Of Flags and Badges: Hurras al-Din & the Incite the Believers Operations Room in Syria

The flag of the Syrian jihadi-insurgent group Hurras al-Din and a fighter wears another, better-known flag badge on his chest.

UPDATE (January 17, 2020):

Arm badge of the “Black Flag” made most (in)famous by Islamic State worn by a fighter in the Incite the Believers Operations Room rebel umbrella in Syria. Though the flag is most widely associated with Islamic State it is also used by a number of other Sunni militant Islamist groups including Al-Qa’ida-affiliated groups.

UPDATE (January 19, 2020):

“Story of a Martyr”: The Martyrology of Islamic State-Somalia’s ‘Abdul Hakim Ahmed Ibrahim (Abdulhakim Dhuqub/Dhoqob)

Islamic State, in its most the 216th issue of its weekly Al-Naba newsletter, profiled the former deputy amir of its Somalia branch, Shaykh ‘Abdul Hakim Ahmed Ibrahim (‘Abd al-Hakim al-Somali) his name has also been reported as “Abdihakim Mohamed Ibrahim”), covering his “three decades of da’wa (missionary propagation/”calling to God”) and struggle (jihad) in God’s path.” Some of his family members blamed other members of IS-Somalia of killing him at the time as part of a possible power struggle.

Born on the savanna area of eastern Somalia in 1390 Hijri, corresponding to (March 9, 1970 to Feb. 26, 1971), Ibrahim is portrayed as a pious youth who “sought knowledge” and attended the mosques in the port city of Bosaso in the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland where he studied Islam and prayed. He was dedicated to “true monotheism” (tawhid) and the sunna of the Prophet Muhammad, rejecting the heretical innovations (bid’a) of local Sufis such as the visitation of the graves and tombs of dead holy men and other shrines. He began his career in the field of missionary propagation (da’wa) by trying to get his family members and fellow clansmen to abandon bid’a and begin practicing “true” Islam. He and his companions then began to conduct da’wa in the Somali-majority region of Ogaden in eastern Ethiopia.

He was an active supporter of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) umbrella and adopted a militant/armed stance with regard to his da’wa activities when he faced opposition from “apostates,” exhorting his audiences to fulfill their duty of military jihad. He and his “brothers, the monotheists” (muwahhidun) worked tirelessly as righteous reformers (ahl al-salah) to fight the corruption from the Sufi spreaders of corruption and sedition (ahl al-fasad min al-Sufiyya).

Following the Ethiopian (Christian) invasion and the collapse of the UIC after its military defeat, Ibrahim’s and his companions’ efforts were betrayed by the “apostate” Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-murtaddin), which eventually allied with Somali Sufis, other Muslims in error (ahl al-dalal) as well as the “Crusaders.”

Following the collapse of the UIC and the occupation of parts of Somalia by Ethiopia, Ibrahim met young Somali “mujahidin” seeking to migrate (hijra) to Yemen, one of the other “arenas of jihad,” the travel routes of which ran through northeastern Somalia/Puntland, specifically the coastal Bargal area.

After a small group of 11 Somali mujahidin were attacked in an airstrike, Ibrahim successfully helped them escape a blockade by “apostates,” evacuating them to Yemen by sea.

He joined Al-Shabab, which at the time, the Al-Naba article acknowledges, was the best insurgent factions in Somalia (afdal al-fasa’il al-muqatila al-mawjuda fi-l-Sumal). Unlike other members of Al-Shabab, though, Ibrahim was dedicated only to tawhid and the Prophet’s sunna and was not corrupted by “pre-Islamic” clannism or “regional” loyalties). He was dispatched to Puntland by Al-Shabab commanders as part of “security detachments” (mafariz amniyya) operating against Somali “apostate” government forces.

In Puntland he participated in the attempted assassination of “one of the biggest agents of the Crusaders, Diyano,” probably Puntland senior military commander Asad Osman Diyano. Diyano survived though several of his companions were killed or wounded.

The article said that Ibrahim was eager to strengthen jihadi efforts in Puntland while the bulk of Al-Shabab remained focused on southern (and central) Somalia. He requested a meeting with the group’s leadership in order to lay out his plan and his reasons to widen military operations in northeastern Somalia. He ended up spending nearly two years fighting in the south before returning to Puntland. He gained experience in procuring weapons and ammunition, a skill that would prove helpful later on.

