In February 2004, a new rap music video created a stir on both sides of the Atlantic. The video, entitled “Dirty Kuffar” (kuffar being the Arabic term for non-believers), was performed by the British group Sheikh Terra and the Soul Salah Crew.[i] The video begins with (clearly doctored) film footage of U.S. troops in Iraq cheering as they purportedly shoot an injured Iraqi civilian, then proceeds through a whirlwind of equally politically tinged imagery. This imagery includes a sniper’s crosshairs honing in on a U.S. soldier standing guard in a tower, U.S. troops shepherding along an orange-jumpsuited Guantanamo Bay detainee with his head hung low, the phrase “Kill the Crusaders” flashing across the screen as a supply truck is blown up by a land mine, and chilling footage of Chechen mujahideen pumping several bullets into a captured Russian soldier lying prone on the ground. The quick cuts and slick editing are evidence of professional-quality production. The viewer can even watch several human beings morph into animals; bin Laden’s right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, morphs into a roaring lion early in the video, and later Israel’s Ariel Sharon turns into a pig with a tiny Star of David on its forehead.
As the pro-Islamist images roll across the screen, a rapper in military fatigues and a ski mask rhythmically weaves back and forth before the camera while clutching a Qur’an in one hand and a pistol in the other. His lyrics, voiced in a reggae/rap hybrid style in the mold of popular artist Sean Paul, amount to a condemnation of the war on terrorism and, beyond that, a condemnation of all things Western:
The Ronald Reagan was a dirty kuffar
The Mr. Tony Blair is a dirty kuffar
The one Mr. Bush is a dirty kuffar …
Throw them in the fire
“Dirty Kuffar” finally grinds to a halt with the lyrics “Peace to Hamas and the Hezbollah/ OBL [Osama bin Laden] crew be like a shining star/ like the way we destroy them two towers, ha ha.” The rappers’ laughter can be heard as footage rolls of United Flight 175 slamming into the World Trade Center’s south tower, followed by further footage of the Twin Towers’ billowing collapse.
The “Dirty Kuffar” video was distributed in Britain by Muslim extremist Mohammed al-Massari, who claimed that sales were high in mosques and that there was a large overseas demand. “I do not know of any young Muslim who has not either seen or got this video,” al-Massari told London’s Observer in February 2004.
The intention behind the video is no secret. As Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, told the CBS Evening News when the video first caught the press’s attention, “Definitely, there is incitement toward – toward violence.” By using a common Western media vehicle – the rap video – in a shockingly new way, the Islamists had opened up a new propaganda front in their war to win hearts and minds to the terrorists’ cause.
Since the emergence of “Dirty Kuffar,” there has been a definable trend toward jihadi rap music: music that indulges in Islamist paranoia, that is anti-American in tone and substance, and that is intended to win sympathy – and perhaps recruits – for the jihadists’ cause. One rap group that clearly falls into the jihadi camp is Mujahideen Team, consisting of Puerto Rican Muslims from Brooklyn and Boston. Mujahideen Team has been gaining notoriety in some Muslim quarters; they were recently featured at a convention co-sponsored by the Islamic Circle of North America and the Muslim American Society, and have also performed in Atlanta, Cleveland and San Diego, among other places. Lyrics that one of the Mujahideen Team rappers recently posted to an Islamic chat group provide a flavor of their thirst for battle:
There is only one way to come home from a war zone
With your enemy’s head or without your own
And if I die in war I’ll die as a martyr
Tell my little sons not to cry for their father
Tell them my last words I pronouncedah shahada
Tell ’em I squeezed the trigger ’til I met death with honor[ii]
In hyping two new Mujahideen Team albums, the rapper who posted these lyrics states that while some “M-Team” music is intended for da’wah (Islamic proselytism designed to bring non-Muslims to the faith), their new music “is for the point of no return when it’s too late for dawah and it’s time to crack a Kafir’s head.” Like Sheikh Terra and the Soul Salah Crew, Mujahideen Team refers triumphantly to the September 11 attacks: “Thirteen tribes blood suckers of the poor/ Holding their heads up high, standing tall/ Like the Twin Towers I’m gonna watch them fall.”
