Samuel P Perry & Jerry Mark Long. Southern Communication Journal. Volume 81, Issue 1. 2016.
Following the announcement of a caliphate in July 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (hereafter ISIS) has spread through large areas of Iraq and Syria with the pace and devastation of a blitzkrieg. Moreover, to underscore its power and to promote fear, both among subject populations and in the West, ISIS has propagated a theater of the macabre in its videos of beheadings, torture, and mass murder. However, the jihadist organization has a more fundamental purpose in its video production: to attract and retain recruits. It does so in a twofold way. First, ISIS offers potential adherents the opportunity to enter a narrative that specifically recapitulates Islamic history and develops a compelling new identity based on that history. That powerful inducement speaks to those who believe themselves to be dislocated from their own cultural milieu. As Akil Awan frames it, many jihadists have experienced “dual cultural alterity, essentially a double alienation from both minority (ethnic or parental) culture, and majority (mainstream or host society) culture, as a result of being unable or unwilling to fulfill either group’s normative expectations.” Sometimes as a result of this alienation, many jihadists find individual identities within the constitutive, instrumental, and mythic appeals found in ISIS messaging.
Second, ISIS promises the jihadist that should he be killed, he will become a martyr, leaving a powerful story that recaptures religious history and inspires others. In its important pronouncement from the fall 2014, “Your Lord is Watchful,” ISIS made precisely these promises to new recruits. In the 42-minute audio message, spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami declared to ISIS members, “You encounter death bare-chested. Under your feet is the transitory world. By God, I have not known a single one of you as other than racing toward the battle cry, coveting the place of death in every battle. I see the Quran walking alive among you… . No one is killed without leaving behind him a story (qisah) that awakens the Muslims by its very narration (sard).”
ISIS promulgates its narratives of martyrdom primarily through Internet videos; these types of specially purposed videos, however, are not new. Jihadist battlefield videos date back to the early 1990s with Emir Khattab in Chechnya, and they have since proliferated dramatically, prompting Carol Winkler to argue that, because of the “steep growth in their production, coupled with their ability to reach audiences around the globe,” understanding such videos is “an imperative.” Similarly, Cori E. Dauber notes the continuing spread of digital cameras, cheap digital storage space, wider Internet access, and greater availability of digital editing software, all of which contribute to the uptick in the production of online videos and recruitment materials.
Moreover, well before ISIS moved into Syria, took Raqqa as its headquarters or declared a caliphate, its predecessor organization, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), produced such videos. We analyze one of those videos, titled “Operation Rabi bin Amir,” which describes a 2007 suicide assault on the police headquarters in Samarra, Iraq. Visually, the productions are as sanguinary as those of ISIS. More important, they evoke the same historic elements and make the same promise of a new identity built on lasting individual narratives. We may call this “the continuity of the symbolic DNA of terrorism,” adapting Robert Rowland’s and Kirsten Theye’s significant analysis. According to Rowland and Theye, such videos produce a “terministic screen of jihad.” This terministic screen employs an amalgam of instrumental, constitutive, and mythic rhetorical strategies, which blend together in distinctive ways through the production of the videos.
In examining “Operation Rabi bin Amir,” one of ISI’s earliest such videos, we first sketch its contemporary setting of Samarra. Then, we look at specific ways the video recapitulates Islamic history and situates the featured jihadists in that reconstructed narrative, exploring more fully ISI’s specific rhetorical strategies in the development of “Operation Rabi bin Amir.” We have selected this video to analyze for several reasons. First, it captures a key moment in the organization’s development. Only a few months prior, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) had taken the crucial step of rebranding itself as the “Islamic State of Iraq,” an intentional distancing—though not yet divorce—from its parent organization, al-Qaida, still led at that time by Osama bin Laden. “Operation Rabi bin Amir,” then, captures this critical period of reorientation and an increased focus on violence as spectacle. Second, the video presents a constellation of religious elements and the “manufacturing” of a martyr. ISI appears to have regarded this formula a successful one for the constitutive, instrumental, and mythic rhetoric it continues to employ. Third, unlike some other videos that ISI, now ISIS, produced, “Operation Rabi bin Amir,” saw an extended cyber life. Various venues remessaged both the qisah that it presents and the images it incorporates.
Study of this nascent video can aid analysts who seek to explicate current ISIS productions. Explication is a critical step because, as Carol Winkler and others argue, Western media often mischaracterize, or even take a reductionist approach to, various jihadist organizations and their messages. Winkler maintains, “The ongoing search for a simple public explanation of the diverse range of violent actors around the globe results in repeated mischaracterizations of the nation’s threats.” Yet, only through accurately understanding these rhetorical strategies can we find ways to counter ISIS’s narrative.
Indeed, disrupting those rhetorical practices and promoting alternative hermeneutics may help to combat terrorism. Rowland and Theye argue, “The fundamentally rhetorical nature of terrorism means that one key to defeating it depends on undercutting the rhetoric of terrorist organizations. Al-Qaida and associated organizations are not a kind of paramilitary organization that can be destroyed in a military campaign… . The key to the franchise is the message.” Similarly, Jerry Mark Long and Alex Wilner assert, “Targeting these narratives may—theoretically speaking—alter behavior: Strengthening opinions and positions that contradict the legitimization of terrorism may influence individuals and groups contemplating particular forms of violence, along with the socioreligious communities that facilitate their efforts.”
