Jihad on the Internet – The Anomalous Case of Abu Jandal al-Azdi

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Note: A version of this article was originally published in 2007 by the Journal for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies. Due to the up-to-date nature of what type of content jihadists create, curate, disseminate and of course share via online (and offline networks), the article is slightly reworked republished here. The work by Faris al-Zahrani, a core member of the first generation of AQAP and it’s electronic da’wa networks that serve as a theological-activist legacy foundation for both AQ and IS, is a valuable cornerstorne in understanding jihadism in their own (Arabic) words. His work is shared on Telegram, sometimes in it’s original release format, sometimes in a more timely package, and his interview for the Sawt al-Jihad is a legend within jihadist circles online. Abu Jandal al-Azdi, as he was known by his nom de guerre, was al-Qa’ida’s editor and a muscle of online jihadi activism as coined by the marvelous Joas Wagemakers, one of the few scholars in the field of jihadism who actively reads Arabic content to make sense of the vast content released by extremist actors & groups.

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(above: 2018 Telegram screenshot of a group conveying English materials to provide da’wa to non-Arabic speakers in the jihadist understanding of pedagogy; this group shared old-AQ and – at the time – new IS materials)

2007: The Internet has become the medium of communication and exchange of information for the Jihadis. In the past years, the Internet has been increasingly used on a very efficient and professional basis. Countless online Jihad communities have come into existence. Not only have a number of online forums been established[1], but there are countless blogs and traditional websites available, which spread and share a broad variety of documents and data in general. Jihadis often refer to the Arabic term isdarat for data, that consists of general publications, videos (suicide bombings and last testimonies, roadside bomb attacks etc.), sermons or general statements and declarations – but also technical information such as bomb-making, weapons guides or chemical crash courses[2]. Over the years the Internet has become a 24-hour online database, where any user with sufficient knowledge of the Web (and some Arabic[3]) is able to access and/or download these isdarat. In an interview with al-Qa’ida’s first online magazine (2003), Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad), Abu Jandal al-Azdi explains the reasons for these isdarat and states that „these [isdarat] guide the youth of Islam and they [the Mujahidin and their leaders] have published books, statements, audio-files, and videos.”[4] Today the users exchange useful tips and practical hints, discuss ideological and theological issues and allow an insight into their tactics and strategies within the online forums. The usage of the Web has been systematically funneled by the al-Qa’ida cells on the Arabian Peninsula.[5] To provide a short overview on what kind of isdarat are being spread over the Internet here are several categories (letzter Halbsatz unklar-passt es so?)[6], roughly comprising, what I would call world-wide Online Jihad:

  1. Handbooks: Explosives – how to fabricate, how to use (for example RDX, TNT or IED’s and practical tips from battle-tested Mujahidin); Weapon handbooks – nearly all weapons categories are described, such as anti-tank cannons, assault rifles, rockets; ABC weapons – explanations and theoretical discourses; Military handbooks – translated U.S. Army material as well as handbooks designed for urban and guerrilla warfare; Toxins, Assassinations, Intelligence and counterintelligence, etc.
  2. Technical assistance (hard-, and software), using the Internet – essential information such as how to program, design and maintain a web page, how to make videos and what file-hosting-sites are best used (and porn-free) to host these sometimes 1 or 2 GB-size files; Programs, what programs should be used to protect oneself, to conceal the IP address, Firewall, Anti-Virus etc.; another important aspect is the use of PGP, the encryption software, that has led to the development of „ the first Islamic program to communicate secure over networks.”[7]
  3. Ideology – Ranging from statements, letters, books and comments from Osama bin Laden, to very detailed and thoroughly described would-be legal documents (fatwa’s) [8] and documents in general that deal with all kinds of religious or practical justifications and explanations. These sometimes several hundred pages long WORD and/or PDF documents include topics such as „Guiding the Confused on the Permissibility of Killing the Prisoners”[9], referring to the capture of seven Russian police officers in Chechnya who were later executed; the call to join, or a call for Jihad, as written by Abdullah ‘Azzam in his prominent document entitled „ Join the Caravan!”[10] or the writings of al-Maqdisi, who is currently imprisoned in Jordan and who regularly denounces democracy and democratic elections as being un-Islamic and therefore kufr (disbelief)[11], are circulating on the Internet and are being read by mostly those who also are participants (active and passive) in the numerous online forums.