Another rap group that falls into the jihadist camp is Sons of Hagar, based in Des Moines, Washington. The group’s song “Revolution” details the rappers’ desire to slaughter Israelis:
The revolution’s gonna shine
Shine its light on Palestine
Armageddon round the corner kid I’m cockin’ my nine
Israelis fightin’ coz they think it’s theirs
I'm fightin' coz I know it's mine
I’mma kill Sharon, that devil’s mine.[iii]
Sons of Hagar also indulge in Islamist paranoia by proclaiming that the war on terrorism is, in fact, a war on Arabs (“It’s the Arab hunting season/ And I ain’t leavin’”), and by portraying President Bush as a maniacal dictator who invaded Iraq out of lust for oil: “[Bush is] hypnotizing, terrorizing, his own people lying to their faces, telling/ them this war is equal while it’s really not, he blowing up the spot,/ oil is in his eyes like contacts and whatnot, gas prices raised up,/ just so you and I support the war in Iraq, now that’s jacked up.” Sons of Hagar’s jihadist spirit also can be found in their song “What is War,” which lays down a verse that glorifies going to war for Islam:
What is war
For freedom, fighting for Islam,
Fighting all of them that be dropping them bombs
What is war
The way to heaven, the way to hell
The way for freedom and it’s the way to jail
Expressions of jihadist sentiments and Islamist-style paranoia cross religious lines in the world of hip-hop. Many conservatives have previously expressed worries about a possible convergence of interests between the far left and radical Islam. Regardless of the degree to which this phenomenon generally is occurring today, we can see a clear example of it in the hip-hop world. Far-left rap outfit The Coup famously had to change the cover artwork on its album Party Music after the September 11 attacks, because the original artwork (planned prior to the terrorist attacks) featured frontman Boots Riley and sidekick Pam the Funktress partying in front of an exploding World Trade Center, with Riley holding a detonator. Although the band allowed its record label to change the cover art, The Coup’s far-left outlook never wavered. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Boots Riley commented, “What I want to do is tell you that the blood that happened on [September 11] is on the hands of the U.S. government.”
Far-left rapper Paris was unbowed by The Coup changing its cover artwork. In 2003 he released an album titled Sonic Jihad, with a far more inflammatory album cover depicting a jet plane barreling toward a collision with the White House. In a mid-2003 interview, Paris stated that he chose the name for his album because, to him, a jihad “is waging righteous warfare against all that I see to be wrong.” And, to Paris, America is wrong in almost every way imaginable. Rather than merely claiming that the U.S. government has the blood of September 11 on its hands, Paris affirmatively believes that “higher-ups in the government conspired to self-induce terrorism on the United States so that they could go about achieving more government control; so that they could go about initiating a way by which to increase defense spending and to profit from the horrible events that took place.”
Sharing Paris’ conspiratorial worldview – indeed, far outstripping it – is Viper Records recording artist Immortal Technique. While Immortal Technique is apparently no jihadist (“For the record though I am not a deeply religious man, I am not fanatical about it in any sense,” he states in a recent interview), his music almost perfectly embodies the violence, paranoia and anti-Americanism endemic to jihadi rap. In one song, Immortal Technique describes himself as “a suicide bomber strapped an’ ready to blow,” and in another he warns: “You better watch what the f--- flies outta ya mouth/ Or I’mma hijack a plane and fly it into your house.”
