrupted. Theological motivation, coherently repacked and put in practice, based on 300,000 pages of writings and over 2,000 videos by IS alone, must be addressed. Yet, “without deconstructing the theology of violence inherent in jihadi communications and practice, these religious ideas will continue to inspire others to act, long after any given organized force, such as the Islamic State, may be destroyed on the ground.”[13]

[1] Abu Mawadda (Al-‘Uqab al-Masri), “Wa-madha idha saqatati l-khilafa(tu)?” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, March 28, 2016.

[2] Samih ‘Umar, “Khasarna Manbij wa-rabihna al-ma’raka,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, August 17, 2017.

[3] This relates to the notion of seeking ihda al-husayn, victory (nasr) or martyrdom (shahada).

[4] Abu Mawadda (al-‘Uqab al-Masri), “Wa-madha idha saqatati l-khilafa?” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, March 28, 2016.

[5] Ibid, citing Qur’an 49:15.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Embedded in this citation of the Qur’an is the deeper meaning of applied theology – referenced in the Qur’an in Arabic as ya’murun bi-l-ma’ruf wa-yanhun bi-l-munkir.

[9] Abu Mawadda (al-‘Uqab al-Masri), “Wa-madha idha saqatati l-khilafa?” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, March 28, 2016.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Nasif al-Shabahat, “Dawla satunsar wa-hamla satuksar,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, April 2018.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Rüdiger Lohlker, “Theology Matters: The Case of Jihadi Islam.” Strategic Review. July/September 2016. http://sr-indonesia.com/in-the-journal/view/europe-s-misunderstanding-of-islam-and-isis

The Era of Recruitment via Twitter. Online Initiation into the Ranks of IS: the Tale of Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti

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By Seth Cantey and Nico Prucha

In December 2015, the, at the time, IS media outlet Al-Wafa’ released a document titled “Story of the call to arms of Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti.” Penned under the pseudonym Hafid al-Khattabi, the author details Abu Anwar’s journey from Kuwait to the ranks of the Islamic State. According to the account, Abu Anwar studied engineering in the U.S., where he followed a liberal lifestyle of sin. Later, “he chose the path of repentance.” He learned about IS when he was asked about the group by a journalist on the street after leaving a mosque. The reporter was shocked to learn that Abu Anwar did not know anything about IS.[1] The article suggests that an ignorant Western reporter who bumped into a Muslim leaving a mosque lit the spark for Abu Anwar that led him to the Islamic State. After searching for “the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” online and learning more, he wondered why he had only known about the “Islamic State” from history books. He continued his search for hours and come across many electronic sources.”[2] This hours-long quest to find out about IS online enabled him “to see and listen for himself about the Islamic State that some people had claimed was nothing but a criminal group, an aggressor, that had no room for mercy or compassion.”[3] He started to follow the “electronic releases of the Islamic State and was overwhelmed by the refutations and revelations of doubt disseminated against IS.[4]  He continued to read the noble Qur’an and the hadith of the prophet – God’s blessings upon him – and was entangled by the verses related to jihad, istishhad,[5] hijra, and combat. Especially the hadith relating to Sham [historical Syria][6] fascinated him, exerting himself in the study of tawhid, al-wala’ wa-l-bara’, ahkam al-diyyar, the obligations to migrate from the abode of disbelief to the abode of Islam, the obligation for disbelief in the tawaghit, the excommunication (takfir) of the soldiers of the tyrants, absolute dissociation from them and any disbeliever, [and] loyalty to Muslims and [the obligation] to support them by worldly and bodily means.”[7] The process of studying online resources by IS and becoming radicalized, in the sense that Abu Anwar considers the theological content by IS online as more authoritative than his understanding of religious matters prior, took about eight months.

In most Muslim-majority societies, just as in most Christian and other religious communities, religious scripture that enables violence or dehumanization of the “other” only plays a marginal role. Sunni extremists always project themselves as being ‘true’ Muslims, their focus to theologically explain the obligation to be a ‘100 % Muslim,’ which they argue requires enforcing and explaining otherwise neglected elements that relate to violence. This authoritative perspective, as pitched theoretical writings and especially in videos, show the direct application of religion and led Abu Anwar to “question God whether or not he should heed to the call of arms and migrate for jihad… Every day his heart burned with bitterness and full of fear to heed to the call to arms, desiring to join the battles to raise the banner of God, for victory for God’s religion.”[8]

When Abu Anwar finally bought his plane ticket, he flew to Turkey and encountered a new problem: how to connect with individuals of the Islamic State? He tried by “calling a hotel in Irbil to inquire about the possibility of travel to Mosul and the status of “terrorism” in the region, claiming his Iraqi mother required financial support and help.”[9] Going to Mosul would be impossible, but he was advised to “hire a driver to take him from Turkey to Raqqa for about 150 US dollars.”[10]

When Abu Anwar’s initial attempts failed,[11] he gave himself an ultimatum: either he would join IS or return to America. The night before his return flight, he sought out supporters of the Islamic State on Twitter,[12] writing that he was in Turkey, coming from the United States, and that he “was confronted by people telling me that you are seeking those who seek to migrate to the Islamic State.” He then went to sleep and awoke in the middle of the night to find a notification on his phone that one of the supporters had replied, wanting to speak to him. Abu Anwar shared his story and that his return flight to America would leave in eight hours, and he asked whether one of the brothers could help him enter the caliphate.[13] The ensuing arrangement was that Abu Anwar would be picked up “in Turkey to enter together the territory of the khilafa.

In early 2016, after IS had largely migrated from Twitter to Telegram, [14] a picture of Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti surfaced on the internet. Below is the photograph of a young man standing in front of a makeshift armored vehicle, one that has been a signature image for IS in much the same way as for the A-Team in the popular TV series.  Abu Anwar had volunteered for a suicide mission using the makeshift vehicle. The accompanying graphic included poetic text which read:

“While on his way bidding farewell, he said:

He aborted his studies;

Packed his bags;

Bade his loved ones farewell;

Cancelled his accounts;

Wrote his testimonial;

Wiped his tears;

Craving for his lord,

He realized [his istishhadiyya operation] and advanced [to be accepted by God]…

Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti. A success story.”

[1] Hafid al-Khattabi, “Qissat nafir Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa‘, December 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Radd/ruddud wa-shubuhat is a category in the literature of jihadism, providing space for jihadist theologians to selectively argue on theological grounds against mainstream, moderate, or opposing (i.e., AQ), theologians.

[5] Istishhad refers to the attainment of the shahada, i.e., martyrdom, either dying during combat as a regular mujahid or being a suicide bomber, an istishhadi operative.

