Young Islamists and their sympathizers are tagging, stenciling, painting, vandalizing and using every genre of graffiti to spread the global jihadist message. Similar to other gangs they are using spray paint to mark their territory, demonstrate their allegiance, advertise their gang's status and power, memorialize fallen fellow gang members, praise violence and threaten their enemies. Jihadist graffiti functions as communication and recruitment and is popping up in cities around the world including: Toronto, London, Dublin, Derry, Glasgow, Augsburg, Munich, Moscow, Toulouse, Frejus, Helsinki, Rome, Crete, Jerusalem, Beirut, Salt lake City, New York City, Washington, D.C. Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland and many others. Islamist graffiti is a popular artistic form of rebellion that portrays the global jihad movement as hip and cool. It appeals to young people who do not consider graffiti vandalism but view it as artistic expression and an agency for popular resistance and change. Spray painting Islamist slogans and jihadist phrases goes beyond graffiti as protest art. Islamist graffiti is a symbolic warfare tactic, a successful stealth information strategy camouflaged as street art.
Although Islamist graffiti is relatively new to Western cities, the words, signs and symbols of terrorist groups have been proudly spray painted on their home turf for decades. Similar to gangs who mark their neighborhoods with slogans or symbols exclusive to the gang, Palestinian terrorist groups spray paint their emblems on the walls of Nablus, Gaza City and Ramallah, often not far from posters glorifying suicide bombers. Gang graffiti also frequently includes the territory claimed by the gang. Similarly Palestinian graffiti often depicts the map of Israel to represent what they consider to be their turf.
Gang graffiti often includes threats and challenges to rival gangs. Islamist gang graffiti functions the same way. On December 10, 2009, the words 'Islam will dominate the world - Osama is on his way' and 'Kill Gordon Brown' were spray painted on a war memorial in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England. On August 4, 2011 a swastika and the message "Islam will rule" were spray-painted on the Robbins Hebrew Academy, an elementary school attached to a Synagogue in Toronto. On May 13, 2008 stores, pavements and the walls of four synagogues in Stamford Hill and Clapton Common neighborhoods in London were spray painted with 40 pieces of graffiti that read "Jihad to Israel" and "Jihad to Tel Aviv. Often Jihadist gang graffiti is not even considered vandalism or threatening and goes unrecognized as hate speech or terroristic threats. This is because the most common words that appear in Islamist graffiti: Jihad, Intifada and Allahu Akbar, are regarded as non-threatening expressions of faith and/or resistance to oppression.
The word Jihad has been the subject matter in graffiti for years, often flying under the radar as street art. On June 15, 2013 JIHAD was spray painted in black lettering, nearly 20 feet high, on a wall along the northbound lanes of Interstate 95 in Delray Beach, Florida. In Oakland, California a graffiti writer who goes by the name of JIHAD is part of the PI Crew and has been painting large scale (master) pieces of the word JIHAD all over Oakland. The incongruity of the term jihad appearing in large graffiti pieces makes one question if the street artist name was chosen to garner attention and perhaps completely unrelated to Islam. Images of hijab clad women by the same graffiti artist put to rest any doubt. Imagine the response if a graffiti writer chose 'RAHOWA', a white supremacists acronym for Racial Holy War, as his street name and painted 50 foot murals of the white supremacist call to holy war all over the city. He would be accused of racism and charged with a hate crime. Even if this young street artist believes jihad means inner struggle and is unaware that he is advocating holy war, his 'JIHAD' graffiti is extremely popular on the internet spreading the message. Jihadists around the world must be enjoying the fact that their battle cry is being proudly displayed in American cities. Perhaps Jihad of the PI Crew is a young Muslim convert who knows exactly what he is doing and his graffiti bombing is a prelude to actual bombings.
