Archive for the ‘1980s jihad vs. Soviets’ category

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

January 14, 2018

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Part 4: Understanding the Resilience and Appeal of “Islamic State” Electronic Propaganda and Beyond

August 28, 2017

Resuming the ” Islamic state Briefing”, this week with part four. The depth of the jihadist movement ranges back to the 1980s and ISIS has its history since the 2000s.

The study of the Jihadist movement has tried to understand it in terms of street criminals, gangsters, individuals obsessed with computer games (particularly first person shooters), and a desire to go from zero-to-hero. It hardly addresses foreign fighters from Arab countries and often lack any attempt to address the theological aspects of the movement, imagery, encoded messages and prominence of scholars within the Jihadist movement’s overall interpretation of theological concepts, including an Islamic State model of governance. Reducing the Sunni extremist cosmos by only focusing on the “Islamic State” after 2013 at best, referring to them as “jihadists” while not even considering the history of IS since the very beginning in the 2000s, leads to a marginal understanding of the group and the motivations behind it. Neglecting the massive quantity of high quality Arabic language writings by ISIS and the Sunni extremist cosmos it stems from is a disaster. Core concepts such as tawhid or shirk are widely unknown and only briefly explained at best. What is missing is a discourse based on thorough, evidence based facts. However, these facts cannot weigh into discourse or echo within academic research, when Arabic sources and the theological universe that drives Sunni extremists remain neglected. Without proper Arabic skills and with no deep-rooted research on Islamic theology, the Sunni extremist movements remains hidden behind a firewall. Without knowing this content by heart and being able to decipher visual codes, uncovering extremist networks online is a challenge and has led to the assumption there is a decline of ISIS media production. This is the case, if researchers only look at superficial English language content on Twitter and do not see the rich blend of materials that are published in Arabic – and since early 2016 to a great extent on Telegram.

Ignoring the huge library of writing by focusing on only the narrow daily announcements, or English language material, leads to dangerous misinterpretations of the movement – even more so, when not even Latinized Arabic key words in English language propaganda releases are questioned or taken into consideration. Facing the contemporary challenge of the Jihadist movement, policy cannot afford to fall for superficial interpretations, which emphasize memes, general simplifications, infographics, and flashy videos – and generally ignore the deep theological nuanced Arabic publications.

The movement is significantly more complex than these interpretations suggest.

The ideology that is based on theological concepts and framings of al-Qa’ida (AQ) and subsequently the splinter group the Islamic State (ISIS) and its ability to propagate this theological spectrum as a monopoly of truth through professional promotion and marketing material disseminated via modern communication technology has proven to be its most resilient foundation and greatest innovation. This Jihadist media activism is evident and strengthens this resilience on a daily basis with new audio-visual and written propaganda uploaded from a number of conflict zones, in numerous languages, to a wide range of online social platforms and multimedia channels.

Policy makers in the U.S. and the E.U. lack a thorough understanding – for jihadist narratives that are widely based on religious scripture, advocating a cohesive and coherent ideology, that is, to be precise, theology. This theology is based on complex religious principals, offered mainly in Arabic and has its basis in the 1980s to contemporary al-Qa’ida ideologues, whereas ISIS in particular displays the implementation thereof in oftentimes easy to comprehend audio-visual productions. The Sunni extremist writings and videos from back in the 1980s to today refer and cite not only religious scripture, selected ayyat from the Qur’an and hadith – deeds and sayings ascribed to Prophet Muhammad – but also cite and reference historical Sunni Islamic scholars such as Ibn Taymiyya, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, Ibn al-Qayyim or Ibn Nahhas, to name a few. This is part of the textual layer that is being pushed out on all channels on the Internet. Historical scholars – overwhelmingly having written in Arabic  – are often quoted “who says there is no distinction to be made between combatants and non-combatants. A Wahhabi scholar from the 19th/20th century is quoted saying that in principle killing unbelievers is allowed. This is another proof for the family resemblance between Wahhabism and Jihadism, easily substantiated by the number of theological tracts republished by IS”, as noted by Rüdiger Lohlker in reference to the Barcelona attacks. Without Arabic and the proper command of knowing who such historical scholars are and under which circumstances their theological treatises were penned and why this matters today and  how this is used by online media savvy activists, most documents and videos by jihadists remain a safe haven. Not to mention the general lack of understanding the scope, pace and depth ISIS has on Telegram, whereas most studies of 2017 solely focus on Twitter, claiming twitter remains the entry point and primary dissemination hub for ISIS.