Moreover, jihadists seem acutely aware of this potential vulnerability. Before he was killed in a drone strike, one early al-Qaida ideologue observed, “More than half of the battle is taking place in the forum of the media. In the media battle we are in a race for the hearts and minds of our Ummah.” By carefully studying ISI’s “Operation Rabi bin Amir,” we unpack the various rhetoric that ISIS now uses, uncover how it seeks to win the media war and then offer a few preliminary suggestions on how to counter it.
Sketch of the May 2007 Attack
While titled “Operation Rabi bin Amir,” the martyrdom video focuses on a 30-year-old Arab, “Abu Jafr al-Yemeni,” rather than the video’s eponymous jihadist. Although background information about Abu Jafr up to the time of the attack is only sketchy, we do know that he was born in Yemen, as the patronym indicates, and moved to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where he spent the rest of his youth. At some point, distressed by the suffering of Sunni Muslims during the war in Iraq, he left his family to join Islamic militants to fight the “apostates” and “crusaders.” Coalition forces captured him, holding him at Abu Ghraib prison. Following the media exposé about conditions there, authorities transferred Abu Jafr and his fellow prisoners to Badush prison, outside Mosul, north of Baghdad. In March 2007 (the first dateable event in his biography), militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) stormed the prison and freed the prisoners.
While still in Badush prison, Abu Jafr became “dear friends” with Rabi bin Amir, another Yemeni, who “longed to attain the approval of his Lord and the gardens of paradise.” Having escaped with Abu Jafr, the 23-year-old Rabi bin Amir joined other ISI militants in an attack on the Iraqi police in Samarra. According to the ISI account, “It was by God’s determination that elements of the police force surrounded [Rabi bin Amir] and were on the verge of seizing him when he threw a hand grenade between himself and them. Thus he did a heroic deed (bala’) in which both some of them and he himself were killed.” Moved by his friend’s sacrifice, Abu Jafr decided to carry out a suicide mission, asking only for the privilege of naming it for his compatriot. Thus, one understands the impetus for, and designation of, “Operation Rabi bin Amir.” On May 6, 2007, Abu Jafr fulfilled his wish to honor his friend and become a martyr, driving an explosives-laden van into the police headquarters in Samarra. That attack and its accompanying gun battles killed 40 Iraqi police and 18 U.S. troops. Four ISI militants also died in the operation. It is the video of the operation that we analyze. We first analyze the rhetorical functions of the names of the operatives that ground the reading of the battlefield video.
Constitutive Naming in Operation Rabi bin Amir
The ISIS terministic screen consists of a constellation of mythical origin stories and rhetorically constructed martyrs, both of which serve important constitutive functions. ISIS narrative constructions consistently invoke the concept of “sacred time” as Mircea Eliade conceives of it. Sacred time, or “a primordial mythical time made present,” functions rhetorically to position martyrs as “transhistorical figures.” The consubstantial link between the living and the dead, present and historical figures, that Maurice Charland conceives of as an important ideological effect rendered in constitutive rhetoric is present in these videos. In fact, the references to the historical companions of the Prophet Muhammad figures both origin myths and recent history prominently so as to double the ideological effect of transhistorical figures noted by Charland. The ideological effect is double in that the videos identify mythically important figures, and operatives assume those names to liken their actions to the deeds of companions of the Prophet Muhammad and other figures in early Islam. In turn, ISIS uses representations of the deceased operatives, who use the names derived from the names of the companions, to cultivate and maintain relationships with consumers of jihadist media to propagate their “brand.”
“Operation Rabi bin Amir” participates in the rhetorical strategy of sacred time. Abu Jafr and Rabi bin Amir are not the given names of the principle characters in this battlefield video. Abu Jafr embraced a new identity well before he carried out his suicide mission to honor his friend Rabi bin Amir. In fact, neither the specific clan name nor the given name of the ISI member, Abu Jafr al-Yemeni, is known. The patronym, al-Yemeni, simply specifies country of origin, not a particular region, and even the name “al-Yemini” likely was given to him after he had moved to Iraq to join the jihad there. While he had many nicknames, among his “brothers in jihad,” he especially loved to be called “Abu Jafr” because the story of “the noble companion” of the Prophet Muhammad, Jafr ibn Abi Talib, deeply affected him. The historic Jafr figured prominently in the early Islamic community. The Prophet’s cousin and brother to the future caliph Ali, he numbered among the first muhajirun (émigrés, sing., muhajir). Jihadists now symbolically appropriate the term to represent anyone who leaves his homeland to participate in jihad, as with Abu Jafr and Rabi bin Amir. Believers remember the historical muhajirun for their fierce fighting, and their stories end with either victory over a foreign foe or death and entrance into paradise. Contemporary jihadists consider themselves pioneers of Islam akin to the old émigrés who left their countries to fight, spreading Islam throughout the land.
In this way, the names tap into a mythic-historical conception of Islam that invokes “sacred time.” That a young man chose a story from the centuries-long history of Islam is significant because it shows a broader impulse within his community, ISI, to repeat and recover Islamic origin stories. It also indicates the young man was persuaded to interpret those origin stories in a particular way through the ISI terministic screen of jihad. Eliade suggests origin stories figure largely in religious narratives because:
The time of origin of a reality—that is the time inaugurated by the first appearance of the reality—has a paradigmatic value and function; that is why man seeks to reactualize it periodically by means of appropriate rituals … religious man believes that he lives in another time, that he has succeeded in returning to the mythical illud tempus.
