Exposing the jihadi mouthpieces who pollute our world

Exposing the jihadi mouthpieces who pollute our world

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As the column of jihadis bearing black flags marched on Mosul and declared a caliphate, I was establishing a research unit that sought to provide greater understanding of the warped religious justification used by the group. This required us to monitor and digest jihadi propaganda. I used to read Dabiq, Daesh’s semi-regular, English-language magazine, with more thoroughness than the morning papers.

Over the course of this tumultuous period, certain stylistic elements of the propaganda became evident. One was the emphasis in publications on long features on some aspect of the terror group’s understanding of Islamic theology, which was often obscure and technical. In part, it was things like this that bolstered my conviction that to seek to address jihadism without tackling it at a theological level would be fruitless.

The cultural aspects were fascinating for another reason. Some elements, like the “five-star jihad” meme (propaganda targeted at Western Muslims tempted to travel to join Daesh, but worried about where they would get their hair gel) were both shallow and obvious. But others merited closer attention; one of these was the use of poetry.

This was primarily delivered through the medium of jihadi nashids: Poetry set to music, sung a cappella. But the poetry was not only designed for singing; it was also published in anthologies. And the most popular Daesh poet was the woman who went by the name Ahlam Al-Nasr (“dreams of victory”).

The granddaughter of Syrian cleric Mustafa Al-Bugha, Al-Nasr arrived in Daesh territory in 2014, aged 16, and soon married an Austrian-born commander. By the summer of 2015, she had published her first collection of poems, “The Blaze of Truth,” and was being hailed as the “Poet of the Islamic State.”

Peter Welby

The granddaughter of Syrian cleric Mustafa Al-Bugha, Al-Nasr arrived in Daesh territory in 2014, aged 16, and soon married an Austrian-born commander. By the summer of 2015, she had published her first collection of poems, “The Blaze of Truth,” and was being hailed as the “Poet of the Islamic State.”

Al-Nasr’s prime function, from an organizational point of view, was propaganda. The use of poetry to advance Islamic causes goes back to the companions of the Prophet of Islam himself. Daesh’s core claim is that it is not a break with Islam’s past but, rather, an authentic revival of early Islam.

Thomas Hegghammer, a leading expert on jihadi culture, once claimed that jihadis seemed to devote a lot of time to activities that were unrelated to their extremist cause.

But the reality is that their cultural activities are strongly related to their jihadi activity. Any counter-cultural group needs to establish its own culture, whatever its goals or reasons for existence. Ideology alone is not sufficient to keep fractious, homesick, culturally diverse people together. They need to develop a common cultural identity to cling to as well.

The recruitment route can go the other way, too. Non-violent Islamists can share cultural lodestars with violent jihadis, meaning that those who choose violence to achieve their goals find it easier to switch from one to the other.


Ahlam Al-Nasr: Daesh poet of poison

Preacher of Hate Ahlam Al-Nasr's bio

Al-Nasr’s poetry ticked all these boxes: It served as an instrument of propaganda, glorifying life in the so-called caliphate; it sought to tie the actions of Daesh to the successes and sacrifices of Islam’s early years; and it contributed to the literary canon, and therefore to the long-term stability of the Islamist and jihadi subculture.

All of this matters if we want to understand how to defeat jihadism in the long run. Daesh may be defeated territorially, but its supporters are still out there, demonstrating their capacity for violence. And just as Daesh was not the first jihadi group to achieve global prominence, neither will it be the last.

For too long, the West has focused on police and military responses to jihadism. These are clearly necessary, but they can only suppress it. Defeating it requires an approach that tackles the elements that give ideas their power.

The West has spent the past two decades slowly waking up to the need to tackle Islamism and jihadism at a theological level. 

It will take time, but exposing propagandists such as Al-Nasr as hate preachers is an important part of understanding the poison of jihadi thinking that pollutes our world and threatens our future.


Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion and Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen.
Twitter: @pdcwelby 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

Ahlam Al-Nasr: Daesh poet of poison

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Updated 22 December 2019

Ahlam Al-Nasr: Daesh poet of poison

  • Al-Nasr is thought to have been originally named Shaima Haddad, a young girl from Damascus who fled after the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011

LONDON: “There is no life but through jihad and its honor … jihad is our life and our victory It is what the soldiers of the enemy fear … and it is what created happiness in our lives.”

