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As a Captive, I Learned that Violence Is What Terrorists Use for Music

A still from a video shows a piano inside the Crocus City Hall concert venue after a shooting attack and fire, outside Moscow, Russia, in this picture obtained March 24, 2024. Credit - Reuters

I was held prisoner in Syria for two years by a group that included both Al Qaeda and ISIS, though one of the things I learned in my captivity was that there's no real difference between them. Another thing I learned was the purpose of the violence the jihad inflicts on those who live within it. You’re supposed to withdraw yourself from earthly time right now. You’re supposed to live every moment of your life as if the ancient dream—the caliphate, the invulnerability, God’s ongoing, bloody revenge against the infidels—is coming true this instant. Will you sit idly by? If you have the courage and the physical capacity, you are meant to act.

In my view, the outside world must learn what this dream looks like and sounds like. Though the dreamers are all around us, their dreams are as uninterpretable as hieroglyphs. We glimpse them only after it’s too late —on the day after October 7th, for instance, and now, as we wonder over the lifepaths of the Moscow attackers.

In the early days of the Syrian civil war, when ISIS and al Qaeda still belonged to one big quarrelsome family, there were times when several squads of investigators, to borrow the Syrian euphemism for torturers, would interrogate multiple prisoners in a single room. The din on these occasions was much too overwhelming for anything like an inquiry to occur. I know about everyday practices in those interrogation rooms because in October of 2012, the Syrian al Qaeda faction accused me of spying for the CIA, then locked me into a cell in the basement of what had once been, before the war, the Aleppo eye hospital. In fact, my purpose in coming to Syria had been to write essays about the war’s music, photographers, and artists—and thus to make myself into this conflict’s go-to cultural correspondent. But no matter how I pleaded—and I was desperate for my life—I couldn’t make a single member of this sprawling terrorist family believe a word I said.

One night, after a squad of fighters had inflicted one of their investigations on me, I found myself lying face down at the feet of the hospital’s chief investigator. It was some time in early winter of 2013. I wore a bloody pair of hospital pants. The cement floor was the temperature of a sidewalk, back home, in winter.  My hands were cuffed behind my back. Perhaps I had lost consciousness at some point during the proceedings? I’m not sure. Anyway, I remember that it occurred to me, quite suddenly, that a second victim was being interrogated only feet from me. Evidently, this person was hanging by his wrists from a pipe beneath the ceiling. It occurred to me that this person’s feet were bicycling through the air, and that instead of engaging his interrogators, who were shouting at him at the tops of their lungs, he screamed upward, into the ceiling. There is no God but Go, he called out, over and over. I remember that the power in this person’s voice struck me as unnatural.  He seemed to scream as if all that remained to him on earth was his voice, as if it were a rope by which he meant to lash himself to the world of the living.

In the midst of this cacophony, the chief investigator knelt down, then pushed his face into mine. He grinned. “Do you hear what that man is saying?” he shouted to me in his idiotic way. “Do you know these words?”  Of course, I did know them. They were inscribed on every black flag. They were in the air, over and over, at every prayer. How could I not?

“Good,” said the interrogator, screaming at me though his face was practically touching mine. “This noise you are hearing. This is our music.”

Read More: Islamist Terrorism Is Not Done With Us, Warns Former al Qaeda Hostage Theo Padnos

Over the following days lying alone on the floor of my cell, I contemplated this remark. Having known the interrogator for about three months by this point, I felt I had a handle on his character. He was an impish, boastful brute. Also, a bit of a showman. He loved to swish about the interrogation room in his black velvet cape, to speechify, and to promise me that one day, when the spirit moved him, as it surely would, he himself would kill me. For him, the interrogations were quite obviously performances. He often invited little crowds of fellow fighters to observe from the shadows. Now he ordered his squad of underlings to inflict pain, now he ordered them to hold off. Often, he shrieked at them. All of these underlings were Aleppo teenagers. Every once in a while, he commanded, by means of a glance, a teenager to stir his beloved maté tea.

In those days, before I had any inkling of how a terrorist organization functions, I assumed that because this man only presided over a ring of teenagers, and because I remained alive despite his threats, he was a mere flunky in the al Qaeda hierarchy.

Over time, however, I came to understand what real power in the jihad is. It is derived from the obvious sources, to be sure—cold bloodedness, access to ready cash, fluent command of the sacred literature. But it also comes from the ability to entrance audiences. The natural born leaders conjure fantasies to life in an instant, then hold people and places under their spell indefinitely. This particular commander, who called himself Kawa, after a mythical Kurdish warrior, was poor. He rode around on a humble Chinese motorcycle, as no actual authority in the jihad would do. Yet he certainly had a knack for summoning an Islamic fantasy to life—for him it was a caliphate—with a few softly uttered phrases. Over the minds of the many teenagers who hung around in the eye hospital basement, he certainly exercised sovereign control.