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Shared by AQ groups online 2000s

The Internet has become essential to understand (and identify) the ideology of al-Qa’ida and other radical islamic currents. With the creation of online databases, the ideological documents are now available for everybody. The Jihadis have undertaken the endeavour of digitalising a great deal of writings that played a major role in the 1980s Jihad against the Soviets (Abdullah Azzam) and have influenced a generation of radicalized youth, who then continued this tradition – only this time using laptops and the Internet.

Most authors of ideological documents – as listed above – usually entitle themselves as being a Shaykh, a respected and knowledgeable man, who has either studied at a Islamic university and specialized in sharia law or other fields of Islam, or is being called a Shaykh because of his understanding of Islam. Take Yusuf al-‘Ayiri, the ideological predecessor of Faris az-Zahrani (also known as Abu Jandal al-Azdi) and the first leader of the al-Qa’ida organization in Saudi Arabia. Although he never completed secondary school, he has become one of the best-known and famous authors of Jihad literature. He was killed during a clash with Saudi security forces in 2003, but has since his death attained an even more important role and his writings are influencing those, who are interested to find out more about Jihad through the Internet. His writings consist of works such as „The Ruling on Jihad and its [varying] Classes“, „The Truth about the New Crusader War”, or „The Islamic Ruling on the Permissibility of Self-Sacrificial Operations.“ After his death al-Qa’ida started to publish its second online magazine to commemorate al-‘Ayiri, it was called mu’askar al-battar (the Camp of the Sabre), whose nom du guerre had been al-Battar.

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The Case of Abu Jandal al-Azdi

 

Faris az-Zahrani, known by his alias Abu Jandal al-Azdi is an ideologue whose importance and meaning is not much inferior to al-’Ayiri’s. Both ‘scholars’ have added many important documents that are vital for ideological purposes of al-Qa’ida and are crucial for its survival and propaganda. While al-‘Ayiri reappears regularly on the Internet[12], Faris az-Zahrani is a special case even though he has not been as popular as al-‘Ayiri. Az-Zahrani was arrested in Saudi Arabia in August 2004, „while he was preparing a bomb attack on a cultural centre in the town of Abha, in the south of the Kingdom.“[13] Unlike al-‘Ayiri or most of the wanted Mujahidin and ideologues, az-Zahrani, the number 8 on the list of the 26 most wanted jihadis, is alive, serving a prison sentence and has a university degree[14]. He has become known for having written books and essays such as „Bin Laden: The Reformer of our Times and Defeater of the Americans”[15], his book referring to 9/11 „Allahu akbar – America has been devastated”, or „the Dispute [between] the Sword and the Pen”[16] and for his articles in the Voice of Jihad (such as „Pledge them Loyalty until Death”[17]). Az-Zahrani, whose real name was unknown until the release of the „List of the 26 Most Wanted”[18] by Saudi authorities explains in an interview with the Voice of Jihad his reasons for publishing under the alias Abu Jandal al-Azdi, as he compares himself with other prominent ideologues. Beginning with Osama bin Laden (also known as Abu ‘Abdallah, or Abu Qa’qaa’), he refers to other scholars that publish their work using an alias, „since the Mujahidin and their leaders are at war with the Crusaders, the Jews (America and Britain […]) and their agents, the heretics, who are present in our country.”[19] He goes on by mentioning the works of writers and scholars that are available online and it seems that az-Zahrani has read most, if not all, of their work and concludes „the day will come, you will know who is Abu Jandal al-Azdi – I am begging God for firmness until death.”[20].

