Jihadist Battlefield Miracles

I recently heard something fascinating that I wanted to share.  A couple days ago I gave a talk at the National Defense University on the Salafi jihadists (al Qaida and their ilk) and how they assessed themselves and the global struggle in which they are engaged. Part of my talk discussed how the jihadists believe that God is on the battlefield with them, not merely protecting them, but actively taking part in combat.  I mentioned that stories abound about God shooting down American fighter planes with lightning bolts, about God sending ravenous beasts to the battlefield to eat the enemy, and other such miraculous events.  At this point, a woman in the class raised her hand to talk about her experience in Iraq.  Unfortunately, I never got the chance to talk with her one-on-one, but she mentioned that while she’d been there, apparently in some sort of public affairs capacity, stories had circulated about some wolf-like creature that would roam the battlefields.  It or they were allies of the jihadist insurgents and its/their targets were Americans.   

I found it interesting that these stories, which obviously originated with the jihadists themselves, came to the attention of the U.S. military not through intelligence means or interrogations of captured jihadists, but rather through the Iraqi media.  As I mentioned, such stories are staples in the jihadist world, but this was the closest I’d ever personally come to them, and it really brought the whole issue home to me.  I’d be very interested in hearing from others, via email or the comments link below, who might have similar stories or know more about the event that this student mentioned to me.          

By way of background, Abdullah Azzam, the founder of the Maktab al-Khidemat and Osama bin Laden’s mentor wrote a book about miracles in the Afghan War.  In its English translation it runs to 80 pages.  Here is one story that will serve to give its general flavor:       

Arsalaan narrated to me:… The tanks attacked us and they were about 120 in number. They were assisted by a mortar and many aircrafts. Our provisions were exhausted.  We were convinced of being captured. We sought protection from Allaah by means of Du’a. All of a sudden, bullets and shells rained upon the communists from all directions. They were defeated. There was no one on the battlefield besides us. He said: They were the Malaa’ikah (Angels.)  

Prof. David Cook wrote an article several years ago about how some of these sorts of stories manifested themselves in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.  He characterizes them as part of a “disconfirmation” process that the jihadists use to come to grips with their setbacks.

One, of course, should not believe that all Arabs or all Muslims believe this sort of story.  For instance, Abdelkader Tigha, the author of Contre-Espionnage Algerien: Notre Guerre Contres les Islamistes, which is about the authors experiences during the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, mentions that he and the other members of the Algerian counterespionage service would hear these stories when they filtered back home from Afghanistan and would laugh at them and anybody silly enough to believe they were actually true.  To me, this only makes more interesting the student’s story that the Iraqi media itself was promulgating this tale.  Tigha says that Algerian mosques would distribute glossy magazines containing tales from Afghanistan.  A loose translation of what he says (on p. 23) would be:         

Each story was more incredible than the last.  The young jihadists recounted the miracles they had seen.  One of them, full of imagination, invented the story of the dogs which, wandering upon the scene of an ambush, passing amongst the corpses, devoured only the bodies of the Russians but did not touch those of the mujahidin.  On another page, one could read the edifying story of the mujahid slaughtered by the Russians.  When the Russians approached him to take his weapon, our supermujahid sprang up and machine gunned the Russian soldiers, killing them all.  God could do anything, was the conclusion.  Make you die and bring you back to life….This propaganda was at the root of a massive departure of young Algerians to Pakistan.        

It may be worth noting that similar stories circulate or have circulated in other societies.  A former colleague of mine wrote a book that dealt with similar phenomena in modern sub-Saharan Africa.  And, of course, then there are the “Angels of Mons.”  During 1914 and 1915 there were any number of British soldiers who said that they had seen (or that a friend of theirs had seen) a St. George and a host of angelic archers appear during the Battle of Mons and repel the Germans who were about to overrun the British Expeditionary Force.  It turned out that this story came from a short story called “The Bowmen” written by Arthur Machen a Welsh author of horror and fantasy fiction.  “The Bowmen” first appeared in late September 1914, a month after the battle, but that didn’t stop soldiers and citizens alike from believing it was all true and in fact, “remembering” the incident.  Machen recounts (pp. 11-12) how in the retelling, the story came to be circulated that German corpsed pierced by arrows had been found on the battlefield.  Machen had actually thought of including this thought in his story, but rejected the idea.  I can’t resist quoting him on this:

I rejected the idea as over-precipitous even for a mere fantasy.  I was therefore entertained when I found that what I had refused as too fantastical for fantasy was accepted in certain occult circles as hard fact.

