The art of making a jihadist

We know about jihadists dedication to violence, but thats not the whole story, says expert Thomas Hegghammer. Theres a concealed culture of verse, music and storytelling that sustains their ideology

When Jihadi John, the Islamist terrorist who gloried in beheading captives, was uncovered as Mohammed Emwazi, a spokesman from Cagerecalled the west Londoner bringing posh baklava to the advocacy groups 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 exclaiming during prayer.

A baklava-dispensing gentleman and lachrymose devotee who both happen to be sadistic killers? Theres 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, thats not the whole story. Even jihadists have their downtime. The question is, what do they do in it?

After a decade of analyse the subject, around 2010 Hegghammer came to a realisation. Jihadists did a lot of things apparently at odds with their brutal image: wailing, writing and reciting poetry, sing, recollecting and interpreting dreamings, perfecting their manners and taking an inordinate interest in their appearance.

In the language of behavioural economics, they werent 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 depict of jihadism, its 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 1980 s. 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 lady too, have gone to Syria from the UK, and thousands from across Europe as a whole. With the two 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 seeming closer at the background activities that gained little attention was a pattern of behaviour that amounted to a distinct and living culture. The outcome 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 place where the city of Oxford surrendered to Oliver Cromwell, that English religion 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 creation 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 altogether assimilated in a phenomenon that, he says, has been a passion ever since.

A youthful-looking 40 -year-old, Hegghammer is softly 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 didnt occur to me in the beginning, perhaps because I and the people I work with take it for granted that theres 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 its about, people understand.

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Jihadi John: Mohammed Emwazi in a still from a 2014 video obtained from SITE Intel Group, 2015. Photo: Reuters

Militancy, Hegghammer writes, is about more than bombs and creeds. It is also about rites, customs and dress codes. It is about music, movies 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 selection of term to describe a culture that is primarily concerned with proscription: of expres, imagery, literature, sexuality, sensuality, and a huge range of human activities that fall outside a very strict interpreting of the seventh-century religious guide to living a pious life that is the Quran.

Perhaps a more fitting term 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 wouldnt look out of place hanging on the fence of Kensington Gardens, alongside paintings of cute cats and doe-eyed children.

Its a very romantic culture, says Hegghammer, insofar as they consider 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. Its a movement that takes itself very seriously.

But aesthetic decisions about rich or kitsches are beside the point. What genuinely matters, from a sociological standpoint, 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 day sharpening their bomb-making abilities, creating monies, or analyse the enemys weakness, Hegghammer writes. Yet they waste time on poetry recitation, hymn sing, 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 oppose. 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 its a significant receiving 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. Its not a breach aesthetically speaking, especially compared to non-jihad radicalism. If you take skinhead culture, its a radical break with the mainstream. Theyre not claiming that people were use Dr Martens with red shoelaces 1,300 years ago. Whereas the jihadis are presenting something with an aura of authenticity in which all components has some historical precedent.

Hence, of course, the style of dress and behaviour that jihadists believe to be modelled on the oracle 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 its a movement that, in several other respects, is also rushing to embracing 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 embracing all forms of new media for its international propaganda capability, with Isis producing a series of slick online publications and videos.

Theyve is more and more pragmatic in their culture appropriation, explains Hegghammer. In the 80 s you had a bunch of jihadi publications 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 youve run from that to this big light and sound show that is jihadi propaganda today.

But perhaps the area of jihadist culture thats most fraught with contradiction is that which speaks of human suffering, a recurring topic in its verse, anthem, and cinematography. Simply set, jihadists are prone to romanticise their own adversity and overlook that which they bring to others. Thats a trait shared with many other fighting forces, of course, but its a particularly conspicuous one in this case.

One of the main creative kinds one of the few acceptable creative forms in jihadist culture is whats called nashid , a kind of sung lyric that are typically focuses on the pain and suffering of the occupied and the subjugated. Typically it lists grievances and calls upon righteous Muslims to overthrow the oppressor. The style is grandiose and sentimental and, as Hegghammers volume documents, jihadists often sob at the narratives 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 festivity. 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 persecution or agony, unless its 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 lyrics or hymns.

I ask Hegghammer what stimulates it possible to reveal empathy in communal crying jags and yet remain indifferent to the ache inflicted on defenceless victims.

