Friday the 13th took on a heightened sense of dread after a rumor trended on social media the previous day that warned of a potentially violent "Day of Jihad," or "Day of Rage," on Oct. 13, 2023.
The rumor appeared in popular posts on X after Reuters reported on Oct. 11 that former Hamas Chief Khaled Meshaal, who currently heads Hamas' diaspora office, had called for a worldwide day of protest in support of Palestine, which was then under heavy attack by Israel in response to a Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7.
In a recorded statement sent to Reuters, Meshaal specifically called "all scholars who teach [and learn] jihad" to "head to the squares and streets of the Arab and Islamic world on Friday," calling the day "a moment of truth."
He also announced, "You all know your responsibility," and said to those who would participate, "This is a moment for the application (of theories)."
Wired.com reporter David Gilbert, who covers topics about disinformation and online extremism, reported that Meshaal's remarks calling for jihad in "the Arab and Islamic world" were twisted and then misinterpreted by some users as being a global event. Gilbert also documented online discussions that showed how Meshaal's words could possibly lead to real-world violence against Muslims:
Users of pro-Trump message boards and extremist channels on Telegram, as well as mainstream platforms like X, formerly Twitter, repeatedly claimed they [those users] would be carrying firearms on Friday; some claimed they would be prepared to use those weapons if or when they encountered Muslims. In many cases, people referred to Muslims using racial slurs.
As for the rest of the world, BBC reported that a stabbing at a school in France involved an alleged attacker saying, "Allahu Akbar" (an Arabic phrase usually translated as "God is great"). However, Reuters said that local police where the incident occurred could not confirm whether those words were spoken.
In China, an Israeli man who works at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing was also the victim of a stabbing. The Associated Press reported that it was unclear if the incident was connected to the war.
Update: On Oct. 14, the day after Meshaal's planned day for jihad, a 6-year-old Muslim boy living in suburban Chicago was fatally stabbed 26 times. His mother was also stabbed more than a dozen times, but survived. Authorities said in a statement that they were able to determine that they were attacked because they were Muslim. They also said that they were able to connect the assaults to the violence in Israel and Gaza, all according to The New York Times.
Outside of these incidents, as of this writing, there had not yet been any reported terrorist attacks in U.S. cities or in other countries around the world.
Prior to the stabbing in France, the country had banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations because of Meshaal's remarks, The Washington Post reported. The Post also noted that some other countries had discouraged pro-Palestinian marches, showing how fears driven by Meshaal's words directly led to limits on such activities.
In email correspondence, the FBI told Snopes it was aware of the rumor, but did not provide any specifics:
The FBI is aware of open-source reports about calls for global action on Friday, October 13th that may lead to demonstrations in communities throughout the United States. We are working closely with our law enforcement partners across the country to share information and identify and disrupt any threats that may emerge. As always, we take seriously any tips or leads we receive regarding potential threats and investigate them rigorously to determine their credibility. The FBI encourages members of the public to remain vigilant and report anything they consider suspicious to law enforcement.
With all of this information about the rumor in mind, we looked to find historical perspective about the word "jihad."
Snopes contacted Asma Afsaruddin, an adjunct professor in Middle Eastern languages and cultures at Indiana University Bloomington, for some cultural and historical perspective on the Islamic concept. Afsaruddin was the author of the 2022 book, "Jihad: What Everyone Needs to Know," and wrote about the history of the word for Brittanica.com, noting that "it has often been erroneously translated in the West as 'holy war.'"
By email, Afsaruddin said that she, too, interpreted Meshaal's words as a call for "indiscriminate violence," though that is not the essential meaning of "jihad":
Militants, like Meshaal, tend to use jihad in a very distorted sense. First of all, jihad in itself does not refer to military activity. Its basic meaning is “to struggle,” “make an effort” for morally worthy purposes. This can be as simple as struggling to get up in the morning to earn a livelihood for oneself and for one’s family or greeting one’s neighbor cordially and making the effort to spread neighborliness. The military dimension comes into play if one’s land is attacked by outside aggressors and one is then forced to militarily defend themselves.
According to the Qur’an, the military jihad is defensive warfare. In conducting such a defensive military campaign, certain essential rules of conduct apply – absolutely no targeting of civilians, especially women, children, the elderly, and religious functionaries. The rule of proportionality also applies so that one cannot resort to a scorched-earth policy and wanton destruction of property out of a spirit of vengefulness. Muslim jurists also held firm on the point that only an actual head of state can issue the call for a military jihad.
If Meshaal is calling for indiscriminate violence – which is how I am interpreting his call for jihad – then it would be in violation of these fundamental humane rules within Islam.
This story will be updated if we receive more details.