[6] Most likely a reference to the hadith: Musnad Ahmad (21096), which states, “Narrated by Zayyid bin Thabit al-Ansari – may God be satisfied with him – said, “The messenger of God, peace and blessing be upon him, was heard saying: “My blessings for Sham [Greater historical Syria]! My blessings for Sham! My blessings for Sham!” They said: “O messenger of God, what is the meaning of this?” He said: “These angels of God have spread their wings over Sham.””

[7] Hafid al-Khattabi, “Qissat nafir Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa‘, December 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The story includes an Arabic-speaking guard at a mosque in Turkey that Abu Anwar attended, who asked if he was really sure that he wanted join Daesh. Separately, an imam inquired, “Why does the [Islamic] State kill those who they refer to as disbelievers?” and went on to claim that IS was “nothing but a Jewish project.” Abu Anwar also tried to hire a driver to take him from Turkey to Raqqa. When the driver called a friend who spoke Arabic, that friend shouted at Abu Anwar over the phone: “Are you crazy? Pay what you owe the driver and get lost!”

[12] Although Twitter is not mentioned by name, the description of private messaging, the supporters of IS, the response hours later, and the fact that this story is from 2015, all point to the social-media platform.

[13] Hafid al-Khattabi, “Qissat nafir Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa‘, December 2015.

[14] Nico Prucha, “IS and the Jihadist Information Highway – Projecting Influence and Religious Identity via Telegram,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 10, No. 6 (2016). http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/556

Come Home: Jihad in Arabia

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The Islamic State, which is oftentimes referred by its Arabic acronym Daesh, proclaimed the re-establishment of the Caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph. Daesh stands for al-dawlat al-Islamiyya fi l-‘Iraq wa-sh Sham. The name change reflected the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq into Syria and since 2014 often refers to itself as the Islamic State or the Islamic Caliphate State. It had been groups such as al-Qaeda (AQ) that theorized about restoring a Islamic State[1] with partially having been able to establish proto-states,[2] but never to the extent of having been able to assert control over a greater population within traditional core Arab Sunni territory. Jihadists had fantasized about being able to combat Arab regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, urging in their rhetoric to be empowered to liberate Palestine, as in their perspective, they had just defeated the Soviet Union with the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan.[3] Not seeing, yet hoping, in 1989 that one day jihad can be waged inside Arab countries, ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam  wrote: “From the morning into the middle of the night, and we are like this, if we have liberated Afghanistan tomorrow, what will we work on? (…) Or God will open a new front for us somewhere in the Islamic world and we will go, wage a jihad there. Or will I finish my sharia studies at the Islamic University in Kabul? Yes, a lot of the Mujahideen are thinking about what to work on after the jihad ends in Afghanistan.”[4] Jihad further internationalized as the zones of conflict diversified. In the 1990s conflicts arose featuring jihadist groups in Bosnia, the Caucasus, prominently Chechnya with jihadist revenge operations throughout Russia, Somalia, it continued in Afghanistan with the Taliban taking over the country and time and again Kashmir. None of these regions of conflict are part of the Arab world, yet from all of these conflicts Arabic-language media items originated, featuring a range of languages, yet dominated by Arabic. Non-Arabic fighters and tales had been subtitled in videos or released as translations, and Arabic native speaking foreigners had been either in key positions (i.e. Khattab) or Arabic affluent local fighters gave their testimony. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that AQ was able to manifest in Saudi Arabia (AQAP) for a few years but the game-changer for Sunni jihadis had been the American occupation of Iraq in 2003. Even when the first generation of AQAP failed, and was forced to re-establish itself in Yemen, jihad was finally able to gradually establish itself in Iraq in the chaotic aftermath of 2003 – giving birth over time what would be known as ISIS. Finally, after the AQAP 1.0 phase where jihadis fought inside Saudi Arabia, referred to as the land of the two holy sanctuaries, and where Arabic was the common language with few exceptions, a Sunni jihadist arm was able to persist in Iraq and produce almost exclusively materials in Arabic featuring Arabic native speakers – to seek to attract more recruits to their cause.

As the late Reuven Paz wrote in 2005, “viewing the struggle in Iraq as “return home” to the heart of the Arab world for Muslim fighters after years of struggle in “exile” in places such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Central Asia.”[5] Building a media heritage and tradition, Muslim fighters, referring to the first and early foreign fighter generation had been keen to write about their experiences in “exile” and document their “struggle” by releasing writings, martyr stories, audio-recordings and most important – and on a more regular basis – videos. Especially written accounts of the shuhada’, the martyrs, had been a popular and a unifying element of all conflict zones where foreign and local fighters presented their struggle as a fight for justice and their cause as decreed by God on his path. Increasingly – and as early as the early to mid-1990s – this form of documented “struggle” in “exile” entered the Internet where it is meant to stay and continues to inspire individuals to this day.[6] The martyr-stories are an integral part of the jihadist literature. Documents in Arabic outline individual biographies from 1980s Afghanistan[7] to the 1990s Chechnya[8], Bosnia[9], Somalia, to the 2000s with Afghanistan[10], the Caucasus, Somalia, Saudi Arabia[11] and Iraq[12]. From every region, from throughout the 1980s (Afghanistan) to the 2000s, Sunni extremist militant groups used the media as a tool to report to fellow Muslims (mainly in Arabic but not exclusively) about their – in their view – pious acts and deeds in fighting against injustice and oppression. Arabic is the lingua jihadica while only parts of the literature, including selected martyr biographies, are specifically translated into other languages. In cases where the martyr is not a native Arabic speaker, his account usually is translated into Arabic and the original language biography is published as well – within the respective lingual networks. The power and the value of jihadist video productions from a lingual outreach perspective in this regard is strategic: any non-native Arabic speaker issues his filmed farewell testimonial, in Arabic referenced as wasiyya, in his native language – Arabic subtitles are added. Only a portion of Arabic native speaker videos, however, are released at a later point with non-Arabic subtitles.

The theology of IS, AQ and any other Sunni extremist groups, however, is based on Arabic-language religious scriptures, not just Qur’an and Sunna, but also references elements of the rich 1,400-year long tradition of Islamic writings. The “Islamic State” applied the theology of AQ in full within its territory – and manages to post videos from other regions of the world as of 2019 where the group manages to control or at times dominate parts of territory.[13] ‘Amaq statements with claims of IS attacks in Congo und Uganda surfaced the past days as well, with pictures showing looted assault rifles and cell phones – and looted tanks and burning village homes in Nigeria. These media items, videos, pictures, writings justifying the occupation of Marawi and the outlook of jihad in South East Asia etc. are ALL in Arabic. In regions where Sunni jihadist groups pop up, Arabic language emerges within the group projected to the outside – core target audience – for native Arabic speakers. Local fighters, as is the case since the existence of VHS tapes featuring local fighters in the 1980s Afghanistan, 1990s Bosnia, Chechnya etc. speak in their local language – with Arabic substitles for the core target audience.

