The release of the video Salil al-sawarim (SaS) by ISIS’s media department al-Furqan in May 2014 demonstrated the sophistication of the jihadist use of social media to disseminate their video content. At the time, this had been Twitter – needless to write, Telegram as of early 2016 – and now in full swing as of end of 2017 – has replaced Twitter as the first entry point for new IS curated content. The Twitter metrics are detailed at Jihadica (two part series). Notions and sentiments visualized by videos such as Salil al-Sawarim over the past years have enabled to jihadists to project influence on a number of layers and levels, demonstrating how – in their mindset – Islamic territory has to be “restored” and “cleansed”. The first three Salil al-sawarim videos had been very popular, high quality edited and showed a mix of extreme obscene violence and ideology at play by IS’ predecessor “the Islamic State of Iraq”.
This post provides a few elements of Salil al-sawarim 4, or the “clanging of the swords, 4” as it provides an excellent example of a certain form of IS propaganda. More specifically, it is a key example of how IS uses theology to justify the actions of its fighters and legitimise its occupation of territory in Syria and Iraq – and the legacy it leaves behind as of end of 2017 with the loss of most of the territory the jihadists had managed to control, according to al-Quds al-Arabi.
The series Salil al-Sawarim is particularly illustrative of this emphasis on theology. Readers sufficiently initiated into the mainly Arabic language corpus of Sunni extremist theology will understand the title’s particular reference right away; it refers to the book al-Sarim al-maslul ‘ala shatim al-rasul, “the Sharp Sword on whoever Insults the Prophet.” Its author is 13th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 AD), who is often referred to as shaykh al-Islam (“the scholar of Islam) in the conservative / orthodox Arabic-Islamic framework.
Ibn Taymiyya is renowned for his “characteristically juridical thinking” and viewed as a highly competent legal scholar. His writings are based – at least in part – on Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh).
Ibn Taymiyya has featured prominently in Sunni extremist thought since the 1980s, when AQ established this ideology. The “Islamic State” has based all of its audio-visual output on the theology penned by AQ. The crucial difference is that IS has the territory to implement and enforce this corpus of theology on the population of the self-designated “caliphate”.
Ibn Taymiyya provides a legal framework based on jurisprudential findings for killing “an insulter of the prophet, regardless whether he is a Muslim or a disbeliever”. Whoever insults the Prophet, according to Ibn Taymiyya, “must be killed, no matter if he is a Muslim or disbeliever, and has no right to repent.”
Within the Sunni extremist mind-set, the sword must be drawn upon anyone who opposes their worldview and specific interpretation of Qur’anic sources or the hadith (sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad). In various AQ and IS videos, a specific sound effect subtly underscores references to Ibn Taymiyya’s writings. This sound effect, popular within jihadist online subculture, is that of a sword drawn from its shaft, clanging in the process.
Jihadists have also used the writings of Ibn Taymiyya to justify specific attacks. For example, Muhammed Bouyeri cited Ibn Taymiyya’s book before killing Dutch filmmaker and Islam critic Theo van Gogh in November 2004 in Amsterdam:
“Shortly before he [Bouyeri] killed van Gogh, he circulated the theological tractate on the “heroic deed” of Ibn Maslama per e-mail to his friends. It is one of the 56 texts Bouyeri wrote or distributed. The fatwa of Ibn Taymiyya was among them also in a short leaflet-form downloadable from tawhed.ws titled “The drawn sword against the insulter of the Prophet” (al-sarim al-maslul didda shatim al-rasul). It is likely that the text not only influenced Bouyeri’s decision to assassinate van Gogh, but also his method.
The text details how and why to kill targets, first of all because of insult (shatm, sabb, adhan) of Islam. Bouyeri tried to sever van Gogh’s head with a big knife after he had shot him several times. In the text we find the passage: “the cutting of the head without mercy is legal if the Prophet does not disapprove it.” Moreover, the text advises multiple times to use assassination as an act of deterrence. The slaughter of van Gogh in open daylight seems like a one-to-one translation into reality of the directives we find in the text.”
User-created content on Twitter praising the killing of Theo van Gogh, outlining the theological obligation to hunt anyone who insults Prophet Muhammad or God.
