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