Proliferating propaganda through the media allows terrorist groups to reach a vast audience on a global scale. The Islamic State of the Levant and Syria (ISIL) is known for its sophisticated media propaganda which is spread on various platforms across the web and has surpassed other terrorist groups’ ability to promote their messages. ISIL propaganda is mainly characterized by high-quality videos and imagery which are often accompanied by nasheeds - acapella hymns that purportedly express religious feelings of Islam. The content of nasheeds produced by ISIL, however, consolidates the group’s extremist ideology and messages towards viewers. Besides accompanying the group’s videos, they are played during ISIL’s military parades, proselytizing events and Ramadan recruitment drives, suggesting that these chants are the group’s main tool of propaganda. Examining the types and usages of ISIL nasheeds as well as their influence on listeners is important, as they expose a part of the group’s modus operandi and its ability to communicate or recruit members. Nasheeds may also be valuable sources for the intelligence production by security services, as they can provide information on the group’s interests and further operations. This report aims to identify the purpose of ISIL nasheeds, analyze their role in various functions of the group including ISIL’s recruitment and mobilization of members as well as determine whether nasheeds can be utilised for detecting future events.
Nasheeds are reportedly the most popular online content for jihadists. This is attributed to the difficulty in removing them from online platforms compared to graphic ISIL videos that are easier to identify. Nasheeds can be found as audio files in extremist forums, on YouTube as well as within ‘legitimate’ websites that claim to promote ‘Islamic nasheeds’. Also, distinguishing ISIL nasheeds from non-radical chants, is a complex process and requires expert knowledge. This suggests that ISIL nasheeds are extremely difficult to detect and prevent people from listening to them. Up until June 2018, ISIL had purportedly produced over 70 nasheeds. Therefore, a large number of such chants possibly continue to be available for consumption in both radical and non-radical forums. Additionally, ISIL is reported to be using nasheeds through radio channels for recruiting members, broadcasting the chants in many areas including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
Nasheeds can be categorised into four types: battle, martyrdom, mourning and praising. Martyrdom nasheeds are usually dedicated to the idea of martyrdom itself. Mourning nasheeds are usually dedicated to specific individuals that have passed while praising nasheeds focus on attributes of bravery, generosity and honor. The majority of ISIL nasheeds, however, fall within the first category. Battle nasheeds are used to encourage fighters and mobilize supporters, and are often heard in videos where ISIL members conduct operations such as attacks or assassinations. Shots from videos released by ISIL channel Al Hayat can be seen in the images below. In Figure 1, ISIL militants are conducting a raid against unidentified forces at an unknown location in Iraq. In Figure 2, ISIL militants are seen assassinating individuals whom they claim to be soldiers in Sinai province, Egypt.
Both videos were accompanied by Arabic nasheeds. The two nasheeds praised the militants’ bravery while legitimizing the actions shown in the videos. Both videos were filmed in a first-person view so viewers can experience what ISIL militants see and do, during their operations. It is judged that this aims to appeal to viewers and more particularly to youth, who may associate these videos with first-person shooter games. The brutality in those videos purportedly gives the impression that ISIL is unstoppable. Those themes can incite feelings of violence and aggressiveness which increases the likelihood of viewers committing violent acts on behalf of ISIL.
The extent to which nasheeds affect people and push them towards joining ISIL is unclear. There have been reports, however, that perpetrators of ISIL attacks appeared to have been greatly influenced by ISIL’s nasheeds. It is believed that ISIL nasheeds aim to resonate with as many listeners as possible. The content of ISIL nasheeds is reported to have a broad appeal to Muslims. One tactic though which this can be achieved is that rather than focusing on war and fighting, these chants often contain messages of a softer character. One example can be heard in the ISIL nasheed ‘Our Lord’s Sharia’. The nasheed includes phrases such as ‘we live a life without humiliation, a life of security and peace’ and ‘although it (ISIL) wages jihad against the enemy, it is able to rule over the people. And also it treats its subjects with compassion and gentleness’. Therefore, it is indicated that non-radical Muslims are particularly at risk of being exposed to ISIL’s messages not only due to ISIL’s ability to spread its propaganda on platforms used by the general Muslim population but also due to their ambiguous messages, that aim to project ISIL as being gentle. Nasheeds can affect non-Muslim listeners too. Multiple sources have reported that nasheeds’ melody and sound can reach listeners on a ‘spiritual level’, which is what makes them an effective propaganda tool. Even though nasheeds are mainly produced in Arabic, their melody gives them a universal appeal, even to non-Arabic speakers.
