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Dark melody: The jihadist soundtrack of hate and violence

The jihadi nasheed, which is also sometimes referred to as anasheed jihadiya are song-poems or Islamist hymns that have become the soundtrack for terrorist organizations waging a holy war against democracy and the West in the name of Islam.

Jihadi nasheeds are a form of extremist rhetoric and propaganda. Many convey a message that is quintessentially and unapologetically violent.

The anasheed jihadiya has long been a mainstay of Islamist culture and propaganda. The al-Qaida organization, Hamas, Hezbollah, Pakistani militants and numerous other jihadist terror groups throughout the world use nasheeds to inspire their faithful. In fact, a recently released al-Qaida nasheed that pays tribute to Osama bin Laden, the late founder and original leader of that organization, and celebrates the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 happens to be quite popular in jihadist circles.

The Islamic State (known variously as ISIS, ISIL, or Da’ish), an al-Qaida offshoot that has metastasized to become the most menacing force in the world today, is yet another Islamic terrorist organization that has utilized jihadi nasheeds to a significant degree in its media.

However, what sets the Islamic State apart from other groups in its use of jihadi nasheeds is the fact that such songs have become central not just to its propaganda efforts but also to the very identity of that entity.

The Darkest Song: a look at the Islamic State’s Nasheed Machine

The high performance propaganda machine of the Islamic State has been churning out a virtually endless cycle of professional grade media content.

It is an indisputable fact that the Islamic State’s propaganda and media efforts are a key element in it’s already overwhelming success story.

While the Islamic State’s use of video to highlight its battlefield successes and shock the collective global social conscious with its brutal executions of hostages are quite well-known, a lesser known facet of its propaganda machine is its extensive use of nasheeds.

The nasheed, or, more specifically, the jihadi nasheed, has become central to the Islamic State’s propaganda efforts, as well as its overall image and identity.

Under ISIS, Islamist hymns have risen to an entirely new level of prominence.

In 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and supreme leader of the Islamic State created the Ajnad Media Foundation, a special media division whose sole purpose is to produce nasheeds.


Al-Furqan ISIS Viral Media

While most jihadist groups share or recycle existing nasheeds, ISIS is unique in the sense that it has a media division that produces exclusive and original content.

The creation of the Ajnad Media Foundation has helped ISIS in asserting a more distinct identity and distance itself from other jihadist militant groups, including its former parent organization – and now bitter rival – al-Qaida, says Aymenn al-Tamimi, a research fellow with the Middle East Forum in comments made to the publication Mother Jones.

One of the very first nasheeds produced by ISIS was O’ Soldiers of Truth Go Forth (Ya Junud Al Haqq Hayya), a very popular song that served not only as a declaration of the Islamic State’s arrival and intention to stay after seizing Mosul in summer 2014 but also as a recruitment tool.

It is unknown to all but those in the highest echelons of leadership within the Islamic State as to exactly who is penning its songs. However, it is strongly believed that the songs are produced through a unique collaborative effort involving a special group of musicians, singers, and poets who write, sing, and compose the lyrics and melodies.

These obscure songs are often the soundtrack to which the Islamic State has perpetrated a litany of atrocities that include, assault, rape, torture, murder, terrorism, and genocide.

Even more, they often serve as the backing track to videos of grisly content involving bombings, shootings, and even mass executions.

A few of the more popular nasheeds produced by the Islamic State include, Squadrons of my State Arise (Saraya Dawlati), The Shari’ah Of Our Lord Is Light, and Qad Azamna Qad Azamna.

The jihadi nasheed The Shari’ah Of Our Lord Is Light is hauntingly peaceful and subdued in comparison to the bold and rousing Squadrons of my State Arise and many other nasheeds produced by the Islamic State.

My Ummah, Dawn Has Appeared is yet another popular nasheed and is widely believed to be the anthem of the Islamic State.

In particular, Squadrons of my State, Arise, is a deeply passionate and stirring call to action for Muslims to stand up and “reclaim the glory of Islam.”

The following is a sample of an English translation of the song’s chorus:
Squadrons of my state, arise. Revive our glory.
And restore the crown of our Ummah on its head, arise.
Squadrons of my state, arise. Revive our glory.
And restore the crown of our Ummah on its head, arise.

The words, “Squadrons of my state, arise. Revive our glory,” is a particularly notable line as it is an almost unmistakable reference to ruined Caliphates of the past (the last Caliphate was undone in 1924).

The loss of the Caliphate and it’s restoration is a reoccurring theme in jihadist media, literature, and culture that resonates deeply with Muslim fundamentalists in the Middle East and throughout the world who desire to live in a nation governed under the strictest strain of Sharia Law and separate from the “kafir” and “infidels” (non-Muslims).

