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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

What’s Behind ISIS’ Recent Video Use of Jihadists with Disabilities

With the Islamic State nearly a landless state these days, recent ISIS video releases have pitched for recruits with notable on-screen use of jihadists with disabilities.

In a December “Inside the Khilafah” video released by ISIS’ official al-Hayat Media Center in English and Arabic, an American-accented ISIS fighter going by the kunya Abu Salih al-Amriki called for knife attacks and advised would-be terrorists to “take advantage of the fact that you can easily obtain a rifle or pistol in America” and “spray the kuffar with bullets.”

But he also had a more targeted message, telling wounded jihadists with “one leg or no legs” that they have “no excuse” to not strike the kuffar, or disbelievers. “To the brothers with limbs and no limbs, I challenge you to a race toward the gates of Jannah [paradise],” he said.

Nearly a month later, another ISIS video said to have been filmed in Deir Ezzor, Syria, and focusing on Kazakh recruits featured a visually impaired jihadist. As the camera frequently zoomed in on his white walking cane, the blind ISIS member did tasks at a medical facility for fighters as a comrade limped in the background. At one point he gave a forearm and hand massage to an ISIS member lying on an exam table.

In a video last month, ISIS showed a wheelchair-bound jihadist being loaded into an IED-outfitted pickup before he driving off to his target and detonating the device.

The jihadist referred to as Abu Abdillah Ash-Shami bids farewell to his crying daughter and nephew before fellow ISIS members lift the suicide bomber out of his wheelchair and place him in the driver’s seat. “It’s true that I’m disabled, but I’ve been given a lot of suggestions in terms of areas I could work in… I’m not doing this out of weakness, or because of any anguish or suffering,” he tells the camera before driving off, adding that he chose jihad “because of my desire to meet Allah.” In other parts of the video, jihadists were shown in dusty battle scenes using crutches or being pushed in a wheelchair by a comrade.

Telling jihadists with disabilities and battle wounds that they can best serve the cause of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by being disposable is not exactly a message one would think could inspire loyalty in an organization, but the terror group that released a January 2017 video showing a preschooler “cub” shooting a prisoner tied to a carnival ball pit isn’t exactly fretting over moral messaging. ISIS videos have also followed a sort of Saw franchise trajectory over the life of the terror group – whenever they’ve felt Westerners weren’t sounding enough shock and outrage over their latest beheading video, they dialed up the gore factor with new methods of torture and execution and gruesome “games” like having kids hunt down bound prisoners in a December 2016 video.

And there’s an element of wanton creative jihad in the messaging employing disabled jihadists. ISIS has shown many times, including with the May 2017 suggestion to post a Craigslist ad for an apartment then kill interested renters who show up to view the pad, that they want jihadists to think outside of the box. Specifically, they want terrorists to think outside of where law enforcement typically looks. In October 2016 the terror group counseled lone jihadists toward attacks so under-the-radar, like stabbing “someone out for a walk in a quiet neighborhood,” that they advised leaving some kind of mark of ISIS allegiance “lest the operation be mistaken for one of the many random acts of violence that plague the West.” And as they gravitate toward the jihadist who will arouse the least suspicion in the planning and execution stages – native born, knows the neighborhood, employed and integrated in the community – ISIS will gladly use any operatives they believe will not draw a second glance from security officials.

There’s also an element of the old-fashioned guilt trip – yearning for new recruits, especially now that they can’t pitch the supposed bounties of their caliphate as a draw, ISIS is needling wannabe terrorists with the message of, “If these guys can do it, get off your couch.”

This messaging rewinds to the early days of the caliphate, even though the trend has intensified. In 2014, visually impaired Dutch national Taymullah al-Somali was utilized to recruit the disabled to come to fight for ISIS. “Being blind didn’t stop me from coming to Syria; what’s your excuse?” he said on social media.

The overwhelming message in this pattern of disabled jihadist videos is “bloom where you’re planted,” as ISIS encourages jihadists to work within their skill set no matter their background – not just an inclusive recruiting point, but a practical consideration of who can successfully carry out a terror attack and who will deliver an embarrassing dud – and tailor locations, methods and special personal characteristics to wage an attack.

A May 2015 ISIS call to arms, complete with a picture of a lone wolf, emphasized that home-turf recruits don’t need “strength or muscle” or “huge experience in jihad work” as “each wolf chooses what suits him and what fits his goal and location of the implementation of the action.”

“One need not be a military expert or a martial arts master, or even own a gun or rifle in order to carry out a massacre or to kill and injure several disbelievers and terrorize an entire nation,” said the October 2016 issue of ISIS’ now-defunct Rumiyah magazine.

Anis Amri, who hijacked a truck and plowed it into a Berlin Christmas market in December 2016, said in a video filmed before the attack that “every person should support the faith within their means” as “who can go out should do so; who can fight at any location.”

Many of the traditional calls to arms – for gun, knife, vehicle and arson attacks – these days have been crafted and regurgitated by ISIS supporters, sometimes under the monikers of unofficial media outlets, presented as photoshopped posters slapped up on Telegram. Beyond these short-and-bitter familiar threats, ISIS is hoping that their recurring cast of disabled suicide bombers, narrators and extras will send a message about recruitment, creativity and the power of the unlikely jihadist.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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