Islamist militants sweeping through Iraq don’t just wield riches and huge caches of weapons – they’re marching to battle to slick, professional-sounding recordings aimed at inspiring their fighters, winning new young followers and terrorizing the population.
These fiery, sometimes gruesome and unusually polished productions have become a staple accompaniment to the growing number of videos produced and shared on social media by groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, more commonly known as ISIS.
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The music follows a similar style: an imposing chorus of voices singing in perfect harmony, with production values that would stand alongside any commercially produced record. Like the images they accompany, the lyrics center on a total commitment to bring about an Islamic state and a gleeful celebration of self-sacrifice.
Documentary filmmaker Leila Sansour has been watching the evolution of these videos for several years. According to her analysis, recent video showing the Ansar Battalion of fighters in Syria is set to a track whose style is now common among jihadi groups.
The video shows masked fighters training with automatic weapons, while others do push-ups and jump through fire. The accompanying song features the lyrics: "I am coming, I will be patient and proud, I am coming to climb the mountains of men, I am coming to offer you myself."
Another video, featuring a singer belonging to another group, Jabhat Al Nusra, includes the line: "We are soldiers in waiting. Our dream is to become the souls of martyrs."
This video is less glossy, showing the singer armed with an assault rifle and flanked by two other armed men. But it provides a neat depiction of the dual presence of violence and music in many of these groups’ operations.
Islamist groups have used these types of videos before, including Somlia’s al-Qaeda-linked terror network, al Shabab, and the Lebanon Shiite Muslim militants, Hezbollah. But none have employed digital techniques more potently than ISIS, which has overrun towns and cities in Iraq and last week declared the establishment of a caliphate -- or Islamic state -- across Iraq and Syria.
"There are an enormous amount of songs and videos that come out all the time"
Sansour said ISIS has a strikingly young membership, with most fighters in their twenties and early thirties. They belong to a generation that has grown up on the web and appreciates the value of global outreach.
"The mujahideen [Islamic fighters'] culture, as a youth culture, has been going on for a while but it has exploded with the Syrian revolution," she said. "There are an enormous amount of songs and videos that come out all the time. A lot of them have high production values but some simply look glossy because they have access to easy to use software and, obviously, very dramatic footage."
The style sung by these groups is in keeping with a tradition of Sunni music, she said, but the youngsters are able to embellish the harmonized sound, using computer programs to multi-track the audio and make it seem "more impressive," as though many more people are singing.
Music appears to be as central to militant sects as the displays of brutality for which they gained their infamy; members are revered as much for their singing as their fighting skills, and each territorial gain, such as militants' seizure of local government buildings in Raqqa a year ago, is accompanied with a group song.
While Islamist militants’ use of music may be nothing new, the digital skills of their young members means they can record high-quality audio in increasingly mobile situations, either on the road or in remote locations. One video shows a young fighter, named as Majed, singing while two friends record him on laptops. The song, a jihadi chant, has the lyrics: "Do not cry for me mother, seek strength from God, I had to stand up for my religion." These men certainly think of themselves as mujahideen and the singer also talks about "Iran killing my brothers," according to Sansour.
"Western money has been donated to train people digitally or on social media"
The use of music and videos on social media by groups like ISIS has been well-documented. But according to counter-terrorism expert Raffello Pantucci, the trend is merely mirroring the rise of technology in the rest of the world.
"It is so much part of our collective daily lives and DNA, of course these groups are going to be tapping into it," said Pantucci, who is a senior research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. He said this has posed a challenge for internet host sites and search engines such as Google who are having to deal with hatred-espousing, often graphic material.
He added that mostly English-speaking recruits are producing the high-quality music and videos, in part because they are more likely to make content that appeals to potential recruits in the West. But Jad Melki at the American University of Beirut said young people growing up in Iraq and Syria are equally able to produce the polished sounds.
"We have conducted surveys and we have found them very capable, both in terms of consumption and production," said Melki, who is head of the media studies department at the AUB in Lebanon. He said this training has come from free online software, local schools, or even training programs run by non-governmental organizations paid for with Western money.
"Western money has been donated to train people digitally or on social media - people who use it aren't vetted by their beliefs, so how to we know that some of the people who have benefited have not ended up in ISIS?"
First published July 5 2014, 2:48 PM