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Whereas past AQ generations, in particular in Saudi Arabia[14], had to theologically justify their specific targeting of non-Muslims, IS enforces these theological decrees and legal rulings, in Arabic referred to in the authoritative use of language as fatawa[15] and ahkam: judicial rulings and religious conditions based on chains of arguments allowing or ban i.e. certain behavior or acts.

Jihadist online materials is a rich blend of various media, never short of content, ranging from simple homepages, discussion forums, blogs, various online libraries for texts and videos, to every single social media platform as of writing.[16] The online media footprint today is the development of nearly three decades of committed media work by jihadist actors – with two decades of online cyberpunk styled activism, ensuring that content once uploaded will stay online – and thus findable – somewhere in the rich online ecosystem. This dedicated work has been and is the expression of a strategic discourse on how to conduct jihadist warfare online and has been penned in a highly coherent manner by leading jihadist theoreticians such as Abu Mus’ab al-Suri.[17]

As Reuven Paz, a fluent Arabic speaker (and reader of Arabic language extremist materials) noted in 2007, “Jihadi militancy is … almost entirely directed in Arabic and its content is intimately tied to the socio-political context of the Arab world.”[18] As Ali Fisher notes: “People who live in that socio-political context, or habitus, easily pick up on the factors that make up the ‘narratives’”, and furthermore: “The habitus is itself a generative dynamic structure that adapts and accommodates itself to another dynamic meso level structure composed primarily of other actors, situated practices and durable institutions (fields).” And because habitus allowed Bourdieu, Fisher concludes;

“to analyze the social agent as a physical, embodied actor, subject to developmental, cognitive and emotive constraints and affected by the very real physical and institutional configurations of the field.[19]

In their habitus and manifestation, jihadist media discourses refer to certain principles of belief, or define norms, issue symbols, introduce and enforce wordings, and sources with the intention of having resonance within their target audience. As members of their respective societies, or religiously influenced cultures, they operate from “within” in crafting public messages and framing their narratives, sanctioning violence and defining “justice” and “values” – conveyed by jihadist media groups in a pedagogical fashion, using a highly coded religious language, first and foremost for their target audience: native Arabic speakers, born as Sunni Muslims. It is as if

“the form in which the significant symbols are embodied to reach the public may be spoken, written, pictorial, or musical, and the number of stimulus carriers is indefinite. If the propagandist identifies himself imaginatively with the lives of the subjects in a particular situation, he is able to explore several channels of approach.”[20]

Jihadist media groups operating in Arabic and to a much lesser degree in western languages have perhaps taken note of al-Suri’s “Message to the British and European Peoples and Governments regarding the Explosions in London”, July 2005, where he outlined the Internet as the most important medium to propagate and spread the jihadists demands and frame of reference in general.[21] He referred to “the jihadi elite” residing in Europe to partake in this venture.

With the rise of the Islamic State and their declaration of the caliphate in mid-2014, the propaganda and the interspersed media strategies to fan-out such content had reached an unprecedented peak. The move by IS to shift to social media (first Twitter 2012 until late 2015, then Telegram 2016 to as of writing (2019)[22], with a change of modus-operandi)[23], their supporters, like other Jihadist groups, have become increasingly adept at integrating operations on the physical battlefield with the online effort to propagate their ideology (=theology) and celebrate their ‘martyrs’, being able to echo contemporary stories to the rich literal corpus that exists since the 1980s.

 

 

[1] For example referred by ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam in his 1989 sermon in Seattle, USA, telling the stories of the war against the Soviets and why the ultimate goal can only be to re-establish a Islamic State. ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam,

[2] Yemen / Mali source

[3] ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, al-jihad bayna Kabul wa-l Bayt al-Maqdis, Seattle, 1988.

For a contextual reading, Nico Prucha, “Abdallah ‘Azzam’s outlook for Jihad in 1988 – “Al-Jihad between Kabul and Jerusalem””, Research Institute for European and American Studies (2010), http://www.rieas.gr/images/nicos2.pdf.

[4] ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, Muqaddima fi-l hijra wa-l ‘idad, 85.

[5] Reuven Paz, The Impact of the War in Iraq on the Global Jihad, in: Fradkin, Haqqani, Brown (eds.); Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Vol 1, The Hudson Institute, 2005, 40.

[6] Nico Prucha, “Die Vermittlung arabischer Jihadisten-Ideologie: Zur Rolle deutscher Aktivisten,” In: Guido Steinberg (ed.), Jihadismus und Internet: Eine deutsche Perspektive, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, October 2012, 45-56, http://www.swp-berlin.org/de/publikationen/swp-studien-de/swp-studien-detail/article/jihadismus_und_internet.html.

[7] Of the many works from this time, the accounts of martyrs by ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam are popular to this day: ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam: ’Ashaq al-hur” martyr biography collection, http://tawhed.ws/dl?i=pwtico4g, accessed August 29, 2013. To give readers an impression, this book by ‘Azzam is

[8] The al-Ansar mailing list, a branch of the al-Ansar online forum, released a collection of martyrs who died in Chechnya: al-Ansar (ed.): qissas shuhada’ al-shishan, 2007; 113 pages.

[9] This tradition was continued in the 1990s with the influx of Arab foreign fighters in Bosnia, see for example the 218 page long collection by: Majid al-Madani / Hamd al-Qatari (2002), Min qissas al-shuhada al-Arab fi l-Busna wa-l Hirsik, www.saaid.net

[10] Abu ‘Ubayda al-Maqdisi and ‘Abdallah bin Khalid al-‘Adam. Shuhada fi zaman al-ghurba. The document was published as a PDF- and WORD format in the main jihadist forums in 2008, although the 350-page strong book was completed in 2005.

[11] With al-Qa’ida on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) active, a bi-monthly electronic magazine, the Voice of Jihad, was featured and martyr stories had been released online as well. The most prominent martyrs are featured in a special “the Voice of Jihad” electronic book (112 pages): Sayyar a’lam al-shuhada’, al-Qa’idun website, 2006.

[12] Sayyar a’lam al-shuhada‘ was a series that featured the martyr biographies in 2004-2006; the collected martyr biographies (in sum 212 pages) had been re-released by al-Turath media, a media organization that is part of IS in 2018. Since the launch of IS’ weekly newspaper al-Naba’, prominent martyr stories have been featured there.

