How Terrorists Say “Hello”

Do members of al-Qaida really give one another fist bumps?

The cover of The New Yorker’s July 21 issue depicts Barack Obama in the Oval Office, wearing traditional Muslim garb and knocking knuckles with his wife, Michelle, who’s toting a machine gun. After the two greeted each other with closed fists at a campaign rally, a commenter on the right-wing Web site Human Events described the gesture as a “Hezbollah-style fist jab.” Later, Fox News host E.D. Hill would refer to it as a “terrorist fist-jab.” How do terrorists really greet one another?

With a triple kiss. Members of al-Qaida are likely to use a common Middle Eastern welcome consisting of a tight hug and three cheek-to-cheek embraces: right to right, then left to left, then right to right again. This greeting is accompanied by the Arabic phrase “as-salaamu aleikum” (“May peace be with you”) and the response “wa aleikum salaam” (“And with you peace”). Adherents to Hamas and Islamic Jihad employ a similar hello; secular members of the Palestine Liberation Front might say “marhabaor “ahlan usahalaninstead ofas-salaamu aleikum.”

One former spy says in his pseudonymous book, Inside the Global Jihad: My Life With Al Qaeda, that he witnessed a more singular greeting at the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan: Al-Qaida trainees would salute with a shoulder bump.

Extremist environmentalists or “eco-terrorists,” like those in the Earth Liberation Front, have been known to use the raised fist or clenched-fist salutation, associated in the United States with the black-power movement. It’s commonly considered an expression of solidarity with anti-establishment causes.

When in private, members of the Basque separatist group ETA greet one another in Euskara, the Basque language. Kaixo is the standard way to say “Hello”; “Aupa” and “Epa” are common variants. For a slightly more formal salutation, ETA members might use “Zer moduz zaude?” (“How are you?”) and the reply “Ondo! Eta zu?” (“Fine! And yourself?”). Rhetorically inclined separatists might deploy the ETA slogan “Beti borroka egin!”(“Always fighting!”).

Members of Colombia’s FARC follow the local etiquette: Rank-and-file rebels favor a handshake. Between a lowly guerrilla and a high-ranking commander, the salutation process is more formal—the guerrilla stands at attention and requests permission to speak, addressing the commander as “comandante.” Guerrillas will also sometimes refer to each other as “camaradas” (comrades), reflecting Marxist ideology.

Volunteers in the Irish Republican Army avoided distinct public greetings that might have been used against them in court. Instead, they called one another by their first names and behaved as acquaintances. Even an ordinary recruit would greet Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness (both alleged former IRA leaders) as Gerry and Martin.

When assembled together out of public view, IRA volunteers would behave somewhat like a military unit, standing at attention in the presence of senior officers with hands clasped behind their backs. But it was not an especially formal organization with an official salute. During the 1970s, the commander of IRA prisoners at the Long Kesh detention center, David Morley, introduced an IRA “double salute” (hand to forehead twice) as distinguished from the British army’s single salute (hand to forehead once), but it never caught on.

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Explainer thanks Avi Issacharoff of Ha’aretz, Gary Leech of the Colombia Journal, Ed Moloney, Lee Smith, Paddy Woodworth, and Lawrence Wright of The New Yorker.