The Inghamasi: ISIL’s New Way of War
When a foreigner crosses the border from Turkey into Syrian land held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), one of the first questions he is asked is: Do you want to be a muqatil (fighter), istishhadi (martyr i.e. suicide bomber) or an inghamasi (plunging fighter)? (Abdulhaq) Following nearly fifteen years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American military is well-acquainted with jihadi fighters and suicide bombers on the battlefield. However, for many American and coalition partners adjusting to this new phase of the Global War on Terror, the third option – inghamasi, is something new. Just as al-Qaeda has evolved since the 9/11 attacks, so too have the tactics and terminology of its successor in Iraq and Syria, ISIL.
The mass use of inghamasi/inghamasiyin[i] is an innovation on previously understood jihadi tactics seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. Etymologically drawn from the Arabic root of ghamas or “to plunge,” the ISIL inghamasi paradigm is a combination of guerrilla fighter and suicide bomber. An inghamasi possesses the skills and training of a traditional fighter, but intends to die in his attack like a suicide bomber in order to achieve martyrdom. ISIL deploys teams of inghamasi fighters as shock troops to initiate battle with opposing forces, seizing as much ground as possible before detonating their suicide vests, usually when they are out of ammunition. This tactic is meant to penetrate enemy defenses for follow-on ISIL fighters to exploit and hold ground. Due to ISIL’s effective use of inghamasiyin on the battlefield in the region, the American military must also evolve in its understanding of this tactic and incorporate it into our shared vocabulary. One cannot understand this concept without examining its context within Islamic theology, its recent entrance into the modern jihadi lexicon, and ultimately how ISIL employs it as an effective military and propaganda tactic.
When ISIL announced the creation of its “caliphate” on June 29, 2014, it also announced that it changed its name to “the Islamic State” (ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya in Arabic). The name change was indicative of ISIL’s aspirations to grow beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria. More ominously, ISIL intended the name change to signal that because its caliphate was not bound by man-made borders, it was the natural home of all believing Muslims. As home to all “true Muslims,” (unlike “rejector” Shias or the “atheist” Kurds of Iraq) ISIL claimed legitimacy as the heir to the Islamic caliphates of the past, drawing its ultimate lineage to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Since ISIL’s first media releases following their caliphate declaration, the group vowed that it would govern based on “prophetic methodology,” or its interpretation of the guidance of Muhammad, specifically based on his sayings and actions outlined in the Hadith.[ii] In addition to its principle of prophetic methodology, ISIL also seeks to attract Muslims to its pseudo-state with the incorporation of philosophical concepts developed by famous Islamic theologians into its current practices. One of ISIL’s most commonly cited and coopted historical Islamic scholars is Ibn Taymiyya, particularly regarding his work on the concept of inghamas.
Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) was one of the most influential scholars in Islamic history, particularly in the Hanbali School of Islamic jurisprudence. Merits notwithstanding, Ibn Taymiyya had a major influence on the doctrines of Wahabbism and militant Salafism in general. Due to Ibn Taymiyya’s influence, it is no surprise that the ideologically-similar ISIL also borrows much from his teachings.
Ibn Taymiyya, a native of the modern-day border region of Turkey and Syria, lived during a time of immense upheaval following the invasion of Mongols into the Muslim lands of the Middle East. As a result, much of his writings deal with Islamic conduct in warfare and the appropriateness of jihad. Though suicide for its own sake is widely considered to be a major sin in Islam, Ibn Taymiyya drew a distinction when he outlined his views on inghamas. Ibn Taymiyya authorized Muslim fighters to “plunge” into a numerically superior enemy for the purposes of jihad so long as it benefits Islam; even though it would almost surely result in death. (Hatina, 48) Ibn Taymiyya wrote that such an action would not be suicide, but rather “martyrdom” so long as it met certain conditions. According to Taymiyya, a Muslim fighter may charge into a group of infidels in such a way that he “disappears in their midst like an object that sinks into something flooding over him.” A fighter may also conduct a mission to kill an enemy commander even if there is no plausible plan to return safely. Thirdly, a fighter may remain to fight alone or with several others, when the rest of their fellow fighters have already been defeated. By any standard, such scenarios could be described as suicide missions, but Ibn Taymiyya deemed them permissible so long as damage would be inflicted on an enemy. (Hatina, 48) As Salafism scholar Rebecca Molloy observed, Ibn Taymiyya approved of inghamas attacks so long as they occurred on the battlefield, were used as a tactic only when outnumbered, and only when Islam would benefit from it. In defending his argument, Ibn Taymiyya referenced a story from the Quran, called the “Companions of the Pit,” stating:
“In the story the young boy is ordered to get himself killed in order to manifest religion’s splendor. For this reason the four imams [of the four Sunni legal schools] have permitted a Muslim to plunge into the ranks of the unbelievers, even if he thinks they will kill him, on condition that this [act] is in the interest of Muslims.” (Molloy)
Due to the importance of Ibn Taymiyya in the modern Salafi Jihadi movement, such groups adapted his writings on inghamas to the modern age. According to Amal Talib, a writer with al-Hadath News, the first usage of inghamasi/yin to describe modern terrorist tactics occurred on al-Qaeda message boards around late 2013 or early 2014. Pro-jihadi users wrote favorably of inghamasi fighters, often using the term interchangeably with “suicide bomber” or “martyr.” (Talib) The term, which obviously drew on Islamic mythology as described by Ibn Taymiyya and similar scholars, gave its users a sense of legitimacy with its religious-historical basis. However, descriptions of inghamasi operations as an altogether new terrorist tactic did not appear on a large scale until ISIL sacked one Iraqi and Syrian city after another in the summer of 2014. In the months that followed, ISIL rewrote the definition of an inghamasi as a modern, commando-like fighter equipped with small arms and a suicide belt, who is so dedicated to his mission that he knows before battle that he will not return.
