In order to survive and prosper, militant jihadist groups need to be able to entrench themselves among local populations in parts of the Middle East. Sheer force is not always sufficient, particularly when the target populations are themselves well-armed and no strangers to fighting. This is where the battle for the hearts and minds of local populations becomes significant, not necessarily to win outright support and recruits, but simply to ensure sufficient toleration for jihadist groups to function.
In this battle for hearts and minds, one strategy that has largely been neglected by analysts and scholars alike is poetry. Both al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State produce significant quantities of poetry. This practice permeates jihadist movements, from the grassroots to the very top. Both the former and current leaders of al-Qaeda globally, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, were themselves prolific poets. To many Western mindsets, poetry is associated with intellectual elites and the beauty of verse seems incompatible with a barbarous agenda to wreak death and destruction. Yet the notion of poetry as both a popular medium and a powerful psychological weapon fits well with Arab tribal traditions, particularly on the Arabian Peninsula.
It is therefore no accident that verses of Arabic poetry appear on one in every five pages of the magazine of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Sada alMalahim (‘the echo of epic battles’). Although almost completely overlooked by analysts, these verses of poetry are not simply included for fun, or as space fillers. They perform profound and important functions in the service of militant jihad. Moreover, unlike the other contents of jihadist magazines and websites, which can be destroyed or taken down, the poetry endures in the collective memory and can be passed on orally at no cost and without technology. Anwar al-Awlaqi, a US-born member of al-Qaeda in Yemen, who died in a 2011 drone strike, recognised the power of poetry when he included it in his influential booklet, 44 Ways to Support Jihad. This article examines five key functions of jihadist poetry, based on primary research in Yemen, the home of perhaps al-Qaeda’s most active and dangerous branch.
Before looking at these functions, however, one needs to understand the position that poetry holds in Arab tribal society, past and present. The use of Arabic poetry by today’s jihadists continues a long tradition of poetry employed to win social and political capital. In pre-Islamic Arabia, poetry was used to promote and celebrate political agendas, such as the settling of blood feuds, or the formation of an alliance. This poetic tradition continued to thrive into Islamic times. The evidence does not support the notion – still held in some quarters – that the Prophet Muhammad reviled poets as liars or magicians. On the contrary, there is much evidence to show that Muhammad understood well the power of poetry and actively deployed it to spread the new religion of Islam. Historical sources mention a group of three poets mobilised by Muhammad for propaganda purposes. One 11th-century historian, Ibn Rashiq, explicitly records the Prophet as saying, ‘Indeed this group [of poets] inflicts more damage on the people of Mecca than a hail of arrows could do!’
But does poetry remain equally influential today? If yes, then this would help to explain how al-Qaeda spreads its appeal, particularly in remote regions among populations with low literacy rates, little print culture and barely any internet penetration. After all, poetry, with its catchy rhythms and rhymes, is designed to spread primarily through aural consumption. To find out about the contemporary influence of poetry, I decided to travel to Yemen and ask the opinions of a scientifically randomised sample of over 2,000 tribesmen and women across every province in the remote easternmost governorate of al-Mahra. Local inhabitants helped to construct a broad-ranging survey that would create a credible picture of their region’s aspirations for the future. A question about the importance of poetry in everyday life was inserted discreetly among the other more practical questions, so as to avoid emphasising this question in a way that might encourage a positive response. The survey, conducted from late 2012 to early 2013, consisted of face-to-face interviews in order to capture illiterate respondents.
The results suggest that al-Qaeda’s deployment of poetry is a smart strategy for winning hearts and minds. A startling 74 per cent of respondents believe that, out of the six possible answers, poetry is either ‘important’ or ‘very important’ in their daily lives. Among men, this figure rises to 82 per cent. Poetry was also found to be slightly more important among desert tribes than along the more sedentary coast. The fact that neither level of education nor the presence of a television impacted the result indicates that the tradition of poetry, in east Yemen at least, remains largely oral, highly popular and deeply entrenched.