Of course, that story of the Angels of Mons was current nearly 100 years ago and is remembered precisely because it was so anomalous…

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  1. That angels fought alongside the Muslims at Badr is unequivocally stated (ie: revealed) in the Qur’an:

    >>> Remember ye implored the assistance of your Lord, and He answered you: “I will assist you with a thousand of the angels, ranks on ranks.” Allah made it but a message of hope, and an assurance to your hearts: (in any case) there is no help except from Allah: and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise. [Qur’an 8.9-10]

    and also:

    >>> Remember thou saidst to the Faithful: Is it not enough for you that Allah should help you with three thousand angels (Specially) sent down? Yea, — if ye remain firm, and act aright, even if the enemy should rush here on you in hot haste, your Lord would help you with five thousand angels making a terrific onslaught. Allah made it but a message of hope for you, and an assurance to your hearts: (in any case) there is no help except from Allah. The Exalted, the Wise. [Qur’an 3.124-26]

    Indeed, Brigadier SK Malik in his *Qur’anic Concept of War* refers to these passages as “Instructions pertaining to the divine theory on military strategy”.

    *

    When David Cook in the article you mentioned talked about “God causing lightning to strike American warplanes” and other reported miraculous interventions, he went on to quote a Taliban leader from Eastern Afghanistan saying, “The truth is that we have started to believe that it is not even us who have attacked those Americans, so all of this is a miracle by Allah, for the mujahidin who are defending Afghanistan…” and quoting Qur’an Al-Anfal (8) 17:

    >>> Ye (Muslims) slew them not, but Allah slew them. And thou (Muhammad) threwest not when thou didst throw, but Allah threw, that He might test the believers by a fair test from Him. Lo! Allah is Hearer, Knower.

    From the point of view of comparative religion, it’s instructive to compare this passage with Krishna’s comment in the Bhagavad Gita, “Be merely my hand in this, Left-handed Archer!” — here’s the context, in the van Buitenen translation:

    >>>

    Therefore raise yourself now and reap rich fame,
    Rule the plentiful realm by defeating your foes!
    I myself have doomed them ages ago:
    Be merely my hand in this, Left-Handed Archer!

    Slay Drona and Bhisma and Jayadratha,
    And Karna as well as other fine warriors—
    My victims—destroy them and tarry not!
    Wage war! You shall trounce your rivals in battle!

    [Bhagavadgita 11.33-34]

    As I commented on Zenpundit’s blog a while back, Azzam’s tales of the “fragrance of the shuhada” in the work you cite closely parallel Catholic reports of the “odor of sanctity” — suggesting an archetypal basis for all such claims.

    Likewise, David’s comment that “purity and incorruptibility of the body of the sister constitutes proof of her martyrdom being accepted in the eyes of God” reminds me of a Catholic apologetics webpage on “Incorrupt Bodies Of the Saints” which opens with the claim, “The incorrupt bodies of these saints are simply a living witness or proof to the truth of the Catholic religion as the one true faith from God, who has confirmed the testimony of the Church in the great miracles he has worked through its saints.”

    *

    It’s interesting that “supernatural visitations” can also be theatrical events, staged for morale-boosting or propaganda purposes. Vali Nasr recounts in *The Shia Revival*, p 132:

    >>> Many nights during the war, Iranian soldiers would wake up to see a white-shrouded figure on a white horse blessing them. These apparitions of the Twelfth Imam were professional actors sent to boost morale. The common soldiers, often enough young boys raised in an atmosphere of simple piety, would then carry the tale to their relatives and friends in the villages and small towns they called home, if they lived to make it home.

  2. Thanks for that very interesting comment. I was not aware of the parallels with Catholic tradition. And the Vali Nasr quotation was worth the price of admission.

    I have occasionally wondered if there might not be a way of making use of the idea among the jihadists that martyrs leave behind good looking corpses. I’ve seen a lot of really nasty pictures of dead jihadists. The basis somehow for a counter-propaganda campaign?

  3. Hi Mark:

    Thanks for your kind words.

    I think that what we might call “religious criticism” has to come from within a given tradition to carry much impact. Were Dr Fadl (Sayyid Imam al-Sharif) to make such a point, it might well influence some people — but religious devotion has roots pretty deep in the psyche, and it would be easy for an outsider to be perceived as intrusive, and the whole campaign to be viewed as further proof that the US or NATO forces are “against Islam”.