In other words, the origins of a culture provide examples for religious practices or rites of people who inherit that religious culture as a means of returning to the time of origin, “sacred time.”
To that end, the actions of the historical Jafr ibn Abi Talib gain great significance as the present-day Abu Jafr attempted to participate in rites that would grant him access to “sacred time.” Leaving Mecca because of persecution of the new faith, the historical Jafr traveled to Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) where he converted the “Negus al-Asham,” its Christian king, to Islam. Several years later, Muhammad commissioned Jafr as second in command of the military force sent to confront the Byzantine army at the Battle of Mu’tah, in present-day Jordan. Once there, Jafr hamstrung his horse (the first in Islam to do so) to ensure he himself could not flee if the battle turned against the Muslims. Charging into battle, Jafr reputedly shouted:
How wonderful is Paradise as it draws near!
How pleasant and cool is its drink!
Punishment for the Byzantines is not far away!
There he fell in battle as a martyr, and, when soldiers discovered his body, they found he had sustained numerous wounds … with none in the back. Later, Muhammad, who wept on hearing of his death, dreamed of Jafr, seeing him flying with bloody wings among the angels in paradise. He thus became Jafr al-tayyar fee al-janna, “Jafr, the one who flies in paradise.” In addition, an early poet described him as “the iron-clad young man with two wings.” The historical narrative of his namesake provides a basis for both the identity and the actions of Abu Jafr.
In this case, the adoption of a historically significant name associated with discourses of Islamic military history provides grounds for a subject position; moreover, the discourse refigures Abu Jafr’s eventual attack as a heroic death, not a suicide. In other words, Abu Jafr’s identity is constructed not only through his actions in a suicide bombing mission but perhaps to an even greater extent his identity is rhetorically constructed through associations with narratives that invoke sacred time and transhistorical figures. Charland argues, “History, and indeed discourse itself, form the ground for subjectivity … [and] the position one embodies as a subject is a rhetorical effect.” Through the repeating of the heroic death of a noble companion of the Prophet, one becomes a witness (shaheed) to the apodictic truth of the community’s narrative. The names chosen by operatives warrant violence, and not only in this one instance. Taking a name also makes heroic deaths a ritualistic repeating of the origin story of Islam, offering entry into paradise for participants in the repetition. That passage to paradise is important because Islamic religious texts forbid suicide. Therefore, since the early 1980s, jihadist have developed rhetorical workarounds to reconceive of suicide bombers as martyrs.
Similarly, almost nothing is known about the ISI operative Rabi bin Amir, apart from the brief biographical note that frames the battlefield video named in his honor. The sketch indicates that he was a 23-year-old, also from Yemen, who was imprisoned in Iraq and later died in a battle with police in Samarra. Like “Abu Jafr,” Rabi bin Amir is almost certainly a nom de guerre. The Rabi bin Amir of history was one of the most-admired heroes among Arab fighters who engaged the Persians in the lead-up to the decisive victory at Qadisiyya in 636 CE, and received paean, in recent times, from Anwar al-Awlaki before his death in a drone strike. Described as a rugged, hairy man, the original Rabi bin Amir volunteered to go as the single emissary for prebattle negotiations with the Persian commander, Rustam. To intimidate any visitors, the Persians lavishly decorated the commander’s headquarters. Rabi Bin Amir ignored the pomp and rode his horse onto the carpets. Dismounting, he strode across them, dragging his spear, ripping the finery. Standing before Rustam, he announced:
God has sent us and brought us here so that we may extricate those who so desire from servitude to [men] and make them servants of God; that we transform their poverty in this world into affluence; and that we may free them from the inequity of the religions and bestow on them the justice of God… . Whoever refuses [the invitation to Islam], we shall fight him until we fulfill the promise of God.
And what is the promise of God?
Paradise for him who dies while fighting … and victory for him who survives.
The exchange impressed Rustam, and he praised Rabi for “his judgment, his speech, and his conduct.”
Selection of those names deserves close attention because such selection makes the deeds of historical figures serve as templates for the actions of present-day operatives; the selection thereby has an apodictic function: to reveal the truth of sacred Islamic history. The history of the names also calls for closer study because the history associated with companions of Muhammad recalls familiar examples of exemplary behavior for many devout Muslims who seek to model their lives after the heroes of religious literature. The mythical rhetorical functions of the names of operatives and operations create the grounds for other types of rhetorical appeals.
For instance, the repetition of the acts of historical figures exemplifies the Aristotelian claim that demonstration (apodeixis) generates belief, and that “rhetorical apodeixis is enthymeme.” When an ideologue like al-Awlaki pronounces his admiration for the historical Rabi bin Amir and tells his story in mythical terms, the enthymeme for present-day jihadists is that they ought to emulate the deeds that led the historical figure to become part of Islamic myth. Retelling sacred stories serves an instrumental rhetorical function: It orients featured operatives and potential recruits alike into particular kinds of violent actions that ISI relies on to achieve specific goals such as the destruction of the police station in Samarra.