The above two stanzas are taken from a poem by the poet and writer Ahlam Al-Nasr encouraging women from around the world to join the terror group Daesh.

While little is known about Al-Nasr, her unconditional support for Daesh’s extremist, expansionist aim of imposing strict Shariah law on the world is obvious — and clearly evident through her writing.

“Ahlam Al-Nasr’s poetry was punchy and fresh, while still using mainly classical Arabic and the traditional monorhyme and focusing on the timeless tasks of praise, celebration, lament and lampoon,” Dr. Elisabeth Kendall, senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford University, told Arab News.

“Al-Nasr’s most powerful and enduring poems are simple clipped compositions that are ideal for conversion into nashids (anthems).


  • Nationality: Syrian
  • Place of residence: Unknown
  • Occupation: Poet, Daesh propagandist
  • Medium: Poetry, book entitled ‘The Blaze of Truth’

“Set to non-instrumental music and sometimes with violent video footage, their catchy sing-along rhythms can appeal to aspiring Daesh fighters in the West even if their Arabic is weak.”

Al-Nasr, whose real name cannot be verified, is thought to have been originally named Shaima Haddad, a young girl from Damascus who fled after the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011. A report by the New Yorker magazine claimed that firsthand experience of the Syrian regime’s air raids had triggered her radicalization.

“Their bullets shattered our brains like an earthquake/Even strong bones cracked then broke. They drilled our throats and scattered/our limbs — it was like an anatomy lesson!/They hosed the streets as blood still/Ran/Like streams crashing down from the/Clouds,” reads one of her earlier poems on the bloody conflict.

Al-Nasr’s family fled to Kuwait shortly after fighting broke out, but the writer did not plan on staying in the small Gulf state for long.

She returned to Syria in June 2014 and, four months later, wed Vienna-born extremist Abu-Usama Al-Gharib in the terror group’s de-facto capital Raqqa, which capitalized on her recruitment into Daesh’s ranks.

Al-Nasr quickly rose to prominence among the extremists. Her poems covering death and destruction, of loyalty to the caliphate and the beheading of apostates, spread like wildfire among militants and commanders, spurring them even further through romanticized versions of their plight.

“Poetry is an incredibly powerful medium of communication in the Arab world, much loved among educated and illiterate alike,” Kendall said. “The Arab version of ‘Pop Idol’ features aspiring poets and has over 70 million viewers.

“More importantly, poetry endures. Militant jihadi Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and chat forums can be closed down, but the poetry remains lodged in the collective memory.”

Al-Nasr was a court poet in Raqqa and was used as an official propagandist for Daesh — an ironic move given the strict restrictions the terror group places on women.

Her book “The Blaze of Truth” is a collection of 107 poems praising the militants’ goals and supporting their “journey,” with the poetic, elegant prose designed to recruit even more extremists.

In one of her poems, she incites Muslims across the world to kill and burn the enemies of Islam, saying: “Our innocent children have been killed and our free women were horrified/Their only crime was being Muslim/They have no savior/Where are the heroes of Islam?/Kill them and burn them and do not worry about the consequences/follow your almighty sword, and you will make the best news.”


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Other poems include praise for Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliph and Preacher of Hate Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who committed suicide during a US raid in October, as well as a poem titled “Osama, You Have Left” in which she mourns Al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden and refers to him as a “reformer.”

Al-Nasr not only writes poems, but has also delivered a 30-page essay detailing her support for Daesh’s decision to burn captured Jordanian pilot Muath Al- Kasasbeh.

Much is yet to be discovered about Al-Nasr and her place within Daesh as the organization crumbles in the face of international coalition raids, but one thing is certain — her poetry will continue to be sung by the militants.

“My own survey work in Yemen shows that 74 percent of the population consider poetry either ‘important’ or ‘very important’ in daily life,” Kendall said.

“No surprise, then, that extremists use it to spread their message,” she added.


