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…