The number of foreign fighters who have flooded into Syria throughout the past three years now exceeds the total number of jihadists who fought invading Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s, according to a report by the Soufan Group.
The majority of those fighters hail from Arab states. Over 5,000 have traveled to Syria from Tunisia and Saudi Arabia alone. A number of Europeans and North Americans, however, have also made the journey. A 22-year-old Floridian joined Jabhat Al-Nusra and became the first American suicide bomber in Syria. The European Union’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator estimated that 2,000 EU citizens had taken up arms in Syria. Vice recently interviewed two new members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a Belgian citizen and his son, who averred that Europe was filled with “infidels.”
The potential threat that these fighters pose when they return to their countries of legal residence or origin was underscored in May as Mehdi Nemmouche, a French-Algerian national, murdered four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels. Nemmouche, too, had fought alongside ISIS.
Governments around the world have taken measures to mitigate the threat posed by returning jihadists. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia criminalized “participating in hostilities outside the kingdom.” Several European countries are considering similar measures.
According to the Soufan Group’s report, French authorities “were nearly overwhelmed. The counter terrorist prosecution service in Paris was handling 50 cases of conspiracy with a further 26 individuals in pre-trial detention [by April 2014]. The number of people under surveillance was growing, and the security services were feeling the strain.”
A Global Soundscape
While officials debate policies on how to best monitor and restrict the movement of their compatriots to Syria, impressive efforts are being exerted on a wholly different terrain.
The United States, alongside the UK, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and various non-state groups, are spending millions of dollars in public diplomacy programs to “win over the hearts and minds of Europe’s disaffected Muslim communities,” Hisham Aidi writes in his new book, Rebel Music. Hip-hop is playing a crucial role in this new era of public diplomacy.
Enclaves of Muslims living in impoverished areas of Europe unnerve some counterterrorism officials who perceive these areas as potentially fertile grounds for violent extremism. Promoting tolerant, moderate interpretations of Islam has become a key facet in American and British public diplomacy.
As the more immediate threat of radicalized European nationals returning from the Syrian conflict menaces governments, these programs will undoubtedly continue to play an important role in staunching the flow of disenchanted Muslim youth from the West to violent extremism.
In 2005, the Bush Administration began dispatching “hip-hop envoys” across the globe to help promote a peaceful, Sufi strand of Islam to counter the more conservative Salafists and improve the U.S. government’s image. The program had a Cold War antecedent—the State Department had sent Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Quincy Jones, and other jazz artists to hotspots in the 1950s and 1960s as ‘jambassadors.’
In the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal and the Taliban’s resurgence, the State Department began to recruit hip-hop groups like “Legacy, the Vice Versa Alliance, the Reminders, Native Deen, and Kokayi” to play concerts throughout the Islamic world.
In 2010, after the rap group Chen Lo and the Liberation Family performed in Damascus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked, “Hip hop is America.” She asserted that cultural diplomacy was akin to “multidimensional chess,” and that hip-hop was “absolutely” a vital chess piece in that game.
The British government undertook similar efforts. In 2007, the Home Office launched PREVENT, “an initiative to stop British Muslim youth from being lured into violent extremism, [in which] hip-hop figured prominently,’ Aidi writes. PREVENT offered funds to rap groups who espoused a “moderate” form of Islam.
The program was spurred along by Richard Reid and the rap group Shiekh Terra and the Soul Salah Crew. Reid, a Pakistani-Brit who tried unsuccessfully to ignite explosives in his shoe before boarding an American airliner in late 2001, was radicalized in a Brixton mosque. Reid’s life story seemed to encapsulate the “distressing urban and racial situation in Britain.” In 2004, Shiekh Terra and the Soul Salah Crew released the song “Dirty Kuffar.” The song praised Osama bin Laden and condemned Tony Blair and George Bush. Government officials perceived the song as being an incitement to violence.
Race relations in France have been a source of anxiety for U.S. counterterrorism officials, as well. In 2001, the first-ever soccer match between the French and Algerian national teams ended early as French-born Arab youth charged the field, chanting “Bin Laden! Bin Laden!” Pundits surmised that the event highlighted the “unassimilability” of some immigrant groups in France.
The French-Moroccan Zacarias Moussaoui, the “twentieth 9/11 hijacker,” seemed to further embody the “story of Islam and racial exclusion in France.” An attendee of the same Brixton mosque as Richard Reid, Moussaoui was often mocked for the color of his skin and “repeatedly called négre (nigger).”
In 2003, Nicolas Sarkozy, at the time France’s Minister of the Interior, brought a lawsuit against the French-Algerian rapper Mohamed Bourokba. Bouroukba, known as Hamé, was charged with “public libel against the national police.” In the wake of the 2005 Paris riots, two hundred members of parliament called for seven hip-hop artists to be prosecuted for inciting unrest.
A 2007 cable from the U.S. embassy in Paris summed up the problem:
“The French have a well-known problem with discrimination against minorities. French media has fallen short in their reporting on these issues and French government and private institutions also found it difficult to face up squarely to the challenges involved.”
Unsurprisingly, hip-hop concerts hosted by the U.S. embassy in Paris have irritated French authorities on occasion. The American ambassador invited the artist K.ommando Toxik to perform at the embassy in Paris in 2010 where he commemorated two boys who had been killed by the French police. One of the rappers that Sarkozy tried to sue while serving as minister of the interior was also invited to perform at the Parisian U.S. embassy.
The Fundamentalists’ Rap
Yet, hip-hop artists have not exclusively been used to promote ‘moderate versions’ of Islam.
Napoleon, formerly of Tupac Shakur’s Outlawz, enlisted with the Saudis, becoming a Salafist proselytizer, and went on tour throughout Europe. Chastising one European audience applauding the mention of Tupac, Napoleon asked, “Why do you clap for Tupac, but not for the sahaba [The Prophet Mohammed’s companions]…The sahaba should be our role models, not [rappers like Jay-Z or Nas]!” In early 2011, Napoleon returned to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where he took to social media to condemn the nascent Arab uprisings and praise the Saudi regime.
Jihadists have also employed the genre as a recruitment tool. Al Shabab, the Somali-based militant group, has used anti-American hip-hop in its videos.
The threat posed by returning Jihadists may certainly be overstated. The need to assimilate the ‘un-assimilable,’ and counter extremist currents within Europe, however, is not. The jazz tours of the 1950s enjoyed geopolitical success because they targeted populations behind the Iron Curtain. Can hip-hop play a meaningful role in the new public diplomacy? Or are grievances so great that music only serves as a temporary palliative? The answer perhaps depends on who those grievances are attributed to.
Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture
By Hisham D. Aidi
Pantheon Books, 2014