Broad Background of Ramadan

The holy month of Ramadan is a time meant to celebrate the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. The Quran itself is considered the biggest miracle in Islam as Muhammad was thought to be illiterate at the time that the word of God was revealed to him.  The obligatory observance of Ramadan has always been about fasting in order to inwardly realign oneself with God. Just as the Quran set Muhammad onto the path to submit to God, the observance of Ramadan is meant to realign Muslims back to the path of God. Muslims are supposed to refrain from worldly desires such as food, drink, and sexual intercourse during the holy month as a way to shun worldly evils. Praying and recitation of the Quran is also supposed to increase.

There are also Muslims that are allowed to bypass the obligatory observance of the month of Ramadan as the fasting could cause them bodily harm. Such as the elderly, sick, mentally ill, pregnant, breastfeeding, travelers, and those at war are able to choose whether or not they would like to refrain from fasting. Granted the “traveling” during the time that the Quran was written is quite different and some don’t consider hopping on a plane a reason not to fast. People that are considered to “be at war” were very much seen as those defending themselves from an attacking force.

Fighting during Ramadan

Historically, fighting during Ramadan was considered taboo. If you are a pious Muslim, you would be focusing on shedding your worldly desires and distractions rather than chasing after the spoils of war. Raiding villages was a means to generate profit in tribal society. However, a temporary halt in fighting between villages was usually observed during Ramadan. Even though this taboo existed, plenty of wars were fought during Ramadan. Islamic extremists also discovered that fighting during Ramadan could often give them an advantage over their enemy.

Reasons why Islamic extremist groups fight during Ramadan

  1. To surprise their enemy and catch them off-guard.
  2. To support the romanticized version of Islam that is used to recruit young fighters to al Qaeda or ISIS. To fight for a higher purpose other than themselves such as establishing the caliphate for ISIS.
  3. To get a chance at martyrdom which is a greater honor during Ramadan.
  4. To kill or injure non-believers and heretics as many extremist groups state that the rewards will be higher during the holy month.
  5. To seek elevated status, control, and legitimacy. ISIS seeks to be the the only religious and governing Islamic authority, therefore, they can control what they do during Ramadan without having serious religious opposition. This is probably the one of the most important reasons behind Ramadan attacks by ISIS.

Any reason for fighting during Ramadan takes away from the purpose of the holy month. Motivations have been shifted from being an inward reflection to an outward projection to the world. 

ISIS calls for violence during Ramadan

Generally during both the Iraq and Afghan wars, threat assessments during Ramadan were usually low. Fasting can cause a dip in overall activity. Most activity occurs after the iftar meal following the sunset for each day. However, ISIS seems to consider the timing of Ramadan significant to their activities. On June 29, 2014, ISIS announced the creation of the caliphate (during the month of Ramadan) and every year since then Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a close aide and the most likely successor to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has called for lone wolf terrorist attacks against the West during the month of Ramadan.  Every year, al-Adnani’s calls have been answered in variety of ways. Usually, they are small random and unrelated attacks. So far, this year a French police officer and his wife were killed as the terrorist live streamed it on Facebook. In the video he also alluded to more attacks on Euro 2016. The other attack during this year’s Ramadan that is associated with ISIS is the mass shooting by Omar Mateen at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Attacking a gay nightclub is symbolic and inline with ISIS’s version of sharia law. Homosexuality is seen just as unveiled women are, a distraction and temptation to Muslim men. ISIS has killed homosexuals and transsexuals throughout Iraq and Syria for this very reason. Their preferred methods of killing are public executions such as throwing them off of a building as it sends a message to the greater community.

This year’s Ramadan ends on July 5th, and more attacks from ISIS are expected. This week CIA Director John Brennan issued a warning about the increased threat to western countries, “Unfortunately, despite all our progress against ISIL (ISIS or Daesh) on the battlefield and in the financial realm, our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach.” Reuters has already reported an anti-terror alert has been issued for more attacks on Belgium and France from terrorists hiding amongst Syrian refugees that are currently en route to Europe. The significance of Ramadan attacks by ISIS shows their growing tolerance and acceptance among the global umma (collective Muslim community). Besides governments taking military action, the global umma will be the one to collectively challenge their religious legitimacy and radical ideology.

As ISIS loses territory in Iraq and Syria, lone wolf type terrorists will continue to increase in value to the organization. ISIS may step up their recruitment efforts on social media and the internet in order to expand their global reach even more. If they can keep their ideology alive online than they will still be considered a viable threat even if they are scattered across the world.

For more on this lone wolf type terrorist attacks, read this article by Jack Murphy: Orlando Shooter is an Example of Remote Islamic Radicalism and it’s a Problem that isn’t Going Away