Ibrahim took the decision to join the “unified community of the Muslims” (jama’at al-Muslimin) after observing events in Syria, chiefly the betrayals of the “mujahidin” by Al-Qa’ida and its amir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and its allies in the “apostate” Ikhwan and the Sururiyya. He and many of his friends were inspired by the expansion of Islamic State.

They saw joining Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s group as being a religious duty because of Islamic State’s implementation of shari’a and establishment of an Islamic state, culminating in the declaration of a caliph-imam to unite the Umma. Ibrahim and his companions started to engage in da’wa to convince others to pledge allegiance (bay’a) to al-Baghdadi and reject divisions between the different mujahidin factions that had “torn apart the mujahidin.” The martyrology, unsurprisingly, said that he was successful and convinced many mujahidin to pledge bay’a and abandon their membership in their previous groups.

However, Al-Shabab’s leadership mocked Ibrahim and the other defectors, with the article alleging that Al-Shabab’s commanders had become used to being subordinate to Al-Qa’ida, which led them to religious discord (fitna) and mixing unbelief (kufr) and heretical innovation (bid’a) despite this going against the tenets and requirements of Islam. The biography says that Al-Shabab’s leadership at that time began to dispatch intelligence agents (“spies”), presumably from the feared Amniyat security wing, to tail Ibrahim and other Islamic State sympathizers.

Al-Shabab, the article details, started open repression once a public bay’a was declared by one group, seemingly referring to Shaykh ‘Abdi Qadir Mu’min’s faction in Puntland in late October 2015. Al-Shabab arrested and imprisoned or killed Islamic State sympathizers and defectors. The article equates Al-Shabab’s actions against Islamic State and its loyalists in Somalia with a theological offense against Islam itself. The repression was particularly bad, the article said, in southern Somalia.

The article says, however, that Al-Shabab arrested anyone suspected of sympathizing with Islamic State and not only actual sympathizers, an allegation previously made by other anti-Shabab jihadis. Anyone who even watched a video or listened to a nashid produced by one of Islamic State’s media outlets was arrested or killed by Al-Shabab, the article claims.

Ibrahim was, the biography claimed, one of the first to join Islamic State in Somalia and defect from the “evil, criminal” Al-Shabab. The fact that he was based in Puntland far from Al-Shabab’s strongest forces helped him and this allowed him to more securely engage in da’wa to win over more defectors to Islamic State-Somalia. Al-Shabab tried to prevent recruits from traveling to Puntland but God intervened for the emigrants (muhajirin) and protected many of them. Ibrahim was instrumental in securing weapons, ammunition, and other equipment for the new recruits, enabling them to restart their jihad anew.

As a soldier among the “caliphate’s” soldiers (jundi min junud al-Khilafa) Ibrahim was at the forefront of IS-Somalia’s clan outreach, inviting them to enlist their children, and he was, the article claims, successful because of his good reputation in the region.

Following IS-Somalia’s capture and occupation of the port town of Qandala in October 2016 Ibrahim participated in the battles between Mu’min’s insurgents and Puntland government and allied clan forces. Ibrahim was protected by God and was away from his brothers in IS-Somalia when Al-Shabab sent a force of several hundred to eradicate IS-Somalia (the force was instead soundly defeated by a coalition of of Puntland and Galmudug government forces and allied clan militias near Gara’ad.)

Ibrahim remained a key player in IS-Somalia and its campaign against the “apostate” soldiers of al-Zawahiri (junud al-Zawahiri al-murtaddin), humiliating Al-Shabab and helped swell the ranks of IS-Somalia by the hundreds.

With his growing formidable reputation in Puntland, however, came dangers as Ibrahim came to the attention of the “Crusaders” (U.S.) and their Somali “apostate” allies. He was targeted and killed in a drone missile strike in Rajab 1440 Hijri, corresponding to March 8 to April 6, 2019. The biography defends Ibrahim’s reputation from claims by Al-Qa’ida and Al-Shabab that tried to sully his memory by seeking to link him to the enemies of Islam. The death date window given differs slightly from U.S. AFRICOM’s date of April 14, 2019 noted in its press release announcing his killing.

“Strike Them When They’re Drunk”: Islamic State vs. New Year’s Eve

Islamic State supporters conflate (stereotypical) behavior for Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations and the issue of drunkenness or otherwise encourage “lone wolf” or “inspired” attacks during the dominant Western European and North American (Christian) holidays.