[13] As displayed in  IS videos, i.e. Hijra wa-l qital, Wilayat Gharb Afriqa (January 15, 2019) or Radd al-Wa’id, Wilaya Diyala (January 29, 2019).

[14] Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi-Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[15] Plural for fatwa.

[16] For a discussion on how Twitter was used by jihadist actors: Nico Prucha and Ali Fisher. “Tweeting for the Caliphate – Twitter as the New Frontier for Jihadist Propaganda.” CTC Sentinel (Westpoint), June 2013, http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/tweeting-for-the-caliphate-twitter-as-the-new-frontier-for-jihadist-propaganda

[17] Lia, Brynjar, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

[18] Paz, Reuven. “Reading Their Lips: The Credibility of Jihadi Web Sites as ‘Soft Power’ in the War of the Minds.” (2007).

[19] Ali Fisher, How 6th Graders Would See Through Decliner Logic and Coalition Information Operations, Onlinejihad, January 2018,  https://onlinejihad.net/2018/01/26/how-6th-graders-would-see-through-decliner-logic-and-coalition-information-operations/

[20] Harold D. Lasswell, The Theory of Political Propaganda, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 21, No. 3. (Aug., 1927), 627-631, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-0554%28192708%2921%3A3%3C627%3ATTOPP%3E2.0.CO%3B2-L.

[21] Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, ila Britaniyyin wa-l Eurupiyyin bi sha’n tafjirat London July 2007 wa-mumarissat al-hukuma al-Britaniyya

[22] Although

[23] Martyn Frampton with Ali Fisher, and Nico Prucha. “The New Netwar: Countering Extremism Online (London: Policy Exchange, 2017).

As of 2019, the Islamic State, but also AQ or the Taliban continue to operate on Telegram and from this protected realm newly produced propaganda is injected into online spaces that are (more) accessible than the closed and hard to find groups on Telegram.

The Clashes of the Swords – Nashid as Pop-Culture & Translation of the nashid salil al-sawarim

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Don’t mind the few times these particular nashid had been downloaded within Telegram, part of the normal traffic of IS networks there. While this may be a paradox given the constant drum beat that IS is in decline, or as recently claimed, their ‘play book’ was disrupted online (for the third time?), the IS networks on Telegram did not get that memo, as BBC Monitoring confirmed. Neither had IS been hempered to either release their weekly al-Naba’ 129 or the w. Damascus video. And neither did the IS members and sympathizers who conduct media raid operations bringing content to the non-/less initiated on Facebook, Twitter, and everywhere else see a disturbance, so dropping “dark web” as a buzz word isn’t a excuse.

Three reasons for online network resilience and continued existence in the offline realms:

  1. Lingual firewall: Arabic content that hardly echoes into the academic realm or within analysis (with few exceptions),
  2. Initiation firewall: you need to have read and consumed the content in Arabic to understand the depth of theology which is used as coded communication;
  3. comittment, coherent messages and applying what was penned on paper as state policy with the uninterrupted documentation of bringing shari’a rule in their understanding to the few territorial zones that are held or reclaimed by IS. This combination gives credibility. The coherency in the media output is based on tens of thousands of – mainly Arabic – penned pages where jihadis clearly state why they fight. But without Arabic and understanding the religious depth exercised here, it simply does not matter to the outside who are pre-occupied with the few English items that are found (not neccesarily understood).

So nashid and warning – a reference to the 1980s... again…:

Nashid (or nasheed if you will / pl. anashid) are jihad-hymns. These religious songs are exclusively acapella-styled and oftentimes enhanced by sound effects such as the “clash” or “clang” of a sword, a machinegun, an explosion or the neigh of a horse – suggesting the Mujahid embarked on a horse following the historical role models steering into combat.

Since the 1980s, the nashid has been a genre of its own, enriching sermons and the videos of jihad in general, conveying elemental and key themes of Sunni extremist ideology in a playful style to a wider audience. The use of the Internet was key in popularizing the nashid, some of which have entered mainstream pop-culture, such as the song salil al-sawarim. Generally, nashid acoustically convey rhythmic and easy to comprehend texts featuring religious key words in Arabic. This holds true for both Arabic and non-Arabic nashid, where likewise Arabic key words full of Sunni extremist meaning are broadcast outlining theological concepts and a general Muslim identity. Such key concepts are enhanced by visual means, either pictures or short video sequences – or the nashid serves as the theme for segments within jihadist videos.

The nashid salil al-sawarim has become one of the main IS theme songs, often used to enhance videos, including non-jihadist content, such as a video showing a belly dancer with over 1 million views,[1] a “Shiite version” with drums and about 875 000 views,[2] Egyptians mocking IS[3] or a heavily modified “Skrillex” version thereof with over 430 000 views.[4]  When searching for this nashid in Latin transliteration salil al-sawarim, the ‘original’, unmodified version appears by Abu Yasir with over 640 000 views and about 4 500 likes.[5] Most of the comments are in English with the seeming majority in favour. Of the nearly 2,000 comments, statements such as “this song rocked so hard the twin tower collapsed” (25 likes) appear as often as references to first-person-shooter games where two teams fight each other to death:

“Played this over mic in a csgo [Counter Strike Global Offensive, a first-person-shooter] match while yelling Allahu Akbar. Everyone else started yelling with me. The bomb got detonated and we all went totally crazy. 10/10 would jihad again,” (742 likes)

or a top comment:

“My speakers just exploded for like no reason.” (957 likes)

Other commentators criticize the popularity of the IS nashid, claiming that:

“Thanks to 4chan & Reddit, metadata won’t be able to tell the difference between legit radicalized Westerners and teenagers with really weird senses of humor.” (47 likes)

The nashid tends to accompany action-related content released by IS, such as in-combat footage or sniper videos, including a video released January 13, 2016 by the wilaya Halab (“province of Aleppo”). The 7-minute video entitled “Deadly Arrows” (sahm al-qatil) highlights the professional training of IS snipers, with one sniper speaking to the audience about the necessity to fight. Footage showing the shooting of Syrian soldiers through the sniper scope is enhanced by the nashid salil al-sawarim.

As stated, the nashid in general is a genre of jihadist media productions that is meticulously and professionally produced and serves the strategy of conveying ideological parameters and popularizing key words with in-depth meaning to a wide target audience.

