Radicalization, recruitment, and the glorification of violence are among the themes espoused by “the Poetess of the Islamic State,” a Syrian-born 20-something who has emerged as one of the Islamic State’s most important propagandists.
Ahlam al-Nasr “was born with a dictionary in her mouth,” her mother has written — a talent she put to use as a teenager writing in support of Palestine, and, when the Syrian civil war broke out, in support of anti-Assad rebels and protesters, Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel write in the New Yorker.
Like many ISIS militants and supporters, Nasr’s radicalization was likely born in her experience of violent repression and marginalization. In one early poem, Nasr relives a 2011 anti-government protest in Syria, writing of bullets spewed by pro-Assad forces that “shattered our brains like an earthquake.”
Nasr travelled back to Raqqa from her home in Kuwait after the city fell to ISIS — and became its de-facto capital — in June 2014. She celebrated the extremists’ victory with another poem, praising the “lions” whose “fierce struggle” had “brought liberation” to Mosul, the “city of Islam.”
She is now known as “the Poetess of the Islamic State.”
“It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad,” write Creswell and Haykel. It is a “mistake,” they argue, to ignore the role poetry plays in preserving and glorifying the jihadis’ message.
The targeted dissemination of jihadi poetry is also a key recruitment tool. Militant websites circulate the vast majority of extremist verse, write Creswell and Haykel, “in a clandestine network of social-media accounts, mirror sites, and proxies.”
“Unlike backers of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State’s supporters are masterful at producing technically sophisticated videos that are then skillfully distributed through social-media applications such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook,” Haykel wrote in Princeton’s Alumni Weekly earlier this month.
“And these are not just gory beheading clips — they include a cappella chants, poetic odes, and scenes of battles interspersed with images of medieval knights on horses, clashing swords, and violent video-game scenes.”
Osama bin Laden was himself a revered jihadi poet. His verses reflect the prevailing jihadi ethos that to live in constant struggle, exiled from mainstream believers, is a political duty embraced only by “authentic Muslims,” according to Creswell and Haykel.
“I’m sorry, my son, I see nothing ahead but a hard, steep path, / Years of migration and travel,” bin Laden wrote in one poem.
It is the unpredictable and sacrificial nature of this path, however, that makes it romantic: young men (and women) seeking purpose and identity are drawn to the glory of martyrdom and the promise of community.
“There are many things we’ve never experienced except in our history books,” Nasr writes in her Raqqa diary, referring to the caliphate’s newness, and appealing to disillusioned Muslims hoping to start over.
In this way, Islamic State propagandists and poets like Nasr have marketed the caliphate as an Islamist utopia, calling for Muslims around the world (whether they be aspiring jihadis, doctors, engineers, or scholars) to emigrate to ISIS territory.
ISIS’ inclusive rhetoric, combined with its social media prowess, has allowed the group to recruit more foreigners to its ranks than any other terrorist organisation before it.
“As part of its quest to terrorize the world, ISIS has mastered an arena no terrorist group had conquered before — the burgeoning world of social media,” Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger wrote in their book, “ISIS: The State of Terror.”
Unlike more exclusive militant groups vigorous vetting processes for aspiring militants — such as Al Nusra in Syria and al Qaeda — ISIS, on the other hand, says: “‘If you’re a Muslim, you’re already part of the Caliphate,'” Shiraz Maher, a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization in London, explained to the New York Times.
“Islam has become a fortress again; Lofty, firm and great,” goes another Nasr poem. “The banner of God’s Oneness is raised anew; it does not bend or deviate.”
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