When North Caucasus militants began to arrive in Syria in 2012, they brought with them a surprising cultural tradition: jihadi poetry. Via websites and social media, Russian-speaking militants share new poems about Syria, as well as older “classics” about the insurgency in the North Caucasus.
Writing poetry may sound like an odd pastime for Islamist militants, but in many cases the poems are a unique vehicle for their authors to express emotions and opinions—like grief, sadness, and frustration—that might otherwise be taboo within the rigid ideology of Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria.
The poems also help shape worldviews. While the older works focus on the domestic insurgency against Russian forces in the North Caucasus, the newer Syria poems situate their readers within the wider world of perceived global jihad.
Poems written by women—mostly the wives or widows of militants—usually share personal experiences and emotions about having one’s husband join a militant group, and about how to cope when he is killed.
A work signed Umm Mohammad, “The Wife of a Martyr,” dated August 7 and shared on the ISIS-run Wives Of Martyrs VKontakte group, expresses the raw grief and sense of depression the author feels a year after the loss of her husband. She talks openly about her struggle to keep up appearances:
Well, a year has passed by quietly.
But to my heart it seems but a day.
I live among people, I timidly
Try to be like everyone else.
In a controversial, maybe even shocking, line, Umm Mohammad suggests that God shakes up people's lives and causes pain for no reason, just as he changes the weather or the seasons:
I think as I look into the sky
That Allah changes everything in a moment…
And just as He changes time
He changes people's fates
Today was lively and cheerful
And tomorrow the world abandoned you.
ISIS widows are supposed to mourn for a set period of time—and then move on and marry another militant. So it is surprising that Umm Mohammad is willing to admit that she cannot do that:
A year has passed, time is changing
But my heart will not change.
You will live in it for a long time.
Until my death.
A large subsection of men’s poetry deals with the issue of “sofa warriors"—men who talk about “jihad” in Syria on social media but who do not join ISIS or any other militant group. “Ahlu Internet (People of the Internet),” a poem widely shared on VKontakte, rails against such individuals:
O, evil Facebook warriors,
Soldiers of the Whatsapp army,
O ye deputy sheikhs of Google,
You run in a vicious circle
Clicking on the top right corner.
Another poem, shared on August 11 by someone calling himself Djundullah al-Ingushi, asks a “sofa warrior” why he is not “striving for jihad”:
Well, why? Why aren't you thirsting to fight?
Maybe you're scared? But Allah is with you!
… Many dream of jihad, bathed in prayer in tears!
The theme of the “sofa warrior” and the calls for “real Muslims” to stand up and wage jihad are not new ideas in Russian jihadi poetry. Earlier poems penned by militants in the North Caucasus also expressed anger and disdain at those who sit at home instead of fighting the “Russian devils.” These older poems link “jihad” with Chechen national pride.