  4. Well, I agree with you. That said, it could be done on a non-attributable basis. Or it could even be done by a partner in this war, a group or country that happened to be Muslim.

  5. Frequent reader of your blog…

    With regard to the not-so-pristine images of the bodies of dead jihadis, I’ve found that the living jihadis actually see these images as “beautiful” examples of those they think have died in “God’s cause” (which I would, of course, dispute). I’m in the beginning stages of what I hope will first be a blog post or short piece and then a working paper that will discuss what I call a “pornography of violence” about the aesthetics of death, the body, and carnage in jihadi visual media.

  6. Hey Mark,

    I very much enjoyed this discussion (and your blog in general). Many similar themes are touched on in the below article, which examines how victory is conceptualized, instrumentally and non-instrumentally, within the global jihadist trend:

    http://www.ndu.edu/inss/Press/jfq_pages/editions/i52/18.pdf

    “Beating” this movement will be nearly impossible apart from understanding, appreciating (note the difference) and countering the importance of “belief” to combatants like AQ, and the centrifugal place of the Divine within jihadi culture. Strategy, politics, and structural issues all matter, no doubt, but strip away belief and its implications for this movement and its ultimate raison d’etre crumbles. End of story. You allude to this above.

    But how well are we equipped to contend with this theme without exacerbating the most polarizing (religious) dimensions of the current conflict, which only plays to AQ’s strength? Does an alliance of secular, democratic nation-states even have what it takes to defeat a violent, belief-based social movement? How do you close this gap–that is, asymmetry of character–that exists between western powers and the global jihadi movement?

    More fodder for blogging!

    Best wishes.

  7. As far as older anecdotes, there is a great story in “Heroes of the Age” by the anthropologist David B Edwards regarding General Blood’s foray into Mohmand territory against the Mullah of Hadda in 1897. Edwards was told this version in 1984 in Peshawar:

    “…by the blessing of God, bees swarmed down on the English, and the bees attacked, and every one of their soldiers was faced with hundreds of bees, and they stung them. Some fell from their horses, and some fell while running, and some died, and some fled. Thus, they faced defeat, and they came and told their commander, “We were faced with this kind of plague and disaster that all of our bodies were filled with painful poison, and we were unable
    to reach [the Mulla]. God sent bees against us.””

    Needless to say, the British version does not mentions bees sent by God. An “embedded” journalist reported that there were some very small skirmishes on the day in question and then the Brits and Indians went back to camp before dark.

    On a similar note, it appears that the Americans also enlist the service of fearsome creatures, including in (friendly) Shura-yi Nazar territory for reasons totally unknown:

    http://articles.latimes.com/2003/aug/10/world/fg-tigercat10

  8. This post comes at an interesting time because I was concerned about a similar piece concerning the supernatural and Mullah Omar by Ken Ballen at CNN:

    http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/02/23/ballen.taliban.alqaeda/index.html?section=cnn_latest

    I had always thought that militant Islamic extremism was only an issue of rationalization and twisting verses from the Qur’an. Ken’s piece, though, puts this on the more difficult level of mysticism. To the extent that they really believe this, it makes the prospects of peace more complicated.

  9. Hi, John:

    Each of us has a sort of algorithm we run, which tells us what sorts of ideas about the world to retain and what to discard.

    In the west, under the influence nof the enlightenment, we tend to start with physical objects in waking life and learn what we can from them — and thus our sciences have little to teach us about the contents of our dreams.

    Other cultures don’t start from the supposition that waking life is the only place to look if you want to discover significant truths about reality.

    Islam starts from the Quran and hadith of the prophet Muhammad, and builds a view of the world that esteems what the Quran and hadith esteem, and disapproves what the Quran and hadith disapprove — and one of the things the Quran and hadith approve is dreams.

    Thus Samura bin Jundab narrates (in the Sahih collection of hadith, Bukhari 2:46):

    Whenever the Prophet finished the (morning) prayer, he would face us and ask, “Who amongst you had a dream last night?” So if anyone had seen a dream he would narrate it. The Prophet would say: “Ma sha’a-llah” (An Arabic maxim meaning literally, ‘What Allah wished,’ and it indicates a good omen.)