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Unlike the older scholars, the new generation of radical writers are roaming freely on the Internet, having adapted themselves to modern technology, being able not only to read the huge amounts of must-read Jihad literature, but they do not have to fear being arrested while secretly printing or distributing their writings. In an interview with the Voice of Jihad, az-Zahrani reveals how he used the Internet to publish his work and explains the advantage of the Web. Being asked „well known on the Internet is your beneficial book ‘the Scholar on the Ruling of Killing Individuals and Officers of the Secret Police’, could you briefly tell us about the judicial sharia-ruling [that allows] to target the secret police?”[21], Az-Zahrani informs the reader about the second edition of this „most famous book, that is circulating on the Internet, (…) this book provoked [lots of] good reactions among those seeking knowledge and the youth of Islam, and it also provoked severe reactions from the supporters of the idols [the ruling Saudi family].”[22] Books like these and articles of the Voice of Jihad, as for example „the Urgent Letter to the Soldiers in the Land of the Two Holy Places”[23] led to reactions by Saudi counter-terrorist units. Furthermore az-Zahrani delivers a detailed description how his work stirred up the establishment ‘ulama’, the religious scholars of Saudi Arabia who are loyal to the Saudi ruling family, and reflects about the reaction of several Arabic newspapers after one of his students confronted his professor with this work – and was banned from university. „After five days I met the young man, the agonized innocent, and I asked him whether or not he has returned to his studies, he said no. I told him that I will take his matter to the Minister of Education […]., I withdrew the book from the Internet and gave the Minister of wakf (endowment) a copy […], but we never saw any reaction.”[24] Az-Zahrani concludes the first part of the interview by drawing a direct parallel to al-Maqdisi, who wrote the book „Obvious Disclosures of the Disbelief of the Saudi State”[25]. What had been the case with al-Maqdisi happened to az-Zahrani: both had published books using an alias, both attacked the Saudi system and the ruling family, denouncing them as being unbelievers, heretics, stressing that it is the fault of the Saudis, that Americans and Westerners are in the holiest country of Islam and both sparked public debates lead by the establishment ‘ulama’ on national TV.

The capture of az-Zahrani has been a vital blow against al-Qa’ida in Saudi Arabia, just a few months after the death of the newly appointed third leader ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Muqrin; the organization lost their leading ideologue as well. Immediately after his arrest, the Voice of Jihad published a „Statement regarding the Capture of Abu Salman Faris az-Zahrani,”[26] clearly defining what may best be termed as re-enacting prophecy.

Re-enacting Prophecy – re-enacting Moses and the Game of the Pharaohs”

 

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For Jihadis life is full of temptation (fitna) and trials (ibtila’) set by God and only those who are true believers can resist these temptations, remain focused and concentrated on the main objective of human existence – the service of God, Him alone (‘tawhid’). The battle is on against a system of disbelief and heresy, notably led by the U.S. with the help of their agents within the Islamic world, whereas the members of the ruling clan of the Saud family are nothing less than agents of the West. This notion is part of a widespread rhetoric in Jihad literature. Therefore the perception of being imprisoned by Saudi authorities means to be imprisoned by the worldwide system of disbelief, whereas the God fearing, righteous Muslim is suddenly subdued, his belief is endangered and will be tested. The „Statement regarding the Capture” starts with the declaration that „captivity is a milestone of the marks of the path”[27] and „a form of the test, by which God wants to trial the believers and is a ruse of the unbelievers, just as God says: “And when those who disbelieve plot against thee (O Muhammad) to wound thee fatally, or to kill thee or to drive thee forth; they plot, but Allah (also) plotteth; and Allah is the best of plotters.”[28] The statement continues by directly comparing the situation of the Muhjahidin today with Moses, who was sent by God to the Pharaoh and who was – just like the Mujahidin in their perception – persecuted and imprisoned by the infidel ruler. To underline their argument, several verses of the Quran are being cited. Unusual is the fact that most of these verses are taken from the surat ash-shu’ara’ (the Poets), that narrates the stories of the Prophets Moses, Abraham, Noah, Hud, Salih and others. Just like the Mujahidin, Moses was first tempted in prison, then later publicly contested – and beat the Pharaoh by his unique arguments and his ability to counter the magic deployed by the magicians summoned by the Pharaoh.[29] By this he won over the people and the magicians , who subsequently recognized that Moses was sent by God and recognized that Pharaoh is not their Lord and his Gods have proven wrong.[30] This notion probably prospered when the Saudi „government, under pressure because of the violence[31], apparently tried to appease the Jihadis by offering an amnesty period of one month (June – July 2004).”[32] Now, just like the interaction of Pharaoh and Moses, the ruling system, deemed infidel, invited the opponents, the Mujahidin, fighting on the „path of God” to – just like Moses – be opposed by the rulers who activated „specific heraldries, having been able to mobilize armies from their available soldiers (magicians, scholars, authors, journalists and the general media).”[33] If the majority of the Mujahidin and their scholars accepted this amnesty, then they would have been imprisoned because the ruler is aware that he cannot defeat the „arguments of truth” and would thus publicly display his flaws. Since the rulers are aware of that, according to az-Zahrani, there cannot „be a true dialogue with the People of the Truth (= the Mujahidin),” for they, the Saudi government, are „incapable to give answers to the questions by the free Mujahidin […] published on their websites and elsewhere.” The questions are for example:

„What is the ruling on the rulers who do not judge based on what God has revealed (…); what is the ruling on the rulers who decide, based on the laws of disbelief and idolatry, instead of what God has ruled; what is the ruling on the rulers, who permit the inviolable and have forbidden the permissible; what is the ruling on the rulers that wage war on God, His messenger and the believers, using different kinds of techniques, [such means as] enticement and terror; what is the ruling on the rulers that keep the peoples away from the religion of God?”

