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.


Catholic bishops call on West to recognize Palestine

Updated 18 January 2020

Catholic bishops call on West to recognize Palestine

  • The plea by 34 bishops of the Holy Land Coordination, followed their five-day visit to the region this week

AMMAN: A group of Catholic bishops from throughout Europe, North America and South Africa have called on their governments to insist on the application of international law in Israel and Palestine.

The plea by 34 bishops of the Holy Land Coordination, followed their five-day visit to the region this week. Based in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, the religious leaders toured key locations in Jerusalem and expressed support for the local church in promoting dialogue and peace.

They added that they had also been inspired by the enduring resilience of the people they met in Gaza, East Jerusalem and Ramallah despite the worsening situation.

Jamal Khader, pastor of the host Latin Church in Ramallah, told Arab News that the choice of Ramallah for their residency was excellent because they had the chance to meet the local community.

“The bishops were extremely moved by their visit to the Comboni Missionary Sisters outside of Jerusalem. The convent was divided in half as the Israeli-built wall divided their community and made it impossible for many to reach the school and nursery that is part of their mission.”

The bishops also met with PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi and Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Abu Amer in addition to the visit to Jerusalem with the leader of the Catholic church.

Fr. Ibrahim Shomali, secretary of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, told Arab News that the visit and the final communique had been well received. “We welcome the visit of the Catholic bishops and we applaud their statement that calls on their governments to follow the position of the Holy See and recognize Palestine.”

However, Shomali feared many governments would not listen. “While the visit is very positive and we hope that the church’s voice will be heard, we are not sure that this will happen because many of the Western governments are not listening to the voice of peace and justice.”

Kamal Shamshoom, a member of the Ramallah Latin, said the bishops, many of whom had visited the area before, had “a good idea of the situation” and made a strong communique. “While we welcome such visits, it is important to note that we don’t want just sympathy, we need action that is effective.”

Shamshoom, who is also an elected member of the Ramallah city council, added that the church leaders must use their moral authority with their political leaders. “They are bishops and it means something if they decide to do something concrete. What I would like is for them to talk to their leaders like bishops and make a strong intervention for peace and justice.”

The final communique of the bishops spoke about the importance “of the application of international law” and the need to “follow the Holy See’s lead in recognizing the state of Palestine; addressing the security concerns of Israel and the right of all to live in safety; rejecting political or economic support for settlements and resolutely opposing acts of violence or abuses of human rights by any side.”

The local bishops also warned that people were facing further “evaporation of hope for a durable solution. We have witnessed this reality first

hand, particularly how the construction of settlements and the separation wall is destroying any prospect of two states existing in peace.”

In the same message, the local bishops sounded the alarm about living conditions becoming “more and more unbearable. This is painfully clear in the West Bank where our sisters and brothers are denied even basic rights including freedom of movement.”

In Gaza, the bishops noted that the “political decisions of all sides have resulted in the creation of an open-air prison, human rights abuses, and a profound humanitarian crisis.”

They said they were welcomed by families “whose focus is now day-to-day survival and whose aspirations have been reduced to bare essentials such as electricity and clean water.”

The bishops added that they “encourage Christians in our own countries to pray for and support this mission. The increase in people making pilgrimages to the Holy Land is encouraging and we call for those who come to ensure they encounter the local communities.”

In their conclusion, the bishops said that they would continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.