Analyzing letters and testimony of ISIS terrorists shows how eye-for-an-eye arguments in defense of Muslim victims meld with monotheistic guilt and a mystic sense of destiny to become offensive weapons in the jihadist strategy.
PARIS — After each attack ordered or inspired by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), the group publishes a message with its talking points. Central to its message is the claim that its foreign operations are a response to air strikes by the international coalition in Syria and Iraq. This position, expertly communicated by its propaganda outlets, constitutes ISIS" central argument in justifying the attacks in Paris, Brussels, Manchester and London — and in attracting new recruits.
But how do potential martyrs perceive this message? How do they justify to their loved ones the slaughter of innocent civilians? What convinces them to sacrifice their lives to this cause?
Le Monde has analyzed how the terrorists in the attacks in Paris and Brussels justified their missions, by comparing letters they had left their friends and families, statements given by a few captured cell members, and the propaganda circulating in jihadist circles.
A combination of geopolitical considerations, religious imperatives and mystical fantasy, their words form a complex web that helps understand how a suicide terrorist is created. It is an ambiguous argument in which "defensive jihad" slips into an offensive one, and the protection of Muslims leads to the wish for a final victory of Islam over the "infidels."
On top of this ideological foundation hammered in by ISIS" propaganda come more personal reasons, such as feelings of guilt which, with the promise of a purifying afterlife, convince young followers to consent to the ultimate sacrifice.
They're going to call us monsters, non-Muslim.
Among the documents found after the Nov. 13, 2015 attacks in Paris were three handwritten letters from one of the terrorists, Salah Abdeslam, to his mother, sister and girlfriend. Police also extracted electronic files by Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, two brothers who blew themselves up at the Brussels airport and metro on March 22, 2016. These, too, were addressed to women: the bombers' mother, sister and partners.
The most elaborate of these documents is a 33-minute audio recording from Ibrahim El Bakraoui entitled "For my mother." In this posthumous message, the elder brother foresees the condemnation by religious leaders, and presents jihad as a response to the supposed oppression of Muslims.
"So, Mom, you're going to be hearing anything and everything so I'd like to clarify one or two situations .... There are people with beards that are two-meter long, who no doubt know the Koran by heart, who are practicing, er, Islam, let's put it like that. But they're lying about Allah and his Messenger .... They're going to call us monsters, non-Muslim. We're not all-knowing, we don't know the Koran by heart, but we have a living heart and ... when we see the Muslims who have been persecuted for decades ... and that these people never declared jihad in the path of Allah but they take the liberty to criticize the people who fight ... our meeting with them on resurrection day before Allah, may he be exalted, we'll see what their arguments will be."
Ibrahim El Bakraoui's jihadist commitment, as he expressed it, finds its roots in a feeling of revolt and humiliation. According to what one of his accomplices, Mohamed Abrini, told the investigators, this muted anger was there before the creation of ISIS. "This sort of determination, I was already feeling it when I was seeing the slaughter in Palestine," said the only member of the Brussels commando not to have activated his suicide bomb at the city's Zaventem airport.
CCTV footage of Ibrahim El Bakraoui before the March 22, 2016 attack on Zaventem airport — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
This feeling of powerlessness in the face of Muslim suffering reached a new peak with the Syrian civil war. And it found an outlet with the declaration of the caliphate on June 29, 2014, perceived as a promise of compensation for past humiliations.
In his message to his mother, Ibrahim El Bakraoui spoke of ISIS as the hope for historical vengeance. "Now we, glory to Allah, for hundreds of years, we lost Andalusia, we lost Palestine, we lost, all Muslim countries actually, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Morocco, governed by a tyrant, Tunisia, Algeria, all countries, glory to Allah, an Islamic State was created."
This newfound pride in the "ummah," (pan-Islamic community), nearly one century after the last Ottoman caliphate was abolished in 1924, can be seen in the letter Khalid El Bakraoui wrote to his wife: "You should know, Nawal, that there have always been Islamic States. The last one was destroyed in early 1920s, but then people abandoned the jihad, and Allah hasn't stopped humiliating us since then .... But today we have an Islamic State that has won many victories."
What you call jihadism, I call Islam.
But the promises of the new caliphate were thwarted by the creation two months later of an international coalition to contain its expansion. The countries taking part in the military offensive immediately became choice targets for ISIS. From that moment, the organization has multiplied calls to strike Western countries, especially France.
This was the interpretation of Osama Krayem, who claimed under interrogation that he had changed his mind at the eleventh hour about detonating his suicide bomb in the Brussels metro. "As long as there will be coalitions and airstrikes against ISIS, there will be attacks. There will be a retaliation from ISIS. They're not going to bring you flowers or chocolate," he told the investigators.
