How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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 to get creative with their names. They often choose spiritually potent names of 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.
Others signal their loyalty and dedication (in an effort for promotion) by choosing names based on the most Islamic war words they can muster, becoming Abu Jihad, Abu Shahid (father of a Muslim martyr), or Abu Mujahid (father of one who struggles for the sake of Allah and Islam).
Although noms de guerre have been a common practice in combat for centuries, fighters in Syria and Iraq have turned them into an art.
The first element, meaning father, provides much of the amusement found in these names. “The most ridiculous Jihadi name I ever heard,” an ex-HTS fighter told me, “was Abu al-Baghdadi, meaning a father of al-Baghdadi, a leader of ISIS.” According to him, such names usually belonged to mid-level group leaders.
It is one thing to take on such a temporary pseudonym at war but quite another to pass them on to your children. Yet in Mosul, such names were in fact given by ISIS fighters to newborn boys and recorded on their birth certificates.
Even the fighters themselves think the situation is becoming ridiculous. “I was shocked when at a checkpoint I saw a child soldier no older than 12 with the name Abu Abdallah (father of Abdallah). How could he be a father of anything at that age?” Fighters are also not shy about making jokes about each other’s names. “There was an old guy without any teeth left in his mouth, and his name was Abu al-dawla (father of the country). I always thought to myself that it is exactly how my country looks—no teeth and no future,” remembered one HTS ex-fighter.
The second part of the name, which usually signals an individual’s origin, can be politically complicated, and how it is constructed varies between groups and locations. The simplest names refer to the history of Islam, when a group of immigrants who traveled with the Prophet Muhammed from Mecca to Medina were called Muhajireen (emigrants), whereas the people of Medina were known as Ansar (supporters). Thus, the name al-Ansari indicates a local fighter and al-Muhajir a foreign one.
For many foreign fighters, though, this second part of their name identifies which region or people they most associate with, so they often adopt names based on their home country. For example, one Afro-German took the name Abu Talha al-Almani (Germany). And one Bosnian emigrant who, despite getting his American citizenship only twelve days before leaving for Syria, chose to call himself al-Amriki. However, since the majority of Saudi fighters dislike the Saudi ruling family, they refuse to be called al-Saudi and instead use the nickname al-jazrawi (from the island). Some fighters from other Gulf countries also chose this name for similar political reasons.
Other fighters prefer to highlight their ethnic identity over their country of citizenship. For example, Abu Safiyah al-Bosni is a Serbian citizen of Bosniak origin, and Abu Qasim al-Brazili is a Flemish Belgium citizen whose mother emigrated from Brazil. Some Kosovars also chose to be called al-Albani instead of al-Kosovi, reflecting the deep identity divisions in the Balkans. Fighters from a Muslim area of a predominantly non-Muslim country might choose to use the name of their region instead; thus, an individual from the Sandžak region of the predominantly Christian Serbia could be called al-Sandžaki.
Language is another variable. Many foreign fighters from North African countries such as Tunis and Algeria prefer to be called by the language they speak—al-Faransi—to distinguish themselves from other Arabs.
A third part of the name could be used to signal tribe affiliation but for different reasons. If an ISIS fighter hails from a tribe mostly against ISIS, he might use his tribe—such as the Shamar tribe in the Deir ez-Zor and Hasakah areas—either to show his uniqueness or to annoy his tribe. If one hails from a tribe spread across several Middle Eastern countries, he might use it to signal belonging.
Because fighters choose their names themselves, they can intentionally misrepresent their identities. For example, according to several anecdotes, non-Chechen, Russian-speaking fighters were calling themselves al-Shishani (Arabic for Chechen). They thought it would give them more respect because Chechen fighters have a particularly strong reputation in Syria.
Such regional politics also weigh on local fighters. In Syria, local ISIS fighters use more general names like al-Shami (the area Syria is part of). Members of HTS in Syria and ISIS local members fighting in Iraq are more likely to be specific and use names of their home towns and regions, such as al-Falluji (a town) and al-Anbari (a region). Even fighting for the Caliphate, where—according to the group’s official position—everyone is equal, fighters still cling to their home identities and political biases.
Because there are only a limited number of those word combinations, finding a unique nom de guerre in Syria is not an easy task. The name Abu Bakr is so popular that many Abu Bakrs are fighting on all sides of the frontline. If members of HTS at least sometimes use their real names or the real name of a son as their kunya, members of ISIS trying to hide their identity always use nicknames and change them when they move between towns or change units. That makes the job of choosing a name even harder. According to the ex-ISIS foreign fighter who left the group, when he ran away, the group was looking for him by his kunya.
ISIS’s naming structure makes it harder for law enforcement to track particular foreign fighters. But it also sheds some light on complicated internal politics, deep divisions, and humorous misnomers in such closed organizations as ISIS and HTS.