Poetry: An Important Weapon of Militant Jihad?

DATE: 17:00 – 18:00, Tuesday 19th December 2017

LOCATION: Committee Room 3, House of Lords, Houses of Parliament, SW1A 0AA

SPEAKER: Dr Elisabeth Kendall, Senior Research Fellow – ‎Oxford University (Pembroke)

EVENT CHAIR: The Rt Hon. The Baroness Butler-Sloss GBE

Baroness Butler-Sloss GBE: Okay ladies and gentlemen I think we can start. May I welcome you to the House of Lords to this meeting organised by the Henry Jackson Society, this extremely well-recognised and well-respected organisation, doing very very good work in the area we’re about to discuss. But I’m particularly interested to chair this tonight because I hadn’t appreciated the significance of poetry as an important weapon in jihadi propaganda. It’s something which for me at least will be entirely new, and it may well be new to some of you. But those of you who know quite a lot about it will have an opportunity to ask intelligent questions of our extremely able speaker, who is currently the research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke Oxford. She has had a very significant period in the field of Islamic Studies, and in particularly in looking at jihadis. She’s had lecture ships at Edinburgh, Oxford, and Harvard, I mean where else if you’re going to be very distinguished you’re bound to go to those. She’s been an international adviser to cross-tribal council in Eastern Yemen, what an interesting thing to have done. And she’s given numerous lectures, and we are particularly grateful to her for taking the trouble to come today, thank you very much indeed.

Dr Elisabeth Kendall: well thank you for this kind invitation. This is my favourite subject to talk about. I talk about all aspects of jihad, but the poetry is really my passion. So I’m delighted that you were interested enough to invite me. So I’m going to hopefully just going to stick to the time of about 25-30 minutes, so that we have loads of time for questions, and maybe some discussion. So I thought we’d kick off straight away with a typical poem. You might recognise the mugshots on this slide. They are the two global leaders of al-Qaeda at the top, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. At then at the bottom we have al-Zarqawi who was of course al-Qaeda in Iraq which sort of grew into the Islamic State, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. What they all have in common apart from being jihadist leaders is that they all are involved in poetry in some way or another. These three all write their own poetry, so Osama, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi all write poetry themselves, or did when they were alive – Ayman of course is still alive. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi doesn’t to my knowledge pen his own poetry, but he did write his PhD thesis on a medieval poem, which happened to be about Qur’an recitation. But you can see poetry is deeply there in the movement. Now I’m just going to see quickly when I say the word jihad or jihadist I mean militant jihad, and I’m not going to say militant everytime because it gets a bit boring. Of course there are other ways of doing jihad which don’t involve guns or weapons – jihad is basically a struggle, it’s a struggle against sin. The greater jihad is actually the jihad inside yourself. By the way this is perhaps a surprising one here in terms of his love of poetry because Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was known as a bit of a thug, a tattoed press-up kind of – I was going to say meathead but we are recording this, but y’know, a kind of bodybuilder. It’s quite surprising that we should have found him penning his own poetry while he was in prison, which was quite lyrical. It’ surprising to see this softer side of jihad, if you like. Why is it that terrorists would spend time writing and reciting poetry when they could be training or killing people or destroying infrastructure? I’m going to answer that question in a really long-winded 25-minute way. So, the sort of bottom