The most important individuals in the leadership structure of the Islamic State (ISIS) are Arabs, mostly Iraqis and Syrians, with the one non-Arab exception being perhaps Chechen field commander Abu Omar Al-Shishani.
The long-time official spokesman for ISIS is the Syrian Abu Muhammad Al-'Adnani, who is used for the most important announcements. But official ISIS videos have featured many different Arabs, an Albanian, a Chilean, a Kurd, a Canadian, an Australian, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Russian-speaking Caucasians, and Germans. Often these video "stars" make one appearance, with a few making repeat performances.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous of the latter is Denis Mahmadou Cuspert, formerly the rapper Deso Dogg, formerly Soleil, formerly Abou Maleeq, who is now known as Abu Talha Al-Almani, the longest-lasting and most prominent of a secondary tier of ISIS propaganda personalities which includes "Jihadi John" Muhammad Emwazi and amateur British rapper Abdel Majed Abdel Bary. Al-Qaeda's recently deceased Adam Gadahn was more of a spokesman, while AQAP's Anwar Al-Awlaki was a gifted religious authority whose poisonous influence has continued long after his death.
The category of celebrity cheerleader or endorser is not unique to ISIS - Al-Shabaab's late Omar Al-Hammami had a similar role - but ISIS has aggressively used the talents of many such voices. Few jihadi alive today are as photographed or video-recorded as Cuspert.
Abu Talha and unknown fighter in Syria
Cover of Deso Dogg's last rap album (2009) Alle Augen Auf Mich (All Eyes on Me)
Cuspert's past is well documented, and presents a checklist of social pathologies. Son of a German mother and Ghanaian father, his father abandoned the family when Denis was a baby. The boy was alienated from his African-American stepfather, and was involved in a series of petty criminal act, including drug use. He felt racially ostracized, and said that he had been beaten as a child because of his race.
For 15 years, Cuspert was a rapper in Germany, eventually achieving some limited success and producing several CDs, including Murda Cocctail, Vol. 1, and even touring with bestselling American hip-hop star DMX. In 2010, he supposedly converted to Salafi Islam through the tutelage of Saudi-trained German preacher Pierre Vogel, but some of his music videos as early as 2007 featured Islamic themes, along with the usual "Gangsta" subculture. The 2007 music video "Wilkommen In Meiner Welt" shows Cuspert praying with Muslim prayer beads, and he appears to have a tattoo on his left forearm of Zulfiqar, the legendary sword of Imam Ali, giving material evidence to the claim that before Cuspert converted to Salafi Sunni Islam, he at least toyed with Shi'ism.
Given his prolific, high-profile self-documentation, Cuspert is notorious enough in his homeland that in March 2015, a non-jihadi German language compilation, inspired by his old songs, called "Straight Outta Syria," both mocked and paid tribute to his legacy. Among the tracks was one by his younger brother, Lil' Deso.
Tasting the figs of northeast Syria
Teaching Syrians About Islam
Cuspert seems to have tried everything. After Shi'ism and Mixed Martial Arts, his new radical faith moved him deeper into increasingly more militant Islamist factions, from Die Wahre Religion to Millatu Ibrahim. The latter group, founded by Cuspert and Abu Osama Al-Gharib in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, disseminated some of his best known jihadi nasheeds such as Ghurabah, praising jihadi prisoners and featuring images of Guantanamo, Abu Ghuraib, and Shishan (Chechnya), lauding the Chechen jihadi struggle.
A weapons charge and legal problems resulting from the 2011 Frankfurt Airport killing of two American airmen seems to have led to his departure from Germany. Kosovar immigrant Arid Uka had been motivated by a clip from the Hollywood movie Redacted posted by Cuspert on his Facebook page, showing the rape of an Iraqi woman by Americans. Cuspert's online activism, preaching, and singing seem to have reached a wide audience, even though all of it is in German.
After spending time in North Africa beginning in the summer of 2012, probably in both Egypt and Libya, Cuspert finally made it to Syria in 2013. His first video from there shows the newly branded Abu Talha Al-Almani laughing and frolicking in a forest spring and inviting Germans to join the jihad in Syria. While clearly armed and uniformed, it is unclear how much - if any - fighting Abu Talha was actually to do. First joining the hardline Jund Al-Sham, Abu Talha was wounded in a Syrian Air Force attack on a building he was in. It comes as no surprise that even Abu Talha being rushed to the hospital after the air attack was captured on camera.