 

A Translation of the nashid salil al-sawarim

Clashing of the swords,[6] hymn[7] of the reluctant

while the passageway of fighting is the way of life

so amidst an assault, tyranny[8] perishes

the most beautiful echo is silence[9]

concealment of the voice[10] results in the beauty of the echo

By it my religion is exalted[11] and tyranny is laid low

Therefore, my people, awake on the path of the brave

For either being alive delights leaders

Or being dead vexes the enemy

So arise brother get up on the path of salvation

So we may march together, resist the aggressors

Raise our glory and raise the foreheads

That have refused to bow before any besides God

Come on to righteousness

The banner has called us

To brighten the path of destiny

To wage war on the enemy

Whosoever among us dies

In sacrifice for defense

Will enjoy eternity

Mourning will depart

Will enjoy eternity

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exMS5HkfCFA

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZCT6013Skg

[3] A news report on mock executions and Egyptians dancing in a funny manner to offend IS, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFR1AUA_RPo. About a quarter million views with some strong language in favor of IS in the comments.

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jg_mZv_SdZw

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQoJvI8XUa0

[6] Salil al-sawarim

[7] nashid

[8] This refers to local tyrants (local Arab regimes) and the ‘far enemy’ (Western nations, supporting regimes in the Arab countries to suppress Islamist and jihadist movements).

[9] Lit.: the silencing of the voice is a beautiful echo.

[10] Lit.: the silencer is a means of a beautiful resistance [to assassinate enemies in secret].

[11] In the meaning of “my religion is honored” (‘izza), a term frequently used to re-instate lost pride and respect to incite the consumers of jihadist media to get active and participate in an empowering movement. La ‘izza ila bi jihad, “there is no honor except by jihad” was a popular slogan for the first generation of AQAP and often used within the electronic magazine “The Voice of Jihad.”

 

The Echo of the “Deep State” – Salil al-Sawarim (4)

jihad mediatique motif du combat

The four Salil al-sawarim (SAS) video series by ISI(S), as outlined in earlier posts, are a groundbreaking installment that echo well into the contemporary Sunni extremist ecosystem. Although being repetitive, it has to emphasized time and again that this ecosystem communicates above all other languages in Arabic and hence the messages – openly and subtly – projected in videos such as SAS target a global Arab audience. The codes submitted in these Arabic language materials, which are shared across networks from Telegram outwardly, are religious motifs and references, such as salil al-sawarim. This is the norm of Arabic language materials which have been pushed in writing and videos on the Internet since the Balkan war, where in the process the value of non-Arabic language materials, crafted by foreign fighters in their language of choice, became more promiment – yet while the wealth of Arabic sources are the absolute majority. Yet the majority of analysis and academia seems to be pre-occupied with the few English-language items and even then not take the texts in magazines such as Rumiyya, Dabiq and before that Inspire into account. The actual ‘narrative(s)’ don’t seem to matter while energy is wasted on another ‘analysis’ on Rumiyya. Congratulations. In the meantime from the wealth of excisting Arabic sources jihadis manage(d) to build their own frames of reference using Latinized key words from Arabic for non-Arabic target audiences. Salil al-sawarim is not only a four video series but also features a popular nasheed that managed to penetrate across languages due to its mesmerizing effect. Most important, understanding what the extend of SAS means, it re-echoes within the contemporary channels, groups and general communication on Telegram, where role models such as Abu Wahib are mingled with the hopes of re-newed SAS videos. In particular the fourth video demonstrated at the time of its release the sweeping of territory and establishment of the dawla and hence remains a integral media item that is referenced and reflected in current IS releases as well.

A recent example is the wilaya Sinai release on February 11, 2018, Safeguarding the shari’a. The video follows the 2014 IS video style of “the clanging of the swords, part 4.” Control of territory and purging of Egyptian state soldiers caught and killed on the street. The video starts with a detailed – extremist typical – explanation of Sunni Muslim identity and theological outlining non-Muslims and Muslims who are violating the extremist identity as legitimate enemies. Any Muslim participating in the upcoming Egyptian elections is an apostate. Professional carried out hit and run and guerilla warfare styled operations on Sinai as well as executions of Egyptian agents conclude the video that focused on a young Egyptian IS recruit who attained “martyrdom”. The fight for Sunni extremists is about applied theology that leads to the destruction of graveyards sanctioned as places of shirk, obliteration of mummies as in Palmyra and the execution of Shiites who are defined along theological lines as legitimate targets etc.

Salil al-Sawarim, part 4 

As is typical of jihadist videos, Salil al-sawarim, part 4 begins with the basmala[1]: “in the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful.”

The opening sequences of the film are set within the overarching notion of the 37th sura of the Qur’an (sura al-saffat)[2], Verses 172-173:

“Our word has already been given to Our servants the messengers: it is they who will be helped, and the ones who support (jund) Our cause will be the winners.”[3]

As M.A.S. Abdel Haleem notes, “in classical Arabic jund means ‘supporters’, not just ‘armies’.” IS, however, implies the meaning of jund is “soldiers”, hence defining every true legitimate supporter of the “Islamic State” as a soldier. This enhances the Sunni Muslim identity IS stands for, as any physical member of their group is presented as a soldier of God (jund allah), or soldier of the caliphate (jund al-khilafa) with a reference to the above cited passage of the Qur’an.

The video shows a satellite map of the greater Middle East to visually . Clearly visible are the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, which are according to jihadist doctrine the god-given boundaries of what should be referred to as the “Arab Peninsula.”[4] This drive to liberate the Arab Peninsula is focused on Mecca and Medina as much as Jerusalem, where the Sunni extremists position themselves as the only Muslim Arabs – in contrast to all Arab regimes – willing to take Jerusalem back while enforcing the “true” Islam in the birthplace of Islam in contemporary Saudi Arabia.

Syria and Iraq are part of the Arab Peninsula in jihadist understanding, and defined as the cradle of Islam, including by Ayman al-Zawahiri in a 2012 speech commemorating and acknowledging martyred al-Qaeda ideologues and leaders.[5]

The camera zooms into Iraq and takes the audience into the full HD perspective of a drone, hovering over the Iraqi city of Fallujah, where the most severe attacks against the U.S. occupational forces occurred. As a result, Fallujah has been at the center of jihadist narratives in writing and on video since 2003. The U.S. Army suffered many losses in the Iraqi province of al-Anbar, and was only able to retake the city of Fallujah after two intensive campaigns consisting of house-to-house fighting. Drones, operated by handheld tablets such as the iPad or Android powered, are in part revolutionizing the landscape of jihadist videos. On December 17, 2015, the IS-province of al-Anbar, Iraq, published a video message for the Saudi government titled “expel the mushrikeen from the Arab Peninsula”, a phrase popularized by the first generation of al-Qaeda  in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) At the end of the video, a suicide bomber’s farewell ceremony is documented and his advance towards a remote Iraqi Army outpost is filmed by a drone, showing the long drive through the desert plains and the massive explosion at the Army site.