These questions have not been answered by the Saudi regime. Radical ideologues like az-Zahrani claim to be the bearer of truth with their attacks on the regime, stating that „whoever does not do what they [the Saud family] want, then they will place him in their prisons, and they will torture him, and they will say there is no dialogue with such people except with the rifle and the sword.” The question is not co-existence, but to remove the ungodly ruler and (re-) establish an Islamic caliphate on the Arabian Peninsula, implying the rule of God, the sharia and thus allowing all Muslims, all believers the right path, defined by the strict exegesis of Quran and Sunna. The constant comparison to Moses and the Pharaoh is an ancient comparison to modern times – obeying the ruler and denouncing belief, or resisting the ruler and be imprisoned. And just as Pharaoh had assembled his „magicians”, so will the rulers of Saudi Arabia gather their „magicians” to fight an inevitable battle with the Mujahidin, who will like Moses remain steadfast and resolve this battle victorious.

Quranic verses, taken out of their context and placed to underline the arguments such as 26:29: [Pharao said] „If thou choosest a god other than me, I assuredly shall place thee among the prisoners”, re-affirm the reader (and the writer) of their holy mission, that they cannot be misguided and are struggling not only for the truth but a greater good, namely the Islamic umma. According to al-Zahrani, the „phenomenon of the Pharaoh” is present at all times, throughout history of mankind – manifested by the rule of the Al Saud (Saudi family) on the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. With their writings, ideologues such as Faris az-Zahrani consolidate the conviction of certain circles, that the near enemies, the governments in the Arabic countries are kept alive by the West, if it serves the interest of the West and rule their people not only in a un-Islamic manner but do not tolerate any form of freedom.[34] And freedom for hard-core ideologues like az-Zahrani and others means that their interpretation of the religion of God must be applied.

What has been written about imprisonment, torture, arbitrary use of power, etc, by certain regimes in the Middle East may be true; the mixture of frustration and the obligatory identification of a scapegoat combined with the Islamists conviction that their understanding of Islam is the only permissible school of thought (for all of mankind) has become an attractive alternative to many younger people, not only living in the Middle East.

2020 Does the writings by al-Zahrani / al-Azdi still matter?

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Writings released 2014/5 featured in the context of writings by al-Azdi, having penned “advice to the soldier” whereas 2014/5 IS took this right up to issue a clear (based on AQAP generation output) “ruling in regards of the soldier of the taghut”;

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and al-Azdi’s scholarly framed “ruling on killing individuals and soldiers of the secret police”;

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and of course the now intensified cross-platform use: IS January 2020 advising to get know al-Azdi using old links (up since 2015) via TamTam.

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[1] Most of these forums, which are sometimes falsely described as chat-rooms, are online for several years now. Some of these forums have vanished, others have always been re-established after having been shut down by either authorities, or, as we can observe these days, by individuals who undertake counter-cyberjihadist measures. See for example: http://www.washingtontimes.com/article/20071010/NATION/110100083.

[2] There is countless data on the web – especially in the forums issues such as bomb-making or tips for snipers are being discussed. Sometimes Mujahidin share their field knowledge and sometimes users simply seek the know-how.

[3] The main forums are all Arabic, but forums in other languages (English, Turkish, Russian etc.) are available. The Jihad videos are also sometimes subtitled and quite a few documents have been translated by „brothers of the translation department” into English.

[4] sawt al-jihad number 11, 17.

[5] Al-Qa’ida is subdivided in several organizations (tanzim), each having a specific name, identifying the area of operation; tanzim al-Qa’ida fi-jazirat al-‘arab is the official name for those cells operating on the Arabian Peninsula. Commented translations of all statements and memoranda made by al-Qa’ida on the Arabian Peninsula: Nico Prucha, Die Stimme des Dschihad – al-Qa’ida’s erstes online Magazin (thesis soon to be published).

[6] These few categories shown here as an example, serve to manage and keep track of the loads of growing downloadable data.