line up front is that poetry is used to create the illusion of authenticity and legitimacy, that’s a kind of cynical interpretation. This takes place at a deeply cultural level. It makes the ideas that the poetry enshrines, which we’ll go into in a bit, in makes them seem part of mainstream culture, part of the tradition, and not just some kind of sub-culture or counter-culture. It’s important first of all to understand that poetry in the Arab world has a distinct place of respect that we perhaps no longer or never quite to that extent have here in the West. So it’s not just an elitist pursuit. We tend to think of poetry as something a little bit inaccessible maybe, something that you did at school, you had Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, it’s something that’s not really tuned in particularly. I mean hopefully there are exceptions and some people here might well read poetry, but that’s generally how we think of it. This is not so in the Arab world. There is a very deep history right back to pre-Islamic times, and it was often used for social purposes, to celebrate an alliance, to celebrate victory in battle, and even today whereas in the UK we’ve got things like reality shows like Britain’s Got Talent or Pop Idol, in the Arab world they have essentially Poetry Idol – who’s the most talented poet? (*inaudible*) the poet of the masses, or the million-dollar poet. This is a TV show to pick out the best poet and it has about 72 million viewers worldwide. So that gives you an idea of the special place that poetry continues to have in the Arab world. It’s not true by the way that when Islam came along somehow poetry was outlawed or that it’s not Islamic – obviously it is or we wouldn’t get these guys writing it – but that notion has still stuck in some quarters, that Mohammed outlawed poets. The history behind that if you put it in context is that what the prophet Mohammed was trying to say is that my revelation is not a poem, it’s a religious revelation coming from God, it’s not just the kind of thing that locals would identify with, which was poetry at the time. He was trying to make the point that this isn’t poetry, this is religious revelation. And in fact there’s a lot of evidence that Mohammed himself used poets. We’ve got a paragraph or two from an 11th century historian called Ibn Rasheep. I’m going to translate this, he said “the prophet used to say ‘indeed these groups of poets inflicts more damage on the people of Mecca than a hail of arrows can do’”. So that, if you like, is early information warfare. It’s the use of culture for literary means. It’s winning over hearts and minds. Is this still true today? I have noticed when I was running a centre up at Edinburgh University which focused on jihad and martyrdom that there was a lot of material that included verses of poetry, whole poems, and that no one was really looking at this. Scholars and analysts and counter-terrorism experts were all very interested in the position statements, in the declarations, and of course the usual stuff: how many people are there, what are their numbers, what weapons do they have, where are they located. And they were totally passing over the poetry, it just didn’t seem very relevant. In fact, I must say, that when I gave a talk a couple of years ago to a spooky type of audience, they said to me “oh gosh this is interesting, because when we get our translations across our desks, we’ll often just get a line which says ‘and then there were 8 lines of poetry’ or ‘and then two verses of poetry’”. They weren’t actually translating the poetry, but just skipping over it saying well it’s there and then moving on. There are many reasons why that could be the case, and I think one of the major reasons is that it’s really hard to translate poetry. I’ll come on to that later, whether it’s understood, but it’s much easier just to decide to either translate it all or to omit it all, but you can’t just translate bits and pieces, that wouldn’t be methodologically sound. So it was all omitted.

