The art of making a jihadist

We know about jihadists’ dedication to violence, but that’s not the whole story, says expert Thomas Hegghammer. There’s a hidden culture of poetry, music and storytelling that sustains their ideology

The Guardian, UK/July 23, 2017

By Andrew Anthony

When Jihadi John, the Islamist terrorist who gloried in decapitating hostages, was exposed as Mohammed Emwazi, a spokesman from Cage recalled the west Londoner bringing “posh baklava” to the advocacy group’s offices. He described the knife-wielding murderer and gloating torturer as “a beautiful young man… extremely kind, gentle and soft-spoken, the most humble young person I knew”.

One of the people who inspired Emwazi was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, renowned for leading the group that beheaded and tortured many western hostages in Iraq, including the British engineer Kenneth Bigley. Zarqawi was known as the Sheikh of the Slaughterers, but he was also referred to as He Who Weeps A Lot, for his habit of crying during prayer.

A baklava-dispensing gentleman and lachrymose devotee who both happen to be sadistic killers? There’s something jarring about these portraits, because with good reason we tend to think of jihadists like Emwazi and al-Zarqawi as murderous automatons, singularly dedicated to the most terrifying violence. But as the Norwegian academic Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on jihadism, argues, that’s not the whole story. Even jihadists have their downtime. The question is, what do they do in it?

After a decade of studying the subject, around 2010 Hegghammer came to a realisation. Jihadists did a lot of things seemingly at odds with their brutal image: weeping, writing and reciting poetry, singing, recalling and interpreting dreams, perfecting their manners and taking an inordinate interest in their appearance.

In the language of behavioural economics, they weren’t rational actors because they were acting in ways that often ran counter to their stated interests. That may not seem like a profound insight about people whose military USP is a pronounced willingness to blow themselves up. Still, Hegghammer thought it was one worth exploring and, given the ongoing draw of jihadism, it’s perhaps one that the authorities should also consider.

Jihadism, in the sense that Hegghammer is concerned with, is a relatively new phenomenon. He dates it to the Afghan war against the USSR in the 1980s. Since then it has taken many forms in places as diverse as Chechnya, Bosnia, Nigeria and Somalia.

Most recently hundreds of young men, and some young women too, have gone to Syria from the UK, and thousands from across Europe as a whole. With the attacks in London and Manchester, and the vicious battles to retake the cities of Mosul and Raqqa from Isis in Iraq and Syria, the bloody reality of global jihad has been a prominent news story for some time. Yet we know little of jihadists’ lives beyond their obsession with death.

What Hegghammer came to see in looking closer at the background activities that gained little attention was a pattern of behaviour that amounted to a distinct and living culture. The result is a book Hegghammer has edited entitled Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists.

I meet Hegghammer at a pub on the banks of the river Cherwell, not far from the spot where the city of Oxford surrendered to Oliver Cromwell, that English religious Puritan who, like the jihadists, believed God guided his military campaigns.

Hegghammer is senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Oslo. In 2001, having left Oxford with degrees in Middle East Studies, he got a summer internship at the establishment working on a tiny unit that was then known as the “Bin Laden network”. A couple of months later 9/11 happened and he became completely absorbed in a phenomenon that, he says, has been “a passion” ever since.

A youthful-looking 40-year-old, Hegghammer is quietly spoken and carefully reflective. I ask him if he was worried that his book might be misconceived as an apology for, or even glorification of, jihadism.

“To be perfectly honest it didn’t occur to me in the beginning, perhaps because I and the people I work with take it for granted that there’s no need to normatively condemn jihadism in every sentence.” However, after he published an op-ed piece in the New York Times, the comments section “exploded” with outrage. “So I think some people see it as a little controversial,” he acknowledges, “but once I can explain what it’s about, people understand.”

Militancy, Hegghammer writes, “is about more than bombs and doctrines. It is also about rituals, customs and dress codes. It is about music, films and storytelling. It is about sports, jokes, and food.”

The book argues that jihadis have a “rich aesthetic culture that is essential for understanding their mindset and worldview”. “Rich” is an unusual choice of word to describe a culture that is primarily concerned with prohibition: of expression, imagery, literature, sexuality, sensuality, and a huge range of human activities that fall outside a very strict interpretation of the seventh-century religious guide to living a pious life that is the Qur’an.

Perhaps a more fitting word is “kitsch”, for much of jihadi poetry and artwork presented in the book is sentimental and self-glorifying. Indeed the imagery displayed in a chapter called The Visual Culture of Jihad is replete with heavenly representations that wouldn’t look out of place hanging on the fence of Kensington Gardens, alongside paintings of cute cats and doe-eyed children.

