Where adventure and martyrdom beckon

EFFICACIOUS: “Most Islamic State fighters have been lured by powerful messages through social media.” Picture shows militants taking part in a parade in Syria, celebrating their declaration of an Islamic ‘caliphate’ after they captured territory in Iraq.

EFFICACIOUS: “Most Islamic State fighters have been lured by powerful messages through social media.” Picture shows militants taking part in a parade in Syria, celebrating their declaration of an Islamic ‘caliphate’ after they captured territory in Iraq.   | Photo Credit: STRINGER

In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, a new generation of jihadis is emerging which is far more radical, better educated, and deeply committed to jihad

The tentacles of jihad continue to spread: from its base in the mountains at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the al-Qaeda now has centres in the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, and then westwards — Algeria and Libya in the north and Mali and Nigeria in the south. The Islamic State (IS) is firmly established in the Arab heartland across Iraq and Syria; in the Syrian conflict, it is competing with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra for territory and supporters.

None of these transnational groups seems to have any difficulty in mobilising cadres to take up arms and perpetrating horrendous acts of violence against enemy soldiers, western hostages and ordinary civilians — acts which are broadcast on social media or elsewhere as a warning or an enticement to join the cause.

To participate in this violence, several thousand foreign jihadis have joined these groups. The cadres consist of three types of members: Muslim youth from across the Arab world and some Asian countries; second-generation Arab migrants from western countries, and non-Muslims or recent converts from Europe, the U.S., Australia and even New Zealand.

Lure of jihad

Scholars have constantly had to revise their explanation for the attraction of jihad over the last few decades. In the early 1990s, when Egypt and Algeria were in the grip of the violence perpetrated by extremist Islamic groups, the explanation was that members of these groups were young people from the economic underclass who had migrated to cities from rural and semi-urban areas, where they lived in squalid conditions and were subjected to considerable abuse. The mosque provided both relief and sanctuary, and in due course a charismatic cleric or a sympathetic Islamic organisation would provide the indoctrination and motivation to take up arms for Islam.

This thesis needed to be reviewed after 9/11 in the U.S., when young men from the Saudi middle and upper middle classes participated in those assaults, particularly when there was little evidence of a strong religious zeal in their background. The explanation, then popular in Saudi Arabia, was that the young men had been indoctrinated on U.S. campuses where the sense of Muslim grievance and victimhood was ingrained into them, again by highly motivated and persuasive clerics or movements. There was no mention of possible indoctrination at home.

The situation became more complicated when, in July 2005, a number of young people of South Asian and African origin from middle class backgrounds, seemingly well-assimilated in their environment (following football, drinking in pubs and having girlfriends), and having little interest in religious or political issues, perpetrated a series of terrorist acts in London, raising concerns about the continued efficacy of policies of accommodation and multiculturalism.

Jihadis see Islam as being on the cusp of a historical moment when its destiny is being shaped and see themselves as playing a role in these events

We now know that the motivation to join jihad varies with the political and social context. In some Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, the Gulf and the tyrannies of West Asia, the political, social and educational environment is entirely focussed on Muslim victimhood, where horror stories of atrocities perpetrated, usually by occupation forces (Israeli or American), regularly feed the sense of grievance and outrage. Often, the state order itself seeks to divert attention from its own failings or its authoritarian character and encourages young people to join the jihad, so that their anger and sense of purpose obtain an outlet in a foreign locale.

Again, second-generation Muslims in western countries are particularly vulnerable to jihadi blandishments. Observers have noted that young migrants initially embrace their western environment but then abruptly reject it and get “re-Islamised,” alienated by a sense of racial and cultural exclusion.

For such persons, jihad is truly an uplifting experience as it imparts greater meaning and purpose to their otherwise disaffected lives. They now engage in military action in support of a great cause; a jihadi text describes them as waging an “endless struggle” to defend widows, orphans, the oppressed, those forgotten, and those unjustly imprisoned. The distinguished scholar of terrorism, Jessica Stern, points out that terrorists believe they are responding to a spiritual calling: their participation in violence creates in them a “transcendent state” in which their rage turns to conviction so that “the weak become strong, the selfish become altruistic.” Their messianic vision reaches its apogee with the final triumph of Islam.

The high level of motivation of jihadis in Muslim lands can only be understood by realising, as commentator Faisal al-Yafai points out, that jihadis have a radically different conception of history: they see Islam at the cusp of a special historical moment when its momentous destiny is being shaped. They see themselves as playing a role in defining these events. This motivates them to jihad and martyrdom.

Social media cajolery

Suicide attacks have proved to be the most efficacious weapon in jihadi armoury since they make up for the imbalance in conventional capabilities, inflict high casualties on the enemy, have considerable publicity value, and intimidate large sections of the target population. Having seen how lethal they have been in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, they are now the weapon of choice for jihadi organisations. They have no dearth of recruits. Terror expert Louise Richardson writes that suicide bombers are not so much impelled by religious motivation as by a sense of “ecstatic camaraderie” in the face of death.

In fact, comradeship is a strong factor in attracting ordinary people to jihad, particularly those from western countries who are recent converts. The appeals on social media directed at western youth focus on adventure rather than jihad. These videos use gaming language, graphics and effects. They depict western jihadis in the field in everyday situations — jogging, holding pets, or discussing football — and also posing against decapitated heads of victims or showing images of a multinational execution squad waiting to kill Syrian air force prisoners. These videos, a commentator says, capture both “the nobility and urgency of joining the fight, juxtaposed with pulse-pounding images of adventure in battle”, so that the IS then becomes a realisation of the fantasies in the games. Social media, a western intelligence officer has said, are the “command and control networks” of jihad.

It is estimated that about 3,000 young people from the West have joined the IS over the last year, including 200 women. Most of them have been lured by powerful messages sent to them through the social media which have highlighted the great military victories of the IS and the persona of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph. A terrorism expert has noted that al-Baghdadi represents “an apocalyptic vision of revolution, martyrdom and redemption through violence,” which is particularly attractive for some young people.

In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, a new generation of jihadis is emerging which, as militancy expert Ahmed Rashid has noted, is more radical, better educated, and deeply committed to jihad. It is disillusioned with its leaders for their accommodative approach to governments and occupation forces. These militants see the IS as totally uncompromising in pursuing the jihadi agenda; they are enthused by its military victories, and inspired by the announcement of the caliphate. Indian Muslims, who have rejected jihad for 35 years, are now being specially targeted on social media by both al-Qaeda and the IS to participate in jihad at home and in West Asia. The spectre of global jihad now looms over South Asia.

(Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat.)

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 10:10:03 PM |

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