While Immortal Technique seems to enjoy the idea of copycatting al-Qaeda’s September 11 attacks, he does not believe that bin Laden was responsible for them:
But you act like America wouldn’t destroy two buildings
In a country that was sponsoring bombs dropped on our children
I was watching the Towers, and though I wasn’t the closest
I saw them crumble to the Earth like they was full of explosives
Immortal Technique’s paranoia seemingly knows no bounds, ranging from the somewhat conventional (“Martial law is coming soon to the hood, to kill you”) to the delusional (“Israeli troops trained the Taliban in Pakistan”) to the demonstrably false (“They [the U.S. government] gave al-Qaeda six billion dollars in 1989 to 1992”). Immortal Technique, in short, resides in a world where blame for all the evils of the past century falls squarely on the shoulders of the United States, which “sponsored the rise of the Third Reich/ Just like the CIA trained terrorists to the fight/ Build bombs and sneak box cutters onto a flight.”
Nor are hip-hop’s conspiratorial ravings about the September 11 attacks limited to Islamist rappers and hip-hop’s far-left fringe. Rapper Jadakiss had a No. 1 single in the summer of 2004 which became best known for its line “Why did Bush knock down the towers?” When asked about the line, Jadakiss stated: “I just felt [Bush] had something to do with that. That’s why I put it in there like that. A lot of my people felt that he had something to do with it.” (Although Jadakiss later backtracked somewhat, claiming that he meant the line metaphorically, the fact that he would pander to his audience by accusing the administration of the foulest kind of treason speaks volumes.)
Babs, star of Puff Daddy’s MTV reality show “Making the Band,” also believes that President Bush was responsible for knocking the towers down – in a decidedly non-metaphorical way. In July 2004, at the Hip-Hop Summit in Boston, the Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash asked Babs what she held President Bush responsible for with respect to the September 11 attacks. Babs replied: “Everything. The war, the World Trade Center, just everything.” When Labash asked if she believed that President Bush was complicit in the terrorist attacks, Babs replied: “I think he had a part in it. There was a lot of people that was involved, but he knew it was going to happen.”[iv]
And legendary rapper KRS-One shockingly declared his solidarity with al-Qaeda at The New Yorker Festival on October 2, when he stated that he and other African-Americans “cheered when 9/11 happened. ... I say that proudly.” He elaborated by claiming that security guards used to stop black people from entering the World Trade Center “because of the way we talk and dress. So when the planes hit the building, we were like, ‘Mmmm – justice.’” In fact, KRS-One bluntly declared, “America has to commit suicide if the world is to be a better place.”
It is too early to determine whether jihadi rap will turn into a valuable recruitment tool for the Islamists. “Dirty Kuffar” appears too over-the-top and cartoonish to appeal to many Muslims who don’t already have an ideological commitment to the jihadist position; after all, the rappers make no bones about their support for Osama bin Laden, and most people will be unimpressed by the film clips portraying the shooting of a captured Russian soldier as a heroic act.
However, the fact that a number of other Islamist groups peddle the same message may have a greater effect. After all, if somebody teetering on the edge of Islamic radicalism has the jihadist message thrust upon him even in the music that he listens to, that may make him far more susceptible to the jihadist worldview. This is doubly true when even No. 1 Billboard singles and acknowledged hip-hop icons like KRS-One echo essential parts of the jihadi message. Thus, jihadi rap could eventually prove to be a real asset for the Islamists.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project, a terrorism research center. A 2002 graduate of the New York University School of Law, he previously worked as a commercial litigator at the law firm of Boies, Schiller & Flexner.
[i] The “Dirty Kuffar” video can be viewed at http://www.investigativeproject.com/.
[ii] Posted at http://p212.ezboard.com/fremarkablecurrentfrm2.showMessage?topicID=311.topic. Note that, in the above quotation, I corrected several spelling errors that appear on this Web site.
[iii] The lyrics to “Revolution” can be found in D. Parvaz, Muslim Rap: Local Group Rhymes About Islam, Mideast Politics, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Feb. 17, 2003, available at http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/pop/108750_muslimrap.shtml. The lyrics to all the other Sons of Hagar songs referenced in this article can be found on the group’s Web site, www.sonsofhagar.com.
[iv] Matt Labash, Run DNC; Rapping the Vote at the Hip-Hop Summit with Wyclef, Bone Crusher, and Reverend Run, Daily Standard, July 30, 2004.