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Death on the ground – filmed from above by an IS operated full HD camera drone

The remote controlled drone, possibly the iPad controlled AR Parrot drone, provides an overview of the city of Fallujah, suggesting calmness and peace after the takeover by IS in January 2014. The drone perspective suggests power and projects the “Islamic State” as functioning and operational in Fallujah, presenting itself as the only force able and willing to protect the Sunni population – a strategic message in the light of the bloody sectarian war in Iraq and the recent history of grievances of the city itself. The images of the drone are termed “Fallujah bi-adsa al-furqan”, “by the lens of al-Furqan [media]”, the main official media outlet of IS, founded in the days of al-Zarqawi and now used as one of the main media stations in the sense of a Caliphate-wide broadcasting company.

From the “lens of al-Furqan” the sequence shifts to mainly convoys of Toyota pick-up trucks with armed fighters and .50 caliber guns from various IS controlled cities to underline the fight for territory within the Sunni Arab heartlands of Syria and Iraq. IS attempts to project the notion that the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” is indeed in the phase of consolidation when the video was published in May 2014 and takes the audience from the city of Fallujah to cities across Syria and Iraq showing columns of IS-cars and fighters parading in various cities.

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The “al-Furqan drone” documenting the IS convoy from above and cameramen on the ground in Fallujah

From Homs and al-Raqqa (Syria) to Ramadi that fell to IS in May 2015 and was liberated by Iraqi forces in February 2016[6], and Fallujah the scene ends with the black flag of the Islamic State while the narrator sets the tone of divine guidance for IS:

“by the voice of truth (haqq) and the conquest of the millat Ibrahim prying open the true conflict between the opposing military camps and those who fight for al-haqq and falsehood (al-batil).[7] For jihad is set to establish the din (bond to god etc), this is a shari’a obligation, a duty that can only be achieved by holding fast (i’tisam) on to God and by adhering to the jama’a.[8] This endeavor entails sacrifice and humbleness until the judicial rulings prescribed by shari’a[9] are retained and safeguarded, the divine physical punishment (hadd) are implemented and carried out without any fear of God.[10]

The focus of the video is Syria and Iraq, where at the time of the video release, “vast territories” had recently been conquered and ingested into the entity of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”. The target audience consists of Arabic native speakers who understand the dynamic in Iraq, where IS was able to establish itself as the only lobby for the marginalized Sunni population, particularly in al-Anbar.[11] The conquest and subsequent consolidation of territory, as allegedly shown in the video, is framed within the grand dream of liberating Jerusalem, a repetition echoed by jihadist groups since the 1980s,[12] stating that “the Mosque of al-Aqsa is just a stone hurl away” from the newly (re-) established Islamic State that seeks to liberate and integrate all parts of the once blossoming caliphate. Hence, IS is “building firm towers to bring down conspiracies that collapse within and break at the walls of the Islamic State”.

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The introduction is concluded by a lengthy talk given by a foreign fighter from Kosovo who is fluent in Arabic and holds his passport into the camera like most of his comrades. The group of men waiving black flags and flashing their weapons and passports are framed as sincere believers who “fulfill their covenant to God”[13]  and are as such presented to the audience as ultimate role models.

[1] Bi-smi l-llahi l-rahmani l-rahim is a common saying for Muslims worldwide; during prayer; when entering a house, when thanking god for their food etc. Every Sura of the Qur’ an with two exceptions (surat al-anfal (“spoils of war”) and surat al-tawba (“repentance”), start with the basmala

[2] “Those who set the ranks”. The term “saff” (row) is reference to the rows of believers during prayer and is used in jihadist slang likewise to project unity in their war against non-Muslims worldwide.

[3] M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Qurʾan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

[4] In Jihadist definition the Arab Peninsula (al-jazirat al-‘Arab) comprises an area that includes Iraq. According to the first generation of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, the Arab Peninsula must be cleansed of all polytheists (mushrikin) as detailed in AQAP’s electronic magazine “the voice of jihad”, vol. 6 & 7. Discussed in: Nico Prucha, Die Stimme des Dschihad “Sawt al-gihad”: al-Qaedas erstes Online-Magazin, Hamburg: Verlag Dr.Kovač, 2010

[5] Ayman al-Zawahiri, li-ahlina fi manzal al-wahi wa-mahad al-Islam, al-Sahab, May 16, 2012.

[6] Iraq liberates city of Ramadi from Islamic State, Chicago Tribune, February 9, 2016,  http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-iraq-ramadi-islamic-state-20160209-story.html,

[7] For a description of the terms haqq / batil: Nico Prucha, Notes on the Jihadists’ Motivation for Suicide-Operations, Journal for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies (JIPSS), vol. 4, no. 1, 2010, 57-68.

[8] A religious reference to the ahl al-Sunna wa-l jama’a, meaning the Sunni Muslims who are acting on behalf of the prophetic tradition (Sunna), exemplified by prophet Muhammad and his companions. Sunni extremists claim to be in the closest proximity to God by re-enacting the example and guidance as set by the Sunna of prophet Muhammad and his companions (sahaba). The “Islamic State” has taken this AQ penned concept to a new level by popularizing their slogan “upon the prophetic methodology” (ala minhaj al-nubuwwa), framing every action, ranging from the destruction of Shiite mosques to the execution of non-Sunni Muslims, as the only valid model of pieces of divine scripture as well as the alleged prophetic conduct.

[9] In Arabic: ahkam al-shari’a. The term ahkam, singular: hukm, refers to the judicial findings based on the interpretations of religious scripture and is often equated to a specific “ruling” or “jurisprudential decree” issued by a religious authoritative scholar (shaykh).

[10] A frequent issued sentiment and a core theme for the jihadist literature. In particular the first generation of al-Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) who published a great deal of writings online referred to the fifth verse (al-Ma’ida) of the Qur’an in defining themselves as the only proper Muslims favored by God. “[God] loves and who love Him, people who are humble towards the believers, hard on the disbelievers, and who strive in God’s way without fearing anyone’s reproach. Such is God’s favour.” A true believer adhering to the jihadist corpus of writings and videos only fears God and accepts or gives guidance channeled through the formalization of religion and thus enforced as “shari’a law”, ahkam, or defined as part of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).

[11] Emma Sky, The Unravelling. High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, Atlantic Books: London 2015.

Also: Patrick Cockburn. The Rise of the Islamic State. ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, Verso: London, New York, 2014.