What, then, are the five key functions that the poetry performs? First, poetry bestows on the militant jihadist agenda a framework of authenticity and legitimacy; 89 per cent of poetry in the jihadist magazine Sada al-Malahim adopts the classical ode form, with verses comprising two half lines ending in a mono-rhyme. And almost all the poetry is composed in classical Arabic, the linguistic register sanctified by the Quran, rather than in local dialects. This supports the global jihadist project by giving the poetry relevance across the entire Arabic-speaking world. Although the poetic language is difficult, as a largely oral medium, it is not necessary for every word to be understood, because the rhythm and rhyme carry the listener over opaque passages almost indiscernibly. In this way, modern jihadist themes – such as the exhortation to fight, or the celebration of death – are packaged in a traditional form that resonates culturally and carries with it centuries of respect. This revered status of poetry is further evidenced by the fact that Sada alMalahim happily places verses of poetry directly alongside quotations from the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and the Quran itself.
Even in jihadist poetry that adopts a contemporary form, rather than the predominant classical ode form, we find literary strategies designed to echo poetic tradition. In the poem below, for example, images of the modern suicide bomber are placed alongside natural imagery reminiscent of desert poetry, dating back to pre-Islamic times. The power of the bomber is compared to lightning, thunder, a torrential stream, a flood and a volcano.
I will fasten my explosive belt,
I will shudder like a lightning bolt
and rush by like a torrential stream and resound like stormy thunder.
In my heart is the heart of a volcano.
I will sweep through the land like a flood. For I live by the Quran,
as I remember the Merciful. My steadfastness lies in faith,
so let the day of the Quran come. For I live by the Quran,
as I remember the Merciful. My steadfastness lies in faith,
so let the day of the Holy Book come to demolish the thrones of the tyrant. My voice is the loudest voice,
for I do not fear false clerics. I will live and die for Allah.
This picture of overwhelming power, drawn in evocative poetic language that links the past with the present, engages listeners’ emotions more readily than dry theological arguments. Moreover, the short snappy lines of such modern-style compositions are also perfect to set to music and pass on through song as rousing jihadist anthems (nashids). The above poem was placed at the end of an article recounting America’s economic weakness and predicting the imminent collapse of capitalism. It demonstrates how the jihadists place the poetry strategically, often towards the end of an argument, to guide the audience into an emotional rather than intellectual crescendo.
This links into the second key function of jihadist poetry, which is to spark support by provoking passion. Grassroots support is at least as likely to be inspired by passion as by ideology. The following lines demonstrate how al-Qaeda can appeal to deep-rooted tribal values of honour and shame and then situate these within the broader loyalty framework of Islam.
Where are you, as Muhammad’s community burns in flames? Where are you, as dignity screams at the Sons of the Cross?
Where are you, as Jerusalem lies captured and is raped time and again?
When set against local grievances, such as collateral damage from US drone strikes, the notion of being part of a global apocalyptic battle between ‘Muhammad’s community’ (Muslims) and ‘the Sons of the Cross’ (Christians and their Jewish allies) starts to feel real.
A third key function of jihadist poetry is to reassure current and future recruits by immortalising recent ‘martyrs’, just as tribal heroes of old were immortalised in poetry. The poetry praises the martyrs’ virile qualities, mourns their loss and celebrates their glorious deaths. This function is performed by blending the familiar traditional poetic models of madh (praise), ritha’ (lament) and hija’ (lampooning the enemy). In this way, even deaths that recruits might be tempted to see as waste or defeat, such as assassination by the security forces, or by drone strike, can be recast as brave victories.
A poem dedicated to five young men martyred in the so-called ‘Epic Battle of Tarim’ in eastern Yemen, includes the verses:
Where is the like of knights like them,
Who do not accept humiliation and deferral?
The battlefield has never witnessed an act such as theirs, A wounded lion plunged into the battle
A sun shining and stars that are never extinguished, Faces glowing like a risen half moon.
Alongside the traditional poetic praise heaped on these jihadists (knights, lions, sun, stars, moon), the poem goes on to situate them in a continuum of Islamic history. The young men are set on a par with the famous Islamic hero, Hamza, the Prophet’s uncle and Companion, and their demise is likened to the Battle of Uhud, in which the Medinans under the Prophet Muhammad valiantly fought the Meccans in 625. This is a classic example of jihadist poetry constructing an alternative story to reassure recruits and obscure the dispiriting reality. In truth, this ‘Epic Battle of Tarim’ consisted of local police storming the young men’s house after a tip-off and shooting the jihadists in cold blood. Even from a jihadist viewpoint, there was little glorious about their deaths.