So is this still true today? The poetry being as prolific as it is in the jihad movement is a great way of explaining how it is that ideas can spread in populations that are illiterate, where internet access is difficult, and there is virtually no print culture. Deserts, for example, nomadic communities etc. and we have these in Yemen, in the East of Yemen, in Sinai, in Egypt, in Libya, in Iraq, in parts of Syria…this would help to explain a lot. So I thought the best way of working out whether poetry still has resonance today would be to go and ask. So I went into the East of Yemen to the territories very close to where al-Qaeda ran its de facto state until April last year when Special Forces kicked it out, and I conducted a survey of tribesmen and tribeswomen. I asked over 2000 people a whole bunch of questions which to them seemed far more relevant about their political hopes and aspirations and that’s a different part of my research, but I did squeeze a question in there towards the end about poetry: how important is poetry in your daily lives? There was a choice of 6 answers. 74% of respondents said that poetry was either important or very important in their daily lives, which was astonishing. In fact, it was more important among men than it was among women, there was a slight gender discrepancy, something like 82% of men and 69% of women. And that’s not a surprise because poetry isn’t considered some kind of pansy occupation, it’s considered warrior-like, very respectful, and it’s mostly men who recite at public occasions. So no wonder that al-Qaeda and Islamic State are using poetry.

Can we have the next slide? So this is an example of the kinds of places where I was conducting the survey. I just want to make the point that this wasn’t one of those – I’m going to be a bit naughty now – M.O.D. or government-paid for fancy surveys where you get a middle-man to basically organise it, e.g. they cross the border, ask the first 100 people they come across and quickly cross back again. I mean this was really carefully sampled. We reached people in caves, in tents, and we went through every desert region as well as the coastal regions. Actually, when I broke down that 74% audience for poetry a bit more, I discovered that access to education or access to a TV made no difference at all, and nor did age actually, it was just as popular amongst young people as amongst old people. What did make a very slight difference was location. It was slightly more popular in desert/rural locations than it was in the sedentary urban coast. And also slightly more popular in the lowest economic bracket, which is interesting isn’t it because we think of poetry as quite elitist.

Poetry in Arabic and particularly jihadist poetry is designed to be oral, but that doesn’t mean we don’t find it written down. This is the main magazine of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and here we have ‘targeting tourists’ and ‘year of assassination’, the sort of headline pieces. I went through every single issue of this just so that I had one data sample that I could make judgements on. In academia it’s become very important to measure everything now, so I thought this was a good way of measuring it. And I discovered over a 4 year period that this magazine ran, that 1 in 5 pages contained poetry, which is astonishing. So 20% of this magazine is poetry. Next I tried to look at how the poetry is used. What kind of poetry is it? Well, this happens in two ways. The first way would be lifting poetry, lifting verses directly from the classical poetic heritage in Arabic. So we can’t really call it plagiarising, because of course there’s always been this oral tradition where you use work from those who preceded you. And the second way is to create new compositions in Arabic, but to make them look like they’re old to give them extra gravitas.

This is the most boring slide of the whole lot so just bear with me for a minute. I thought it would be interesting to work out where the poetry was coming from. If you look on the right here, less than a quarter of the poetry in the al-Qaeda magazine in Yemen was actually attributed to anyone. This is one of the few occasions where my long training in what we embarrassingly call ‘Oriental Studies’ at Oxford actually came into its own, because I thought gosh I recognise these lines from somewhere. All that stuff we learnt as undergraduates that I was convinced would not be that useful in my future career, but now actually this was one way of using it. I went painstakingly through every single poem and there were about two hundred of them, and traced the lines back to the classical heritage or not. I managed to find that 52% – so over half of it, even the stuff we thought was new – was actually lifted from the classical tradition. Now what’s really interesting with that is that about 10% of that came from a period known as the (*inaudible*) which literally translates as ‘the age of ignorance’ which was before Islam. So how ironic that a group of militant jihadists trying to ultimately – al-Qaeda as well as Islamic State – found a global caliphate to get rid of ignorance would be justifying and backing up their project using verses from the age of ignorance before Islam. It’s quite possible that in some cases they didn’t know they were doing that, because it’s been handed down from the oral tradition. But in some cases it was self-confessedly used. Osama bin Laden would be a prime example, he liked pre-Islamic poetry, and I think what this tells us is that the nostalgic values of a tribal setting, such as the warrior, the hero, the chivalry, the purity, the deserts etc. was considered important alongside all the religious rhetoric. These inherent tribal values still hold weight today. One example of lifting the classical heritage would be Osama bin Laden’s 1996 declaration which came to be known as the declaration of war on the Jews and crusaders. That’s been translated again pretty much without any of the poetry in it. When we got into the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad when he was killed, some of the audio cassettes that were lifted from that compound actually contain the original Osama speeches. So we got hold of the audio cassette where Osama was originally giving his declaration of war on the Jews and crusaders, and in the oral version there were 15 poetry excerpts in that, which never really made it when it was flattened into a 2-dimensional translation and was all lost. But what those poetry excerpts can tell us is quite revealing. They slightly recast the tone of the speech as not really being anti-America as such, but quite considerably more anti-Saudi Arabia and anti the Westernisation and secularisation that Saudi Arabia was seen to be undergoing. So it wasn’t really the declaration of war against the US, as it came to be known colloquially. So I guess that my conclusion from that is that if we’re not taking the poetry into account of part of the jihadist production then we are looking at the jihadist rhetoric through a skewed prism that isn’t the same as the one through which its primary target audience are looking at it.

