As ISIS Gets Squeezed In Syria And Iraq, It's Using Music As A Weapon | KUOW News and Information

As ISIS Gets Squeezed In Syria And Iraq, It's Using Music As A Weapon

Jun 29, 2017
Originally published on June 29, 2017 8:20 am

Three years ago, the Islamic State overran large swaths of Iraq and Syria, and soon declared a caliphate that straddled the border between the two countries. Today, the group's physical caliphate is declining — and the group is preparing its base of fighters for a future under siege.

One of the ways it is doing that is through its musical propaganda.

In the most austere interpretations of Islam, musical instruments are prohibited. But the a cappella hymn nasheed, in Arabic, is permissible. The Islamic State has used nasheeds to spread its message since its founding, disseminating battle hymns online through its own media unit and other affiliated propaganda outlets.

Most ISIS nasheeds are in Arabic, but the language of delivery can be as diverse as the foreign fighters who have joined its ranks.

The Islamic State's latest nasheed, released earlier this month, is titled "Dawlati Baqia" or "My State Is Remaining." Like other nasheeds circulated by ISIS, it sounds like it was professionally recorded and has an Auto Tune quality to it.

The song begins:

My state is remaining, firing at the enemy.
Its soldiers shout that it is remaining.
Its path will not be eliminated; its light seeks to expand.

Like other ISIS nasheeds, this one was disseminated across the Web, on encrypted messaging applications and likely on the group's radio station — still broadcasting in areas under its control. The verses are a defiant reply to those who believe ISIS' battlefield setbacks signal the group's demise.

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi , a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, has been tracking the Islamic State's full range of propaganda, including its music, since the group emerged. He says the nasheeds reflect the group's evolution from a battlefield force implementing its rule over an expanding territory and population to an embattled base now under intense pressure.

The past few months have been a struggle for the group. The physical caliphate, which at its height drew adherents from as far afield as Europe and Chechnya, is dwindling. In Iraq, U.S.-backed Iraqi troops are closing in on the last ISIS-held enclave of Mosul, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his caliphate three years before. And in Syria, ISIS is facing separate offensives from U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab tribal forces as well as from Syrian pro-government forces, backed by Russia and Iran.

"My State Is Remaining" warns that the fight isn't over, though:

The Muslim nation has been awoken from its slumber.
Oh people of error! The state is remaining — not vanishing,
Anchored like the mountains, anchored, anchored.

The "people of error" may refer to Islamic State's battlefield enemies, including the U.S.-led coalition — or even those trapped under ISIS control, seeking to flee.

Between 2013 and 2015, Tamimi says, "You see [in the songs] the rise of the Islamic State, implementation of Islamic law and how it creates its realm of justice. But now what you see is the nasheeds are responding to the current situation faced by the Islamic State, which is the setbacks — territorial setbacks, potential loss of Raqqa and almost loss of Mosul."

In response to its losses of territory and people, ISIS released a nasheed in May titled "Heed the Call," referring to the call to jihad. The lyrics exhort the fighters "in the era of epic battles and conflict" to hold their ground in the face of death. "Where are the real men?" the song asks. "Where are the lions of the struggle?"

"The idea behind this messaging is two things," Tamimi says. "One is [a message that] we'll still remain, and the second one, encouraging people to keep up the fight."

Two years ago, when ISIS was still expanding geographically and attracting recruits to its nascent caliphate, the group was producing threatening battle hymns. They often served as the background music for its terrifying and bloody propaganda videos.

The nasheed "Soon, Soon" can be heard in the background of one of the most horrific ISIS execution videos — in which a captured Royal Jordanian air force pilot, Moath al-Kasasbeh, appears to be burned alive in a cage. "You'll see the battle come to your very home," the lyrics go. "To destroy you, my sword has been sharpened."

The nasheed was released within a day of the pilot's death, an emblem of the unapologetic brutality and defiance of ISIS at the height of its power.

But the murder did not stop the anti-ISIS coalition's bombing campaign. And in the years since, the physical caliphate has largely crumbled.

Tamimi says that as ISIS has lost territory and men, its nasheed production and variety also fell off. Foreign-language nasheeds — in Turkish or Uighur, for example — that were once churned out for ISIS' global following are becoming scarcer. Even the Arabic nasheeds directed at its base appear less and less often.

Tamimi says at first he thought perhaps the singers had been killed in airstrikes. But then ISIS released "Heed the Call" and "My State Remains" in May and June.

Despite the mournful tone of "My State Remains," the latest nasheed, the lyrics reveal a group keenly aware — and even proud — of the terror and upheaval it has unleashed, and the many lives it has destroyed. "Our state has made the tears of our enemies flow," the song says. "We have killed them by the thousands and led them to their deaths."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

About four years ago, the so-called Islamic State declared that it would become just that - a state, or more specifically, a caliphate that stretched from Iraq to Syria. Today, that physical caliphate is dissolving. The group is preparing for a future under siege, and they're using music to keep getting their message out. Here's NPR's Alison Meuse.

ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: Islamic State's latest nasheed, or hymn, is titled "Dawlati Baqia," or "My State Is Remaining."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY STATE IS REMAINING")

UNIDENTIFIED ISIS MEMBERS: (Singing in foreign language).

MUESE: It goes, "the Muslim nation has been awoken from its slumber." It continues, "the state is remaining, not vanishing." It's a defiant reply to those who believe ISIS' battlefield setbacks signal the group's demise.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEED THE CALL")

UNIDENTIFIED ISIS MEMBERS: (Singing in foreign language).

MUESE: This nasheed, released in May, implores fighters to hold their ground and not flee. "Where are the real men, it says, where are the lions of the struggle?"

The past few months have been a struggle for ISIS. The U.S.-led coalition says Islamic State now holds less than 10 percent of western Mosul. And in Syria, U.S.-backed forces are pushing to recapture the ISIS de facto capital, Raqqa. Not so long ago, ISIS was producing defiant battle hymns like this one from two years ago, titled "Soon, Soon."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOON, SOON")

UNIDENTIFIED ISIS MEMBERS: (Singing in foreign language).

MUESE: It says, "soon you'll see a wondrous struggle, a fierce conflict. You'll see the battle come to your home." Analyst Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi has been tracking Islamic State's propaganda since the group emerged. He explains how the latest nasheeds reflect an organization under pressure.

AYMENN JAWAD AL-TAMIMI: The idea behind this messaging is that - OK, well, two things. One is, we'll still remain - so hence, the title of this new nasheed, "Dawlati Baqia," "My State Is Remaining" - and the second one being to encourage people to still keep up the fight.

MUESE: Tamimi says there's been a reduced output of these hymns, and the message has changed over time.

TAMIMI: In 2013, '14, '15, you see the rise of the Islamic State, the implementation of Islamic law and how it creates this realm of justice and so on and so forth. But now what you see is, is the nasheeds are responding to the current situation faced by the Islamic State, which is the setbacks - territorial setbacks and potential loss of Raqqa, and they've almost lost Mosul now.

MUESE: Despite the mournful tone of the latest nasheed, the lyrics reveal a group keenly aware and proud of the terror and upheaval it's caused to the people of the region.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY STATE IS REMAINING")

UNIDENTIFIED ISIS MEMBERS: (Singing in foreign language).

MUESE: It says, "our state has made the tears of our enemies flow. Our gale wind has dispersed them. We've killed them by the thousands and led them to their deaths." Alison Meuse, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.