The historical examples of how one must fight pious wars structure the narrative for Abu Jafr’s actions. Adoption of the name implies the adopter intends to repeat the actions of the person who originally held the name. Therefore, all that remains for Abu Jafr to do after assuming the nom de guerre is to enter the battle that brings him headlong into certain death. Repetition of the actions appeals to operatives presumably because the only two outcomes possible within the narrative framing are “paradise … or victory for him who survives.” Eliade argues, “by its very nature sacred time is reversible in the sense that, properly speaking, it is a primordial mythical time made present.” ISIS and other jihadist organizations openly state their primary goal is to return the golden age of the caliphate to the region by creating a pan-Islamic state called the Ummah. In order to achieve such a goal, they must convince individuals to sacrifice their lives in particular missions.
Further, the beginnings of a culture offer strong points of identification for its participants. Building on the work of Eliade, Rowland and Theye describe the mythical retelling of Islamic history thusly: “Because myths tell stories of the actions of heroes who are larger than life, often operating in special places possessing great symbolic power, such as heaven, hell, or Jerusalem, at times that are endowed with great meaning, such as the beginning or ending of a culture or a time of great crisis, they provide a sense of ‘transcendent grounding’ for any society.” Transcendent grounding helps, for example, turn suicide attacks into ritualized behaviors associated with the beginnings of Islam, significant because it justifies the repetition of ritualized acts largely independent of their commensurability with present-day societal norms. Mythical reenactment of history completes enthymematic conversions of present-day warriors into analogs for historical warriors, present-day targets into analogs for historical targets, the overlay of current ideological battles onto previously fought theological battles, and any number of enthymematic justifications for violence.
Rhetorically, the names serve a mostly instrumental, apodictic function. However, they also provide an important rhetorical device that helps constitute the identity of the individual operative or martyr. Simultaneously, the names serve a vital function in that they comprise the identity of groups who identify with and praise suicide operatives as martyrs. The use of names illustrates the difficulty, even the futility, of drawing hard-and-fast distinctions between instrumental and constitutive rhetoric, as pointed out by Michael Leff and Ebony Utley.
Naming further complicates the distinction between constitutive and instrumental rhetoric in an online media ecology. Winkler argues that terrorist recruitment videos operate constitutively because they position operatives as “transhistorical figures,” showing them to be “uniquely pious.” In that context, piety involves apodictic readings of the mythical narratives that blend past and present through particular discursive naming practices that frame suicide attacks, beheadings, and other grizzly acts of violence as acts of ritual piety. One who either perpetrates similar actions or consumes media representing them becomes a potential witness (shaheed) to the truth of the narrative that ISIS purports to hold. Witnesses orient themselves to the instrumental goals of ISIS and participate in the online portions of jihad, which creates an online echo chamber in which constituents steel their radicalization.
The names further recall stories designed to cultivate a wider audience and to orient them toward the goals of ISIS. Because Abu Jafr and Rabi bin Amir were historical figures and companions of the Prophet, their stories become powerful pieces of what Eliade calls “a theology of history.” The theology of history simply refers to a religion that derives its theology from figures who actually lived in a verifiable historical timeframe such as Jesus or Mohammad. ISIS reconfigures this theology of history into a didactic predicated on the violent sacrifices and martyrdom commensurate with the ultimate affirmation of faith.
Thomas Farrell argues that constitutive rhetoric often reconfigures history to produce “an energized and optimistic body politic.” ISIS constituents consume, recirculate and produce their own media, which forward this reconfigured theology of history to grow, maintain, and adapt the constitutive identity of the group online, as well as forward the organization’s instrumental goals within the context of a media war. ISIS realizes the importance of sustaining and branding their portion of the media war. Indeed, in an undated letter to Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban, Osama bin Laden had written that gaining the upper hand in the “information war” (al-Harb al-iclamiyya) represented 90% of the preparation for battle. In battlefield videos, ISIS develops and employs brand-specific hermeneutics for Islamic sacred texts both to cultivate constituencies and to achieve instrumental goals, and they do so with recourse to mythical appeals to sacred time.
Analysis of the Battlefield Video
In June 2007, ISI released its 25-minute video portraying the attack. It comprises a short prolegomenon, followed by five sections, which show the preparation for the operation, describe its execution and report the results. A sixth section concludes the video with sketches of Abu Jafr and the three other “martyrs” who died in the attack. The following analyzes each section.
The video opens in the traditional manner with the bismallah (“in the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate”), then displays the logo for ISI. Indicating that this was produced by Al-Furqan Media, the media arm of ISI, the video shows a title slide that announces the name of the operation, appeals for God’s mercy and indicates the date: Sunday, May 6, 2007. The video then shows a montage of the featured martyr, Abu Jafr, which previews footage of street fighting, Abu Jafr reading his last will, the long good-bye among friends just before the operation, and his departure on the suicide mission. For explication, the video presents a series of pictures that summarize the life of Rabi bin Amir then indicates that Abu Jafr chose to carry out a suicide mission in his honor. This prolegomenon closes with a Qur’anic citation (4: 75, 76) that bids believers fight on behalf of the weak and oppressed, thus indicating Abu Jafr’s mission was both a morally warranted, defensive attack, and one carried out in the name of social justice.
These elements are typical trappings of this type of production. The first two are an explanatory note about retributive justice and biographical information that extolls the virtues of the martyr(s), bordering on the hagiographic. The final element is a verse from the Quran, which frames the actions of the martyr within a dyadic pairing of righteousness and evil, in the form of criminal activity perpetrated by lapsed Muslims, corrupt Arab leaders, and Western influences. In other words, the revenge attack is defensive and prevents other Muslims from suffering.