In addition, AQ alluded to the writings of Ibn Taymiyya in a video claiming responsibility for a suicide bombing targeting the Embassy of Denmark in Pakistan in 2008 after a Danish newspaper published cartoon depictions of Muhammad.
Ibn Taymiyya is among several traditionalists and historical scholars who have explored the subject of avenging the Prophet Muhammad. The work by Jordanian-Palestinian jihadist scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi stands out in its attempt to clearly outline who can be killed legitimately for insulting Prophet Muhammad. Al-Maqdisi extends this beyond individuals, and says any government deemed to have insulted either the Prophet, God or religion in general is a legitimate target for reprisal.
In January 2015 two brothers, apparently trained in Yemen by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, opened fire in the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. After the attack, a bystander filmed the Kouachi brothers shouting, “We have avenged the Prophet” (li-intiqamna al-rasul), before fatally shooting wounded French police officer Ahmad Merabet. A video published on January 11, 2015 by the IS-affiliated media outlet, Asawitimedia, praised the attacks. The video is entitled “The French have insulted the Prophet of God – thus a merciless reaction.”
“The French have insulted the Prophet of God”
There is a coherent message across jihadist writings, videos, and theological decrees that say vengeance restores the dignity of Prophet Muhammad. They command individuals worldwide to demonstrate their faith by responding violently to those who insult the Prophet.
IS’ fourth Salil al-Sawarim movie, in which retribution for insulting Prophet Muhammad is the underlying principle of a brutal and rapidly emerging sectarian war (harb ta’ifi), shows IS fighters seeking to exterminate the Shiites, portrayed as a group that has insulted the prophet, his companions, God, and in sum, Islam, since the early days of the religion. This is one of the key theological principles of “the Islamic State of Iraq” that then became even more important in the phase of conquest and expansion into Syria 2012 onwards. The countless videos by the then re-named “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” ensured to reformat its newley conquered territory – on the one hand, killing or forcing locals to join – or public “recant” and return to IS understanding of ahl al-Sunna wa-l jama’a – and on the other hand the systematic eradication of Sufi shrines, graveyards, sacred trees, Shiite mosques, Yazidi temples, Christian churches etc. as based on AQ’s penned and yet fiercly deployed theology by IS’ Godfather Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi – and embodied by the IS and the khilafa as tradition henceforth.
Such nuances are at the very core of all Sunni extremist Arabic language releases – not since IS, but since the very 1980s. What we have witnessed is a subsequent expansion of theological steered acts across regions and countries where Sunni extremists in recent years have had the chance to set up a foothold – no matter how temporary that has been.
in the above sequences of screenshots Ibn al-Qayyim, the disciple of Ibn Taymiyya, referred to as shaykh al-Islam by orthodox Muslims is cited in regards of the destruction of the “site of veneration by the rafidimushrikin”. The text serves as the jurisprudence for IS to act:
- “it is not permissible [for Sunni Muslims] to leave the sites and places of shirk and idols untouched once the power to destroy them is established, even if just for one day. For these are the symbols of kufr and shirk are the from the greatest of evil. Therefore, it is not permissible to rule maintaining after conquering these sites.”
- In Arabic: tawaghit, plural of taghut, a term used in reference of worldly tyrant rulers and idols, worshipped in violation of tawhid. The fight against taghut in jihadist mindset is bound by both elements – fighting worldly un-Islamic Arab regimes and thus restore the ‘true’ Islamic community (umma).
For example, SAS4 shows several sequences in which murdered Iraqi soldiers are described as Shiites, or rejectionists (rafida), a degrading term in Sunni extremist literature. The film marks Shiites as inferior humans who constitute the “interior enemy” because they are Arabs – in Iraq at the time as opposed to the Iranian intervention later. It follows that they are Islam’s most important foe and must be fought first and foremost.
Text and videos are not the only means of spreading the theoretical principle of avenging the Prophet; two of the most popular jihadist songs, or nashid, on YouTube reference Ibn Taymiyya and the notion of killing all those who insult Islam. A nashid by Abu Yaseer has had over 1.5 million views and can easily be retrieved online by searching for “Salil al-Sawarim”. A related nashid with the title “the words [are now about action and hence] words of the sword” by Abu ‘Ali has over 3.5 million views. The reference of the “sword” unites both nashid.
