The strange role of rappers in the Islamic State’s jihad

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Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary is suspected to be the Islamic State jihadist who beheaded an American journalist last week. (YouTube)

It's still unclear who the masked Islamic State jihadist depicted in video footage killing American journalist James Foley is. Over the past few days, British tabloids have published a great deal of speculation on the identity of the killer, dubbed "Jihadi John." The leading theory is that he may be Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, an Egyptian-British rapper who grew up in London.

Bary, whose nickname as an artist was L Jinny, has been in Syria since at least last year. He earned notoriety this month when a slew of grisly images published on Twitter by foreign jihadists in Syria included one of him holding aloft the severed head of a man thought to be a soldier loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Bary's father had connections to Osama bin Laden and was extradited to the United States from Britain in 2012 on terrorism charges related to the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. His rap music, which got aired on the BBC's airwaves in 2012, draws on his rough upbringing in exile, the Independent reports:

In early songs put online in 2012, Bary makes apparent reference to drug use, violence and life on a council estate and talks about the threat of his family being deported to Egypt.

"It’s hard to progress in the future with a damaged past but still I try to count my blessings and I thank Allah,” he rapped in 2012.

"I’m trying to change my ways but there’s blood on my hands and I can’t change my ways until there's funds in the bank.

"I can’t differentiate the angels from the demons, my heart’s disintegrating. I ain't got normal feelings.

"Even my life’s blessed, still I will not find rest."

Now among the legion of foreign fighters drawn to Syria by the lure of the extremist Islamic State, Bary is one of a large cast of jihadists well known on social media. Christopher Dickey of the Daily Beast suggests that Bary may not be Foley's masked killer in the video "precisely because" the man's face is concealed. "Why," Dickey asks, "having advertised his savagery only days ago with a social media post showing him holding a human head, would he now conceal his identity?"

Much has already been reported about the Islamic State's slick operations on social media, which has been a key tool of recruitment as well as propaganda for the group's grim, extremist acts. Bary is thought to belong to a trio of British jihadists referred to as "the Beatles" by former hostages. The Islamic State loves to display its internationalism online — such as this video that accompanied the supposed "martyrdom" of a Canadian convert to Islam who joined the terrorist organization in 2012.

The prevalence of such characters in the Islamic State is a sign of the organization's ability to attract disaffected youths in Europe and elsewhere who are seduced by its rhetoric of violence and spiritual redemption.

Bary is not even the Islamic State's only European rapper. Denis Cuspert, a German convert to Islam, was a modestly successful rapper who went by the nickname Deso Dogg. He emerged as a popular figure within the Islamic State last year.

According to Vice, videos released by Cuspert, 38, who took the name Abu Talha al-Ahmani (Abu Talha the German), lionizing extremist leaders such as bin Laden and Afghan Taliban commander Mohammad Omar may have inspired other German jihadists to take up arms. He, Vice reports, became a "cult figure on Salafist web platforms."

Deso Dogg's celebrity within the Islamic State even led him to make videos on behalf of other causes, including a call to Islamist fighters in March to wage jihad in the Central African Republic, where Christian militias had been targeting Muslim communities. Some reports claim Deso Dogg was killed in a clash with a rival rebel faction in April, but his death has yet to be confirmed.

There's of course no link between rap and the intolerance and fanaticism of the jihadists. After all, when the Arab Spring was at its height, attention fell on the role of local Arab rappers who sang powerfully about the injustices of their authoritarian societies. A rap song was even considered to be the unofficial anthem of the democracy uprising in Tunisia.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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