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Love In The Time Of Jihad: Letters And Poems From Militants In Syria

A love letter found in the pocket of its author -- a Russian-speaking militant fighting in Syria, after his death in Syria's Aleppo province last year
A love letter found in the pocket of its author -- a Russian-speaking militant fighting in Syria, after his death in Syria's Aleppo province last year

Once upon a time, a man facing death on the battlefield wrote to his wife, "I really was very happy with you, and we will meet soon in Paradise, my love...."

Two days later, he and two of his comrades were killed by a tank shell.

This final love letter, crumpled and bloodstained, was found in the pocket of its author -- a Russian-speaking militant fighting in Syria, after his death in Syria's Aleppo Province last year.

At least that's how the story goes.

Widely shared on Russian-language Islamic State (IS) social-media accounts on Facebook and VKontakte, the letter is part of a literary and storytelling tradition that has developed among militants from Russia's restive North Caucasus who are fighting alongside IS and other groups in Syria.

These poems and letters written by male and female militants whose lives demonstrate the religious and personal ideals of "jihad" are shared, retold, and mythologized on the Russian-language websites and social-media accounts of IS and other Islamist groups.

And unlike the glossy magazines and videos produced by IS's Russian-language propaganda network, these works are not written for recruitment or to shock the West but are produced by and for the militants themselves.

Romance And Jihad

Love letters and poetry would seem to have little to do with the hyper-masculine, militant world of jihad and the brutality of IS. But as literary critic Robyn Creswell and Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel pointed out in the New Yorker this week, the "culture of jihad is a culture of romance."

Jihad "promises adventure and asserts that the codes of medieval heroism and chivalry are still relevant," Creswell and Haykel write.

There is a long-standing tradition of Arabic-language jihadi poetry. Former Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was a skilled poet whose works were read out to large audiences as part of a recruitment drive for militants to come to Afghanistan.

Bin Laden also wrote love letters to his wives. "Know that you do fill my heart with love and beautiful memories," he said in a video letter to one of his wives.

The Russian-speaking militant world has also developed a poetic tradition, albeit one that is smaller and less developed than its Arabic counterpart. And Russian-speaking militants in Syria have used the love poem and love letter as vehicles to express what they consider to be central and idealized elements of jihadi culture.

The love letter written by the militant who died in Aleppo, for example, reflects the most important characteristics of an ideal Chechen "jihadi" -- eager to fight, he cares about his fellow militants, dies heroically in battle as a "martyr," and -- even as he is doomed -- manages to find time to express his love for his wife.

But as befits a militant, his love never spills over into unbridled passion.

The militant starts by setting out the most romantic of jihadi scenarios: it is night, he is on the front lines, the "infidels" are closing in, and he and his comrades are far from their pregnant wives.

As he prepares to go into battle, the militant wishes that he and his wife could become "martyrs" at the same time.

But, he acknowledges, "some time may pass between us and if you manage to read my letter, then know: I am completely satisfied with you, you were the most wonderful wife."

"It was very pleasant for me to live with you," he adds.

As well as romance, the militant is preoccupied with the everyday, practical matters of domestic life.

"I'd really like you not to be cold in the winter, I hope the stove works," he tells his wife.

He also gives detailed instructions for what his wife should do with his various possessions after his death.

"If you need cash, sell it," he instructs regarding his "Romanian machine gun."

No Tears

An ideal militant is not supposed to feel grief at the "martyrdom" of his friends: after all, according to IS ideology, by dying in battle they have carried out the will of God and have ascended to Paradise.

The letter writer counsels his wife not to feel sad at his demise.

"Do not be weak and do not be sad, and whatever happens do not break, my dear one," he writes. "Do not leave jihad, be strong, tough, and confident in the [Koran] verses and the Hadith."

And the militant has some final words for his wife about their unborn child.

"If you give birth to a son, name him Abdullah. If it's a girl, then Fatima or Khadija, or whatever you like," he explains. "This isn't a will, it's just what came into my head to write."

Think Of Me Sometimes...

According to the convention that has developed around Russian-language jihadi writings in Syria, they are usually "found" by other militants after their authors have been killed in battle against the "infidels." Many, like the letter from Aleppo, are anonymous.

But is not only male militants who write "jihadi" love letters and poems. Women have also produced verse for their militant husbands, often expressing ideals of the perfect wife, mother, or sister.

In her poem My Soul Is Filled With You, poetess "Fatima Mu'mina" ("Fatima the Believer") expresses grief that her husband is going to fight with IS in Syria, but says she knows it is the right thing for him to do.

"You are going far away from us," Fatima writes, "But closer to your Creator."

The selfless Fatima tells her husband she will wait for him faithfully and implores him only to "think of me sometimes."

"Perhaps at that moment, Allah will send you to a dream," she concludes.

-- 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.


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