Community building takes place on Telegram and twitter is used for media raids – while the content varies between Arabic theological support materials and core graphic materials. Researchers need to focus on both while understanding and the ecosystem and where it all stems from.

The daily content is just the tip of the iceberg. The archive of Sunni extremism represents what the movement is about, lays out the strategy, and justification for actions. Alone ISIS released over 2,000 official videos and much more daily short clips; all in all, from the 1980s to today, over half a million – mainly Arabic – documents exist in digital format, whereas materials before the age of mass digitalization have been digitalized by the first generation of committed electronic media mujahidin in the 2000s.[1] 116 editions of the Arabic language magazine “al-Jihad” were printed and disseminated from 1984-1995, focusing on Afghanistan, Palestine and later the Balkans. The first generation of al-Qa’ida on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) pioneered the electronic frontier of jihad by releasing two magazines, “The Voice of Jihad” (in sum over 1,500 pages) and “The Military Camp of the Sword.” Nothing about ISIS as of 2017 is new, if such magazines have been read and taken into account when studying jihadism.

The cover of the al-Jihad magazine of June 1985 addresses “our sisters, the Mujahidat”, women who fought alongside males in the war against the Soviet occupation. More telling, however, is the advertisement for ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam’s book “The Defense of Muslim Lands is the Among the Most Important of an Individual’s Duties”. ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam was a Islamic scholar (shaykh) from Palestine and had been a university lecturer for Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) in Amman, Jordan.[2] In 1989, he and his two eldest sons Muhammad and Ibrahim were killed in a car bomb in Peshawar, Pakistan.[3] ‘Azzam is until now, decades after he died, one of the most influential theologians, who is being regularly cited, referenced and eulogized by all outlets of jihadist media capacity.[4] In 1988, ‘Azzam travelled to Seattle, USA, and gave a khutba, the Friday prayer. This khutba was filmed and that video is part of the Sunni extremist ecosystem. While he was in Seattle, the conflict in Afghanistan was slowly but surely coming to an end. Dominated by the events of the jihad against the Soviet Red Army, ‘Azzam not only tries to recruit and ‘re-introduce’ Islam to his audience of America-based Muslims but he moves a step ahead and attacks the United States as another major, logical future enemy at a second or third stage of jihad with the victory in Afghanistan in sight for the Mujahideen. ‘Azzam’s khutba provides a usual mix of citations from the Qur’an and sunna, bound to his contemporary tales of the fighting Mujahidin as well as the suffering Muslim population in Afghanistan. While he also includes stories and details of individual Mujahidin who fought and died, who attained the “shahada on the path of God” (i.e. died as ‘martyrs’) and witnessed divine blessings during their service for God, ‘Azzam repeatedly addresses the need to “establish an Islamic state” that can only be realized by jihad, combat (qital) with the potential to enter Paradise (janna) while struggling for this divine aim. ‘Azzam, who was a highly industrious writer and who frequently gave sermons, introduced stories from the Afghan jihad and tales of the shuhada’, killed Mujahideen who as a result attained the shahada for the sake of religion, and has made such stories from the frontlines of jihad popular, accessible and perhaps somewhat mainstream.[5] One of his documents, the 251 page long writing entitled “The Craving for the Women of Paradise” (al-hur)[6], can be considered as a template for contemporary jihadist publications (writings and videos) regarding the shuhada’, glorifying jihad and providing the theological and historical necessity to do so.