Indeed, ISIL has produced nasheeds in languages other than Arabic, including French, English and Russian. Months following the attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, ISIL released a video showing child soldiers training with a French nasheed sung by children. The battle nasheed includes phrases such as ‘our warriors are everywhere’, ‘our orphans are growing’ and ‘our men are ready to blow themselves up’, while the video shows children wearing what appears to be suicide vests. Many of the children seem to be of European descent. ISIL attempts to show that it has successfully recruited children within Europe, reminding viewers that its numbers continue to grow, as the orphans of killed militants continue to become full members. The nasheed also appeals to potential French recruits. The lyrics do not explicitly mention France as a target, but the images and the choice of language indicates that France is among ISIL’s targets. This was the first report that ISIL used a nasheed sung by children in a video. Similarly, nearly two weeks after ISIL bombed a Russian airplane in Egypt on October 31, 2015, the group released a video alluding to the plan of further attacks towards Russia. The nasheed of the video was sung by men in Russian, stating ‘we will make your wives concubines and your children slaves’ while captives were being executed by ISIL members. In France, ISIL remains an ongoing threat as frequent attacks have occurred since the released video mentioned above, though none were conducted by children. In Russia, there have not been reported incidents perpetrated by ISIL since the video mentioned previously. In both of these cases, ISIL only released those nasheeds-videos after carrying out those attacks. While the nasheeds offered information on the group’s general interests, they did not provide much actionable information for detecting identifiable features of future incidents. Therefore, the nasheeds’ role is mainly for the purposes aforementioned, to appeal to listeners through their melody while legitimizing ISIL’s cause. Also, given the difficulty of detecting ISIL nasheeds online, it is possible that those nasheeds can still be found online even though the videos may have been removed, suggesting that Russian and French listeners may still come across them.
In some cases, ISIL nasheeds have been consistent with events that followed, particularly regarding incidents within France. On March 16, 2015, ISIL released an audio nasheed named ‘For Allah, we want to die’ without a video, through an Al Hayat Twitter account. This battle nasheed explicitly states that France is a target, including phrases such as ‘our soldiers are enraged, your end will be horrible’ and ‘we have to hit France, it’s time for humiliation, we want to see suffering and deaths by the thousands’. Online searches indicate that the nasheed is still available online. Approximately three months after the nasheed’s release, ISIL potentially conducted its first attack in France on June 26, 2015, as part of multiple coordinated incidents in other locations such as Kuwait and Tunisia. However, ISIL conducted its first large scale attack on November 13, 2015, in multiple locations of Paris, killing 138 people and injuring more than 410. Around two weeks prior to the attack, on October 31st, ISIL had released a French nasheed named ‘Advance, Advance’. Besides focusing on mobilising ISIL supporters to ‘kill apostates’, this battle nasheed suggests that Islam and Sharia law are the only way, referring to those who do not comply with them as ‘ignorant’, ‘traitors’ and ‘criminals’. A few hours after the attack, ISIL purportedly claimed responsibility and praised it through audio statements and through the same ‘Advance, Advance’ nasheed.
Although produced in French, the nasheed does not explicitly mention France as a target. However, it is believed that the nasheed had potentially indicated an impending attack at a French speaking European country. It is not specified which parts of the nasheed could have suggested an imminent attack. However, since the release of the French nasheed ‘For Allah, we want to die’ on March 16, 2015, up until the release of ‘Advance, Advance’ on October 31, ISIL had seized its production of nasheeds-videos regarding France. Therefore, it may be suggested that the release of the chant two weeks before the attack, coupled with lyrics that aimed to legitimize any future blows towards ISIL’s enemies, was not random. ISIL may have released the chant at that particular time to demonstrate its commitment to its cause and lure people into supporting the attack prior to its occurrence. It should be noted that the nasheed has not been removed and it is still available online. This confirms the spread of ISIL nasheeds online as well as the potential difficulty of authorised personnel in detecting and removing them.
Nasheeds are believed to be a neglected focus of analysis and research, with sources stating that their content is not being exploited adequately by security services. Though not confirmed, the information above supports that ISIL nasheeds can potentially act as signals to the intelligence community of the group’s plans and preparations. It is confirmed that nasheeds are an important tool for the group’s propaganda as they are widely available online and potentially affect listeners into resonating with ISIL’s messages. Nasheeds are able to legitimize even videos that contain graphic material due to their melody and lyrics. Although ISIL often uses nasheeds to accompany videos, the group is known to release nasheeds on their own with a slightly different purpose from the videos. It is possible that nasheeds within videos, differ from audio nasheeds in the sense that the former may not provide much information on the group’s specific agenda but rather on their general interests. Audio nasheeds in particular, are believed to be an important source of information that can betray the group’s imminent plans such as an attack. Hence, intelligence professionals should not only monitor the spread and release of ISIL nasheeds online but also analyze their content as well as the surrounding circumstances, to potentially be able to produce intelligence on the group’s plans.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) AFRICOM Team is actively monitoring ISIL’s activity in Africa while other CTG teams monitor its activity in various other regions. The occurrence of ISIL incidents, is reported by the appropriate CTG Teams and the information is utilized for the production of various analytical/intelligence products. The spread of online extremism is being monitored by CTG Extremism Team which includes all types of extremist propaganda. CTG works with private and public partners in order to accomplish our mission to Detect, Deter, and Defeat terrorism. If you are interested in what CTG can offer you and your organization, please feel free to contact us.
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