He calls himself Deso Dogg, or as Fader puts it, “the pop star of jihad.” One thing’s for sure: he ain’t no Justin Bieber.
One summer day in 2013, the German jihadist Denis Cuspert was holed up in a home controlled by his fellow fighters in the Junud al-Sham militant organization when he was hit by shelling from the Syrian Air Force. He suffered a critical head injury, entered a coma for nearly a week, and was moved from hospital to hospital in search of a specialist to save his life. “My head was open and some parts of my brain were coming out,” he’d say in an interview posted online that fall. “The brothers cared about me a lot. And through the mercy of Allah, I woke up.”
Upon his recovery, Junud al-Sham produced a neat, crisp bit of video starring Cuspert. Posing on a couch in a gray cardigan and a taqiyah skull cap, with a landscape of roughly beautiful hills behind him, he brags that he had grabbed his weapon and had been prepared to fire at the jets flying overhead when the bombs dropped. And with evident glee, he waves off the rumors of his death: “Praised is Allah! According to the media I have been murdered two or three times.”
Cuspert had arrived in Syria earlier that year. Two years before, the Arab Spring — a wave of street protests in the name of civil liberties and democratization — had rattled the region and deposed longstanding autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia. In Syria, it prompted a civil war. On one side stood President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded the 30-year rule of his father in 2000 and was holding on to power with determined, indiscriminate brutality. On the other was a confounding array of splintered rebel groups devoted to Assad’s ouster.