Muslim fundamentalists consider the implementation of a society governed by strict Sharia Law somewhere on earth (even if the government of a existing nation must be violently overthrown to achieve it) as a high-level and non-negotiable duty for the Ummah (global Muslim community) and the Islamic faith itself.

News of the Islamic State’s declaration of a Caliphate in Syria and Northern Iraq in the summer of 2014 was well received by much of the fundamentalist community globally. In fact, large numbers of hardline fundamentalists have actually migrated to ISIS-held territory from other Middle Eastern countries as well as from several Western nations.

The goal of ISIS is the restoration of the long-dormant Caliphate in Syria and Iraq and eventually throughout all of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region.

The Islamic State believes very strongly in Islamic apocalyptic prophecies and further believes that it’s Caliphate will play a significant role in bringing forth an apocalypse upon the world.

Jihadi Nasheed 101: Composition of a Religious War Song
To put it in context, it is worth noting that not all nasheeds glorify terrorism, bloodshed, and wanton violence. In fact, nasheeds are religious songs that are Islam’s answer to Christian hymns and worship music.

There are two types of nasheeds that are prevalent in Islam. At one end of the spectrum are jihadi nasheeds which extol death, war, and conquest. While at the opposite end of the spectrum are regular or non-violent nasheeds whose lyrics are more peaceable and typically make reference to Islamic beliefs, history, and the faith itself.

Of course, non-violent nasheeds are not cause for concern as the lyrical content is devoid of any and all violence. It is the anasheed jihadiya – the darker form of nasheed – which is cause for concern.

Jihadi nasheeds actually pre-date the Islamic State, al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and virtually every other militant Jihadist group in existence today by a few decades.

Though the general public is only now becoming aware of the jihadi nasheed phenomenon, there is in fact very little that is new about this obscure brand of song.

According to terrorism analysts and researchers, contemporary jihadi nasheeds originated in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when Islamic revivalists organized and engaged in acts of extreme civil disorder in a bid to challenge and eventually overthrow the governments of Syria and Egypt. Influential Islamic fundamentalists began to write jihadi nasheeds during this period as a way to inspire and reinvigorate other militants as well as to keep morale strong.

Though they ultimately failed in their violent bid to overthrow those regimes, the jihadi nasheeds remained. In the coming years and decades they would grow in number and influence and would eventually come to be adopted by al-Qaida and virtually every other modern jihadist militant group from Chechnya to the Palestinian Territories.

Today, the jihadi nasheed is a notable subset of jihadist culture – an intensely secretive subculture.

Jihadi nasheeds, which are actually Arabic chants (the word “nasheed” when translated from Arabic to English means “chant”) are characterized by melodic voices which often mask lyrics and visuals of unfathomably violent content and terrorism glorification in jihadist propaganda videos.

In fact, if you were not thoroughly lobotomized by the drone of the nasheed, you might have noticed that it is serving as the backing track for a jihadist video displaying atrocities perpetrated by the so-called mujahideen (Islamic holy warriors) of ISIS or a similar terrorist outfit.

The nasheeds often soften disturbingly violent visuals.

Jihadi nasheeds vary widely from song to song and from artist to artist. Their production is often a very involved process with the songs themselves being measured and thoughtful in their composition.

Songs generally range from boisterous and jaunty, to mournful and melancholic, or contemplative and reflective.

There is often a reoccurring melodic theme that is ever-present in the background and runs for the duration of the song.

ISIS fighters

ISIS fighters
Agence France-Presse

While songs may vary to a notable degree, there are strictly established guidelines set forth by Muslim fundamentalist clerics and scholars regarding the composition of a jihadi nasheed.

In an interview with Euronews, Nasir ad-Din al-Albani, a Salafi scholar, revealed the guidelines by which a jihadi nasheed must be composed:

1. No Musical Instruments Allowed: all Sunni Muslim jihadi nasheeds are sung a cappella. Musical instruments violate Quranic injunctions and are considered to be haram (forbidden) by Sunni Muslim fundamentalists and thus not to be utilized. Sunni fundamentalists believe that musical instruments distract Muslims from focusing on the Islamic holy book – the Quran.

Nasheeds composed by Shia (Shitte) Muslim fundamentalists and militants like those of Hezbollah as well as Hamas (a Sunni Muslim group) and other Palestinian militant groups (also Sunni Muslim entities), actually make rather extensive use of musical instruments and even auto-tune in their songs and propaganda videos.

Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian jihadist groups are anomalies in the realm of jihadi nasheeds.