Deadly Beirut blast could have been missile attack or bomb, says Lebanese president

Updated 22 sec ago

Deadly Beirut blast could have been missile attack or bomb, says Lebanese president

  • Michel Aoun: ‘The incident might be a result of negligence or external intervention through a missile or a bomb’
  • He said Macron was ‘outraged’ by what happened, investigation would target all directly responsible

BEIRUT: A devastating explosion that destroyed much of Beirut might have been the result of a missile attack or bomb, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said, as the death toll from the blast rose to 154.

More than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate had been sitting in a port warehouse for six years, but there have been conflicting accounts about why Lebanese authorities decided to empty the shipment of explosive material. The vessel carrying the flammable cargo was heading from Georgia to Mozambique when it stopped in the Lebanese port to load up on iron, according to the ship’s captain.

By Friday, 19 suspects had been arrested and Lebanon’s former director general of customs Chafic Merhy had been questioned by military police.


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Lebanese President Michel Aoun said: “The incident might be a result of negligence or external intervention through a missile or a bomb, and I have asked French President Emmanuel Macron to provide us with aerial photos to determine whether there were planes or missiles, and if the French did not have such photos then we might seek them from other states to determine if there was a foreign assault,” said Aoun, referring to a flying visit from the French leader to Lebanon after the tragedy occurred.

The president said that Macron was “outraged” by what had happened and that the investigation would target all those who were directly responsible. Lebanon’s courts would try all officials regardless of their ranking, Aoun added.

The president told journalists that there was a lot of interest about how the explosive materials were emptied in the port, who was responsible for keeping them stored there for six years and whether the blast was an accident or deliberate.

Health Minister Hamad Hasan said the number of the injured people had risen to 5,000 according to hospital records and that 20 percent needed hospitalization, while 120 were in critical condition. The number of injured could be much higher, especially since hundreds of people went to pharmacies, dispensaries, or private clinics for treatment and nobody registered their names.

A search is still underway for eight missing silo employees: Ghassan Hasrouty, Joe Andoun, Shawki Alloush, Hassan Bachir, Khalil Issa, Charbel Karam, Charbel Hitti, and Najib Hitti. French rescue teams were able to locate six of them through scanners inside the elevator under the silos building.

Civil Defense and rescue teams found the body of Joe Akiki on Thursday midnight in one of the silo cellars. The bodies of Ali Mcheik and Ibrahim Al-Amin, two silo workers, have also been found. 

But the possibility of finding survivors looked slim on Friday, according to a military source, despite the fact that Russian and French rescue teams detected signals from a mobile phone belonging to one of the missing individuals. 

Lebanese Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun inspected the local and foreign search and rescue teams in the Port of Beirut, which has been declared a restricted area. Residents reported thefts in damaged households and shops during the evenings, especially since the damaged areas have lost power. 

Mireille Girard, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Lebanon, said the agency had decided to put its stocks of shelter equipment, plastic sheets, emergency tents and tens of thousands of other basic relief items at people’s disposal.

“More than 300,000 people have had their residence fully or partially damaged due to the explosion, which caused them to get displaced,” she added.

Volunteers are continuing to clear out damaged homes, businesses and places of worship, removing huge quantities of broken glass, as international aid began arriving in Lebanon.

Countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council have provided hospitals with medical supplies, given the homeless food and subsistence aid, and set up field hospitals in affected areas and in the capital’s downtown area.

UNICEF said that 100,000 Lebanese children have lost their homes due to the explosion in the Port of Beirut, and that 120 schools serving 55,000 children were damaged.

Patriarch John X Yazigi, who is primate of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All The East, moved from his headquarters in Syria to Lebanon and inspected hospitals and the patriarchate’s other institutions. 

The US is donating more than $17 million in aid to Lebanon, in addition to financial assistance to the Lebanese Red Cross, while the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it will provide tents, beds, blankets, and other aid through the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

The UK said that HMS Enterprise would sail to Lebanon to assess the damage in the Port of Beirut  and help restore normal port operations, along with immediate military and civilian aid worth more than £5 million ($6.5 million).

Lebanese Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni said: “Lebanon is in a state of emergency and there is no cover for anyone, and the judiciary does not need permission to sue anyone.”