(next slide) I just wanted to show you an example of – this isn’t by Osama bin Laden, this is about him, and it’s (*inaudible*) ‘the most mighty of our men’. He gets written about a lot in poetry, and one of the interesting things here – I’m not expecting you to be able to read this although I know some of you can – is that you can see that it obviously starts on the right and goes to the left, and at the very end of each line you can probably see the same (*inaudible*), and it’s a mono-rhyme. The concept of rhyme is slightly different from how we think about rhyme, but you can see that it ends in the same letter at the end of each verse. Each verse is a double verse, and normally the end of the very first (*inaudible*) also has the rhyme, and it does here, you can see that swing off at the end of the top of line one. It starts ‘allahu akbar’ etc. This is such a typical poem. It’s highly classical Arabic, it’s got the mono-rhyme, it’s in what we call the Placeda form, the old ode style. In fact, about 9 out of 10 jihadist poems are in this style. It’s good because it makes them really easy to memorise, the mono-rhyme helps, and about 99% of poems are in classical Arabic, not in colloquial Arabic as you might expect. You might think that would make it easier to understand, easier to pick up, but no the classical Arabic is incredibly important. The kinds of themes that run through the poetry are exactly the same as the kinds of themes you would find throughout Arabic poetic history. It’s eulogy, lament, mourning dead colleagues, lampoon which means denigrating your enemies, (*inaudible*) which is boasting and then of course Hamasah, war-mongering, basically whipping up enthusiasm for the fight. So these are some of the main themes. So now for the 60-million-dollar question, is it understood because it’s in classical Arabic and classical Arabic is difficult? You don’t have to understand every word for a poem to speak to you, especially when you’re listening to it not reading it. It’s a bit like the Qur’an itself, it works much better as a recitation than it does as a page of text, there are sort of gaps in the logic, and the story leaps a bit, but when you’re listening to it you get sort of carried over those bits and it starts to make more sense. So it’s the same with the poetry. Maybe an audience would only understand one in every four lines, but you can still get the message, and it can still arouse passion. So our obsession with text and translation doesn’t really do justice to it.

What does it actually do? The two main things are that it endures and it travels. So the first thing, it endures: when websites are taken down, twitter feeds are closed, the chat rooms are closed, telegram feeds are closed, the poetry lives on because you can’t kill it, it’s in the collective memory and it’s passed on orally. Once it’s there, it’s always there. And secondly of course, it travels. It’s passed on orally, it almost travels on the wind. It jumps check points, it gets through borders, and there are 23 Arabic speaking countries, let alone the other billion Muslims who obliged to learn at least some Arabic.

So what are the top 3 functions? Firstly, to legitimise acts of terror. I’ve sort of discussed this and I’m aware I’ve only got five more minutes. But even in the few poems that are modern creations, you can still see that the themes are there, the classical themes. We have lightning bolts and desert imagery, lots of hellfire and brimstone. But the legitimacy really comes in the language and in the form. Certainly, to reassure recruits and win support. This is super important because jihadists are dying at quite a rate. They’re being droned, they’re being killed in battle, it’s not obvious why you would want to necessarily join the mujahideen. This whips people up for the cause. There are a few amazing lines, I haven’t really got time to go through all of them, but y’know sort of “where are you as Mohammed’s community burns in flames?” this kind of really evocative stuff. Also, it can turn a suicide bomber or a drone strike or I guess any kind of act of terror into a glorious battle, so even when you’ve got a bunch of kids rumbled in safe house before they’ve done anything, they were just shot in cold blood – that is reproduced in this poem here as a glorious epic battle, right up there with the early Islamic battles of *inaudible*, which is crazy. When I first read this poem, the names of the martyrs are listed at the top. I thought ‘wow, what happened here at Terim’? It’s the massacre at Terim, what did these guys do?’ There are a couple of lines here, some of favourite lines and I often quote them, and it’ll give you a chance to hear the lilt: (*Arabic*). And at the end of each line people join in (*Arabic*). And everyone puts their arms in the air. It’s quite a bonding experience as well. Those lines mean: “the battlefield has never witnessed the likes of them. A wounded lion plunged into battle. Where have the like of knights like them gone, who do not accept humiliation and putting off the battle?” So you would think this is some kind of amazing heroic act, right? But no, they were killed in cold blood before they’d done anything. The same kinds of images come throughout the poem. So instead of a gun or a bomb you have a sword, instead of a motorbike you talk about trusty steeds, and then instead of referring to jihadists directly you call them lions, and a knight dismounting his steed is the equivalent to pressing the detonator on your suicide bomb. There are all sorts of parallels that the poetry makes. And finally, to present an alternative reality. This is really important. Take for example a suicide bomb site, e.g. blackened remains, I see them on my telegram feeds pretty much daily, horrible messy explosion of limbs. It’s a very, very grim reality, but the poetry paints a completely different one. This isn’t a mess of limbs, this is a martyr who died with a smile on his lips, not frightened. He doesn’t smell of burnt flesh, he smells of musk. He’s not just there a mess on the ground, he’s sitting up there in paradise surrounded by sweet waters with virgins waiting on him. It’s a completely different reality that the poetry paints. It also simplifies reality. So as well as presenting an alternative reality, it also simplifies reality. You get this sort of binary position. A complicated political landscape is paired down into very black and white terms: good vs evil, lions vs ants – the ants are the Americans or the crusaders, the lions are the jihadists -, and rain being a good thing and draught being a bad thing, light, dark, day, night, just all the way through. I think it’s worth pointing out that the US did this as well when it sort of boiled down a complicated political landscape to the Axis of Evil, or the War on Terror; it’s very sort of black and white. Because that kind of binary opposition works. I thought we’d end with a little example of some poetry in action.