By late 2013, he had recovered enough to give a lengthy interview that was released through the pro-Al-Qaeda Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF). Al-Almani admitted, in the 66-minute interview, that he had thought about emigrating as far back as the 1990s, "since the first Iraq War," and had considered Chechnya, Somalia, and Waziristan. He admitted that he had been wounded in a Syrian MiG attack in a noncombatant area. Reminiscing about his music days, he described it as "this narrowness, this mess, this swamp. I can only say that this time when I was a musician was a gloomy time." He described himself at that time as a Free Syria Mujahid, and cautioned German Muslims to avoid the Free Syrian Army because they believe in democracy rather than shari'a.
Around the same time, GIMF released a four-part video series documenting his charity work with displaced Syrians. "We are not here to spread hatred," he says as he is shown distributing clothes, installing a generator, and asking for donations. The tone is jovial, humanitarian, and Islamist.
The video shows him breezing through checkpoints set up by the Free Syria Army and Jabhat Al-Nusra (JN). He describes the FSA, JN, and ISIS as brothers fighting under the banner of Islam. In Syria, he agrees with an off-camera voice, "everything is different," and you find warm hearts as opposed to "cold German hearts." He says that he looks forward to a time when all the Muslims can immigrate to a Muslim land separate from the Kufar (infidels), and that then both Muslims and infidels will be separate, safe and secure.
Abu Talha describes his work in Syria at this time as da'wa, teaching Syrians about Islam. This is a great conceit by a convert of a few years living in one of the oldest Muslim countries on the planet, but is a mindset quite common among foreign jihadi who flocked to Syria to fight the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and create an Islamic world in their own image.
Abu Talha giving out sweets to Syrian children
Pledging Allegiance To The Islamic State
Abu Talha seems to have become part of ISIS in early 2014. The clearest evidence is, of course, a video. On April 11, 2014, he pledged his allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and ISIS, "the State that no one can stop!The State we built or helped to build! We will continue to build it until it reaches Washington, O Obama!" (here he made a throat-cutting gesture with his finger). The ex-rapper gave yet another potted version of his life story and urged Muslims from throughout the world to come to Syria and defend the Islamic State. He added that Christians living under ISIS rule who pay the jizya (poll tax required for non-Muslims) are protected.
There is a subtle shift in his rhetoric at this time. Previously, Abu Talha spoke of separation, of Muslims leaving the lands of the infidels where they are humiliated, leaving the infidels to wallow in their many sins and perversions. Now he begins to indulge in the usual ISIS discourse of conquering the infidels, or slaughtering them.
While giving his oath to the Islamic State was of paramount importance, Abu Talha continued to diversify. Only a week after his oath of allegiance, he released another nasheed in German with English subtitles under the Al-Tibyyan Media label, titled "We Fear Only Allah" (Wir F├╝rchten Nur Allah), a surprisingly downbeat condemnation of "my so-called siblings" in Germany who have mocked those who have emigrated or come to Syria for jihad. The video included no specific exhortation in favor of ISIS.
While some have speculated that Abu Talha must be the mastermind of the ISIS media juggernaut, there is actually no strong evidence that this is the case. Abu Talha seems to be uncomfortable in both English or Arabic, and does not have the linguistic skill in the latter language to compose nasheeds in the classical style. And in any case, the polished, violent packaging of video material that ISIS has become famous for predates his entry into ISIS and, indeed, his arrival in Syria.
This is not to say that he could not have been helpful in the areas of video production, music, and propaganda, and he could well be playing a useful role at the Al-Hayat Media Center (HMC), whose establishment was announced around the time that he formally joined ISIS. In his ISIS allegiance video, he spoke of taking on the role of consulting and da'wa. But his previous work in Germany as a rapper and as an activist for Islamism, is not as good as what ISIS was to produce. In any case, HMC is one small part of a much larger and multifaceted ISIS media operation.
Abu Talha was different from other ISIS front men because he was already a "name" - a jihadi personality for several years with a compelling story before joining ISIS, and one that had access to his own propaganda outlets, through Millatu Ibrahim and GIMF, through the good offices of his close friend Abu Osama Al-Gharib. Al-Gharib was last seen in his own German ISIS propaganda video in August 2015, shooting a bound Syrian prisoner in the head in the ruins of Palmyra.