[12] The importance to liberate Jerusalem by fighting within the Arab countries is discussed in: Nico Prucha, ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam’s Outlook for Jihad in 1988 – “al-Jihad between Kabul and Jerusalem”, RIEAS, December 2010, http://rieas.gr/images/nicos2.pdf

[13] The contract, or ‘ahd, is a central theme throughout the ideology of Sunni extremist groups. In jihadist mindset, only the ‘true’ Muslim is the one who understands and acts on behalf of the “contract [or: covenant] with god”, affirming that god in return will recompense the bloodshed and deeds invested by the believer in the afterlife, as based on the extremist reading of verses such as 3:169 or 8:60 to briefly reference two samples.

 

 

Salil al-Sawarim, parts 2 (2012) and 3 (2013) – making the Islamic state

Part of the Salil al-Sawarim mini series – a blast from the past of pre-IS/ISIS materials that are of grave importance to the IS ecosystem and the framework of Sunni extremism.

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Any Sunni jihadist video incorporates elements and theological ‘narratives’ (question of habitus) that are visualized and implemented for their target audience – that target audience is Arabic native speakers who ideally understand substrates of Sunni extremism having been brought up within a Sunni Arab habitus. Sunni extremism has a text rich history and tradition as outlined before that predates IS and goes back to the first organized manifestation of Sunni extremism in Afghanistan in the early 1980s. Already in the 1980s, when hand drawn maps and black and white photographs enhanced Arabic type written magazines, within the jihadist mindset Afghanistan was carved out of wilayat – that then became known to a broader audience due to IS media work and non-Arab foreign fighters addressing their target audiences in their native languages. Yet, with the majority of Sunni extremist materials being broadcast to an Arab target audience above all others – as the Sunni extremist movement is dominated by Arab members – the overwhelming majority of (online) releases by Sunni extremists in general are in Arabic and all non-Arabic media items have references to originally Arabic language writings.

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Salil al-Sawarim 2 (SAS2) shows fighters conducting hit-and-run missions, infiltrating Iraqi cities, such as Hit, Ramadi, or Haditha to capture and execute Iraqi counter-terrorist or government officials, and then withdrawing to the remote desert.

This modus operandi was a common theme for AQ in Iraq that morphed into the Islamic State today – with al-Furqan over the past decade and a half regularly releasing videos of hit-and-run missions, IED strikes on US vehicles, sniper attacks and hostages. While the 2012 and 2013 parts of Salil al-Sawarim videos highlighted pre-ISIS capability to undertake hit-and-run strikes disguised as Iraqi SWAT and police units, the 2014 release of the fourth part sought to document.

It is important to understand the full framework of Sunni extremism to comprehend the dynamics at work in the Arab world in particular as of 2018.Major video releases such as the four Salil al-Sawarim are the core of the post-2014 video productions of IS – showing the implementation of the “prophetic methodology”, the systematic execution of Shiites in Iraq (and later Yezides and bringing that mindset to Syria to combat the Alawite dominated Syrian army), the use of stolen Iraqi government police uniforms to infiltrate and kill as many as possible, the systematic intel-styled rooting ouf of high value targets; the coerced repentance of Sunnis in IS “liberated” areas, who have/had not other choice but to join or submit to ISIS – and who are now faced as of 2018 with a new wave of deadly sectarianism by the new forceful rule of Shiite militias driving their own agenda; the visualized concept of theological and historical coherent elements such as inghimas and shuhada’; the personal messages of (foreign) fighters addressing their Arab target audience in modern colloqiual Arabic to project Islamic knowledge in a preacher styled religious-authoritative setting and by thus are far more powerful and convincing than al-Zawahiri reading a script of the screen; all of these examplorary elements are tied to hundreds and hundreds of pages of Arabic text – historical as well as contemporary crafted by Sunni extremist key writers – and resonate within the Arab target audience and allow new members to initiate into this movement.

The second video also introduces footage that would become commonplace in “Islamic State” propaganda: a professionally-laid out shooting range where many masked men are training. The weapons shown include the classic Kalashnikov assault rifle, as well as the much glorified – and often seen in jihadist videos – Pulemyot Kalashnikova (P.K.) heavy machine gun. SAS2 is more sophisticated than its prequel; the attacks by the Mujahidin appear more precise, professional and deadly. SAS2 emphasizes the importance of media work, featuring an IS media operative preparing crates of DVDs to give out to Sunnis in the towns and cities that will be attacked but not immediately occupied.

A Mujahid is interviewed and introduced as a “soldier of the Islamic State”. Iraqi cars, gear and elite police SWAT equipment are handed out to the graduates of the training course.

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A Mujahid in full SWAT gear gives an interview; apparently looted SWAT boots and uniforms being handed out

The video also features action footage in various towns and cities at night. Iraqi soldiers and policemen approach IS fighters disguised in special police uniforms to greet them, believing they are comrades, only to be executed.

Those who IS considers high-value targets, predominantly collaborators and Sahwa officers, are at the centre of the film. The film showcases IS laying the groundwork to eventually take over the territory cleansed of functionaries loyal to the central Iraqi government.

A blog named “Islamic News Agency – da’wa al-haqq” described the second SAS movie as a documentary in Full HD, with 49 minutes of IS fighters in special counter-terrorism vehicles conducting assaults in various cities and killing dozens of Iraqi soldiers.

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The third video of the Salil al-sawarim series was released on January 17, 2013. By this time, the “Islamic State” was seeking to consolidate control of territory in Iraq and the purpose of SAS3 was to document its proclaimed campaign Hadim al-aswar (“take down the walls!”).

The video opens with a band of Mujahidin singing and the film is introduced as:

“a new phase in the conduct of jihadi operations, starting in the beginning of Ramadan, a.H. 1433. The Mujahidin have arisen anew and returned to areas from which they had previously withdrawn. This film is a documentary of some of the military operations in this important and historical phase for jihadist work in Iraq.”

The campaign “take down the walls” consisted of systematic attacks on prisons and had two strategic objectives:

  1. Exacting revenge for Sunnis, perceived as excluded, marginalized and persecuted by the ruling Shiite majority of Iraq;
  2. Replenishing fighter ranks with freed inmates who have little choice but to support and join IS.

The official banner of the al-Furqan release in the light of the campaign “take down the walls!”

SAS3 features freed inmates of the Tasfirat prison in Tikrit who have assumed or resumed leadership roles within IS. These men inform the audience of the hardship and torture endured in prison while relaying theological interpretations framed within the need to act.

The Sunni community is repeatedly portrayed as driven to extinction by Iranian-backed Shiites and Western enmity. In addition, every IS armed operation is framed as an altruistic act for the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.