*plays video of jihadists reciting poetry*

So there are probably about 400 people at that gathering. It’s a very old party where they were celebrating having broken 29 of the mujahideen out of maximum security prison, and they were celebrating in poetry by singing the poetry. Those were two, by the way, of my favourite bards – they’re both dead now, they were both droned – but they were incredible talented. I’m in no way a sympathiser of course, I don’t even have to mention that. But even I felt some kind of loss when I woke up and heard they’d been droned and realised I was never going to hear their compositions again. Just imagine for someone who’s actually brought into the movement, what kind of effect that has. But great that we got rid of them because they were very powerful. This gathering then, I played this to a group of tribesmen in the East of Yemen and I also played them an Islamic State video at the same time in one of the most irresponsible academic experiments of all time, and I gauged their reaction. So interestingly, a similar Western audience whom I did the same experiment on who were like “this is Islamic State, this is really really dangerous frightening stuff in Yemen, it was the announcement of Islamic State’s arrival in Yemen”. But on the ground, the slick production made the tribesmen think it looked foreign, it didn’t look authentic, they didn’t like the matching uniforms and the choreographed moves. Whereas this had people singing along practically. And you see that refrain (*Arabic*), was the head of the state security apparatus. So ‘he has been vanquished’ runs the line. Who’s going to disagree with that? Everyone hates the state security. And so this speaks to hearts and minds in a way that we’re perhaps not quite getting.

(next slide) Just in case anyone’s doubting its relevance this was the viral tweet on the anniversary of 9/11: *Arabic*. This is by Abu Tamah. This is the line, the verse of poetry, that was put on the anniversary special, and he’s from the 9th century. I should translate it for you: “Allah hurled you at her two towers and destroyed her. Had anyone other than Allah hurled you it wouldn’t have succeeded”. It feels like it’s speaking about New York right. And yet it was talking about the destruction of the Byzantine city of Amorim with its two towers in 838 AD. So this is a perfect example of poetry being used as the melting pot for history, religion, and culture, all in this catchy little phrase. I’ll leave you with this. People always ask me “how do you get around? How do you do your research?” This is how, these are the guys who take me around and they’re incredible gentle and kind, and we have a deal: I help them try to get their views and concerns heard internationally, and they help me with my research, but that’s probably a story for another day. I’m happy to take questions.

Baroness Butler-Sloss GBE: Thank you very much indeed.


That was absolutely fascinating. Before I open it to other people, I must just ask, how were you allowed to take these photographs? Because particularly looking at the group and the tent, did they mind being photographed?