[7] This program, called „the Secrets of the Mujahiden” (asrar al-mujahidin), was published online in the forums and has received some attention on the Internet. This program, written by the „Technical Squadron” of the GIMF, the Global Islamic Media Front, is designed to be a secure method of communicating over the Internet, for „al-Qa’ida worldwide, for the Islamic State Iraq, Ansar as-Sunna (…)”, even for the „Islamic Army of Palestine” and the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat – the GSPC that officially became the Organization al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb. More prominent is a handbook called „the technical mujahid” (al-mujahid at-tiqqani), that gives a detailed description how to use PGP encryption software (chapter 4), how to hide data within JPEG pictures (chapter 1) and how to fire smart weapons, shoulder-fired rockets at U.S. Army helicopters (chapter 3). For a good insight on the manual: Abdul Hameed Bakier, The New Issue of Technical Mujahid, a Training Manual for Jihadis, Terrorism Monitor, March 29, 2007, http://jamestown.org/news_details.php?news_id=232 (09.10.2007).

[8] Islamic legal documents, issued by the ‘ulama’ (religious scholars). Since al-Qa’ida doesn’t recognize the Saudi ‘ulama’, al-Qa’ida ideologues issue their own fatwa’s, denouncing the Saudi ‘ulama’ as ungodly and therefore claiming to be responsible for the guidance of the Islamic community.

[9] Yusuf Al-Ayiri, Al-hadayat al-hiyara fi-juwaz qatl al-asara – for a description of the writings of this prominent al-Qa’ida ideologue: Roel Meijer, „Re-Reading al-Qaeda Writings of Yusuf al-Ayiri, http://www.isim.nl/files/Review_18/Review_18-16.pdf.

[10] Abdallah Azzam, Ilhaq al-qafila, http://tawhed.ws/r?i=1600 – a detailed commented translation of his article „ Join the Caravan” is provided by Thomas Hegghammer in Al-Qaida Texte des Terrors, ed. Gilles Kepel and Jean P. Milelli (Munich: Piper, 2006), 193-212.

[11] For example: „Useful answers regarding parliamentary participation and it’s election [that are] contradicting the unity of God” (p.10-25) – taken from the „ Fatwa-Collection by Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.”

[12] In most forums a new file (19.10.2007) had been posted and ready to be downloaded – a 440 MB-data compilation that comprises al-Ayiri’s writings and speeches, as well the writings of other prominent al-Qa’ida activists (e.g. al-Muqrin) that had been killed by Saudi security forces.

[13] Roel Meijer, The ‘Cycle of Contention’ and the Limits of Terrorism in Saudi Arabia, in Saudi Arabia in the Balance: Political Economy, Society, Foreign Affairs, ed. Paul Aarts and Gerd Nonneman (London: Hurst and Company, 2005), 271-314.

[14] According to Stephen Ulph, „ he was highly trained in fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] and was a graduate of the Shari’ah College of Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University’s Abha branch.” Stephen Ulph,  Al-Qaeda’s Ideological Hemorrhage, The Jamestown Foundation, http://jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?articleid=2368409.

[15] For a description of this work: Reuven Paz, Sawt al-Jihad: New Indoctrination of Qa’idat al-jihad, PRISM Series of Global Jihad, No. 8, http://www.e-prism.org/images/PRISM_no_8.doc.

[16] http://tawhed.ws/a?i=9 – a list of most of his publications.

[17] Sawt al-Jihad Number 13, 16-18.

[18] http://www.saudiembassy.net/documents/Wanted%20Poster.pdf.

[19] Sawt al-Jihad number 10, 23.

[20] Ibid.

[21] The intention is of the interviewer is the receive a clear statement by the scholar az-Zahrani, based on the Islamic corpus juris, that allows to actively combat the Saudi authorities, especially it’s agents of the secret police and also the common soldier.

[22] Sawt al-Jihad number 10, 26.

[23] Sawt al-Jihad number 16, 21-26 defines the soldiers in the service of the authorities as being apostates (murtadin), who are being used by the Saudi government and the Crusaders as executioners. „ If you do not obey those [Saudi] ‘ulama in resisting God, there is no doubt that you are not just guilty of disobedience [to God], but of apostasy from Islam (…). You are not assisting the Crusaders in a few words, you have assisted them by yourselves (…), why don’t the Crusaders come by themselves to kill the Mujahidin!!!”

[24] Sawt al-Jihad number 10, 26.