Nasheeds by Palestinian and Shia militant groups typically have a much more boisterous and jaunty feel and vibe (though still nonetheless threatening in its lyrical content). They tend to lack depth and be less poignant than the nasheeds used by the Islamic State, al-Qaida, and other Sunni Muslim militant groups (i.e., Ansar Dine, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Caucasus Emirate, Boko Haram, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, Al-Shabaab).

2. No Women Allowed to Sing: the sound of a woman’s voice is barred. It is believed by Islamic fundamentalists – both Sunni and Shia – that the sound of a woman’s voice in song has distinct sexual connotations and will distract Muslim men from focusing on Islam or lead them to sexual immorality.

Nasir ad-Din al-Albani, further reveals that a jihadi nasheed only qualifies as such if the melody is not similar to Western or Eastern music which tends to make people want to dance.

A report by NBC News notes that while the style of the jihadi nasheed follows strict rules, it relies almost always on an imposing chorus of voices that often appear to be singing in perfect harmony. Producers may utilize computer programming to multi-track the audio to make the nasheed sound “more impressive.” Auto-tune is also sometimes used, especially with Shia jihadi nasheeds.

A few jihadi nasheeds are punctuated by some rather distinctive sound effects that include the menacing stomping of combat boot wearing militants marching in lock-step unison, the rat-a-tat-tat of automatic rifle gunfire, sounds of explosions, swords being unsheathed, the roar of lions (which in jihadist culture are symbolic of strength, leadership, and courage), and the galloping of horses (which symbolizes the Prophet Mohammed’s time in the desert). In an odd way these sounds fill in for musical instruments, which as noted earlier are forbidden.

There are currently hundreds of jihadi nasheeds in existence and while almost all of them are written and sung in Arabic, you do not have to understand that language to be profoundly affected by the songs themselves.

Many listeners are quickly taken by the jihadi nasheed with its “hauntingly beautiful chants” and subtle sway in its melody. The songs are often deeply melodic and intense. The drone of the vocals can be enough to put some in a meditative trance. Indeed, listening to a nasheed can be a heady or even intense spiritual experience for some.

What is especially unsettling is the fact that some of the songs – as dreadful as their lyrical content often is – tend to be somewhat catchy.

If you have ever listened to a jihadi nasheed and found yourself actually liking the melody but felt somewhat guilty about it later, you probably shouldn’t be too hard on yourself.

Terrorism analysts and researchers are quick to provide reassurance by noting that liking a particular nasheed does not necessarily make you a supporter of terrorism or a bad person.

Pieter Van Ostaeyen, an independent researcher who has extensively studied jihadi nasheeds, explains the dark allure of this obscure form of song in the publication, Mother Jones:
They’re so melodic and so intense that people immediately like the sound…But most people have absolutely no idea what they’re listening to.

The dark allure of the jihadi nasheed is often fraught with complexity and rarely understood but is readily felt.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Bouchra Ouall, yet another researcher informs on how jihadi nasheeds are specially designed to have a profound emotional effect on the listener:
Almost all jihad propaganda media productions use nasheeds…the chant, melody and lyrics have a disproportionately large effect on the emotions of the viewer.

Even terrorism analysts and researchers have found themselves to be unexpectedly seduced by the hauntingly melodic theme.

Behnam Said, an official who works for German intelligence and is a PhD candidate, analyzes jihadi trends in that country. Said was surprisingly candid during his interview with The Guardian on how profoundly he was affected by jihadi nasheeds:
The first time I heard it, I couldn’t get it out of my head for two weeks. It touched me in a different way to other nasheeds. I’d sit on the metro and it’d come into my head.

But Said, who also published a research article in 2012 titled, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism Hymns (Nasheeds): A Contribution to the Study of the Jihadist Culture, tells Euronews that most people who listen to jihadi nasheeds will not be instantly radicalized:
Someone who listens to nasheeds without having a radical mindset, like me as a researcher, won’t be effected.

However, those who are susceptible to radicalization are much more likely to be affected.

Disaffected and aimless young people living in the West are particularly susceptible to ISIS media (including nasheeds), propaganda, and recruitment. The Islamic State has become increasingly attractive to young adults and even teenagers from Western countries who are seeking identity and direction or who feel estranged from their communities and society. The Islamic State may provide a sense of belonging and purpose to those who are adrift in life.

Though the vast majority of ISIS members are Arabs who hail from the Middle East region, there has been a deeply disturbing trend of disaffected Westerners joining that terrorist entity. Most are new converts to Islam with some having converted from different faiths, including Christianity.