“It’s a very romantic culture,” says Hegghammer, “insofar as they see themselves as historical heroes, knights in shining armour, every one of them. And they can be very pompous. Humour is unevenly distributed in the movement – some of them can be quite funny and self-ironic, but the average level of self-irony is very low. It’s a movement that takes itself very seriously.”

But aesthetic judgments about rich or kitsch are beside the point. What really matters, from a sociological viewpoint, is the time jihadists devote to pastimes that do not appear to tally with their central preoccupation.

“We should expect them to spend all their time honing their bomb-making skills, raising funds, or studying the enemy’s weakness,” Hegghammer writes. “Yet they ‘waste’ time on poetry recitation, hymn singing, and other activities that serve no apparent strategic purpose.”

Except, as Hegghammer argues, what initially seems superfluous to the cause is in fact all part of its dissemination. New recruits, for example, tend to listen to jihadi music and watch jihadi videos long before they understand the doctrine or take part in any fighting. This suggests that the culture underpinning Islamist militancy acts as a kind of gateway to the ideology, rather than vice versa.

If this is so, then it’s a significant finding in terms of shaping counterterrorism initiatives. The problem, though, is that jihadi culture shares a great deal with Salafi (fundamentalist Islam) culture and even mainstream Islamic culture.

“The culture the jihadis offer is recognisable to many,” Hegghammer explains. “It’s not a break aesthetically speaking, especially compared to non-jihad radicalism. If you take skinhead culture, it’s a radical break with the mainstream. They’re not claiming that people were using Dr Martens with red shoelaces 1,300 years ago. Whereas the jihadis are presenting something with an aura of authenticity in which each element has some historical precedent.”

Hence, of course, the style of dress and behaviour that jihadists believe to be modelled on the prophet and his companions. But this emphasis on the past is one of the areas in which jihadism must encounter a strange kind of cognitive dissonance because it’s a movement that, in several other respects, is also rushing to embrace modernity.

One of the great successes of jihadism has been its use of social media and online applications such as YouTube and chatrooms. Rather than worry about whether Twitter is haram or halal, the jihadis have rushed to embrace all forms of new media for its international propaganda capability, with Isis producing a series of slick online magazines and videos.

“They’ve become more pragmatic in their cultural appropriation,” explains Hegghammer. “In the 80s you had a bunch of jihadi magazines being published in Peshawar in Pakistan and about half of them had images in them and half did not, because some believed that photography should be banned. And you’ve gone from that to this big light and sound show that is jihadi propaganda today.”

But perhaps the area of jihadist culture that’s most fraught with contradiction is that which speaks of human suffering, a recurring theme in its poetry, song, and cinematography. Simply put, jihadists are prone to romanticise their own adversity and overlook that which they bring to others. That’s a trait shared with many other fighting forces, of course, but it’s a particularly conspicuous one in this case.

One of the main creative forms – one of the few acceptable creative forms – in jihadist culture is what’s called nashid, a kind of sung poem that often focuses on the pain and suffering of the occupied and the oppressed. Typically it lists grievances and calls upon righteous Muslims to overthrow the oppressor. The style is grandiose and sentimental and, as Hegghammer’s book documents, jihadists often weep at the tales told in various anashid (the plural form). Yet the thought of killing Yazidis, enslaving their women, and running people off their land inspires nothing but celebration. In other words, for all their readiness to get in touch with their sensitive sides and have a good sob, jihadists are not upset by oppression or suffering, unless it’s their own.

There are no anashid from the point of view of jihadists’ victims. When Isis issued a ruling permitting fighters to have sex with prepubescent prisoners, it occasioned no tear-soaked poems or hymns.

I ask Hegghammer what makes it possible to show empathy in communal crying jags and yet remain indifferent to the pain inflicted on defenceless victims.

“I think these processes don’t always happen in the brain, but in the heart,” he says. “And they are often about the short term, the immediate emotional rewards they’re getting, the enjoyment of the situation there and then. They don’t stop and think about what’s going on. They go with the flow, and the flow is strong and deep.”

That flow, like it or not, is religious in nature. One of the most important aspects of Hegghammer’s and his co-authors’ research is that it establishes just how much religion plays a part in the jihadist’s worldview.

It has become common practice to dismiss terrorists’ pretensions to religiosity. “They’re not real Muslims” is now a set response to any atrocity committed in Islam’s name. It’s an understandable, perhaps even commendable impulse, but it suffers from the great disadvantage of being factually wrong.