Abu Jafr’s previous imprisonment in Abu Ghraib here becomes salient within the narrative because it provides a basis for retribution. Abu Ghraib stands metonymically for the abuse of Muslims by Western-state actors, most notably the United States, encroaching into the region. In her critical discussion of American culture in relation to the Abu Ghraib photographs, Hazel Carby points out, “The mistreatment and torture of Iraqis is part of the submission to American and British economic and political ambition to power-it [torture and the visual evidence of it] too is authorized by the financial and political ambitions to power.” Once a site of this submission and capitulation to imperialist power and desire, Abu Jafr’s body subsequently carries punishment to a site occupied by apostates and crusaders responsible for Muslim suffering. This claim follows Winkler’s argument that the bodies of martyrs often become points of argumentative convergence in jihadist media. The body of Abu Jafr becomes a point of convergence for several arguments, including convergence of instrumental and constitutive appeals embedded within jihadist discourses concerning Western abuses of Arabs and Muslims and ensuing retribution and redemption. Abu Jafr’s body makes it possible to argue the necessary sacrifice of the operatives’ bodies in order for them to become martyrs.
Following the introduction, Part 1 of the video shows a montage of jihadists checking weapons as they prepare for the mission. An al-Furqan reporter interviews several masked militants including the field commander, asking them about the upcoming operation. All respond calmly in the interview. When asked what he thinks about this “noble operation,” one interviewee, abu Sulayman, replies, “God willing, Mecca, Medina, and al-Quds [Jerusalem] will be liberated soon.” The geographic locations offer sites that figure prominently in the formative Islamic myths associated with sacred time. In their discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Rowland and Frank state, “Israelis and Palestinians root their myths and derive their identities from their connections to the land.” We see this in the response of Abu Sulayman and in the repeated labeling of crusaders and apostates. “Crusader” designates a non-Muslim intruder, using an obvious historical reference, while the label “apostate” within jihadist discourse indicates someone who, through lax religious practice or departure from the faith altogether, is no longer worthy of residing on sacred land and is therefore a legitimate target of violent attacks.
The interviewer then turns to Abu Jafr and asks how he is doing. “Praise be to Allah,” he replies. In the background, one hears the excited voices of men shouting “allahu akbar!” (God is most great!) and “yella, yella!” (hurry up, let’s get going!); their excited shouts almost drown out the interviews. There is no doubt among the fighters. Most important, Abu Jafr remains resolute in his decision to sacrifice his life. No moral quandary seems present in the answers of Abu Jafr or on his smiling face. Abu Jafr and all involved with the attack must appear to hold an “apodictic truth,” as they head into battle, if the video is to serve its didactic purposes.
Specifically, Abu Jafr must live up to the “paradigmatic model” provided by his assumed name. As a result, the video can show only piety and excitement. Winkler argues, “Martyrs are remembered as those who never argue, suggesting such individuals consider alternatives as irremediable under the minimum condition rule.” For ISIS and their operatives, appeals to supporters regarding the righteousness of their cause and their attack need to appear as ontological truths. This speaks to both the constitutive and instrumental nature of these videos. Constitutively, these narratives offer the ground for communities to identify themselves with and as “the protagonist of a historical drama.” Instrumentally, the introduction and Part 1 situate the martyr within the immediate exigency of bombing the Samarra Police headquarters.
Once the protagonist is identified by establishing the exigency, the video transitions to action: It shows the militants of the “support squadron” starting diversionary fire around the police headquarters. The video next cuts to Abu Jafr, showing him climbing into a battered, old yellow van rigged with explosives, an image to which we will return. The video shows several interpolated shots, both close-ups and remote camera shots of the police station, with a moving red arrow that indicates the target. Soon, a massive blast resounds, and an enormous fireball rises from the area, an indication that Abu Jafr now has reached his target. As smoke rises in the background, crowds line the streets, hands raised in triumph, shouting allahu akbar repeatedly. The caption over the running image reads, “exaltation of the sons of Samarra and their joy in their deliverance [khalas] from the oppression [thulm] of the police agents.” The section closes with a second camera view of the explosion.
These two shots make clear that the operation carries purposes beyond Abu Jafr performing a heroic deed in honor of his friend or the instrumental goal of destroying a building associated with the enemies of ISI. ISI operatives responsible for producing the video found a vantage point from which the viewer sees the detonation of the explosive devices and the size of the explosion. Multiple camera angles, especially the remote camera providing the long-shot perspective, only strengthen the visual elements of the explosion. From the mise en scène, one sees at work the intentionality of staging the destruction of the police station to create an Internet media spectacle. The exploding police station operates as an inventional resource for further constitutive rhetorical appeals made by ISI, appeals designed to maintain and grow the ISI “brand” and its membership.
