In his head shot, he’s posed like Leonardo DiCaprio for Tag Heuer, eyes upward in a pensive stare with a giant watch beside his cheek. Photos on Facebook show him in a production studio, the creative home base for the songs and videos he has become famous for. Muhammed Abu ‘Azrael al-Karbalai seems boyish and accessible — the singer even lists his mobile number on his Facebook page. But the 23 year-old Iraqi’s latest track, which surfaced online sometime between April and May, contains Arabic lyrics that translate roughly to:
Do not cross the line. . . We will silence you
Oh Syrian army, focus and show them what you can do
The song, praising a Shiite Islamist militia group fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army, is among the more polished militant music videos that Phillip Smyth has ever encountered.
“This one is complex,” said Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland, who recently posted the video and translated lyrics on Jihadology.net, a Web site that tracks digital material released by jihadist organizations. “The groups out of Iraq are sophisticated. Some of them even have their own production companies.”
Since the 1980s, fundamentalist Islamist groups have produced music — Anasheed Jihadiya, or nasheeds — that spread the message of global jihad through simple, memorable melodies. The a cappella battle hymns often employ multiple harmonies and the call-and-response style of music heard in ‘Azrael al-Karbalai’s video. Though Islamists have a hard-line ban on music, these songs are sanctioned because they don’t contain instruments.
But with the help of rampant Auto-Tune and some signifiers that seem lifted from American music videos — note the posturing, the fist pumping, the imposing backup crew — jihadist nasheed videos are becoming modern, and dare one say, catchy. It’s what one might expect 21st-century propaganda to sound like if it wasn’t being produced in Syria or Yemen.
With easy access to home production studios and widespread social media presence, jihadist nasheeds are becoming ubiquitous, employed by both Sunni and Shia groups. Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has been chronicling the nasheeds since 2010, when he created Jihadology.net. He has found Auto-Tuned nasheeds that date back to the 1990s, and he isn’t surprised by high-quality production.
“Jihadists are some of the earliest adopters of technologies,” Zelin said. “Every top level group uses HD-quality production, Photoshop, voice-overs. It’s all top shelf.”
“These jihadist videos are hugely popular in the Gulf, where young people are more prone to listening to war poetry,” said Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They function as a form of entertainment that is permitted, because they are supportive of a cause that they think is legitimate in the world of jihad.”
Nasheeds are not new, though you’re more likely to stumble across them now when you’re Googling world music or reading up on drone strikes. They’re not solely a part of jihadi culture. By definition, nasheed is a hymn or religious chant, sung a cappella with the accompaniment of percussion. Most nasheeds exclude musical instruments except for drums.
Salafi Muslims, an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam, were once skeptical of nasheeds because they contained melodies that seemed too musical. But jihadists and Islamist militant groups have grown to embrace nasheeds that contain lyrics about war, politics or martyrdom. Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born al-Qaeda leader who was killed by a drone strike in 2011, once encouraged the use of nasheeds as a way to reach vast audiences on the Internet. Unlike poetry or lectures, he believed this music could inspire young jihadists.
A scan of YouTube shows these videos sometimes garner hundreds of thousands of views before anyone flags them for removal. When removed, many videos pop up hours later on Islamist forums or on Facebook fan pages.
“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.”
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.”
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.”