    Kelley Bulkeley researches the content of dreams, and is the author of Dreaming In The World’s Religions: A Comparative History (New York University Press, 2008) and one of the editors of Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity (Rutgers University Press, 2009). Here’s the beginning of Bulkeley’s commentary on bin Laden and dreams, based on a video tape in which UBL discusses dreams relating to 9-/11 (Bulkeley goes on to discuss American dreams about 9/11, which strike him as surprisingly similar in some ways — but American dream beliefs are not the issue here):

    *

    The recently released videotape of Osama bin Laden openly discussing the September 11 terrorist attacks does more than offer compelling evidence of his role in organizing the attacks. The video also provides the best insight yet into the religious and psychological world of bin Laden and his followers. A major portion of the video involves bin Laden, an unnamed sheik, and several other men discussing prophetic dreams and visions relating to the September 11 attacks. Many American commentators have expressed amazement at bin Laden’s interest in such tribal superstitions. But in fact this seemingly nonsensical conversation is quite revealing of the deepest motivations guiding the behavior of bin Laden and his followers.

    Dreams and visions have played an enormously important role in Islam from its very beginning. The Prophet Muhammed is said to have received the first revelation of the Qur’an in a dream visitation from the angel Gabriel. Throughout his life Muhammed experienced dreams he believed were communications from Allah, and he encouraged his followers to tell him their dreams so he could interpret them. Many of these dreams included images of violence and warfare, and in each case the dream was interpreted as a sign of God’s support and guidance in the battle against the unbelievers.

    Viewed in this light, the video portrays a ritual reenactment of the dream interpretation practices of the Prophet Muhammed. Bin Laden, playing the role of the religious/military/political leader, is taking time out from the war against the infidels to speak with his followers about dreams, visions, and other reassuring signs that God is on their side and will guide them to ultimate victory. This is identical with what Muhammed practiced with his followers on a regular basis almost 1400 years earlier.

    The video is perhaps the clearest evidence yet found that bin Laden is patterning his life after the Prophet Muhammed, and feels himself blessed with the same degree of divine approval for his violent struggle with the enemies of God. His perverse success in persuading thousands of young Muslim men to fight and die for him is very likely due to their perception of him as a Muhammed figure—an inspiring warrior-prophet who embodies the wrathful power of Allah.

  10. Perfume works well to highlight our individualities. Once you know what smell fits your personality, image and lifestyle, it’s time to go shopping. But be aware – shopping for perfumes usually is not an easy task. Do you know how to shop for the right fantasy fragrances?First of all, don’t use any fragrance before going to the shops. If you perfume yourself and then go out and use another perfume, you won’t be able to detect the real smell. This can lead to disappointment later because the new perfume will smell different than the first time, unless of course you use both fragrances each time. Avoid spicy food before shopping, as it might temporarily take away the ability to distinguish different scents. Remember that your nose is ‘rested’ in the morning, thus it’s the best time to try out new perfumes. You may be too tired in the evening to choose between sandalwood with a hint of amber and sandalwood with a hint of musk.
    It’s very important to try on the perfume before you actually buy them. The same perfume smells differently on each person because of different reaction to one’s body. So if the commercial says it smells like fresh citrus with a hint of patchouli, it’s better to try out what it really smells like when it mixes with your own scent. Individual body chemistry is also the reason why you shouldn’t buy perfumes just because you like how they smell on your friend or cousin. Always try a fragrance on your skin, not on your clothing or a tester sheet.
    You don’t have to decide whether you like the perfume or not right after trying them out. The scent is always very strong when applied; it usually wears out after more than 10 minutes and then you can feel the real smell. This period of time is also needed for fragrance to react with your skin. Give yourself a little time to decide!
    If you’re not sure what perfume you really want to have, it’s ok to try several types and brands. However, you should avoid spraying more than three different perfumes at a time. If you try out too many scents they will confuse your smell and you won’t be able to recognize the difference between them.
    Try on some new fantasy fragrances. It won’t hurt and you can make some great discoveries! If you’re an attached person and you’ve been loyal to lily of the valley scent since early teen days, you can find a whole new world inside local perfume shop. Just don’t be afraid to experiment! If you’re looking for perfumes for a daytime, remember that the smell shouldn’t disturb you or people around you. If perfume smells great, but it attracts your attention all the time, there’s a great possibility that the smell will irritate you after several hours. Perfumes for evening and special occasions are meant to be heavier and stronger, but they usually don’t irritate because they are supposed to be worn for a shorter period of time.
    Keep an eye on discounts. Many online perfume stores offer ‘perfume of the day’ or ‘perfume of the week’ with a considerable rebate. Don’t miss out on discount coupons in local press or mall; they can help you to save a little on your choice of fantasy fragrances you looking for!


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