As a result of both its religious-historical significance and its effectiveness on the battlefield, ISIL presents inghamasi fighters regularly in their propaganda publications. While its provincial media outlets tend to describe the act of ISIL SVBIED (suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) drivers “yinghamas” (plunging) themselves into enemy forces before detonating, the inghamasi holds a separate position within the ISIL military and propaganda hierarchy. When viewing ISIL propaganda, it is important to understand for whom exactly the message is intended. The brutality of burning Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kasasbeh alive or drowning “spies” in cages is so barbaric that ISIL clearly plans to garner Western news media coverage for such incidents. When a hostage video featuring a non-Arab victim is released, ISIL’s intention to gain foreign media coverage is transparent, often subtitling the executioner’s speech into English (or French, etc. based on the victim’s nationality), if it is not delivered in the target language outright.
However, the day-to-day ISIL media releases in Arabic are not necessarily intended for a Western or foreign audience, as they instead focus on themes that will be understood by and resonate with regional audiences. Speeches given by suicide bombers talking of imminently going to heaven or the inevitability of the caliphate “growing and expanding” (ISIL’s unofficial slogan) are meant to greatly resonate with potential recruits from abroad, just as they are to intimidate locals in their path. ISIL media releases on inghamasi fighters serve exactly this purpose, showing not only their effectiveness, but by drawing on the religious-historical significance of the term, they are meant to inspire new recruits to join. Amaq Agency, ISIL’s personal news medium, releases news updates on ISIL battlefield progress in their various wilayat (provinces) almost every day. In these releases, ISIL features inghamasi fighters at least a few times a week.[iii]
Amaq Agency media releases on the subject of inghamasi tend to always focus on the same constant themes: infiltration of a group of inghamasiyin into a significant target, violent clashes with an opposing force (often until their ammunition runs out) and the detonation of their suicide vests in order to open holes in enemy defenses for follow-on “conventional” ISIL fighters. (Talib) The battlefield success of inghamasiyin portrayed by Amaq Agency, no matter how removed from reality it may sometimes appear, serves as a powerful propaganda tool. ISIL is obviously well aware of this tactic’s special propaganda value, as in August 2015, its media office in Kirkuk, Iraq released the group’s inghamasi magnum opus, Inghamasyiun: Pride of the Umma (worldwide Islamic community).
Pride of the Umma was a significant ISIL propaganda production as it announced its definition of an inghamasi. Additionally, ISIL used the ten-minute video to explain to the regional audience and its potential foreign recruits the qualifications and objectives of an inghamasi fighter. As Quilliam Foundation researcher Charlie Winter pointed out in a research essay titled The Virtual Caliphate: Understanding ISIL’s Propaganda Strategy, ISIL video releases capture the imaginations of potential recruits by offering “both immediate change and the ability to transform their future in the long term.”[iv] (6) Pride of the Umma is no different in its central theme of inghamasi fighters going to heaven following their death in battle, though specifics on inghamasi conduct and operations are woven in throughout.
The film begins with a clear explanation of the most basic principle of ISIL inghamasi operations: to plunge into a numerically superior enemy and achieve its destruction. An inghamasi attack should be on “predominantly fortified barricades or buildings,” but in a reference to Ibn Taymiyya’s own writing on the subject, they can also be used to kill important enemy commanders. Any inghamasi attack requires “appropriate planning and studying of [the target’s] surroundings,” which the video explains against a backdrop of inghamasi fighters using imagery on a screen to discuss their future objective.
