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Dear Musa: How To Live When My Friends Are Martyred?


The North Caucasian "martyr videos" are often a chance for militants to express sorrow as well as respect for a dead friend, and often incorporate highly personal photographs that show the dead militant as an ordinary individual, not just a "martyr."

The North Caucasian "martyr videos" are often a chance for militants to express sorrow as well as respect for a dead friend, and often incorporate highly personal photographs that show the dead militant as an ordinary individual, not just a "martyr."

"One of the most difficult trials of jihad is losing close friends," admitted Chechen Islamic State (IS) militant and self-styled Islamist ideologue Musa Abu Yusuf al-Shishani in a recent social-media post.

Musa describes getting to know a fellow militant with a "pleasant disposition" and then bonding with him while "keeping the watch and in battle."

"He's prepared to take off his warm clothes and give them to you, and he'll freeze just so long as you're warm," Musa writes. "Or he'll give you his last Snickers bar and go hungry himself.... And then later you sit together in the makkar [communal housing] and drink tea."

But the next thing you know that friend is killed, and "you're in shock."

Musa goes on to describe the grief and trauma felt by IS fighters when they find themselves home alone and are struck by memories of their dead comrades.

"It's only when you get back home and you're alone, that's when they come," Musa explains. "All of the brothers, they come and they get inside your head and they start smiling at you. And however hard you try they won't go away, until they bring you to tears."

On the surface, there is nothing unusual in these descriptions of what it feels like to lose a close comrade on the battlefield.

But Musa's admission that militants struggle with these losses is in contrast to the ideology espoused by IS and other extremist Islamist groups that preaches that militants should be overjoyed about "martyrdom," or death in battle.

"Being sad goes against the norm, which is that you should not weep for martyrs," explains terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment.

Message Of Martyrdom

The concept of martyrdom is a fundamental part of the jihadist ideology espoused not only by IS but by other Islamist groups.

IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi emphasized the importance of martyrdom in an audio message last week. Reciting a quote from the Sahih al-Bukhari, one of Sunni Islam's books of the hadith, or records of the traditions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, he said, "I would love to fight for the cause of Allah and be killed, and then fight for the cause of Allah and be killed again."

According to IS doctrine, militants should be seek martyrdom and rejoice in it. "God wants people to be martyrs. So militants try to be happy," Hegghammer says.

But as Musa's message shows, there is a dissonance between IS's ideology of martyrdom and reality of militant life.

The attempts by militants to reconcile and rationalize this dissonance is visible elsewhere in the online cultural spaces created by North Caucasian militants on social media.

Legacy Of A Suicide

When Chechen IS militant Bilyal al-Shishani carried out a suicide truck bombing near Tel Tamr in Syria in April, the extremist group's propaganda machine rushed to praise his "martyrdom" on social media.

A photograph of Bilyal, his face hidden beneath a black balaclava, was captioned "the Knights of Shahada," an Arabic term meaning the Muslim declaration of faith and monotheism.

His fellow militants saw Bilyal al-Shishani as more than a "martyr."

His fellow militants saw Bilyal al-Shishani as more than a "martyr."

But the reaction to Bilyal's death by Chechen militants who fought alongside him showed that they saw the young suicide bomber as a person, not just a faceless "martyr."

Bilyal's fellow militants did praise his suicide bombing, but expressed this in terms of his contribution to the group rather than simply saying he was a "martyr." One militant, a Chechen named Ibroakhim Beshtoyev, boasted that Bilyal had killed "more than 30 infidels" and that he had blown himself up "in a military post where there were lots of infidels, that place was very important."

Amid the praise for Bilyal's actions, there are also signs that his comrades were attempting to express grief by memorializing and humanizing their dead friend.

In place of the balaclava-clad militant of the official IS propaganda picture, Chechen militants shared photos unmasking Bilyal as a fresh-faced young man in his early 20s. In one picture, Bilyal is standing next to a car with an Iraqi license plate. The word "Kislovodsk" -- a spa town in Stavropol Krai in the North Caucasus -- is written in the dirt on the rear windscreen, suggesting this was where he had come from.

Another photo shows Bilyal holding a bunch of flowers. A militant has added the caption "all the best to everyone."

The militants also shared Bilyal's handwritten suicide note.

"Brothers please share all my stuff among the brothers but give my tiliphone [sic] to Umar," Bilyal wrote in poor Russian. "I love you all, for Allah's sake."

'Everybody Loved Him'

Another way North Caucasian IS militants have expressed grief over the death of popular comrades is through "martyr videos," in which photos or footage of dead fighters are compiled and shared for consumption by other militants.

According to Hegghammer, "martyr videos" are not a new concept but have been around since the 1980s.

Such videos, which often show footage of the militant in life and which tell his story up until his death, are "one of the most stable features of ideological production," Hegghammer says.

In the case of North Caucasian IS militants, "martyr videos" are often very basic slideshows of photographs that tell a militant's story from before his radicalization though his time in Syria and Iraq. In most cases, the videos end with a shot of the militant's corpse.

In rarer cases, such as the death of the highly popular Chechen militant Ilyas Deniyev in Baiji, Iraq, (see top image) the videos include a spoken eulogy to the dead fighter.

The North Caucasian "martyr videos" are often a chance for militants to express sorrow as well as respect for a dead friend, and often incorporate highly personal photographs that show the dead militant as an ordinary individual, not just a "martyr."

In the eulogy to Deniyev, titled Words From The Heart, the speaker, Abu Yahsin al-Makhsumi, does praise the militant's contribution to IS, saying that he helped to spread IS ideology through his work as a media activist.

But the eulogy video goes beyond simply praising Deniyev as an IS martyr.

It includes a series of images, including a photograph of Deniyev taking his small daughter for a ride on a horse, that have nothing to do with "jihad."

"This was a brother who was loved by everyone who knew him," Makhsumi says of Deniyev.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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