Islamic State media encourages its “lone wolf” supporters to carry out attacks when the “Crusaders” are “drunk” during Christmas and New Year’s Eve in a December 2017 propaganda video.

Equestrianism in Jihadi Cultures

Afghan Taliban horseman

The image of the horse (faras) and the horseman (faris) is a central and frequent symbol used in a variety of jihadi culture(s) across different ethno-nationalist groups including Arab, Pashtun, Central Asian, and African organizations. Portraying modern day insurgents and other militants as the contemporary “knight” (faris) and chivalric warrior, the individual defending Islam and the Umma from occupation and persecution by non-Muslim forces and their “apostate” allies, these groups draw upon longstanding sociocultural and historical symbols and motifs, reshaping them into new narrative frames that seek to link today’s militants with idealized figures from the past, in particular the earliest Muslims led by the Prophet Muhammad and his successors, the four “Rightly Guided” (Rashidun) caliphs and the first three generations of Muslims, the Sahaba (Companions), the Tabi’un (successors), and the Tabi al-Tabi’in (successors of the successors). These early generations of Muslims are heralded as the paramount examples of piety, faith, and religious action, the model for all subsequent generations of believers to emulate.

In historico-military terms, these three generations expanded the earliest Arab Muslim states outward from the birthplace of Islam, the Arabian Peninsula, into the Levant, Egypt and North Africa, Anatolia, Iran and Central Asia, Sindh and the Indian Subcontinent, and further afield into Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and southern Europe. For today’s jihadis this “golden age” has been idealized in a way to focus centrally on military struggle (jihad al-‘askari) in what most see as the “defense” of the Umma and Islam from external aggression and internal betrayal and perfidy. This purity of intention (niyya) to “strive in the path of God” (jihad fi sabil Allah) is exemplified in the chivalric horseman, the knights of faith (or, as the former Islamic State of Iraq dubbed them, the “knights of martyrdom,” fursan al-shahahda) who are the closest embodiment in the modern age of the Prophet’s generation.

The horse as a symbol plays a central role in pre-Islamic and classical Arabic literature with the term “faras” (referring, in general, to thoroughbred horse; plural: frāsāt) appearing in classical poetry (such as the qasidas of the famous sixth century poet Imru’ al-Qays) as an image of beauty, chivalry, and a symbol and celebration of the skilled horseman and the symbolic nobility of the animals themselves.

Horses are mentioned in the relation to their beauty (3:14) and creation by God for humankind (16:8) as well as throughout the hadith literature. In one hadith the Prophet is said to have said, “There is always goodness in horses” and in others horses are referred to as mounts, in warfare, as food, in racing competitions, and as exempt from zakat.

The horse, central as it was to the early Arab Muslim territorial expansion, was mythologized in early Islamic literature and training manuals (furusiyya) were also developed concerning the animals’ usefulness as cavalry mounts. As the early Muslim states expanded they came into contact with other military equestrian traditions, chiefly that of the Iranians, Central Asian Turks, and the Byzantines and led to interbreeding between the different stocks of horses. In the modern day, mechanized jihadi forces are compared to the fursan of old, often by referencing Qur’an 8:60: “”And prepare against them whatever you can of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of God…”

Skilled horseman on the battlefield, often with banners flying and weapons raised high, the sword and saber of old replaced in jihadi motifs often with rifles and other firearms, appear throughout the media and visual cultures of today’s different jihadi (or, to use their term, mujahidin) groups including the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans, Al-Qaeda Central, Al-Shabab, and Islamic State. Images of the horse cross sectarian boundaries and often appear in Twelver Shi’i religious artwork and the visual culture of modern day Shi’i armed groups in reference both to the Prophet and to the horse, Zuljanah, of the third Imam, Husayn bin ‘Ali. Zuljanah, the martyred Imam’s faithful mount, is linked to the Prophet, who was bought and raised by Muhammad and was later given to Husayn. A white horse, standing as Zuljanah, is central in many contemporary Muharram mourning rituals and processions, particularly in South Asian Shi’i communities as well as in their diasporas.

