“YouTube changed the game because dissemination is instantaneous,” Smyth said. “You can have a member fly out and buy a Dell or Mac and produce videos much faster.”
The jihadist beat
Unlike in the ’80s and ’90s, when Hezbollah in Lebanon recorded music and passed nasheeds around on cassette tapes, few resources are required to produce and disseminate nasheeds today. Now, anyone can Auto-Tune the greatest hits of jihad.
The musical stylings of jihadists reveal them to be a somewhat talented bunch, provided they receive the T-Pain synthesized treatment. Their songs are diverse: a search for nasheeds produced by Ansar al-Sharia, the decentralized radical Islamist militia group operating in Northern Africa and the Middle East, leads one to an hour-long video titled “The Most Beautiful Jihadi Songs,” which often evoke the sound of American doo-wop groups.
“Nasheed artists play with the boundaries of what’s haraam, or forbidden,” said Shayna Silverstein, an assistant professor in ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland. “If it seems to have harmonic accompaniment which makes it more musical, listeners will go to a sheikh or go online and ask, ‘Is this haraam?’ ”
The imagery in the videos differs, too. While groups based in Yemen typically produce violent videos to accompany the militaristic chants, those made by Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia show footage of members passing out bread to elderly women. Some of them even seem humorous to Americans, Smyth admits, speaking of the choreographed half-hearted fist pumps in ‘Azrael al-Karbalai’s video.
“When we see these, they look hilarious,” Smyth said. “But for people who are committed to the cause, they don’t see humor. They hear what they consider to be a beautiful song.”
And to a Western audience, the music may sound familiar. The style is comparable to ’90s mix-tape tracks, where DJs like Funkmaster Flex used the sounds of war — exploding bombs or rapid gunfire — to form bass lines to accompany self-aggrandizing lyrics. Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia begins many of its nasheeds with the sound of a galloping horse to signal the prophet Muhammad, not unlike rappers who mark their songs with stamps that convey meanings to in-the-know fans. Indeed, NPR said of Iraqi war songs praising the Shiite militia, “It’s hard not to draw parallels with the aggressive testosterone-driven lyrics of some American rap songs.”
‘They’re quite catchy’
Experts, though, doubt these groups are trying to mimic American songs, even though most groups make use of Auto-Tune and other tools associated with popular music.
“Auto-Tune is widely used throughout the Middle East among secular culture,” Silverstein said. “People see it as global aesthetic, something that makes music sound more contemporary. It’s not linked with hip-hop or Western culture.”
“They don’t listen to Western music,” Husain said of strict Islamist groups. “My hunch is, many are born-again Muslims, radicals once exposed to Western [culture] who lean on that past to re-create what they call nasheed to support the cause. They’re quite catchy, but they’re not imitating the West.”
But nasheed videos can act as signals to U.S. intelligence analysts and journalists, sometimes offering valuable information on allegiances. Earlier this year, Nicholas Blanford, a journalist at the Christian Science Monitor, reported that Shiite combatants from Iraq were fighting alongside Syrian government forces when footage in a nasheed video showed the groups together for the first time. And while little academic research exists on nasheed, it’s a growing field of study, as the videos are becoming harder to ignore.
“The Western press isn’t monitoring nasheed,” Smyth said. “But if you’re tracking conflict, this is a great arrow pointing to where the next narrative will be.”