The situation was solemn, but hidden smiles played behind the eyes of those listening in. An Islamic State (ISIS) fighter was yelling for his brother-in-arms over an unscrambled radio channel. His fellow fighter didn’t answer and was most likely dead. But that didn’t keep the broadcaster from repeatedly yelling the fallen fighter’s nom de guerre, “Abu Jihad! Abu Jihad! Abu Jihad!” This translates as “the father of a struggle against the enemies of Islam,” and for the foreigners listening in, it provided a source of grim amusement. Such is the case when soldiers give themselves names—sometimes ridiculous, sometimes religious, and sometimes political names—in the current war in Syria.
Although noms de guerre have been a common practice in combat for centuries, fighters in Syria and Iraq have turned them into an art, stringing together elements that identify a great deal, real and imagined, about the fighter. Unlike the short pseudonyms of other conflicts, Syrian pseudonyms are long, with elements that vary between the groups.
For ISIS and similar groups such as Hay’at Tahrir Alsham (HTS, previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra) a nom de guerre(kunya, in Arabic) will consist of two or, in some cases, three parts. The first part distinguishes a person as a father. For example, if a fighter’s oldest son is named Hasan, the first part of the fighter’s name would be Abu Hasan. If a fighter does not have a son yet, he could use his father’s name.
The second part of the name often refers to the fighter’s place of origin. For example, if he is from Salqeen, his name will be Abu Hasan Alsalqeeni. On rare occasions, the second name could also refer to a profession, as in the case of Abu Hasan Tebbeyyeh (doctor). The third part of the name consists of the name of the tribe the individual belongs to.
Of course, this is in theory. In practice, however, fighters are more likely Sahaba (one who saw the Prophet Muhammad, believed in him, and died as a Muslim). That is what Abu Omar, Abu Hamza, and the most famous—the leader of ISIS—Abu Bakr did. Names of prominent jihadists such Osama bin Laden (Abu Osama) or fighters killed in Chechnya, such as field commander Khatab (Abu Khatab), are also used.
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