Narratives: the most powerful tool in the jihadist armoury and possibly the most misunderstood

December 7, 2015

Narratives remain a powerful driving force during the process of indoctrinating vulnerable young people and help steer them towards radicalisation. They also provide moral justification for engaging in acts of international terrorism in the name of jihad. Much research is still required to fully understand the cognitive effects these narratives have on their target audience before we can establish a structured approach in the form of counter-narratives.  Until then, jihadist groomers, recruiters and ‘inspirational’ leaders will continue to encourage, guide and empower vulnerable members of society (Muslims and non-Muslims) to embrace the jihadist ideology and engage in acts of terrorism inside their own countries or becoming volunteers fighting in foreign wars for a cause based on ancient mythology, misrepresentation of world affairs and the ‘perceived’ evils of the western nations- the unbelievers determined to destroy Islam.   

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo’s work on Islamic Terrorism (Understanding Islamic Terrorism, 2004) concentrates on traditional divisions within Islam, theological debate and classical Islamic interpretations, which are essential for increasing our understanding of extremism. Likewise, Dilip Hiro (War Without End, 2003), Gavin Bradley and Paul Woods (Gods Assassins, 2010) have all examined the medieval roots of this form of terrorism and a number of other academics and Islamic scholars have published similar research.  Although debate continues to question the true interpretation of Islam and how to educate young Muslims, I believe the plethora of secular narratives are far more dangerous and have a greater impact on the mind-set of vulnerable young people than the religious arguments.  Unfortunately, these often go unnoticed as debate continues to be dominated by those arguing over theology and Islamic history.

Secular narratives are far more dangerous than religious arguments 

There have been several accounts of young Muslims, described as religiously ignorant, joining the ranks of the jihadists. There have also been accounts of non-Muslims suddenly deciding to convert to the extremist’s interpretation of Islam. In September 2015 there was even a report of two non-Muslims going to Syria in the hope of being converted to the faith by the Islamic State before becoming jihadists.

Although more research is required to obtain a clearer understanding of why seemingly unreligious people became jihadists, we may, however, identify some of the drivers by examining their social media activities and comparing their comments and view of the world with the secular narratives.  A cursory examination of various social media platforms suggest some are disillusioned young people who have no personal identity or understanding of where they fit within their community or society as a whole. Some may blame others for their real or perceived socioeconomic grievances- lack of job or educational prospects, feelings of marginalisation, resentment towards the political system and those they regard as privileged.  Some commentators argue this is nothing new and the 60’s counter culture has been used as an example of young people at their worst. 

Unlike those who rejected the social norms of their parents’ generation during the 1960s, including those who joined various European terrorist groups, most of the young people attracted to jihad are from various ethnic minorities with a long history of being subjected to racism and it is interesting to note that many of the secular narratives play on these fears and concerns. 

For instance, Daesh and AQ Affiliates continues to seize every opportunity to fuel civil unrest by promoting the believe that all western nations are inherently racist and democracy is an illusion. This may be seen as a form of Perceived Provocation- racism, inequality and corrupt political systems may lead to recruitment and acts of terrorism inside western nations.  For example, on 9 August 2014, an unarmed 18- year-old black man was fatally shot by a white police officer of the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri, a suburb of St Louis USA. The death of Michael Brown and the subsequent civil unrests were quickly used by extremist propagandists to show the United States as a racist country where black people are murdered. The decision of the Grand Jury not to prosecute the officer was used to further promote the belief that black people in America are not protected by the law and may be murdered with impunity.  To reinforce the propaganda value extremists suggested their views were supported by non-Islamic and independent sources by using extracts from the Russian and Hungarian press who had heavily criticised the Ferguson shooting. To further project the image of the United States being inherently racist and ‘ungodly’, they used the birth right debate which they illustrated with altered photographs depicting President Obama and his family as monkeys, and claimed even the elected President and his family were not immune from racial abuse.   

In stark contrast, Daesh widely circulated photographs of their fighters to illustrate their multi-ethnic composition. A professional quality photograph showing black, white, Asian and Oriental jihadists, was accompanied with the message “All are equal under the Islamic State, unlike the widespread prejudices of the United States”.   The comparison of good and evil is a constant theme in both religious and secular narratives and is used to remind its converts and anyone who may be susceptible to their messages that the jihadists have God on their side as they fight the western anti-Christ crusading nations which are led by the epitome of all evil called the United States. 