The jihadi nasheeds of ISIS propagate messages of violence and hate but to some extent also assist in bolstering the Islamist sense of virtual community.

There are some concerns that the prevalence of ideas related to violence and hate in jihadi nasheeds could move psychologically and emotionally vulnerable individuals from belief to action or from jihadist sympathizer to actual terrorist.

Do jihadi nasheeds necessarily inspire the impressionable to violence? Though this question is nearly impossible to answer with any kind of specificity, Said informs that it takes much more than a nasheed to motivate an individual to join a terrorist organization and perpetrate acts of violence. He notes that a host of factors are responsible for radicalization to the point of violent action.

Steve Hassan, founder of Freedom of Mind, an organization dedicated to exposing destructive cults, spoke to CNN about the Islamic State’s recruitment and propaganda strategy:
This is a political cult using religion and a perversion of Islam as the shield. But in fact it’s a systematic effort to create an army of basically tranced-out followers.

The Islamic State is extremely welcoming to foreigners and the high production value of its media and it’s sleekly produced propaganda gives the impression that the entity is organized and highly competent.

It is an indisputable fact that the Islamic State has created an ambiance of success that has attracted many to it.

Searching for a Counter-Narrative: Combating the Influence of Jihadist Culture

The use of nasheeds has long been a poorly known or studied area by analysts when it comes to jihadist propaganda.

There was a time not very long ago when jihadi nasheeds could only be found on secretive online jihadi forums. This is no longer the case. In fact, jihadi nasheeds are now widely available.

How widely available?

A YouTube search for nasheeds (of the non-militant variety) resulted in approximately 88,000 hits while a search for jihadi nasheeds resulted in no less than 52,000 results.

YouTube in particular has struggled mightily in recent years with it’s efforts to find the right balance between freedom of speech and removing violent content from it’s site.

Yes, Islamist hymns are protected under the First Amendment which means YouTube cannot simply ban a video containing a militant song because of it’s objectionable lyrical content.

The fact that a jihadi nasheed glorifies violence and bloodshed in its lyrics is not enough to have it banned from video-hosting sites such as YouTube. If violent lyrical content were actually the sole basis for banning music from YouTube and other video-hosting platforms, then hip-hop as well as other genres of music frequently associated with violence would cease to have a presence on such sites.

The prevalence of jihadi nasheeds online makes it a wholly futile effort to entirely eliminate them all from the internet.

The vast majority of Islamist hymns currently on YouTube and other video-hosting sites belong to ISIS.

The ever-tech savvy ISIS utilizes a wide array of video-hosting and social media platforms to spread its propaganda and recruit new followers. Social media platforms utilized by the terror entity include, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Dawn (a Middle Eastern social network).

ISIS has initiated a full-court press to attract those who are disenfranchised and isolated in Western countries.

Islamic State recruiting takes place 24 hours a day with the recruiters themselves aggressively pursuing new recruits for their cause.

The Atlantic informs on exactly what type of individual would join the Islamic State and why:
ISIS’s caliphate project, because it offers a bracing utopian alternative to Western secular society, speaks directly to those who feel their lives are worthless, spiritually corrupted, empty, boring, or devoid of purpose and significance, and who see no value in their own societies. It promises, in short, salvation and ultimate meaning through total commitment to a sacred cause.

Terrorism analysts have repeatedly noted the need for a counter-narrative that is both consistent and sustained to systematically disrupt the Islamic State narrative.

A counter-narrative that is nuanced, multifaceted, and emotional may work best, according to analysts.

In recent months the U.S. and it’s Western and Middle Eastern allies have stepped up efforts to derail the ISIS propaganda juggernaut.

The U.S. in particular has taken the lead in the counter-narrative effort with its Think Again, Turn Away campaign.

The Think Again, Turn Away campaign is a U.S. State Department initiative to counter the ISIS narrative and online terrorist recruitment efforts in which terrorism analysts directly confront Islamists online and counter their beliefs while also reaching out to and disrupting the grooming process of vulnerable individuals by ISIS recruiters and supporters.

While the Think Again, Turn Away campaign is a good start, experts note that it is definitely not the end all.

A counter-narrative from the West is finally beginning to take shape though it is very slow and quite late in it’s coming.

Last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris by the Islamic State as well as subsequent threats to assault New York City will likely place increased and focused attention on all facets of that terror entity, including its propaganda and media.

As the U.S. government and its Western allies struggle to formulate a proper counter-narrative to the Islamic State’s propaganda machine that is both timely and palpable to Muslims and the disenfranchised, the Islamic State continues on with its sustained and steady flow of media content that is both darkly seductive and effective.

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