He was the best of the Islamic State’s stable of sucker MC’s. And now, his career is over.
A U.S. airstrike in Syria killed Denis Cuspert, a German performer-turned-rapping-propagandist for the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a defense official confirmed to The Daily Beast.
The death of 39-year-old Cuspert, arguably the most talented rapper recruited by ISIS, highlights the surprising relationship between the terror group and hip-hop. Cuspert’s effort is part of a phenomenon known as “Jihad Cool,” a push by ISIS to make the jihadist outfit attractive to young recruits.
Cuspert performed under the stage name Deso Dogg before he abandoned his career in 2012 to eventually join ISIS, where he adopted the name Abu Talha al-Almani and turned into the group’s most effective rapper. His role in the organization remains unclear, in part, because many suspected he had been killed years ago.
But he always re-emerged in propaganda videos, including one set to rap.
Rap, it turns out, is a quasi-loophole around the ISIS ban on musical instruments, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Daily Beast. In ISIS-controlled areas, playing these instruments is punishable by death. But Cuspert and others only used their voices, and their tracks were a cappella; unlike the rap music he made before joining the Islamic State, his body of work for ISIS did not include musical instruments, which the organization considers forbidden.
“Deso Dogg was far more successful than any other ISIS rapper,” Gartenstein-Ross said.
Cuspert was in a car with two others when he was struck Oct. 17, a defense official told The Daily Beast. A second defense official said he was the target of the strike. While the U.S. designated him a terrorist, he was not considered high value.
Rather, he used his talents to rap videos urging other Westerners to join the group. He once toured with the American rapper DMX, before converting to Islam and leaving Germany, first for Egypt, then Syria. He produced gruesome rap videos, including one released in April showing the death by immolation of Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh. ISIS first showed al-Kasasbeh’s death in an extensive propaganda video.
“In France deeds were done, in Germany the sleepers are waiting. We want your blood,” he rapped.
He was one of several self-proclaimed rappers featured prominently by ISIS. Like al Qaeda before it, the so-called Islamic State tried to use hip-hop to lure young Western recruits. British rapper Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, aka Lyricist Jinn, aka L Jinny, was, for a brief time, a leading suspect behind the beheading of American journalist James Foley, which ISIS released in a video Aug. 19, 2014. (Mohammed Emwazi, a computer science graduate from London, was later identified as the beheader.)
In that same month, American and aspiring rapper Douglas McCain, of San Diego, died in a battlefield fight between ISIS and the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army.
But Cuspert above all others appeared to be valued most for his rapping as a means of recruiting other Westerners.
In February, a State Department statement described Cuspert as “emblematic of the type of foreign recruit [ISIS] seeks for its ranks—individuals who have engaged in criminal activity in their home countries who then travel to Iraq and Syria to commit far worse crimes against the people of those countries.”
Reports about his death emerged on social media just two days before defense officials said he was killed. But rumors about his demise had been rampant for years.
Born in Berlin of a German mother and Ghanaian father who abandoned him early in life, he had a troubled youth. He went to prison in Germany several times for drug offenses by 2005. A near-deadly car accident in 2010 reportedly began his religious conversion—and his path to the self-proclaimed Islamic State.