“I think their religiosity needs to be taken very seriously,” says Hegghammer. “There’s a big and ongoing debate about how knowledgeable jihadis are about religion, which is not very helpful because you have to distinguish between depth of knowledge and intensity of belief.”

The signs are that the large majority of jihadists pray a lot, fast, don’t drink, and closely follow the rules of Islam, at least in their own interpretation.

If belief in the afterlife is one of several aspects of faith common to most Muslims (and indeed practising Christians) it is critical to jihadism. If the jihadist credo could be condensed into one sentence, it would be the often quoted statement: “We love death as you love life”. After all, suicide bombing, that jihadist speciality, trades on a desire to relinquish life for the eternal paradise of heaven.

“Where the jihadists will disagree with other afterlife-believing Muslims is about who gets there,” says Hegghammer. “The jihadists say that if you don’t fight you go to hell.”

Whereas those who fight and are killed are reserved a special place – famously filled with compliant virgins – in heaven.

This picture of religious conviction has been serially undermined by the backstories of many European jihadists, who have spent years drinking, taking drugs and having casual sexual relationships. It has created what Hegghammer calls a “tabloid narrative”, in which non-religious types have a religious awakening and atone for their sins with jihad.

“There’s an unspoken assumption there that they were more or less atheist before. I think that’s wrong. Even when they were in youth gangs, drinking and taking drugs, they defined themselves as Muslim and were aware of the ethical system.”

So the attempts to dismiss jihadists as just misguided criminal delinquents are, believes Hegghammer, misconceived. They may be confused, a mess of contradictions and conflicting identities, but they are often seeking to reconnect with a latent sense of religious belief.

Within that belief system, dream interpretation enjoys a history that far predates Freudianism. As the prophet Muhammad is thought to have received his divine revelations in “visions”, dreams occupy a special place in Islamic theology. In a fascinating chapter on The Islamic Dream Tradition and Jihadi Militancy, Iain Edgar and Gwynned de Looijer examine how jihadists search for meaning in their dreams.

Mullah Omar, the former head of the Taliban, was said to get his strategic warfare guidance in his dreams. And Osama bin Laden is on record as deriving reassurance the same way. When, a year before 9/11, one of his factotums mentioned a dream he had in which jihadists dressed as pilots played football against Americans, Bin Laden decided that as the dreamer was ignorant of the terror plot, it had to be an omen for its eventual success.

Robert Fowler, a Canadian hostage of jihadists in Africa, wrote about one of his captors who constantly inquired of his dreams “to exercise his training in interpretation”. And many jihadists in Syria report joining the cause as a consequence of a dream.

So much for the sleeping dreams, what of their waking ones? What world do jihadists want to create? It’s notable that so much of the descriptive work of jihadi films, poetry and artwork is fixated on two things: the base evil of the enemy and the sensual indulgence of heaven. What it seldom attempts to do is to describe the idyll of jihadi life on Earth.

I recall speaking to Anjem Choudary, the now imprisoned militant activist who is thought to have inspired scores of jihadists at home and abroad. I asked him to describe how he wanted life to be in his ideal world. He painted a bleak picture of crucifixions, no freedom of expression, enforced segregation, gay people and apostates put to death, no alcohol, no theatre, no concerts, and countless other prohibitions.

Is that it? I asked.

“We have a laugh,” he protested. “I could sing an Islamic song to you.”

No doubt many of the jihadists who set out for Syria with visions of a promised land encountered instead a harsh way of life for which no amount of poetry, dream interpretation and Islamic song could compensate.

But now that Mosul is once more under Iraqi control and Isis looks set to be ejected from Raqqa, the caliphate, of which Choudary strongly approved, appears to be nearing collapse. Will that destroy the allure of jihadism?

No, says Hegghammer, firmly.

“We’ll see IS flip into a lost caliphate narrative. They will say we had this amazing society and they came along and broke it again. You’ll get caliphate nostalgia just like you get communism nostalgia in eastern Europe. In five or 10 years’ time 17-year-olds will look at pictures of the Islamic State and want to fight against the people who destroyed it.

“I think that’s a very powerful narrative. And the culture is a glue that has kept lots of different groups together in the past and I see no reason why it shouldn’t in the future.”

It’s a perfect English summer’s evening when we finish talking, with children playing on the lawn and people arriving for a cold glass of something, one of those scenes of bucolic peacefulness in which it’s hard to imagine a more pleasant way of life.

But that’s just a particular perspective, a cultural disposition, even, perhaps, a subjective illusion. For jihadists, as Hegghammer’s and his co-writers’ compelling book makes clear, the struggle for a very different kind of world is set to continue.

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