[25] http://tawhed.ws/r?i=2

[26] Sawt al-Jihad number 22, 5-6.

[27] Referring to the work Milestones by Sayyid Qutb (ma’alim fi-t tariq).

[28] Quran 8:30, translation by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, http://www.sacred-texts.com/isl/pick/index.htm.

[29] Quran 26:30-38 (Pickthall).

[30] Quran 8:50(Pickthall).

[31] In 2004 the Jihadis had targeted several Western oil companies and killed five Western workers in the Red Sea city of Yanbu.

[32] Al-Rasheed, Contesting the Saudi State Islamic Voices from a New Generation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 190.

[33] Abu Jandal Al-Azdi, A Program We won’t show you except what the Al Sa’ud perceives and the Al Sa’ud doesn’t Guide you to anything else than to the Path of Reason, http://tawhed.ws/r?i=1823. This document is also known by the title the Game of the Pharaohs.

[34] A common theme in the jihadi literature, and thoroughly described in “The Statement of the Mujahidin on the Arabian Peninsula concerning the last declarations of the [Saudi] Ministry of the Interior” that calls for the fight against the rulers as being a jihad for freedom, against tyranny and oppression; Sawt al-Jihad number 2, 33-35.

Back to the Nashir – Total Decentralization and Enhanced Resilience

Much has been written – and claimed – about the importance of the “Nashir” setup for the online presence of IS. By its logo, most times despite some variations, Nashir is easy to identify, even for non-Arabic speakers. As outlined before, Nashir is part of the IS ecosystem of online operations, but by no means “the” core spine or the central hub. From the start of jihadist online operations in the pre-9/11 2001 era, they have been resourceful, creative, highly adaptive and keen to adapt to new possibilities showcasing a high degree of innovation of ensuring to fulfilling – in jihadist mindset – the divine command of militant actions in real-life and a coherent flow of content framed as da’wa for the electronic and non-electronic realms.

In short, whatever is possible online, jihadists have been keen and adventurous from start to tamper with and follow a best-practice use that develops from a user perspective to ensure their wide range of violent, pro-violent, non-violent content stays up for as long as possible. The same habitus accounts for jihadist battlefield experiments and making use of scarce resources – as in early of the Iraq war who remembers the handles of shovels re-used as butts for pieced-together Dragunov sniper rifles?

“For the time being, for as far as we know, IS is not present on the internet anymore and we will see how fast, if ever, they will regain service”, according to Belgian Federal Prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt after a massive takedown of IS accounts and networks on Telegram, IS was quick to kick back into action within about twelve hours. As the Nashir accounts had been culled, a big fuss was being made of the importance of IS having lost its core network.

IS creates content and pushes it out via dispersed networks. While this was centered on Telegram as the main dissemination hub, the Europol-led takedown of IS networks on that platform had the consequence that the networks formerly confined to Telegram are now on over a dozen of platforms and services similar to Telegram. Needles to write, the use of ‘outside’ links to/for the ‘surface’ web continues uninterrupted – but you need to monitor a lot of platforms now to ensure collecting as much as possible IS hubs (from Telegram, yes IS was back quick, to TamTam, Hoop, BCM, etc. etc.).

Cross platform use furthermore has a higher level of resilience as links to respective platforms are exchanged and increasingly a need for a exchange of quick private messages is required to receive ‘trusted’ links, including selected Nashir channels to avoid further takedown (including a Facebook messenger link).

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Back to the Nashir

With Nashir alive and kicking on over a dozen of platforms, posting/reposting ‘Amaq content, new videos, new written releases (al-Naba’, collected statement of Abu Bakr etc.), Nashir has regained a presence in the blogging sphere.

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Sharing a bit.ly link, first on December 18 within Tamtam and also within Telegram, this particular link was clicked over 19,000 times since its creation on December 10, 2019.

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up-to-date content, ‘Amaq statements claming various attacks in MENA, the Sahel, West Africa, the current al-Naba’ edition, martyr poster – screengrab of the Nashir site.

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Where are consumers most likely located – VPN use distorts yet nobody uses a VPN to switch to a restricted country.

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and another example of diversification – the problem with the very temporary inconvenience as an “IS user” on Telegram due to the end of November Europol cull has enabled to re-enable the Telegram network and over a dozen other platforms as back/ups / parallel use to decentralized da’wa operations online to ensure a persistent presence of up-to-date and ‘historical’ content of primarily Arabic sources that matter gravely to IS.

 “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.