Dr Elisabeth Kendall: No, I think they quite like it. The first time I went in there was definitely some reticence about the photos. But what I did was I compiled, y’know these photo books that you can make, where you can compile your photos into books, I made a photo book for each tribal area with all their sheiks and children and desert landscapes, and the next time I went and I handed them out presents so now everyone wants their photo taken all the time.

Baroness Butler-Sloss GBE: Okay I open it now to everybody here. Can I ask two things: one is please keep your question or comment very short because we’ve got just under half an hour, and secondly would you mind giving your name and if you represent an organisation say which it is?

Question: you referred to talking to Spooks, are they paying you any more attention?

Dr Elisabeth Kendall: Yes. I mean I didn’t know if they were spooks or not they were just an audience of interested people that invited me to speak. And the military as well and actually similar groups in Washington recently too have all asked me to outline the cultural side of jihad – not always as specific as this and sometimes more specific, but there’s definitely an appetite to understand motivations much better I think than there perhaps has been in the past, which is welcome.

Question: I was surprised you said 99% of these poems are in classical Arabic. One thing that we’re seeing is al-Qaeda is digging in its roots in particular areas, in Northern Mali, in Eastern Yemen, in (*inaudible*). Would you be surprised if poetic expressions would take on a local dialect there or would they maintain the use of classical Arabic? And where they are gaining popular support in particular parts of the Middle East, does understanding the poetry and what messages it conveys help understand the grievances that they are feeding off that gives them that local support? Are we missing an understanding of what fuels the insurgencies and does poetry help us with that?

Dr Elisabeth Kendall: Samir by the way was one of my most brilliant students, so it doesn’t surprise me that you’re asking really difficult questions. The classical language issue: it would surprise me if they started publishing in colloquial dialects because it sort of undermines the whole point of emulating the language of the Qur’an practically, and having it in this high classical language which gives it respect and a sense of history. What you don’t want to portray yourselves as is a localised group of rabble young guys waving a black flag in front of an iphone, and when you want something that gives you a bit more credibility the poetry in classical Arabic helps to do that. The thing that’s changing though is the way in which it’s distributed I think. So the magazine covers that I showed you, that kind of big family magazine doesn’t really cut it anymore. With the ongoing conflicts that came after the so-called Arab Spring, we’ve moved to much snappier news bulletin formats, not these great big family culture magazines anymore. Although you do still get a lot of that cultural material on the telegram wires, it’s like a long form of twitter. You still get recipes for women, how to cook better meals for your jihadi husband, that kind of thing. The poetry still makes an appearance very frequently in those telegram wires, and even in a tweet you can still get a rhyming couplet in there, or a couple of hena stitches in. So it’s still being distributed but just in a slightly different way. And I imagine the oral passing on of the poetry is still occurring. Regarding the messaging: what’s in it and does it help us understand their grievances? Well the job that it does is slightly different because if you’re using the poetry to recruit new people, your grievances are quite a general level, such as “look what they’re doing to Jerusalem?” Or “look at the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar”, that’s also a theme at the moment. It doesn’t really get into the local except that it’s a localised form that people enjoy locally, it’s bonding and it makes you part of a group, especially when you’re joining in on the rhyming – it’s a sense of identity and belonging. There are messages that we can use from the poetry. One that springs to mind is that you don’t find the Qur’an misquoted, but you can find the poetic heritage slightly misquoted. For example, when I find a misquote, I think this is Abu Tamah or this is (*inaudible*) but it doesn’t sound quite right, that’s misquoted. There’s been one occasion where I’ve then typed the Arabic misquoted poetry into Arabic google, and it’s come up with one example, which was traceable to a particular mosque in a particular outskirt of Sunna, which was incredibly useful, because of course all this material is published anonymously or under pseudonyms, so we know that this must have had its provenance somewhere close to here.

Question: I’m just interested to know really, when you talk about poetry transcends borders and moving across continents…(*inaudible*) The Muslim schools and madrassas in this country, would that poetic tradition be taught or continued or would it be watered down in any ways to the students in Muslim schools?