For jihadis, the age old question of fard al-‘ayn and fard al-kifayya, pondering whether or not combat is confined to Afghanistan and Palestine at this stage (mid 1980s);

Addressing the theological-operational element of nafir;

And the questions of Muslim unity and disbeliever aggression, etc. all of these elements matter for jihadism and since the Syrian revolution turned extremely bloody and was hijacked by seasoned jihadist fighters and clerics, these elements are of essential value to understand the mess in the Middle East (and attacks/operations elsewhere; besides Europe there are The Philippines, Indonesia, various attacks in Russia, Maldives etc.).

This is just one example of the tradition of Sunni extremist content – online &offline – that forms the basis of materials published by the “Islamic State” as of 2017. Including, materials that are available online and are also handed out within ISIS territories, as has been documented since 2013 by the very media cycle of ISIS.

This ecosystem contains the answers to questions posed by those who only read the daily updates. For example, the archive of the Jihadist movement contains the rationale stretching back to fighting with the Soviets in Afghanistan for when female suicide bombers are permitted and when they are not, it is no mystery when research takes in the archive of Arabic documents.

The documents and videos produced by Islamic State project what they consider to be a real Sunni Muslim, on the path of God who acts in accordance with divine rule and regulations which the early Muslims had under the leadership of Prophet Muhammad. Any release by IS – as much as by AQ – seeks to inform, educate and convince the consumer that the jihadis are the only “true” Muslims, following the correct “prophetic methodology” This ideational content echoes an earlier prediction about an internet-enabled ideological struggle over the definition of reality. In this vision, warfare would be “conducted on an entirely new battleground; it is a struggle not over territory or boundaries but over the very definitions of these terms”[7] where IS seeks to maintain hegemony over concepts such as the “prophetic methodology” and other theological concepts expressed by key words.

The battle for these definitions occur in the physical landscape and equally on the digital platforms that comprise the information ecosystem.

Neglecting the evidence that jihadi networks online are both agile and unified around coherent theological “narratives”, risks breeding a sense of complacency, which allows the Islamic State (and other jihadi groups) to develop physical and digital locations to which they can retreat and regroup. This is a real risk if the current shift in distribution strategy adopted by the Islamic State is viewed as decline, rather than a reconfiguration and refocusing of effort. Yet acknowledging that the “decline” is based on faulty research, which neither takes the vast amount of Telegram communication into consideration or Arabic language materials (or Arabic words used in non-Arabic propaganda releases).

Islamic State communicates its strategy to supporters predominantly in Arabic and oftentimes uses citations of legitimate mainly Arabic language scriptures, the Holy Qur’an and Hadith (deeds and sayings of Prophet Muhammad) as well as scholarly religious (historical and contemporary) writings.[8] These citations of historical as well as contemporary Islamic scholars are frequent in writings and are woven into the audio-visual productions of jihadis.[9] This cannon of material which jihadis  have to hand justifies, from their perspective, their acts and seeks to provide a clear identity; of what being a “Sunni Muslim” means to them.

[1] Nico Prucha: Die Stimme des Dschihad – al-Qa’idas erstes Online Magazin, Dr. Kovac: Hamburg, 2010.

[2] Hegghammer, T. (2008) Abdullah Azzam, der Iman des Dschihad in Kepel, G. / Milelli, J. (2008) Al-Qaida – Texte des Terrors (München, Zürich: Piper), pp. 148-157. Hegghammer describes ‘Azzam’s academic development, his “religious studies in Damascus (1963-1966)”, his “Palestinian Jihad (1967-1970)”, his “promotion at the al-Azhar” University, Cairo, (1971-1973) and his “years in Amman (1973-1980)”. He become a professor in Jidda and was able to acquire a position in the Saudi funded new international Islamic University in Islamabad.

[3] He was killed on Friday, 24.11.1989 at about seven o’clock in the morning, on his way to a mosque in Peshawar to preach the Friday sermon. Muhammad was 20 and his brother 15 years old (Hegghammer). Various conspiracy theories exist, who killed ‘Azzam (Hegghammer, pp. 163-164). Ranging from bin Laden who had him removed to gain control over the Arab fighters, to al-Zawahiri, who wanted the Egyptians in charge and who wanted to attack the regimes in the Middle East while ‘Azzam vowed for the Mujahideen to remain in Afghanistan to found a true Islamic state. Or was it a personal revenge, committed by an Afghan splinter group or was it the ISI?

