After dedicating two decades to studying avant-garde Egyptian poetry, Elisabeth Kendall yearned to apply her skills to something more relevant. She focused her attention on jihadist poetry—a robust and ever-growing genre on which she is now the leading Western expert. Both Osama bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote their share of poems; while Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi does not, he did devote his doctoral dissertation to the subject. Alex Marshall writes:
Kendall started looking into poems by going online and getting hold of three years’ worth of magazines produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s arm in Yemen. . . . She quickly discovered that poems were featured on almost a fifth of the pages. . . .
The poems Kendall found weren’t simply propaganda. Yes, there were a lot calling for attacks and ones urging people to join the group (“Where are you as Muhammad’s community burns in flames?”), but there were others lamenting dead friends (“I know you’re with Allah . . . but, if I’m honest with myself, I am going to miss you”) and even ones trying to instill conservative values in women. . . .
She discovered that over half were plagiarized from the classical tradition [of Arabic poetry]. Nearly 10 percent turned out, ironically, to be from the pre-Islamic era. . . .
She also surveyed Yemeni tribespeople on poetry (among many other topics), to [see if] it was important to their daily lives—some 84 percent of men and 69 percent of women said it was—and while traveling around she sometimes played her minders jihadist songs from her phone just to gauge their reactions. . . .
Could poetry help turn such people away from jihad? “I think it could,” she says. “I’m not suggesting counter-terrorism experts start writing poetry.” . . . But countries could help fund publications that do promote anti-jihadist poetry written by locals. Kendall insists you can find such poems if you look closely and give people the opportunity to speak. Pseudonyms would be essential, unfortunately.