Dr Elisabeth Kendall: Well I think the poetic tradition tends to be taught via the canon, just like the Pulgraves Golden Treasury that I mentioned earlier is.

Question: So it’s not through family?

Dr Elisabeth Kendall: Well if we’re talking about madrassas here then no it would probably be taught formally as well, and in fact you get both. In the Middle East you’d get it passed down orally often and taught at school. But there’s nothing inherently jihadist about the poetic heritage, elements of it are lifted, tweaked and manipulated. So for example, there’s a poem I found by Osama bin Laden which he had lifted from the classical heritage but he had changed one word of it: instead of striking their ‘castles’ he’d made it striking their ‘towers’. So that was a very interesting example for how the audience would have been vaguely familiar with that poem, they’d recognise it, so to then manipulate it by switching in towers for castles makes it almost seem that 9/11 was preordained, fated, predestined. So that’s quite powerful stuff. There’s another element to your question which I think is important. I’m talking about the kind of effect and power that poetry has to its primary target audience inside the Middle East. If we’re talking about youths becoming radicalised in London, Brussels or Paris, it’s not going to have quite the same effect, partly because their Arabic is not going to be as good. What will happen then is that the simpler poems which account for about 10% will be converted into Nasheeds, which are anthems, and set to non-instrumental music and sung, and often that will have a video with it. This is exactly the Islamic State stuff that I was playing in the Eastern tribes. Their first announcement of “we’ve arrived in Yemen, we are the Islamic State” starts with (*Arabic*) three times and then it’s this rousing Nasheed in the background as they perform their choreographed dance moves, and y’know they really didn’t like it. And sometimes I’ve played the playlist on my iPhone of jihadist Nasheeds in my convoy to the guys and they said “oh can you give it a rest, this stuff’s not good, you want to hear good Hamasah, good war-mongering poetry, we’ll find you some”. Even though their Arabic is not that good they don’t like the simple form. But of course this goes down very well with teenagers in a Western environment. So it’s just an example of how we have to adjust our thinking and our perspective so it’s not always Western spectacles that we’re looking through.

Question: Has there been any humorous verse in the Arab language and if not is there scope for it?

Dr Elisabeth Kendall: Well in regard to your first question, Arabic poetry has also gone through all sorts of periods of development, it’s even had a romantic period where they were pretty much imitating Shelley; we found a lot of T. S. Elliot imitators around roughly the 1940s; we had a free verse movement in Arabic. So Arabic poetry, not jihadist poetry, has got everything you could hope for or dream of or think about, including humorous verse and satirical verse. In fact, there’s a whole tradition of political satire in verse that can get you locked up actually. So, specifically jihadist poetry is just taking one form and using that because it’s the most classical tradition form and it does the job of authenticating the ideas in it. So they’re not interested so much in free verse. That would be missing their point. That said, the clip I played you (*inaudible*), this is the head of security has been vanquished one, they’re having a few digs at him in that, and that would be in the tradition of what we call Hijer, which means lampoon. So yeah there’s certainly some of that. I actually think that there’s scope here for a counter-jihadist poetry. But as I’ve said in the past, I don’t think it can be written by us, it has to be authentically produced. But it is being authentically produced. I’ve heard people declaiming pretty much off the cuff (they have some stock phrases) and making fun of another tribe, maybe saying “actually the British aren’t so bad” – this is the one they sang to me. This kind of stuff could be collected together and magnified, because that’s all that jihadists are doing, they’re just collecting it together and pumping it out all the time. But it requires effort and it requires people to be on the ground to do that and to help organise that.

Question: I was wondering if you could say something about the similarities and differences between al-Qaeda and Islamic State because you had the chart up earlier showing the proportion of classical texts to contemporary texts, and I was wondering if there’s a difference between al-Qaeda and Islamic State in this regard?