The next part of the video, soldiers returning home, highlights the success of the operation. The mujahedeen return from the battle with crowds of men and boys gathering in the streets, cheering for them and high-fiving them. The captions reinforce the point of the scene: “Rejoicing of the sons of Samarra over the blessed attack, [a success] by God’s permission.” The next caption reads, “Men, youths, and even children share in the rejoicing.” The following caption offers, “The state (daula) gathers with its citizens.” The video then features a voiceover from the (late) head of ISI, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, described in the video as the “master (maulana) and emir of the believers.” Abu Umar specifically confects sanguinary sacrifice and social justice:
The Islamic state persists (baqiya) because it was built from the limbs of the martyrs and irrigated with their blood… . Persists because of the truthfulness of its leaders who sacrificed their blood… . Persists because it is the unity of the mujahideen and the shelter of the poor and weak… . Persists, because Islam began to rise and rise, and the cloud began to fade, and infidelity (kufr) is being exposed and defeated.
The rhythmic reading in the video participates in common acts of recitation in ISI productions called nasheed. The section closes with another cutaway of the explosion and clouds rising, with a caption reminding viewers of the total destruction of the martyr’s target.
While this section is one of the shortest in the video, several noteworthy things take place. First, the captions provide instructions on how one ought to read the deaths of 40 Iraqi police (apostates), 18 United States servicemen (crusaders), and four ISI operatives (martyrs). The men, youth, and children noted in the caption show who celebrates the attack publicly. They celebrate because God allowed the attack to succeed. The divine permission granted assures viewers that no one died who was not destined to die in the attack, a claim reinforced by the exuberant celebrations and their distance from the immediate destruction of the attack, and the fear, confusion, and terror it likely produced. The images and their captions invite celebration without contemplation or argument.
The last caption provides perhaps the most telling piece of evidence regarding the telos of ISI. The claim that, as the onlookers joyfully celebrate, “the state gathers (or “unites,” talaHama) with it citizens” makes a constitutive move. It labels its citizens and includes within that citizenry anyone who celebrates on the ground, and, importantly, anyone who celebrates the attack by watching, circulating, and praising the attack online. Those celebrating the attack huddled over a phone or in front of a computer potentially become citizens of ISI. While the attack remains localized to Samarra, representations of the attack vis-à-vis the battlefield video and its circulation operate independently of the “geographic sitedness” of the video and the conflict it represents. The declaration of the nation-state status of Islamic believers, at least in terms of the narrow definition of “believer” granted by ISI, blurs the lines of participation. Those on the ground directly participating in physical jihad, those online celebrating the attack, and those in the overlapping crowd that use the attack and representations of it to spread jihadist ideology all become one daula together. In doing so, all participants may assume a position that is itself a “rhetorical effect” of the ISI terministic screen of jihad.
Also noteworthy, the declaration from Abu Umar al-Baghdadi trades in common sanguinary themes, as well as the oft-used catachresis of body parts and bodies acting as literal building blocks of the kingdom. The bloody theme, the use of bodies, and the repeated use of the word “persist” and derivations of it point to the ritualized recovery of sacred time through the sacrifice of blood and bodies, as well as a persistent physical state that dates back to the origin stories of Islam associated with the names of the operatives. The mythic rhetorical appeals help blend the instrumental goals of building a state and the constitutive appeals to be a member of that state.
One also notes the oft-present ISI flag in the upper corner of the video, featuring the words “There is no god but God,” while Abu Umar al-Baghdadi’s voiceover about the persistence of the Islamic state is playing. Returning to Eliade in this context, one sees that “sacred time, appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites.” The persistence of an idealized state dating back to, and recovered from, the primordial time of Islam through blood sacrifice becomes a ritualistic practice. Battlefield videos feature blood sacrifice of the bodies of operatives to help constitute a community built on those sacrifices, while simultaneously using the sacrificed bodies as instruments of persuasion by expending great effort idiomatically to characterize guerilla warfare operatives as martyrs. The term “martyrs” makes explicit the didactic function of the videos. The term “martyr” moralizes the suicide of a terrorist; if ISI did not desire to create a narrative that actuates audiences to rhetorical appeals made based on his martyrdom, they would simply allow the label of suicide bomber to stand unchallenged.
The screen cap shown in Figure 2 comes from the next section of the video, “The Exhortation of the Martyr.” This section of the video comprises two parts. In the first, Abu Jafr gives his charge (tausiyya) to his fellow mujahideen. The soon-to-be-martyr sits barefoot on a carpet, reading from a script, providing instructions, instrumental rhetoric, to the constituents who will remain after his death. An AK-47 leans against Abu Jafr’s left shoulder; he clutches a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) shell in his right hand, and other weapons adorned with two Qurans flank him. The scene thus recapitulates a saying often ascribed to Abdullah Azzam, who mentored Osama bin Laden: “Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues.”
Again, this reflects the nature of apodictic truth of the jihadist message propagated first by al Qaeda, then ISI, and now by ISIS. Weapons and holy texts surrounding him, Abu Jafr begins his exhortation, saying “Praise be to God who took me from my house to be a muhajir in God’s path, a mujahid to lift up the word of God.” Abu Jafr thanks God for the chance to leave Yemen and fight for the cause of ISI. He continues, “Only yesterday I was held prisoner in Badush Prison under the oppression of the crusaders and the apostates. But today I am with my brothers in the fields of combat and struggle.”