The video makes it clear that because the inghamasi are an elite force, there are certain specifications that recruits must meet in order to be considered. The most prominent “special characteristics” are: strong faith in Allah, good manners, altruism or unselfishness, and the love of sacrifice for the sake of Allah. The appeal is complex, merging both religious and military concepts, evidenced by the film’s depiction of inghamasi fighters gathered together, reading the Quran as these characteristics are listed, but while wearing masks and military uniforms - all while holding their rifles. ISIL’s melding of religious piety with military preparation, though jarring to the uninitiated observer, is crucial to their attempted recruiting pitch to disaffected Muslims around the world. In addition to these themes, ISIL’s interpretation of recent history is a constant presence in such propaganda videos, interspersing audio and video clips of the late “Sheikh” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi[v] calling for Iraqis to join the jihad, to images of dead Iraqi and Syrian soldiers. Particularly disturbing to Western military viewers is Pride of the Umma’s focus on so-called inghamasi operations against American troops during the Iraq War, explaining:
“Inghamasi operations cause the enemy to shudder at the sound of their weapons – such that half of the Crusader American army, which participated in the war against Muslims [in Iraq], were afflicted with psychological disorders. Many of them committed suicide after their friends were ripped to shreds at the hands of the inghamasiyin and istishaddiyin [martyrs, i.e. suicide bombers].”
The fact that such propaganda has a receptive target audience appears beyond comprehension, but it is well within the mainstream Salafi Jihadi narrative to which ISIL subscribes. Reinforcing this point in the next scene, ISIL uses the words of Islamic scholars to approve of inghamasi operations, as well as Quranic verses to justify them, saying “And of the people is he who sells himself, seeking means to the approval of Allah. And Allah is kind to his servants.” (Quran, 2-207) ISIL concludes Inghamasiyun: Pride of the Umma with the real world results of such “selfless devotion to Allah” by playing Syrian news accounts of the destruction visited upon a Syrian Arab Army base and Kurdish Asayish headquarters in Hasakah, Syria by seven inghamasi fighters shown training throughout the video. The viewer is left with the message that though these fighters were killed, the death and destruction brought about by such highly-trained, committed suicide fighters will be repeated again and again throughout the region.
Despite coalition intervention, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has shown a remarkable ability to seize and hold ground throughout the Middle East. Though there are many reasons behind this phenomenon, one of them is their use of inghamasi fighters, soldiers with the training and weapons skills of traditional fighters, but who wear suicide vests in order to detonate them to penetrate enemy lines. ISIL has demonstrated the effectiveness of inghamasi operations on the battlefield against conventional militaries throughout Iraq and Syria, and as a result it is likely that they will continue. Additionally, because ISIL draws upon Quranic verses and the writings of prominent historical Islamic scholars like Ibn Taymiyya to validate the employment of these “plunging” fighters, the group has been successful in drawing jihadi recruits to volunteer to serve in this capacity. While this tactic is outside of conventional military norms, the use of inghamasi fighters in suicide operations on the battlefield is a current feature of the war against ISIL and is likely to be replicated by jihadi groups in the future. American and other coalition militaries must understand the religious-historical basis, the tactical employment, and the propaganda value of inghamasi operations so that they can defeat such tactics in Iraq, Syria, and around the world.
Abdulhaq, Ethar. “Exclusive: 1736 documents reveal ISIS jihadists personal data.” Zaman al-Wasl, 8 March, 2016. Web. 19 March, 2016.
Amaq Agency. Amaq Agency (ISIL), Active since March 2015. Web. March 2016.
Hatina, Meir. Martyrdom in Modern Islam: Piety, Power, and Politics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 2014. Print.
Ibn Taymiyya, Qa’ida fi’l inghamas fi’l-‘aduww hal yubah? Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Maktabat al-Salaf. 2002. Print.
Molloy, Rebecca. “Deconstructing Ibn Taymiyya's Views on Suicidal Missions.” Counterterrorism Center, West Point, 15 March, 2009. Web. 16 March, 2016.
Talib, Amal. “What is the difference between an Inghamasi and an Intihari/Suicide Bomber? (ما هو الفرق بين الإنغماسي و الانتحاري).” Al-Hadath News, 8 February, 2014. Web. 18 March, 2016.
“The Noble Qur’an.” The Noble Qur’an. N.p., 2016.Web. 05 April, 2016.
ISIL Media Office: Kirkuk, Iraq. “The Inghamasiyun: Pride of the Umma (الانغماسيون فخر الأمة).” Archive Share Site, 2 August, 2015. Web. 12 March, 2016.
Winter, Charlie. “The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy.” Quilliam Foundation, 2015. Web. 18 March, 2016.
Winter, Charlie, Senior Research Associate, Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative, Georgia State University. E-mail conversation. 1 March, 2016.
[i] Inghamasiyin is the Arabic plural for inghamasi, just as mujahidin is the plural form of mujahid, or “the one that does jihad.”
[ii] The Hadith is the second most important collection of Islamic theology, behind only the Quran.
[iii] Based on personal research of pro-ISIL social media accounts.
[iv] Charlie Winter also assisted in helping me begin my research, specifically by pointing me to Arabic language websites on the subject, as well as Ibn Taymiyya’s writings.
[v] Zarqawi was the founder of Al-Qaeda in Iraq before it became ISIL in April 2013, after several other evolutions. Zarqawi was killed in a US strike on June 7, 2006, though he is still greatly revered in ISIL propaganda.