Dr Elisabeth Kendall: Yes there is. Now I don’t have specific statistics on this so what I’m going to tell you is my intuition from my readings of the two groups, if indeed we can still call them two groups – the whole Jihad movement is splintering, but that’s another talk… So in the beginning Islamic State was really pumping out poetry at a rate and of course it had this famous poetess Ahlam al-Nasr and she published absolutely masses but her most famous book is called Blaze of Truth, a collection of works. She wrote in classical Arabic, and we did see classical Arabic at the beginning of the movement. In the same way that the whole Welfare state that they tried to devise started to decline as other more urgent priorities took place, I feel that Islamic State moved much more into the Nasheed market, much more into the anthem market, and less of the slightly more sophisticated poetry of al-Qaeda. Then I came across some quite interesting Islamic State poems. There was one entitled Call to the Knife which was doing the rounds, but it wasn’t a clever sophisticated poem, it was classical Arabic but it was in short lines, so it wouldn’t have been very suitable to be sung. And that came out and was doing the rounds three weeks before the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Call to the Knife was also just at the time when they were starting to use the pen knives and blunt knives to behead people. There are a few poems that have come out – there was a poem for the pilot who was burnt alive. Islamic State stuff is gorier.

Question: I just wondered whether there is in this poetry the opportunity for recognition of reconciliation?

Dr Elisabeth Kendall: I like your question but it is very much the kind of thing that we focus on isn’t it: reconciliation, tolerance etc. I’ve just been doing the Oxford Admissions interviews in December, and almost every student that came through was talking about reconciliation and tolerance and it struck me that I don’t really hear a lot of that on the ground. The poetry itself is actually designed for a bit of a scrap, a fight, and you get jousting poets and sparring poets, one team of poets vs another team. It’s not about reconciliation it’s about competing. We could write poetry of peace and reconciliation but I don’t think it would be very authentic.

Question: how far is this an organised initiative? Is there some equivalent of the central office of information in engaging poets to write particular contemporary verse specifically celebrating the lads in Europe taking out that crew or whatever, or does it arise spontaneously?

Dr Elisabeth Kendall: it’s a good question and it’s hard to answer. I think both of those things happen. I’m not so cynical that I don’t think it arises spontaneously, I think it does. I also happen to know that they definitely do have a back office, a media/central office where this stuff gets produced. So we have recordings not just text. And of course with the Nasheeds, the anthems, al-Qaeda just brought out a Christmas album – it’s obviously not designed for the Christmas market, I’m being facetious. But there are 15 tracks, drip fed to us over a number of days, the last one came out 3 days ago. Numbers like ‘Snarl O Gun’ and ‘Approach O Death’…it’s got 15 sort of snappy numbers, and you can tell by the way it’s been produced by the (*inaudible*) media organisation, an audio production company, that it’s been timed not for the Christmas market as I said, but for when they’re slightly low in their operations. We’ve seen a decline in terror operations over the last 3 or 4 weeks, and they start releasing these audio numbers. So it is a case of both by design and by genuine urge.

Question: is there any evidence for poetry being the cause of further acts of terrorism (*inaudible*)?

Dr Elisabeth Kendall: You’ve put your finger on the holy grail of jihadist studies really. We have the data that could tell us…like if a butterfly flaps its wings, something happens. I can’t possible say. What we can say is that we know for example Anwar al-Awlaki and Osama bin Laden have audio poetry and that their material was downloaded by the Boston Marathon bombers, the chap who killed Lee Rigby…but there’s no correlation that I can legitimately draw. In terms of the actual production, yes it incites to violence, it incites to acts of terror, and it also celebrates them afterwards, so we get it both ends of the terror act. So you’re not only trying to win new recruits you’re being incredibly careful about lionising your martyrs. There’s a whole martyrology literature, both in film and in poetry, which is really really important if you want to keep attracting people through the system. You have to make sure that they live just as the old tribal heroes, their forefathers; tribal warriors from the deep past were immortalised in poetry. So you have to do that with today’s jihadists or you’re not going to see many more come through your doors.

Baroness Butler-Sloss GBE: With enormous regret, I’m going to have to bring the questions to an end because we are just after 6 o’ clock and I am told we have this for an hour. But on behalf of everybody thank you not only for an absolutely riveting presentation but also for the extraordinarily interesting way in which you’ve answered all the questions. So thank you all very much indeed.


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