Jihadists often spray paint the phrase Allahu Akbar on war memorials and churches symbolizing Islam's supremacy over other religions. On December 4, 2013 the gates of the Augsburg Cathedral, the Moritz church and the evangelical Ulrich church in Augsburg, Germany were sprayed with white Arabic letters spelling out Allahu Akbar. The next day "Allahu Akbar, Jihad" in Arabic was sprayed on St. Michael's and St. Benedict's churches in Munich, Germany. On September 30, 2013, "Allahu Akbar" in Arabic was spray painted in red on a paratrooper memorial in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem. In August 2013 the Helsinki Living Word Church located in Eastern Pasila, was vandalized three times with Islamist graffiti. The messages read "Allahu Akbar", "Jesus is a Muslim" and "Islam is the answer".
Gangs often leave graffiti at the scene of a burglary or other crime. Similarly, jihadist gangs write Allahu Akbar at the scene of their crimes as a mark of victory and supremacy. Victory graffiti that read "Allahu Akbar" and "Death to Russians!" was spray painted on the wall of Planernaya subway station in the Moscow subway on April 3, 2010 marking the success of two suicide bombings that occurred a few days earlier. On September 11, 2012 after murdering the American Ambassador to Libya members of al Qaeda gang set Ansar al Sharia spray-painted Allahu Akbar on the burned out buildings of the U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi marking their turf and further dishonoring America. A burned out house in Windsor, Connecticut also had Allahu Akbar painted on it. A photo of the house was posted on Jihad watch on August 17, 2013. On June 28, 2012 the words "Allah Wakbar" were written in pink and black marker on a seat in the World Trade Center memorial plaza. The misspelled word could be the result of a non-English speaker or a young American recruit who has not yet learned how to spell the battle cry. These are just a few examples of Jihadist gang victory graffiti left at the scene of crimes.
Graffiti is often used to promote or enhance the names and reputations of the gang and to memorialize dead gang members. Osama bin Laden, the Sheik of the Mujahideen gangbangers has been both glorified and memorialized in graffiti. Similar to the word 'Jihad' the name Osama has been spray painted by graffiti writers in large letters on walls and trains. A popular method of glorifying bin Laden is a stencil graffiti of his portrait similar in style to the iconic image of Che Guevara. The stenciled graffiti portrait that sometimes includes the words Rest in Peace have popped up everywhere from Brooklyn, New York to Bangor, Wales. On May 2, 2011, immediately after the news of his death, a 50 foot long tribute to bin Laden was spray painted in black on the sound wall of Orange County's I-405 freeway in Westminster, California. The memorial to the al Qaeda gang leader depicted an upside down American flag with the words un-American written over it flanked by the script "R.I.P. Osama" and "Forever."
Mohamed Merah, the 23 year old al Qaeda Mujahideen gangbanger who killed three French paratroopers, a rabbi and three children ages 4, 5, and 7 in a series of three gun attacks in March 2012 in Toulouse and Montauban, France has several graffiti tributes. Graffiti on the wall of a French house in Tarbes read, "You were a valiant Knight of Islam! You fought the shit Zionist and the false Muslims. You died guns in hand... I salute you Mohamed my brother, my friend... Rest in peace!" Graffiti in Toulouse read "Viva Merah", and in the Sainte-Croix neighborhood of Fréjus graffiti paying respect to Mohamad Merah and al Qaeda was spray painted on a house. Who knows how many other young discontented French teens were inspired by Merah and look forward to having their name celebrated in spray paint.
Jihadists use graffiti in the same manner and for the same reasons as any other criminal street gang. The writings need to be recognized and documented using methods that law enforcement currently employ to track gang activity, membership, rivalries and affiliations with larger gangs. Spray painting the words Jihad, Intifada or Allahu Akbar does not represent benign expressions of faith or popular resistance. Jihadist gang graffiti embodies Islamist messaging that has a significant impact in recruiting homegrown terrorists, inciting violence and is an indicator of future criminal and terrorist activity.
Dawn Perlmutter Director of Symbol & Ritual Intelligence and Shillman/Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum is considered one of the leading subject matter experts in the areas of symbols, unfamiliar customs, ritual murder and religious violence.