ISIS's Perverse, Bloody Interpretation of Ramadan

“What of the person who spends the sacred month ... oppressing people and killing innocents?”

Armed police block a road near to the Manchester Arena in central Manchester, England, on May 23, 2017.
Armed police block a road near to the Manchester Arena in central Manchester, England, on May 23, 2017. (Rui Vieira / AP)

For the overwhelming majority of Muslims, Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is a time of prayer and atonement. In addition to fasting for its duration and praying five times per day (as normal), many Muslims add special readings from the Koran to their daily worship, so that, by the end of the holy month—which, this year, begins today and ends on June 24—the text has been read in its entirety.

Sadly, in recent years, Ramadan has been marred by increased terrorist violence around the world, as the Islamic State has attempted to transform it into a month of unparalleled bloodshed. To some extent, it appears that its supporters are willing to help it do so.

On June 23, 2015, six days into Ramadan, then-ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani called for attacks to commemorate the holy month. Three days later, a Shia mosque in Kuwait was hit by an ISIS suicide bomb that killed 26 Muslim worshippers. Later that same day, a tourist resort near the city of Sousse in Tunisia came under fire, with the attacker killing 38 people and injuring dozens more. On May 21, 2016, about two weeks before the start of Ramadan, Adnani made another speech. “Get prepared, be ready,” he said, “to make it a month of calamity everywhere for nonbelievers.” He argued that the targeting of civilians in the West was not only permissible, but desirable, and that as long as coalition forces were at war with ISIS there were no “innocents.”

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.

With the leadership of ISIS slowly being snuffed out, and the campaigns against it in Mosul and around Raqqa gaining ground, the group is guaranteed to try to showcase its strength in the weeks and months to come—to show it is still as strong as ever. For ISIS, “inspired” and “directed” attacks (and anything in between) are the best way to do this. These operations are communicative acts and information weapons with which to buoy supporters’ morale and offset the ideological damage brought about by territorial loss and depleted leadership.

For ISIS, attacks like the one in Manchester aren’t just about gratuitous violence dressed up as Islam. They are image-management tools, ways to reset global perceptions and boost the hopes of the true believers fighting on the front lines in Iraq and Syria. It used to be that this triumphalist effect could be achieved through slick execution videos intended to terrorize the international community. Increasingly, though, encouraging attacks outside of the self-proclaimed caliphate heartlands is its chief means of resetting the global media agenda.

Besides that, inspiring such attacks is also a way to pit communities against each other, inflame anti-Muslim sentiment, and sow discord among Muslim communities and with the wider society. As Abul Hasan himself noted: “Make them forget sleep, terrorize them so that the neighbor fears his neighbor.”

For most Muslims, ramped-up attacks during Ramadan are perhaps the clearest evidence that organizations like ISIS are un-Islamic and pervert the core message of their faith. For ISIS fighters and supporters, though, the perception is that engaging in jihad during this holy month results in heightened rewards in the afterlife.

* This piece has been updated to reflect that ISIS has claimed credit for the recent attack in Egypt.