Strikingly, in this portion of the exhortation, Abu Jafr makes explicit the implied persona he wishes to assume by labeling his enemies and himself directly through the sacred constructs ISI uses to frame the entire production. Abu Jafr himself thereby fully internalizes the nom de guerre and the origin myth in the exhortation. As Eliade argues, “religious man too regards himself as made by history, just as profane man does; but the only history that concerns him is the sacred history revealed by the myths.” The exhortation makes clearer, perhaps more than at any other point in the video, the use of the sacred in collapsing or merging the functions of instrumental and constitutive rhetoric. Abu Jafr both constitutes a sense of self and positions the watching audience toward a particular reading of the bonds between him and his brothers in jihad. He predicates his undertaking entirely on understanding his identity as one connected to the sacred history revealed in the origin myths of Islam. The filmed profession of this bond, rather than a private good-bye, is distributed worldwide on the Internet as part of a carefully orchestrated media spectacle.
The explicitness of the sacred increases in the transition to the end of the exhortation. Abu Jafr declares, “My feet are in the dust of the earth, but my head is in the stars. For those in the path of God, true happiness doesn’t consist in one’s self or life or possessions.” Abu Jafr makes clear his orientation toward his metaphysical reward, his unquestioning willingness to sacrifice his body, and his assured ascendance to paradise. He continues by paraphrasing the tenth-century Arab poet Abu al Tayyib al Mutanabi: “One has said, ‘Let your life be sold as a martyr or die as a martyr. Strike with the spear or be honored in death.’ My words to my precious mother… . My life has been sold to God, and He will not let that be wasted. With God’s permission, we will meet again in paradise.” This part of the exhortation features an important nuance with respect to the word “sell.” Unlike the Western connotation of the word, Abu Jafr here uses a term that indicates a formal transaction, invoking Q 9: 111:
God hath purchased of the believers
Their persons and their goods;
For theirs (in return)
Is the garden (of Paradise).
Abu Jafr concludes his exhortation:
On your behalf, I appeal to God for steadfastness. I have tarried too long in this life, and have not found anything that compares with that to which I am going. The conclusion of this exhortation: I appeal to my brothers who hear and witness this to pray for me with all sincerity, and our last prayer is to God, Lord of the two worlds [i.e., heaven and earth]. God is most great. God is most great. God is most great.
In these lines, Abu Jafr again appeals to the notion that his reward resides beyond this life; however, he points out that God rules both heaven and earth. The dichotomy of heaven and earth collapses and the words of Rabi bin Amir, the eponymous historical figure for which the operation is named, return to the fore: “Paradise for him who dies while fighting … and victory for him who survives.” Either outcome equates with a blessing from God. The eventuality and inevitability of achieving a heavenly outcome accords with the notion of myth and sacred time according to Eliade, who argues, “We may say that the desire to live in the divine presence and in a perfect world (perfect because newly born) corresponds to the nostalgia for a paradisal situation.” Abu Jafr argues emphatically and repeatedly that he goes to the paradisiac situation and feels the divine presence, a presence that holds purchase over his future.
In the second part of this section, the video offers a montage. Similar to the opening clips, the video shows Abu Jafr riding a motorcycle in the sands around the camp, laughing with delight. In the next scene, keffiyehs wrapped around their faces to obscure their identities, armed militants surround the broadly smiling Abu Jafr. He alone bares his face; with the attack imminent, he no longer needs to hide his identity. Following that comes the long good-bye. Men file by singly to tightly embrace the shaheed. Between embraces, Abu Jafr uses his keffiyeh to wipe tears of joy from his face.
Interweaved is footage of the yellow van he will drive to his death. The final cutaway shows him standing beside the explosives-laden van. An interviewer jokingly asks him if he is headed out to sell the car. Abu Jafr retorts, “Sell it? Why would anyone sell paradise?”
The next section of the video, which details the results of the attack, offers credence to the claim that the Internet offers the primary battlefield given its continued focus on the martyr, rather than the tactical importance of Samarra police headquarters. Using twin pictures of the martyr Abu Jafr as a screen background (one at the van and one embracing a fellow jihadist), the video scrolls through the results. The first bullet point offers the chief result: The martyrdom operation succeeded in that it destroyed the police headquarters building, killed 40 “apostates” (sing., murtad, one who turns back [from the faith]) and resulted in “destruction” (or “perdition,” halak) for the police commander.
The six bullet points that follow describe clashes with crusaders and apostates in the ancillary attacks, in which several Hummers were destroyed and 18 American soldiers killed. The scene closes with a close-up video of the police headquarters, now devastated. The three pictures, with two of Abu Jafr, make clear the praise of the body and the van he drove to his death and figure more prominently visually than the physical destruction of the police station. Such emphasis comports with the argument that Winkler offers that the bodies of terrorists serve as the actual topoi, or locations, of the arguments made by jihadist groups. She argues, “Bodies serve as rich sites of argumentative resources in online jihadist videos. They warrant inferences for potential recruits, anxiety-ridden citizens, and broader communities both at home and abroad.” The inferences warranted in this section of the video include the valuation of Abu Jafr’s body over the bodies of the 40 dead Iraqi apostates, 18 dead crusaders, and equal to or in keeping with the bodies of the three other fallen operatives, as we see in the next section of the video.
