Just days before Islamic convert Elton Simpson attacked a controversial “Draw the Prophet Muhammad” contest last May in Garland, Texas, he asked jihadists online to arrange an interpretation of a dream he had of “a woman in a hijab looking down at him on a road.”
Nothing is known — at least publicly — about what the dream interpreter may have counseled, but women on the path of jihad in dreams often are interpreted as offering the prospect of paradise. Some analysts argue this dream may have been the final incentive for the Garland shooting that left a guard wounded and Simpson and his accomplice dead, shot by a traffic cop.
If it was, Simpson is not alone among Islamic militants who say they were inspired to action by a dream. Western intelligence agencies are taking increasing notice of dream accounts shared by jihadists on social media sites and in telephone and email exchanges, if only to provide pieces in the puzzle of the jihadist mind, say current and former intelligence officials.
“We are not talking Minority Report here,” said a U.S. counterterrorist official on condition of anonymity. The reference is to the 2002 movie starring Tom Cruise, where a futuristic “PreCrime” specialized police unit uses psychics to stop murderers before they kill.
“But we are interested in dream accounts, to see if they can assist us in predicting a possible recruit’s behavior or where they are on the trajectory of radicalization,” the official added.
According to Iain Ross Edgar, a social anthropologist at Britain’s Durham University and a leading expert in the field of dreams, Western intelligence agencies have been curious for some time about jihadist dreams.
“At a conference, a Western intelligence official told me, ‘Everyone we are watching is into dreaming,’" Edgar said. "Everyone they looked at was into their dreams and the dreaming got stronger as they came closer to being recruited."
Edgar added, “Intelligence officials seem interested in whether dream narratives and reports can be used as ancillary remote assessment tools, whether dreams can predict whether a tipping point has been reached for someone contemplating doing something and then going on to secure bomb material.”
Islam has a strong dream tradition, diverging from Western Christian culture on what dreams mean. Fourth-century theologians Augustine and Jerome redefined dreams as superstition. Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud saw dreams as the road to the unconscious and the past.
For Islam, true dreams — those not deemed false and the work of the devil or everyday dreams of no major significance — are about the future, offering premonitions, but also guidance from the Divine.
The Prophet Muhammad was a great dreamer. There are three examples of dreams in the Quran. And some of the most important events in early Islam are related to dreams — including a night dream in which Muhammad received the basis of Sharia law and met Jesus and others regarded as prophets.
Muhammad is said to have begun each day by asking his companions about their dreams.
Jihadists are no different from other Muslims in how they view the importance of dreams, according to Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. “They do it because it is Islamic orthodoxy. Most, if not all, practicing Muslims believe dreams can contain messages from God or premonitions of the future.
"They believe it because scripture strongly suggests it. It's not widely known in the West, because Muslims don't talk about it very openly; dreams are intimate things and should only be shared with close friends or family,” said Hegghammer.
But jihadists and those on the recruitment path have been sharing their dreams. And dream they do — from the failed British shoe bomber Richard Reid to the planners of the catastrophic September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001 — Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad.
According to several accounts, Taliban leader Mullah Omar was summoned by a dream to implement Sharia law and a true Islamic state. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden reportedly worried that the September 11 plot would be revealed beforehand because so many of his followers dreamed about the mission.
And Islamic State leaders and their foot soldiers are no laggards when it comes to dreams giving them self-serving credence as prompts for action.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State group, is said to have become a jihadist partly because of a sister’s dream of a sword with the word “Jihad” displayed on one side and the Quranic verse, “God will never abandon you and will never forget you” on the other.
“For Islamic militant jihadists, dreams and visions are a key way of confirming and legitimating to others their ideological worldview and the path to becoming a shahid, a holy martyr,” according to Edgar, author of the first academic paper on the significance of dreams in Islamic State ideology.
Whatever the veracity of individual dream narratives, there is a pattern of reliance on divinatory dreams for inspiration and guidance, he argued. They take dreams into account when deciding to join, become a foreign fighter, volunteer for missions, select a military strategy or, if a lone wolf, picking a target.
Former senior FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole said dreams may be helpful, up to a point, in trying to assess whether someone is dangerous or not.
“Psychiatrists and people in mental health will use dreams to try to understand what is happening with a person,” she said. “But dream interpretation is highly subjective. There is no science of dream interpretation. It comes down to memories, and the dreamer will often add missing material. Dreams can be very suggestive.”
And so can interpretations of dreams. O’Toole said dream interpretations “can be used to influence, to recruit, to persuade and to direct. And being able to monitor shared dream accounts could be useful in providing prior warnings.”
“You use as much information as you can to make a danger assessment,” she said.
Terrorism researcher Hegghammer argued that the dreams of Islamic State militants — as well as other aspects of jihadi culture, from poetry to songs known as nasheeds — warrant close study, because they can shed light on the emotional appeal that encourages some people to enlist and play an active role in extremist Islamic groups.