Ramadan in 2016 proved to be particularly deadly. On June 12, U.S. citizen Omar Mateen opened fire in a nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people. On June 27, eight suspected ISIS suicide bombers launched several waves of attacks on a Christian village in northeast Lebanon. A day later, more than 40 people were killed during an attack on Ataturk airport in Turkey. Three days later, more than 20 people were brutally killed at a café in Bangladesh. The next day, almost 300 people died when a large truck bomb exploded in Baghdad. As Ramadan came to a close on July 4, four suicide attacks hit three locations across Saudi Arabia, including one in the holy city of Medina.
While it is impossible to know whether any of these attackers had Ramadan on their minds, it now seems undeniable that jihadist groups regard the occasion, seen by most Muslims as a time of spiritual reflection, as a time of enhanced militancy. “Ramadan is the holy month of jihad,” one ISIS supporter told us over Twitter. “People want to win the honor of attaining martyrdom in Ramadan.” After all, Ramadan is a month in which all good deeds are rewarded manifold; for jihadists, such “good deeds” include terrorist attacks.
To validate this position, jihadists often evoke the Battle of Badr, a key moment in early Muslim history that occurred during the month of Ramadan in the year 624 CE. During the battle, Muslim forces overwhelmed their enemies despite being massively outnumbered. Against all odds, their victory ensured the survival of the fledgling community of believers. It’s no surprise that jihadists like to draw attention to this example, manipulating it to their political ends.
“What they are doing is not jihad in any sense according to Islamic tradition,” Abu Ali, a former extremist who has renounced his past views, pointed out. “I would counter by saying that just as one receives multiplied rewards for good deeds in Ramadan, they receive multiplied bad deeds for sins. So what of the person who spends the sacred month of Ramadan oppressing people and killing innocents?”
With the attack in Manchester, which ISIS claimed the next day, and the brutal killing Coptic Christians in Egypt, which *ISIS has now claimed credit for, terrorism researchers and law-enforcement officials worry that this year’s Ramadan could once again see a flurry of attacks. Compounding these fears, a day before Ramadan began, ISIS supporters released a 12-minute statement in Arabic reiterating the words of their current spokesman, Abul Hasan al-Muhajir. In it, Abul Hasan could again be heard calling for attacks and repeating that civilians in the West are legitimate targets.
As abhorrent as this rhetoric is, it contains a sort of strategic logic. While it may be true that ISIS encourages the murder of civilians—killing “crusader” non-combatants is framed as the ultimate act of retribution—it would be wrong to think the organization considers such violence an end in itself.