Extreme right-wing elements assisting Jihadists

The Marxist Revolutionary Carlos Marighella who wrote the much acclaimed ‘Mini Manual of the Urban Guerrilla’ dedicated a chapter to the concept of Strategic Provocation. Marighella explained that Strategic Provocation means deliberately causing collateral damage on the population who you wish to support the revolutionary cause.   In essence, if a population experiences regular abuse and heavy-handed tactics from their government that population is more likely to join or support the revolutionaries.  The increasing rise in Islamophobia which is being encouraged by extreme right wing elements and racists posting inflammatory comments, articles and photographs on the internet can be seen as a potentially powerful form of Strategic Provocation targeting all Muslims.

This form of provocation is all the more dangerous because it supports the jihadist view of the world- “all Muslims are in danger from the nonbelievers.”  

These provocative narratives which are likely to increase tensions and aid recruitment are arguably the most difficult to address because any censorship would violate our freedom of speech. 

Governments still getting the counter narratives wrong!

Since 9/11 we have seen an increased understanding of extremist narratives and how to counter their impact on their intended audience. Unfortunately, government organisations responsible for national and international security continue to publish comments which validate extremist beliefs. Many examples may be used to illustrate government communications which have inadvertently supported both religious and secular narratives.  A recent example are Tweets posted by the British Army’s 77th Brigade. 

On 31 January 2015, the BBC announced, “Army set up new Brigade for the information age” According to the BBC and the national press “77th Brigade would be involved in psychological operations and social media to help fight in the information age.”

 It was also widely reported that the formation of 77th Brigade was “due to government concerns regarding the information war:  the use of social media and the internet in general for the spread of jihadist narratives and the potential for self-radicalisation” (BBC)

I, like many in my field, assumed 77th Brigade would analyse extremist’s narratives to identify such things as embedded implications, links to other narratives, the mythology associated with extremist ideology, the structure of the narrative, vernacular and any regional variations in order to present an appropriate counter response.  This clearly was not the case.
The first Tweet posted by 77th Brigade simply said, “We are watching you” with subsequent Tweets saying “Good morning we are watching you”.  A government organisation publicly saying “We are Watching You” was immediately seen by international jihadists and their propagandists as an extremely aggressive statement with violet intent against all Muslims.  In fact, based on narratives sometimes referred to as the Flotsam, this seemingly innocuous statement continues to be regarded as a declaration of war against Islam. 

The Flotsam and variations of this esoteric narrative continues to have a powerful influence within jihadist circles. It not only promotes violent jihad against the west and all non-believers (Including Muslims who refuse to accept their version of Islam) it also proclaims Jihad as the religious duty of all Muslims.  Jihadists believe this narrative was written several thousand years ago and prophesises, among other things, how modern technology would be used prior to the final war between the Crusading Nations and Islam; a war which the jihadists will eventually win and save the world.  According to the Flotsam and many variations of this narrative, one of the first signs that the anti-Christs and the epitome of evil (USA) are planning war will be when technology is used to “watch Muslims”. Needless to say, Jihadists are now saying this technology is the internet and social media. 

Any organisation which is responsible for countering extremist narratives must employ a degree of pragmatic awareness when analysing narratives and also identify the numerous implications before a workable counter narrative may be used. 
The extremist facilitator attempts to employ a variety of techniques that create strong emotional responses, especially emotions which by their very nature feed themselves. This can be particularly powerful when these beliefs, feelings or behaviours are at the subconscious level; such as being part of, or connected with a subject’s virtue belief system: those beliefs that drives conformity of one’s life and conduct to moral and ethical principles. These virtues may include religion, honour, community, family, etc., and have a powerful influence on how people behave, see and interact with society, the world and with other people. (see Hursthouse)

The virtue system which is under attack has been described in various ways, including, controlling:
 “The role of one's character and the virtues that one's character embodies for determining or evaluating ethical behaviour” (Hursthouse, Virtue Ethics 2012)

Messages, irrespective of what medium is used and how they are delivered, may be processed at the conscious, subliminal level, or both, to create optimum cognitive affects.

A simple sentence, in this example “We are watching you”, once skilfully manipulated and liked to the mythology of jihad, is seen as further proof that the war has already started and, as predicated, the unbelievers endanger the world and must be destroyed. 

Extremist facilitators and propagandists continue to monitor government communications, material from racists and extreme ring wing elements and use these narratives to support the ideology of jihad.

Patrick Sookhdeo, Understanding Islamic Terrorism, 2004 Isaac Publishing
Dilip Hiro, War Without End: The Rise of Islamist Terror and Global Response, 2002, Routledge
Bradley and Wood, Gods Assassins: The Medieval Roots of Terrorism, 2009, Ian Allen Publishing

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