"What you call jihadism, I call Islam," he insisted, before describing the murder of innocents as the response to civilian deaths by coalition airstrikes. "It's sad sometimes to say that you can do the same to a population because their government is doing the same to our population. The civilians in Syria aren't fighters. That's why ISIS says: "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.""
It is difficult to assess precisely how many civilians have been killed by the coalition in Iraq and Syria, but Airwars, an independent NGO, put the figure between 3,530 and 5,637 since the intervention began in August 2014. This reality is abundantly exploited by jihadist groups on social media, with graphic pictures of maimed bodies as evidence justifying the wave of attacks against the West.
This military approach of offensive jihad enables ISIS supporters to kill without remorse. They do not think of themselves as terrorists, but as soldiers. But if you read them in detail, their motive gradually moves to a more radical objective: submission of the infidels.
This is where the whole ambiguity and perversity of ISIS" ideology creeps in. The humanitarian argument is used to touch the hearts of the new recruits. Then, the propaganda does its work and turns them into weapons of destruction. In the letters left behind by the suicide bombers, the feeling of a newfound Muslim pride systematically veers toward a desire for conquest.
"So, we the Muslims, Islam, it's a religion of peace, as they keep on saying," Ibrahim El Bakraoui told his mother. "But Muslims aren't wimps. Muslims, when you slap them, they don't turn the other cheek, on the contrary, they respond in an aggressive way," he said, before concluding with the following warning. "As long as Allah's law isn't respected, the Muslims must come from all sides and fight for Islam."
He goes on to expand upon the deep feeling that underlies his commitment. "These people, we must have hatred for them because they're infidels. They don't want to believe in Allah ... First, we must hate them, and then we must wage war on them .... In fact, once we prevail over them, we'll offer them three conditions: They can accept Islam, they can pay the jizyah (a tax levied on non-Muslims) so they're actively humiliating themselves, as Allah, may he be exalted, said in the Koran, or they can fight us."
The evolution of "defensive jihad" — initially limited to the defense of Muslim lands — to attacks on non-Muslim countries was long a subject of debate among jihadists. It was popularized by al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and then adopted and expanded by ISIS.
Ultimately, the claimed goal of protecting Islam is supposed to lead to its propagation. This trend was formalized by ISIS in an article entitled "Why We Hate You & Why We Fight You," published in its propaganda magazine Dabiq in July 2016.
The article, developed as a six-point list, concludes with this clarification: "What's important to understand here is that although some might argue that your foreign policies are the extent of what drives our hatred, this particular reason for hating you is secondary, hence the reason we addressed it at the end of the above list. The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam. Even if you were to pay jizyah and live under the authority of Islam in humiliation, we would continue to hate you. No doubt, we would stop fighting you then as we would stop fighting any disbelievers who enter into a covenant with us, but we would not stop hating you."
Thus, the propaganda of ISIS drives its soldiers from a humanitarian struggle toward its totalitarian goal: the annihilation of all otherness. The only peace possible in their eyes is the pax islamica.
But this shift has attracted only a minority of jihad candidates. Psychological motives also play a significant role in the radicalization process.
When questioned by a Belgian judge, Osama Krayem described the El Bakraoui brothers as "ordinary people." He said Khalid El Bakraoui's wife was pregnant when he blew himself up. "Terrorism is not a personality," Krayem said.
So what made the El Bakraoui brothers and the others give up their "ordinary lives?"
Psychological motives also play a significant role in the radicalization process.
Like many candidates for jihad, the El Bakraoui brothers were delinquents, very far from religion, before converting to radical Islam. "In reality, many delinquents feel guilty," explains the Tunisian psychoanalyst and author Fethi Benslama, "because the monotheistic religions play upon the guilt. The word religion in Arabic is ‘din," which means ‘debt." Entering jihad can alleviate this feeling by giving them a cause. What happens then is what one could call a moral reversal of guilt: The internal hostility is transformed into external hostility and justifies attacking the other with a feeling of omnipotence."
ISIS plays on this guilt, reproaching Muslims in the West for preferring their comfortable material lives over fighting on the path of Allah. "How can we stay at home, eat and drink, while other Muslims can't find a slice of bread," Ibrahim El Bakraoui said in his letter to his mother.
Although Salah Abdeslam did not end up blowing himself up in Paris, his letters show that he had intended to die as a martyr. His letters, though not as elaborate as those of the El Bakraoui brothers, display a rudimentary mysticism. "How can I exchange this life down here for the hereafter? Paradise is better," he wrote his sister.
In his two-page letter to his mother, he mentions Allah 17 times. "If you believe in destiny, you will understand that Allah guided me and chose me among his servants," he writes. "Allah also says, ‘Don't say that those who died in the path of Allah are dead. On the contrary, they are alive, but you don't know it." I also took this path because it is the path of Truth. Those who stray from it will end up in hell."