[4] The double-agent Abu Dujana al-Khurasani, aka Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who on 30 December 2009 killed several CIA and Jordanian GID agents in Khost, Afghanistan, by undertaking a suicide-operation claimed in one of “last interviews” also to have revenged ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam. According to al-Balawi, the GID is responsible for his murder. Prucha, N. (2010) Notes on the Jihadists’ Motivation for Suicide-Operations, Journal for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies, 4 (1), pp. 65.

[5] ‘Azzam, ‘A. (1987) Ilhaq bi-l-qafila, (25.10.2010). “Join the Caravan” is a classical work of the jihad literature.

[6] ‘Azzam, ‘A. ‘Ushshaq al-Hur, (02.10.2010). “The ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam folder” can be accessed here:

[7] Douglas Rushkoff, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace, Harpercollins Publishers (reprint): New York, 1995.

[8] Among the tens of thousands of writings are prominent items such as “An Abbreviated Biography of the Prophet – Peace and Blessings upon him” by ISIS media foundation Maktabat al-Himma (2015, 335 pages) or the 1106 page long theological tractate by Khalid bin ‘Ali al-Mardi on shirk – ascribing or the establishment of “partners” placed beside God, which is a frequent theological sanctioning used to execute “apostates” and Shiites within ISIS videos.

[9] Linguistic problems are nothing new in the study of terrorism. See for example:

Saying thanks to the government of Pakistan and the jihad of the 80ties

June 3, 2007

Another category: the 1980ties jihad against the soviets. I recently had the chance to look at the famous “encyclopedia of jihad” – thousands and thousands of pages on weapons, security, intelligence, espionage, prisons etc.

Most of that are actually translations of US Army and other documents which the West had provided to the Mujahidin of the 1980s to combat the Soviets. But these translations have over time been altered and experience from the field aswell as “tales of soldiers and commanders” have entered these encyclopedias – all of it in Arabic. Now all of these documents are widely availible on the internet, mostly in the radical-islamistic arabic forums. Most of these documents bear the signature of the maktab al-khidmat, a “service office” created by – most prominently – Abdullah Azzam and Gulbiddin Hekmatyar. Together with bin Laden, these offices established lists of recruits, which were the basis for further jihad activity in Afghanistan – the rest of the story is more or less know. Please note that these documents and lists bearing thousands and thousands of names of people who underwent training and combat in Afghanistan are the origin of the name/label al-Qa’ida (the basis).

Its important and quite interesting to go through these documents, most of them are hardly readable as they are scanned to PDF from the original typewriter copies, but importand links can be found.

  1. Typical for the maktab al-khidmat documents are that the first 4 or 5 pages look like the one shown: claiming the aims and giving out credits
  2. Abdallah Azzam is often already mentioned as a shahid, so these documents were renewed after 1989 and bin Laden is mentioned as a big hotshot
  3. Lots of information on military hardware and combat skills show up in the mu’askar al-battar, a military magazine of the saudi cells, published parallel to the voice of jihad.
  4. Not surprising the “religious” ideology has hardly changed, but there are some changes
  5. Not only the basis for the already mu’askar al-battar, but also several concepts, such as the concept of security and safety and “islamic” security perceptions are sometimes identical to the newly released encyyclopedias (such as the “ultimate security encyclopedia)


On page 5 of the document entitled “security and intelligence” the mujahidin thank the government of Pakistan. The Full translation of this page is as follows:

Thanking – God, exalted is he, says: “do not withhold the things of the people, that are their due” [7:85]

One who doesn’t thank the people, doesn’t thank god [hadith]

We thank the government of Pakistan, a government by the people for allowing the arab brethren to stay on their soil, despite of the heavy preassure from the enemies of God because of the victory of their brethren, the afgan-mujahidin.

We ask God may he protect this government [well, things changed today] against the tricks of its enemies and may it remain a reserve for Islam and the muslims – signed: maktab al-khidmat