The four-part Salil al-sawarim series conveys three main themes:
- Punishment: It is legitimate to kill anyone considered a non-Sunni Muslim, in particular the Shiites of Iraq. Shiism
- by Sunni extremist standards is portrayed as a sect that has deviated from Islam and seeks to destroy Sunni Islam from within.
- Inclusion and representation: IS is shown operating carefully within Sunni territories in Iraq and Syria, assassinating key government figures and offering the Sunni majority a chance to reintegrate into the true Sunni community – represented solely by the “Islamic State” – by repenting (tawba) their sin of having worked for non-Sunni Muslims.
The chance to repent has become an integral part of IS strategy to consolidate newly-conquered territory. Key IS ideologues such as Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani have supported this strategy; it consists of annihilating key figures of the Iraqi government; punishing Sunnis who collaborated with the Americans or Shiites; and offering Sunni police and soldiers a chance to be cleansed of their sins and restored as true members of the Sunni community by renouncing their past actions and swearing allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
Salil al-sawarim has turned into a popular and active meme online. It fosters IS identity and creates role models in a fandom-styled environment where users can create and upload their own images to praise videos like SAS and the worldview they depict.
IS has become more than an idea or a physical movement. It has managed to spread its “values” and theological reference points across a wide range of online platforms in a number of languages, primarily Arabic.
 Rüdiger Lohlker, Why 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
 Wael b. Hallaq: Ibn Taymiyya against the Greek Logicians. Translated with an introduction by Wael Hallaq, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, xxxiii.
 The book is available online on various websites and outlets, for example Dorar al-Sunniyya, www.dorar.net. A print version is available in most religious book shops in Arab countries. The image is a book cover illustration of a commented version published as: Ibn Taymiyya, al-Sarim al-maslul ‘ala shatim al-rasul li-shaykh al-Islam Taqiyy al-Din Ahmad bin ‘Abd alHalim Ibn Taymiyya al-Harrani, Shibra al-Khayma: Alexandria and Medina, 2008.
 As the author of the citation Philipp Holtmann explains, “terrorists are called upon to identify with the Muslim Ibn Maslama who volunteered to kill Muhammad’s critic Ka’b bin al-Ashraf.” Philipp Holtmann, Virutal Leadership in Radical Islamist Movements: Mechanisms, Justifications and Discussion. Working Paper, The Institute for Policy and Strategy, Herzliya Conference February 6-9, 2011, http://www.herzliyaconference.org/eng/_Uploads/dbsAttachedFiles/PhilippHoltmann.pdf
 The text praises Muhammad Bouyeri as a jihadist role model. Not only has he acted to avenge the violation of van Gogh against religion in general, but rather he, according to the text, denounced the worldly law in the Dutch court, claiming to only acknowledge shari’a law.
A video entitled al-qawla qawla al-sawarim, “the words [are now about action and hence] words of the sword”, shows the testimony of the suicide operative identified as a Saudi by the nom de guerre Abu Gharib al-Makki [the Meccan]. The one-hour video justifies the attack; “the time to talk is over, the time for actions (i.e the swords must be drawn) has come to avenge the insults of Prophet Muhammad”.
 Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, al-Sarim al-maslul ‘ala sabb al-rabb aw al-din aw a-rasul sala l-llahu ‘alayhi wa-salam, Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l Jihad.
 A detailed oversight is provided by the BBC, also outlining in depth the attack by IS member Amedy Coulibaly who executed several hostages in a Jewish supermarket, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30708237
Amedy Coulibaly uploaded a video where he pledges allegiance to al-Baghdadi. Part of his video is used in one of the ‘official’ IS videos to applaud the January 2015 Paris attack, Risala ila Fransa, Wilayat Salah al-Din, February 14, 2015.
 Hosted by the YouTube Channel “The Great Breakfast War” – the channel & link have been deleted. Thank you YouTube!
 This singer was featured in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula videos as far back as 2003/4.