The specific Sunni extremist interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith are put in practice; for example, a Mujahid issues a call to prayer while standing next to slain enemies. Such footage is intended to portray IS as the only Sunni group willing to resist the Shiite takeover of Iraq and Syria.

The 80-minute long SAS3 concludes with a massive suicide bombing attack on an Iraqi army barracks near or in Mosul, undertaken by a Tunisian foreign fighter. He is identified as Abu Ziyyad al-Bahhar “from Tunis, the Muslim city where real men are made.” He describes his emigration (hijra) into Syria and then Iraq in 2013 and claims he did not face any problems while traveling. Using classical Sunni extremist rhetoric, he urges others to follow his example:

“This is not the end of the path – no (…) Many of our brothers have spent many years in prison (…). Hijra, jihad, hardships and combat; being imprisoned, blood, flesh [and sacrifice], this is the path. This is the path of Muhammad.”

The “Islamic State” is the first Islamist movement to make highly professional use of the Internet for “missionary purposes” (da’wa) related to territory seized from sovereign states and having had the ability to control these for a longer time. The control of strategic towns and even huge cities such as Mosul, parts of Ramadi (2014-2015), Fallujah, and Raqqa, the capital of the “Caliphate”, allowed IS media workers to continuously produce new video propaganda from both the ‘hinterland’ as well as the frontlines.

This enabled jihadist media strategists to convey several messages; firstly, they showcase IS members building and maintaining critical infrastructure for civilians, while fighting, bleeding and dying for their altruistic project on the frontlines. They also show IS fighting a rich blend of enemies, including air force raids by the “crusader alliance” and various Shiite, Kurdish and Christian militias on the ground. These sequences are intended to convey a sizeable Islamic state populated by people who have adopted a real Muslim identity.

This is a legacy new and less initiated members can quickly come to terms with: what are we fighting for (as was outlined by al-‘Utaybi in 2006 or Abu Hamza al-Baghdadi in 2005).

The dangerous difference is that a secret and hidden mindset comprising of over thousands of pages written in Arabic by AQ and later enriched by IS “scholars” is available – mostly unchallenged – online that showcases and demonstrates in often times humble and honest words by men who have bled and died for their beliefs, why any “true” Sunni Muslim should follow their path and reclaim violently territory lost by IS and/or attack clearly theologically defined enemies as legitimate to attack worldwide.

IS ecosystem: Salil al-Sawarim (2012)

Part of the Salil al-Sawarim series

The first part of Salil al-sawarim (SAS1) was released by “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI) in 2012. After al-Qaeda in Iraq consolidated control over the Sunni province of al-Anbar, it declared the establishment of ISI, al-dawlat al-Iraq al-Islamiyya – in October 2006. Al-Anbar province has an extensive border with Syria that includes the Syrian town of Minbaj, which became one of the main hubs for cross-border activity and which was later conquered by IS and lost in late 2016.

SAS1 features a rich blend of “narratives” that have formed an integral part of Sunni extremist identity since the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003/4. SAS1 features several prominent jihadist figures, including IS godfather Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani. The video portrays the Shiites as mere agents and henchmen of the Americans and shows a number of attacks on police posts and individuals accused of apostasy and collaboration – a signpost of what would increase in scale and pace leading to 2014, the declaration of the caliphate – as well as to mid-2017 with the increasing loss of territory and the return to the old tactics.

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Salil al-Sawarim 1 fostering sectarian tensions and praising the “Islamic State” Godfather Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi

The first film features two sequences that would later become “Islamic State” modus operandi, and appear prominently in SAS4. The first type of sequence depicts well-planned, well-organized and well-executed rapid attacks on police and army checkpoints in urban and remote areas of the country. For example, the film shows fighters killing uniformed officers in Baghdad in hit-and-run and execution-style shootings. The film uses audio recordings of Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani or Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi to justify these killings – a common example of how speeches of even long deceased figures of influence matter to the movement to date. The second type of sequence shows fighters raiding army outposts in remote areas. The aftermath of these attacks is also shown, including close-ups of dead Iraqi soldiers as proof of the success of the Sunni extremists – something that has in the second half of 2017 intensified again with the loss of territory and the systematic attacks on remote and undermanned outposts in the Iraqi desert.

In other parts of SAS1, suicide bombers give their testimony (wasiyya) while crude bombs and handgun silencers are proudly shown as “industrial produce of the State for the oppressed,” whom IS claims to be fighting for. Sniper scenes are an integral part of the first SAS movie, as in SAS4.

The post 2014 IS weapons workshops as a game changer on the battlefields is outlined in this article here.

SAS1 features a coherent blend of elements of Iraqi-based Sunni extremist theology, notably the theoretical offer to fellow Sunni Muslims, including those in the ranks and service of the Iraqi army, police and government, to repent (tawba) and become “true” Muslims again. This form of repentance and inclusion is important throughout the series, but reaches a climax in the fourth SAS video, which shows the mass repentance of Sunnis in areas that IS conquered in Iraq in early 2014.

This is a form of applied theology, an idea that originated with AQ, though it lacked the territory to fulfil its implementation. By contrast, SAS1 features former Sahwa (“Awakening Council”) soldiers repenting and joining IS while its spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, calls on all Sunnis to renounce their loyalty to the Iraqi Shiite-led government of al-Maliki.

A targeted assassination in SAS1 set the precursor for what was about to hit Iraq, in particular the region of al-Anbar and the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul and smaller towns such as Hit. And it is this exact modus operandi that IS has, as of 2018, reverted to with the strategy of denying their enemies a long-term prospect of controlling the terrority that was lost by IS according the the themes of the video and written propaganda released since August 2016.

SAS1 also features a speech by Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani entitled “we renew our invitation (da’wa) to every apostate, traitor and deviant to repent and to return [to the state of being a Sunni Muslim.” This offer is especially directed at “policemen and Sahwa members” and ceases to be valid when IS overpowers or captures them. According to jihadist reasoning, repentance can only be considered sincere and potentially accepted if the individual does so without coercion – so as not to violate the jihadist interpretation of Qur’an verse 5:34:

“unless they repent before you overpower them – in that case bear in mind that God is forgiving and merciful.”

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A speech by IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani and the direct application in the video

The first Salil al-sawarim video ends with a slogan that has since become commonplace in IS propaganda: “the Islamic State will remain” (baqiyya). The conclusion of SAS1 also makes clear the ambition of the “Islamic State in Iraq” to expand into Sham (Syria) and liberate Sunni Muslims from the regime of al-Asad.