Presenting an alternative reality has, in itself, become a fourth key function of jihadist poetry. The poetry format provides a credible window through which to glimpse otherwise unseen elements of jihadist acts. Poems thus pose as documentary in ways that can contradict the objective reporting of events. For example, poetry can construct an attractive image of the suicide bomber. Instead of dying, he is transported into the arms of the virgins of Paradise; instead of being spread around a bomb site, he is amid green meadows with sweet waters; instead of a mutilated blackened body, his is whole and fresh; instead of smelling of rotting flesh, he smells of sweet musk; instead of ending his life sweating and petrified, he died with a smile on his lips.
The virgins of Paradise dressed up and shone with radiance, hoping to meet the knights who strike fear.
They spoke softly and smiled,
‘Is there any lion who has ascended to be united in love?
Is there a loved one who is a reverent jihadist,
who is gaining entry to the gardens of Paradise and hope?’
Such attractive, other-worldly images replace the brutal reality and help to ensure a steady stream of recruits aspiring to glory and sexual gratification. All of the functions outlined above demonstrate the poetry’s ability to polarise the world into simple images of good versus evil. This brings us to the fifth and final function of jihadist poetry to be considered in this article: the task of constructing a coherent enemy against which to rally. The poetry blurs Western countries together and stigmatises them as Zionists or Crusaders, while the regimes that collaborate with them, especially Arab ones, are denounced as the allies, clients or dogs of these Zionist Crusaders. A similar strategy of simplification can be seen in US rhetoric to create a coherent enemy, such as the ‘War on Terror’ or ‘Axis of Evil’.
Jihadist poetry thus manages to telescope a complex political landscape into a simple apocalyptic battle. This message is echoed in various binary oppositions scattered throughout the poetry that are easy to grasp: jihadists/infidels, loyalists/traitors, lions/ants, rain/drought, light/ darkness, paradise/hellfire, courage/fear, knowledge/ignorance and so on. The poetry can reinforce the militant messages by performing them, acting out various aspects of the overarching struggle between good and evil. The following verses, perform the act of a suicide bomber, recreating the fear, ignorance and uncertainty of the victims versus the courage, knowledge and power ‘high’ felt by the bomber:
I am among them, a ghost exacerbating their torture. They will know nothing of my coming and going
until destruction looms in their public spaces and they fall in throngs.
The five key functions described here give a sense of how jihadists can engage poetry to win over local hearts and minds. Deeper study further suggests that tribal and cultural values play a much stronger role in the jihadist movement than is generally acknowledged. This in part explains why the so-called Islamic State has, thus far, been slow to take ground from al-Qaeda in Yemen, despite the former’s strong appearance on social media and sometimes slick video productions. Al-Qaeda has produced jihadist narratives that are culturally attuned to their Yemeni context and adapted to prevailing local conditions. Islamic State, by contrast, has produced little narrative that is culturally specific to Yemen, beyond savaging the Houthis, tribesmen from Yemen’s north, who swept down through Yemen’s south in 2015.
The first Islamic State video from Yemen in April 2015, featured 18 men performing carefully choreographed military exercises in unison, in a manner reminiscent of a dance routine, to the soundtrack of a stirring nashid, clashing swords, gunfire and desert winds. When I showed it to tribesmen in the east of Yemen, they were bemused. They puzzled at the synchronised routines, tidy uniforms and matching sandals; they also scoffed at the inexpert way in which some of the men had tied the headscarf, such that it would never protect them from the desert sand. Significantly, some subsequent Islamic State videos from Yemen have started to include more elements of local culture, such as sung poetry sessions. At the time of writing, however, it seems unlikely that the unmitigated brutality of Islamic State in Yemen and its distant caliphate will find as widespread an appeal locally as al-Qaeda’s more culturally attuned tactics.
Jihadist poetry is no mere hobby or pastime. It performs important functions that operate at once on emotional, practical and ideological levels. It seems surprising that counter-terrorism efforts have not yet made full use of poetry as a vehicle for counter-propaganda. There is a long history of competitive poetic jousting in Arab culture in which poets battled to win their audience’s hearts and minds. Currently, however, jihadist poetry appears to face little poetic counterweight that responds at a concerted collective level. Perhaps it is time to answer back.
This essay originally appeared under the title Militant Jihadist Poetry
and the Battle for Hearts and Minds in War: Perspectives from the Engelsberg seminar, Axess, 2015.