Below are a number of photographs and visual motifs of horses in contemporary jihadi culture(s) as well as selected segments from audiovisual releases with brief annotation. Due to space and time constraints, the below is, of course, not exhaustive; there are numerous groups using or that have used equestrian (and dromedary) imagery:

An Urdu Subcontinent jihadi poster showing mounted mujahidin and citing Qur’an 4:100, a verse exhorting Muslims to “emigrate for the cause of God” (hijra) and promising divine reward for those who become muhajirun and are killed striving in God’s path.

Today’s jihadis emphasize military jihad in this verse but some exegetes of the Qur’an (mufassirun) interpreted the verse as referring to any of those who emigrate for a wide range of religious purposes including pilgrimage (Hajj), asceticism, and seeking knowledge.

The conquering early Arab Muslim fursan of old re-purposed as the predecessors of today’s Islamic State jihadis.
Bucolic Jihad: An Islamic State photograph quoting several hadith in which the Prophet is reported to have said, “Goodness is tied to the forelocks of horses until the Day of Resurrection: reward and spoils of war.” (Sunan al-Nasa’i).
Wilayat Khurasan-IS militants from Pakistan and Afghanistan, some mounted on horses, proceed to a meeting where they and their leaders, including the late Hafiz Sa’id Khan and Shahidullah Shahid, pledged allegiance (bay’a) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Al-Shabab horsemen after a communal ‘Eid prayer event in Mogadishu in 2009.
Perhaps the best example of modern day jihadi use of chivalric equestrian motifs, an Al-Shabab segment juxtaposing the conquering Arab horsemen of the Prophet and his successors with today’s mechanized Somali “mujahidin.” The accompanying nashid includes references to the Battle of ‘Ayn Jalut (Spring of Goliath) where, in September 1260, the Mamluk armies of Baybars and Sultan Sayf al-Din Qutuz defeated the Ilkhanid Mongol general Kitbuqa.

Further Reading:

(1) The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd Edition, in particular the articles on “Faras” and “Furusiyya.”

(2) Description in Classical Arabic Poetry: Wasf, Ekphrasis, and Interarts Theory (Akiko Motoyoshi Sumi; Brill, 2003).

(3) “The Horse in Arabia and the Arabian Horse: Origins, Myths and Realities” (Jérémie Schiettecatte and Abbès Zouache; Arabian Humanities 8, 2017): https://journals.openedition.org/cy/3280?lang=en

(4) “Horse, Hawk and Cheetah: Three Arabic Hunting Poems of Abū Nuwās” (J. E. Montgomery, Cordite Poetry Review, 1 February 2015: http://cordite.org.au/translations/montgomery-nuwas/)

(5) Night & Horses & the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature (Robert Irwin; Anchor, 2002)

(6) Early Islamic Poetry and Poetics (Edited by Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych; Routledge, 2017)

(7) The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual (Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych; Cornell University Press, 2010)

(8) The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: Myth, Gender and Ceremony in the Classical Arabic Ode (Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych; Indiana University Press, 2002).

(9) “Refighting the Past in the Present: Modern Conflicts and the Mobilizing and Contesting of Sacred History” (my own short piece at Maydan; 17 November 2016): https://www.themaydan.com/2016/11/refighting-past-present-modern-conflicts-mobilizing-contesting-sacred-history/

UPDATED 25 October 2019, 5:13 p.m.:

Refighting the Past in the Present: A poster shows matyred Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas Brigades’ militiamen alongside the figure of Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas, Imam Husayn’s standard-bearer here bearing a banner reading, “We heed your call, O’ Zaynab,” against the backdrop of her shrine in southern Damascus, Syria. The “martyrs” through their blood, the poster states, have demonstrated their love for al-‘Abbas and Zaynab.

There is sometimes significant cross-pollination between the militaristic and messianic symbolic repertoires of Sunni and Shi’i armed groups, as seen here in a Sunni jihadi graphic design that takes, almost whole cloth, a figure or figures taken from Shi’i artwork of Imam al-Mahdi and Abu Fadl al-‘Abbas, complete with the “Hand of ‘Abbas,” a symbol representing the loss of both of his hands at Karbala and popular in standards (alamdar) and religious commodities including jewelry and clothing.

UPDATE: 28 October, 12:54 p.m.:

A somewhat apocalyptic example of equestrian (tied to notions of idealized “Islamic” historical chivalry and courage) is this Urdu tarana (nashid) featuring the late Usama bin Laden mounted and galloping on his horse along with scenes of other mounted warriors against the backdrop of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.