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):

"In the Footsteps of Husayn": The Visual Legacy of General Qasim Soleimani

The targeted killing of the head of the Quds Force, the external operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (“Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution,” Sipah-e Pasdaran-e Inqilab-e Islami; IRGC) by the U.S. at the Baghdad International Airport has unleashed a debate and commentary storm about a range of issues from the most likely to possible fallout and results of the drone strike, whether or not Soleimani is replaceable, whether the assassinations were “legal” or not, what this means for U.S. interests in the Middle East and its forces there and in Afghanistan, among others.

Soleimani’s long career in the IRGC and the creation of his prominent media image, which was fed both by the Iranian state and external news media coverage and the commentariat including in the West, together with his network of interpersonal relationships with a range of non-state and quasi-state armed groups and political actors in the Middle East and wider Muslim-majority world is indisputable even if the results of his killing and the public acknowledgement of it by the U.S. government is still unclear. Soleimani was intimately involved in maintaining and strengthening the Iranian state’s regional network of allied and client groups including Lebanon’s Hizbullah, the Houthi movement (Ansarullah) in Yemen, a host of Iraqi and Syrian armed groups and political parties, and Afghan and Pakistani paramilitary units attached to the IRGC, the Lashkar-e Fatimiyyun and Lashkar-e Zaynabiyyun respectively. He oversaw Iran’s asymmetrical and covert warfare against the U.S., Israel, and the former’s regional allies including Saudi Arabia beginning in the years following the U.S. and British invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Though most frequently associated with Shi’i groups he also maintained ties with other groups including Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government including in its fight against Islamic State in 2014.

The late general also leaves behind a legacy in the visual culture and production of the Iranian state and its array of allied and client groups in the Middle East and farther abroad, which is, as is much of my academic research, the subject of this post.

COMMANDER HAJJ QASIM SOLEIMANI, THORN IN THE EYES OF THE ENEMIES:
“Among the Believers are men true to their covenant with God. Among them is the one who has fulfilled their vow [unto death] and among them is the one who awaits their opportunity, and they did not alter [their commitment] in any way.” [Qur’an 33:23]

Soleimani with the Afghan founder and Iran-Iraq War veteran ‘Ali-Reza Tavassoli, who was killed fighting for the IRGC in Syria in February 2015

Soleimani with IRGC major general Khayrullah Samadi, who was killed in 2017 during Iraqi and Iranian operations against Islamic State in and around Albu Kamal.
Soleimani, Iranian supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution (rahbar-e Inqilab-e Islami) ‘Ali Khamenei, and Lebanese Hizbullah secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah.
Poster for a memorial event for the 40-days following the death of Lashkar-e Fatimiyyun “martyr” Murtaza Hossein-pur Shalimani featuring Soleimani as a speaker.
Poster showing Soleimani alongside IRGC general Gholam-Reza Sama’i, who was killed in Syria in 2016.
Cartoon poster showing Soleimani knocking out Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Photograph from the Iran-Iraq War showing Soleimani with other future IRGC officers including Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani, killed in Aleppo in an Islamic State attack in October 2015.
“Your victory is the victory of the downtrodden of the Earth.”
“The victory of the soldiers of Islam is blessed.”
“Israel will disappear.”
Soleimani at the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus, Syria.
Lebanese pose at the country’s border with northern Israel with pictures of Soleimani.
Soleimani visits the grave of the late Iraqi President and Kurdish politician Jalal Talabani in October 2017.
“The distance (difference) between the Islamic Revolution and the Pahlavi regime.”
“General Soleimani, the Malik al-Ashtar of today,” referencing one of the chief supporters of Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and governor of Egypt who was assassinated on the orders of the Umayyad caliph Mu’awiya I.
Lashkar-e Fatimiyyun members send their Nowruz greetings from Syria in March 2018.
“We will have our revenge”: Poster with Soleimani commemorating the “martyred” IRGC soldiers killed in an Israeli airstrike on the Tiyas (T4) airbase in Homs, Syria in April 2018.
Poster showing Soleimani as a “martyr” being embraced by Imam Husayn.
“We sacrifice ourselves for you, O’ (Sayyida) Zaynab!”
“We will avenge you”
Soleimani is greeted by the “martyrs” of the Iran-Iraq War in Janna.
Soleimani, who obeyed the command of Imam Husayn, greeted in Janna by, among others, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khumayni, Imam Husayn’s half-brother and standard-bearer at Karbala Abu Fadl (Fazl) al-‘Abbas, Hizbullah’s late military commander ‘Imad Mughniyya (assassinated in Damascus in February 2008), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, IRGC brigadier general Ahmad Kazemi (killed in a plane crash in Jan. 2006), IRGC brigadier general Hasan Tehrani Moghaddam (killed in Nov. 2011), and IRGC lieutenant Mohsen Hojaji (executed by Islamic State after being captured near the Iraq-Syria border in Aug. 2017).