Down there, over time, I learned that music really does help the fantasy come to life.

Allegedly, Muslims of the kind who make jihads despise music. It is thought to derange the senses and to distance the listener from God. But the Koran is music. The call to prayer is music, and praying itself is a musical experience since it involves collective recitation of an explicitly musical text, and then, at the end, when the imam conveys the community’s wishes to God, a few minutes of call and response and, well, singing. Of course, in a jihad, there are also hymns. They play in the background in every conveyance, office, and corridor. In the evenings in the eye hospital basement, the fighters often gathered in the prayer room to sing the al Qaeda hymns in full throated unison. Sample lyric: “bin Laden is our leader/ we destroyed the trade towers, with civil airplanes we did it/ reduced them to dust.”

I have no doubt if he is still alive, as I hope he is not, Kawa would say of the film the ISIS fighters made of their Crocus City Hall attack just what he said of his own violence: this is our music. How happy the fighters are, he would say, what unity of purpose they exhibit, and how boldly they make the ancient dream live. There is no difference between the dream the Moscow attackers inflicted on the Crocus City Hall and the one with which Kawa bludgeoned his hospital prisoners, almost all of whom were Syrian Muslims, by the way. The dream is of invulnerability before the enemies of Islam, of simple families living in harmony with the Koran, while every day, in some far flung corner of the globe, the soldiers of the caliphate bring another one of the infidel’s capitals to its knees.

In the Syrian jihad, the authorities made this dream live through singing, prayer, and hour after hour of recitation, as one would expect. Mostly, however, they made it live through violence. When the walls of an interrogation room rang with screams, or when a roomful of young men were watching some atrocity occur on a video screen, and, now and then, when twenty-five young men ran out into the hospital parking lot to fire their Kalashnikovs at the stars, the emotion of the occasion went straight to everyone’s brain stems. I knew roughly what was happening then because it was happening to me, too.

When violence of this order is on every screen, lies behind every door, and hides, just beneath the surface, in the eyes of everyone you meet, you stop being yourself. That person dies. Under such circumstances, in my opinion, you’re grateful for the life you have, but because you expect to leave it soon, you do everything you can to relinquish your attachments to the here and now. You say goodbye. Over time, your thoughts are bound to turn to the future. I don’t see how they could not. Perhaps, you hope, life, of some kind, will somehow continue. Perhaps you will be surrounded by love at last? So the hymns tell you. The jihad is a loveless place, I’m sorry to say. Everyone dreams of being in love. So maybe it will come? Who can say that it will not? Certainly, new life—and with it, new power—will come to some. So the hymns say.

For whatever it’s worth, in Syria, I found that many of the younger terrorists I came to know were adept at slipping into the dream when they were inside the hospital, and adept at slipping out of it, in the evenings, when they went home to mom and dad. Outside, in the streets, as these young men often told me themselves, they looked and spoke like everyone else. Inside, they were  like zombies. They talked, automatically, of their longing for glorious death. Even when they were by themselves, they sang the hymns they were meant to sing. When the order came to torture, they threw themselves at their “work,” to borrow their word. Afterwards, I’m pretty sure, they had only the vaguest notion of why they did what they had done.

The jihad needn’t be as impenetrable as all that. In fact, summonses to the dreams are audible in a thousand war hymns to be heard right now on YouTube. They’re visible in the many videos people who sympathize with the jihad produce. Often these videos seem innocuous enough because they consist mostly of a cappella singing and shots of young men thumbing through the Koran in a forest. To believers across the world, however, and to those who would like to believe, they give direct documentary evidence: the dream is real, the videos say. To make it live in London or Paris or wherever you happen to be, all you really have to do is to believe.

The organizers of the Paris Olympics are surely aware that as ISIS was planning out its 2015 attack on a Paris concert venue, it was also preparing to blow up the spectators at a soccer game in the Stade de France, just north of Paris. Is the outside world aware that the leaders of the international jihad feel about sporting events in the west roughly as they feel about rock concerts? These are soporifics, they believe, with which we drug ourselves by the millions. Meanwhile, every hour, somewhere on earth, our airplanes slaughter Muslim families. Are the authorities in Paris aware that their counterparts in the jihad mean to wake us from our stupor?

The news itself is a problem. When the violence in Gaza is spliced up, set to music, then sent out over the social networks, this material is powerful enough to do to a certain class of vulnerable young men—roughly what screaming in an underground room in Aleppo does. It entrances. It horrifies. It reveals the enemy for who he really is. It has a way of bringing all those who feel they’ll never have much hope into a dangerous kind of alignment. Are the Paris authorities aware of this? I hope so. The Olympic opening ceremony is set to occur along the banks of the Seine on what will surely be a balmy but tense Friday night this coming July.

Contact us at letters@time.com.