The final section profiles the four martyrs of the operation: Abu Dujanah al-Bengali, Abu al-Bara’ al-Libi, Abu Jafr (again), and Mazan al-Ansari. Three are identified as foreigners by their patronyms, coming from Bangladesh, Yemen, and Libya to join the jihad against crusaders and apostates. The video identifies the fourth, Mazan, as a “supporter,” a term likely indicating he was Iraqi. The footage of Abu Bara’ features the peaceful corpse of the man lying in the company of his friends, other fighters flanking him to shoo away flies, while pointing to the wounds he suffered from having “struggled with Crusader forces.” While not smiling in an obvious manner, the decedent’s face evokes what Winkler calls the “blissful martyr.” The corpses of martyrs in these videos may appear dirty, bloodstained, and battered. However, they also display the bodies of martyrs in such a way that “the facial expression of the corpse visually evoked the fighter’s serenity, if not the apparent pleasure, with the afterlife.” Although there is no postattack picture of Abu Dujanah, he appears to have died after detonating a suicide belt. The featured preattack footage shows him proudly displaying a bandolier, modeling it as though it were a stylish accessory, smiling broadly all the while.
For Abu Jafr, the video replays his long good-bye, focusing on the lingering embraces with his jihadist brothers, then it cuts to the massive explosion that guarantees his entrance to the afterlife. The fourth (Mazan) appears only in a passport-style photograph. The video text describes him as fighting the crusader forces, meeting death while defending his brothers. Ending the video with this scene offers striking visual reinforcement of the voiceover of the late leader of the ISI, Umar al-Baghdadi: The Islamic state persists because it was “built from the limbs of the martyrs and irrigated with their blood.” Through the apparent blissfulness of the operatives, the video emphasizes the two available outcomes for jihadists—paradise for those that die in battle and victory for those that remain.
Final Thoughts: Delegitimizing the ISIS Rhetorical Strategies
While developing a deterrence plan against ISIS is well beyond the scope of this study, our analysis of “Operation Rabi bin Amir” does suggest vulnerabilities that scholars working at the juncture of communication theory and national security policies can pursue in future studies. Writing for International Security, Jerry Long and Alex Wilner describe al-Qaida as engaged in a “narratological war.” On their view, the jihadist narrative serves a variety of purposes: It recruits adherents and gives them a new identity, offers them a hermeneutic by which to interpret the world and furnishes an apologetic to justify its actions before various publics. ISI (and now ISIS) has followed that same narrative structure. We submit that by showing the jihadists’ narrative to be internally inconsistent, markedly divergent from traditional Islamic doctrine and practice, and—most important—acutely subversive of the human rights it claims to support, one could begin to discount the weight of the ISIS message. Rhetorical criticism enables one to pick apart constitutive and instrumental appeals, and, in so doing, it might be possible to forward rectifications of the origin myths that ISIS uses as the grounds for its appeals to sacred time. While refutation of a group’s origin myth is not likely possible and creates problems with regard to denying fundamental resources that people use to constitute and reconstitute their identities, rectification allows for reinterpretations of the myth that change the types of constitutive and instrumental appeals that can be made when employing the myth and invoking sacred time. In other words, group identities formed through constitutive rhetoric often find root in mythic rhetoric that connects the present with origin myths for any given group. Group identities and the instrumental appeals made within the constitution of those group identities can be tempered through delegitimizing certain types of actions and rectifying portions of identity construction that are based on dubious interpretations of myth. To draw again from Rowland and Theye, one could blur the jihadists’ “terministic screen of jihad.” Specifically, recent ISIS videos featuring beheadings, torture, and setting fire to victims might be rectified by appealing to different interpretations of Islam that call for more humane treatment of prisoners and different notions of what is acceptable in warfare.
Long and Wilner write similarly, “Al-Qaida’s narrative is exploitable. And if the message loses credibility, al-Qaida loses adherents—a cost to the organization and its leadership…. The degree to which al-Qaida’s message loses traction with Arab and Islamic publics is the degree to which delegitimation will have succeeded.” This line of argumentation extends, we believe, to ISIS as well. Arguing similarly, Abbas Barzegar and Shawn Powers posit that Muslim nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are particularly well suited to disrupt processes of radicalization. As Barzegar and Powers note, NGOs are often first responders in areas of conflict. In other words, they are often in places where young men like Abu Jafr al Yemeni were prior to joining ISI. We argue that the information war requires allies who offer moderate and progressive hermeneutics of Islamic sacred texts, and that a successful disruption of the narrative or pulling apart of the terministic screen of jihad offered by ISIS involves the promotion of deliberation within regions where violence is most prominent. Finding ways to offer critiques of constitutive appeals to join jihadist organizations and delegitimize instrumental goals through argumentative strategies could make military gains for ISIS more difficult. Performing criticism of battlefield videos and engaging the falsity of their claims to sacred history addresses both instrumental and constitutive appeals made by terrorist organizations. Neville Bolt argues that different types of terrorist attacks “exploit a different relationship to the population” that experiences the attack. The battlefield videos featuring suicide attacks leverage mythic constructions of martyrdom to instrumental and constitutive ends. As these videos often serve as topics of discussion in online jihadist forums, it stands to reason that disrupting the interpretive practices concerning violent action and the relation of ISIS to it in relation to their various audiences might forestall some of their momentum. As Bolt argues, “Conflict is dynamic, not static.” Those who oppose ISIS ought not let their readings of such attacks remain static and mythically rooted. Challenging the theology of history, the constitutive appeals to join a nation state, and the instrumental appeals to undertake particular attacks by reinterpreting suicide missions offers a potentially useful avenue to delegitimizing one part of the ISIS brand.