UPDATED JANUARY 27:

Soleimani, Mohsen Hojaji, and other IRGC “martyrs” with Khumayni.
Soleimani pictured with other “martyrs” including Ayatullahs Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, Murtaza Mutahhari, and Muhammad Beheshti, Hizbullah chief ‘Abbas al-Musawi and military commander ‘Imad Mughniyya, Musa al-Sadr, Houthi leader Husayn al-Huthi, and a host of IRGC commanders and officers. Also present is Afghan Northern Alliance chief Ahmad Shah Massoud.
“Come to jihad”
Re-purposing the iconic Iwo Jima image.
The Successor: General Isma’il Qaani.

The Haqqani Network's Branding

The Haqqani Network, in addition to being one of the most capable armed factions within the “Quetta Shura” Afghan Taliban, is also adept at media/information operations and branding. Here in photographs and images from Haqqani communal da’wa events in 2018 and 2019 the logo of the group’s media outlet, Manba’ al-Jihad (Fountainhead of Jihad), can be seen on print-outs, banners, vests of its media operatives and fighters, and even plastic bags for books, pamphlets, pens, mp3 files, and even medicine (Panadol, a brand of Acetaminophen).

An interesting heart-pierced-by-an-arrow doodle on a Haqqani Network member’s rifle carrying strap.

Suggested Reading:

On the history of the Haqqani Network and the important role of its Afghan-Pakistan founder, the multilingual Jalaluddin Haqqani, see the excellent book Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012 (Oxford University Press) by Vahid Brown & Don Rassler.

"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.

The Performative Proto-State: "Enjoining the Good & Forbidding the Wrong," as interpreted by Al-Shabab in Somalia

A core duty of all Muslims collectively is to “enjoin (command) the good and forbid the wrong” (amr bi-l-ma’ruf wa-l-nahy ‘an al-munkar), meaning that they should encourage fellow believers to live ethical and pious lives while warding the latter away from practices and actions or behavior that contradict the core tenets of Islam. This concept, which has been exhaustively covered by Professor Michael Cook in a monumental book, is mentioned explicitly or thematically in both the Qur’an (e.g. 3:104, 3:110, 31:17, 22:40-41, ] and collections of hadith, including an often-cited one narrated by the Medinan sahabi Sa’ad bin Malik bin Sinan al-Khazraji al-Khudri (Abu Sa’id al-Khudri).

The concept of amr bi-l-ma’ruf wa-l-nahy ‘an al-munkar is a favorite of modern day militant Islamists (jihadis) who cite it as a blanket justification, in their eyes though not that of the vast majority of the world’s Muslims regardless of school of thought or sect, for their actions against other people who are themselves Muslims. For example, crackdowns on the selling and consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and other tobacco products, and movies and music deemed to be “un-Islamic” are justified by these groups with this interpretation of the Qur’anic and Prophetic injunction.

Here the Somali jihadi-insurgent organization Al-Shabab gathers local civilians to watch the proto-state group destroy seized cigarettes and other tobacco products as well as qat/khat (“jaad”), a plant with leaves that is popular in Somalia, Yemen, Oman, and other countries in the Horn of Africa but is banned in places including the U.S. and Great Britain. In the U.S. it is banned for having both a Schedule I and Schedule IV stimulants; also classified in Schedule I are heroin, LSD, Ecstasy, and marijuana. Al-Shabab has long banned the use of qat in areas under its control though the enforcement of such bans have varied from time to time and place to place.

The public enforcement of such edicts is a performative, ritualized display of the jihadi proto-state’s claims to both governing authority, that is being able to enact and enforce the ban, and to religio-historical legitimacy through the demonstration of its theological “purity.”

"Ribat for one day is better": Al-Shabab and Hadith

A favorite hadith of Sunni militant Islamist (jihadi) organizations: “Military garrisoning (ribat) [and jihad to protect the frontiers] in the path of God is better than one thousand days in one of life’s other stations [in prayer and fulfilling other religious obligations],” included in in the 13th century jurist and hadith scholar (muhaddith) al-Nawawi’s Riyad al-Salihin collection, here cited by the late Al-Shabab amir, Ahmed “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr” Godane against the backdrop of insurgents following their mid-October 2018 capture of a Somali government military base in Daynunai, Bay region.

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.