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‘ISIS Is Here’: Islamic State Graffiti in America

by Dawn Perlmutter

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On February 4, 2015 the head of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, Michael Steinbach said that the FBI has seen children as young as 15 recruited by the Islamic State aka ISIS, ISIL. Two days later FBI Director James Comey said there are open cases looking into individuals who may be connected to ISIS in every state in the Union except Alaska. Evidence of the Islamic State’s successful recruiting efforts in America is literally written on the walls. Islamic State graffiti has appeared in Minneapolis, MN, Houston, TX, La Vegas, Nevada, Phoenix, AZ, Bakersfield, Ca, Washington, DC , Brooklyn, NY, and in many cities around the world. Followers of the U.S. designated terrorist group are showing their support in every form of graffiti from full color pieces to the graffiti genre of stickers; aka labels or slaps….

….There is no misinterpreting the graffiti stickers of the black ISIS flag that are being plastered all over the Southwest including Texas, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. A Houston man Adam Abdulrahman aka Abdul-Rahman Baghdadi or Houston Baghdadi has placed ISIS flag stickers on memorials, city vehicles, buses, trucks, highway signs and other places across the southwest. His twitter handle is a homage to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. He has shared photos of his black flag graffiti stickers on Twitter and YouTube and tweets his support of the terrorist group. His YouTube moniker, AbdulRahman IS America, has Islamic State initials in the middle. On 9-21-14 he posted a video pledging allegiance to the Islamic State in front of a police officer while being escorted away from a mosque. These graffiti stickers cannot be attributed to stupid kids. Instead this type of behavior is often written off as mental illness or a person who is seeking attention. Violence committed in the name of the Islamic State and mental illnesses are not necessarily mutually exclusive which is precisely why this type of graffiti should be taken seriously. Adam Abdulrahman profiles exactly like Man Haron Monis, the Australian who took and killed hostages in a 17 hour siege at the Lindt Chocolate Café in Sydney, in December 2014. Monis like Houston Bagdadi had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, had a history of flamboyant activism, was known to the police and was described as unstable and mentally ill.

In September 2014 ISIS graffiti appeared in prominent areas throughout Northwest Washington, D.C. The most frequently displayed message read “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is Greatest) in Arabic, and underneath in English Letters ISIS. This was described as nonthreatening in the Daily Intelligencer “Will McCants, director of the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, has seen the graffiti in D.C., too. “I’ll bet it’s just someone goofing off,” he says. “Why write Allah Akbar in Arabic and then switch to the Latin alphabet for ISIS?” Because ISIS is the signature of the Islamic State and Allahu Akbar signifies Islamic supremacism and is the jihadist battle cry. ISIS written in Latin letters have appeared in Islamic State graffiti in Kosovo, Indonesia, Pakistan, Balochistan and other non-English language countries.

Will McCants’ presumption that ISIS graffiti in Washington D.C. is just someone goofing off is an example of the fundamental misinterpretation of Islamic State symbolism. Graffiti has to be understood in the language of the streets not just as a semiotic, hermeneutic or theological exegesis. ISIS in Latin letters is a common gang tag of the Islamic State, the black flag with the prophets seal is their primary gang identifier. ISIS tags and flag graffiti are photographed and tweeted out to communicate affiliation among members and recruit Westerners.

Islamic State graffiti should be interpreted in the same manner as any other gang graffiti. Significantly graffiti is often the first indication that street gangs are active in your community. It is used to glorify the gang, mark territory, demonstrate the gangs power and status, create a sense of intimidation and fear, and for individual gang members to show association and allegiance. When gang units document Bloods, Crips, MS13, Latin Kings and other gang graffiti they do not attribute it to stupid kids, they understand that it reflects gang activity and the inherent violence associated with it. When graffiti in Brooklyn, New York reads ‘ISIS is here’ we better believe it.

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