Abu Talha the jihadi (as opposed to Deso Dogg the rapper) has had a widespread continuing presence across social media, with videos by him and about him, in his many incarnations: rapper, Islamist in Germany, jihadi in Syria. He is often featured in the personal photos of other jihadi, on Twitter, on SoundCloud, and on Justpaste.it. His Twitter account (@AbuMamaDou) was suspended in 2015, while the @DesoDogg007 account seems more of an unofficial tribute account. @Tibyan_Media still exists to promote Abu Talha's various productions.
Abu Talha with key Bahraini ISIS cleric Turki Bin Mubarak Al-Binali
With British jihadi Abu Rahin Aziz, from Luton, in March 2015
Abu Talha now embarked on an odd trajectory, seemingly as a jihadi "everyman," appearing in or near every ISIS battlefield in Syria. A July 2014 video July 2014 showed glimpses of him in the bloody aftermath of the ISIS takeover of the Al-Sha'er gas fields in Homs. In a field covered with dead bodies, Abu Talha is seen for several seconds beating a corpse with a sandal. Still another video, released in November 2014, dates from the savage ISIS suppression of the Sunni Arab Shaitat tribe in August 2014 in Deir Al-Zor. While Abu Talha is not actually seen killing anyone, he is deep in the gore of freshly spilled human blood, and holding up a just-severed human head. In yet another, short video, he is shown discussing loot taken from Kurds and Yazidis near the town of Kobane.
Still another Western news item was added to the Abu Talha Al-Almani legend in February 2015, when a sensationalist German tabloid claimed that had fallen into a "honey trap" with one of his women feeding intelligence on him to Western intelligence services. It is at this time that Abu Talha is named by the U.S. Department of State as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.
Abu Talha's next major musical production was in April 2015, released by Al-Hayat Media Center, and is a German cover version (subtitled in English) of one of the Islamic State's most emblematic anthems. "Fisabilillah" (F├╝r Allahs Sache) is Abu Talha's take on "Qariban Qariba" and adds the colorful line "enemies of Allah, we want your blood, it tastes so wonderful."
The German ISIS booster's last appearance is at an even more incongruous place. On August 5, 2015, ISIS's Al-Furat province (the region around the Syrian-Iraqi border at Albukamal and Al-Qa'im) released a Russian-language video calling on Muslims from the Caucasus region to join the Islamic State. The fourth speaker, speaking in German and whose words are subtitled in Russian, is none other than Abu Talha, his "THUG" tattoo on his right hand visible in high-definition video.
Despite his extensive extolling of his thirst for martyrdom in December 2013, Abu Talha must either live a charmed battlefield life or, more likely, is considered too valuable as a poster child for German jihadi or mixed-race Europeans, or as a media advisor and morale booster. As such, he is likely to continue for a while as a high-profile, if marginal, visual presence. Leaving aside the special case of ISIS's "West African Province" (Boko Haram), Abu Talha is the most prominent person of color within the ranks of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. He has clearly not chosen to be a fighting propagandist such as Saudi cleric Abu Malik Anas Al-Nashwan, who starred in a major ISIS video production one month and was killed in battle the next. But then, ISIS can always find another Saudi.
* Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice-President of MEMRI.
 Indianexpress.com, September 2, 2011.
 Nytimes.com, September 1, 2011.
 Longwarjournal.org, August 2012.
 See MEMRI TV Clip #4236, German Rapper-Turned-Jihadist in Syria Threatens Obama with Throat-Slitting Gesture, April 11, 2014.
 See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1179, The Songs Of The Islamic State - A Major Tool For Reinforcing Its Narrative, Spreading Its Message, Recruiting Supporters, August 11, 2015.
 See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1170, Massacre And Media: ISIS And The Case Of The Sunni Arab Shaitat Tribe, June 23, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM, New ISIS Nasheed In German By Rapper Deso Dogg: 'Enemies of Allah, We Want Your Blood, It Tastes So Wonderful', April 15, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM, In Video, German Jihadi And Former Rapper Deso Dogg Appeals To Muslims In Caucasus To Join The Islamic State, August 7, 2015.
 See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 46, ISIS's View Of Christians Echoes That Of Official Saudi Fatwas, June 1, 2015.