Dreams are strange, misunderstood things. This week, Science of Us will be exploring the latest research that helps explain what they are, what they might mean, and how they affect our waking lives.
Before the Belgian-born bomber Khalid el-Bakraoui turned to violent extremism, he was apprehended for lesser crimes — car theft, kidnapping, bank robbery. It was during a stint in prison that he experienced the first of a series of vivid dreams that, according to ISIS’s English-language newsletter Dabiq, helped set him on the path toward jihad.
In the first dream — which Dabiq calls “life-changing” — el-Bakraoui saw himself fighting infidels alongside Muhammad, who was riding a horse into battle. “The vision took me beyond the battlefield,” he said, according to Dabiq. “I saw myself as an archer shooting arrows at the enemy. I would shoot, take cover, then shoot again.” When he was released from prison, el-Bakraoui started to get involved in ISIS, preaching their messages and urging his Belgian neighbors to move to Islamic State territory. El-Bakraoui’s second dream allegedly inspired him to go through with a suicide mission. This one was less cinematic than the first, but made just as much of an impression. He “arose to a high place … surrounded by stars,” where a disembodied voice commanded him to fight for Allah. In the third dream, he detonated an explosive belt, killed two foreign soldiers, and was congratulated by a heavenly voice. “My soul then became full of light,” he said. A few months later, he and his brother blew themselves up in a crowded Brussels metro station — in real life.
In jihadi culture, dreams are not only a valid topic of conversation, they are a guide to the future and a tool in decision-making, for lone wolves as well as leaders. Ordinary fighters look to dreams to justify violent actions and preview the rewards they hope to enjoy after death, and leaders use dreams to imbue their authority with an air of otherworldly legitimacy; they may interpret dreams about a successful attack as divine endorsement of their plans. In 2015, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said that he would withdraw from Mosul because Muhammad ordered him out of the city in a dream. As ISIS’s grip on Iraq and Syria deteriorates, according to British anthropologist Iain Edgar, the group seems to be putting even greater stock in dreams.
Whether the dreams are real or fabricated is of course impossible to know — but the spiritual penalties for lying about a dream, Edgar points out, are severe. And the psychological effects on other ISIS supporters can be powerful either way. Videotapes released after the September 11 attacks show Osama bin Laden describing dreams he interpreted as good omens; he even feared that the secret plot could be exposed if too many people dreamed about airplane crashes.
After analyzing Islamic State propaganda, Edgar, author of The Dream in Islam: From Qur’anic Tradition to Jihadist Inspiration, found that dreams can be the deciding factor in ISIS sympathizers’ decisions to join the terrorist group or carry out an attack. Elton Simpson, who opened fire on a Muhammad-themed cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, may have been inspired by a dream about a woman in a hijab, which was interpreted as a sign of the virgins awaiting his arrival in heaven. In the days leading up to the attack, Simpson had been tweeting with accounts like “End of Time Dreams” (@entimdrms), which posted pro-ISIS interpretations of its followers’ dreams. Coded dream symbols lend credence to real-life decisions: The dream motif of “green birds,” for instance, represents the martyr’s journey to paradise, and can be taken as a positive omen. (Martyrs are said to be transported to heaven by green birds.)
In recent propaganda materials, there appears to be a new emphasis on dreams. “The last two Dabiq’s have contained personal dream reports of significant IS members, seemingly for the first time,” Edgar told me. “Dream accounts are being weaponized to influence other IS members, followers, and jihadi wannabes.” The new focus on dreams could be a sign of desperation — an attempt to inspire far-flung loners as the terrorist group’s power wanes. The images we see, and the stories we read, have a way of lodging in our subconscious and turning up in our dreams. “Vulnerable young people on the net who spend lots of times reading about the ‘heroic’ caliphate and its actions may well start having dreams about this,” Edgar says. Edgar also pointed me to a recent report of ISIS fighters arresting a 70-year-old ex-imam in Mosul — on the charge that he had described a dream he’d had about the Islamic State’s defeat.
In one sense, ISIS’s use of dreams fits in with the broader Muslim attitude toward dreaming. “Today, Arabic TV programs are replete with dream interpretation programs and the internet is awash with Islamic dream interpretation websites,” Edgar wrote in a recent paper.
The popular practice of istikhara—or dream interpretation—has its roots in pre-Islamic Arabia, according to Kelley Bulkeley’s Dreaming in the World’s Religions. Ancient Arabs sought guidance and glimpses of the future by taking stimulants or shooting darts, activities that were condemned in the Quran. Istikhara took their place. People could invoke meaningful or even prophetic dreams by meditating on a question and repeating special prayers before going to sleep. These practices persist, in various forms, to this day. “During my fieldwork research, especially in Pakistan, Turkey, Bosnia and the UK, I rarely met a Muslim who didn’t relate to his night dreams as a potential portal to the divine,” Edgar writes in The Dream in Islam. Religiously significant dreams are a part of everyday life: In a survey cited by Bulkeley, one in five Jordanian undergraduates said that they had dreamed about being possessed by an evil spirit.
“In the West, we see dream imagery as a curiosity, a computer back-filling itself, but in these cultures, dreaming is still very important,” Edgar says. “Wannabe jihadists are killing themselves or others authorized, validated by dream imagery.”