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Thomas Hegghammer photographed in Oxford: Some people consider[ the book] as a little controversial. Photo: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

I believe these processes dont always happen in the brain, but in the heart, he says. And they are often about the short term, the immediate emotional rewards theyre getting, the enjoyment of developments in the situation there and then. They dont stop and think about whats going on. They go with the flow, and the flow is firm and deep.

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

It has become common practice to dismiss terrorists pretensions to religiosity. Theyre not real Muslims is now a define response to any inhumanity committed in Islams name. Its an understandable, perhaps even commendable impulse, but it were suffering the great drawback of being factually wrong.

I believe their religiosity needs to be taken very seriously, says Hegghammer. Theres 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, dont beverage, 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 dont opposed you go to hell.

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

This picture of religious sentence has been serially undermined by the backstories of many European jihadists, who have expended 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.

Theres an unspoken presumption there that they were more or less atheist before. I think thats wrong. Even when they were in youth gangs, drinking and taking drugs, they defined themselves as Muslim and were aware of the ethical system.

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Former Taliban leader Mullah Omar was said to take military guidance from his dreams. Photo: Ropi/ Rex Shutterstock

So the attempts to dismiss jihadists as only 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, dreaming interpretation enjoys a history that far predates Freudianism. As the prophet Muhammad is thought to have received his divine revelations in visions, dreamings 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 war guidance in his dream. And Osama bin Laden is on record as deriving reassurance the same style. When, a year before 9/11, one of his factotums mentioned a dream he had in which jihadists garmented 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 captive of jihadists in Africa, wrote about one of his captors who constantly inquired of his dreams to exert his training in interpretation. And many jihadists in Syria report joining the cause as a consequence of a dream.

So much for the sleeping dreamings, what of their waking ones? What world do jihadists want to create? Its 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, lesbian people and apostates put to demise , no alcohol , no theater , 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 seems set to be expelled from Raqqa, the caliphate, of which Choudary strongly approved, appears to be nearing breakdown. Will that destroy the allure of jihadism?

No, says Hegghammer, firmly.

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

I think thats a very powerful narrative. And the culture is a glue that has maintained lots of different groups together in the past and I see no reason why it shouldnt in the future.

Its a perfect English summers 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 its hard to imagine a more pleasant way of life.

But thats only a particular view, a cultural disposition, even, perhaps, a subjective illusion. For jihadists, as Hegghammers and his co-writers obliging book made very clear, the struggle for a very different kind of world is set to continue.

Jihadi Culture by Thomas Hegghammer is published by Cambridge University Press( 22.99 ). To buy it go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over 10, online orders merely. Phone orders min p& p of 1.99

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Islamic States logo Photograph: Alamy

Extract: poetry in jihadi culture

Poetry is central to the self-fashioning and self-presentation of the jihadis; it lies at the core of their identity as well as their ideology, and it represents their most sophisticated cultural product. Most militant leaders and ideologues, including Osama bin Laden, have written poems of their own and make a phase of reciting these, as well as poem by others, in social situates and in propaganda communiques. The jihadis verse is not aesthetically innovative, and it does not try to be. Instead, it highlights the poets rootedness in tradition , presenting itself as an authentic expression of Muslim identity in a world that has debased true Islamic principles.

Analysts have generally dismissed these texts, as if poetry were a colorful but ultimately distracting by-product of jihad. Perhaps this is because they are linguistically difficult or because their purpose appears both foreigner and obscure. But this dismissal is an error. It is impossible to understand jihadism – its aims, its appeal to outsiders, and its durability – without is currently considering its culture. This culture comes in a number of kinds, including anthems, documentary videos, and polemical essays, but poetry is arguably at its centre. And unlike the slickly rendered videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window on to the movement talking to itself, as well as to potential recruits. It is in their poem that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.

When the activists literary interests are noted, the result is often amused incomprehension. The raid in May 2011 on the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden also uncovered a trove of correspondence. In one letter, written on 6 August 2010, Bin Laden asks a key lieutenant to recommend someone to lead a big operation inside America. In the following sentence he writes: If there are any brothers with you who know about poetic metre, please inform me, and if you have any books on classical prosody, please send them to me. Commentating for Foreign Affairs on this exchange, an analyst remarked: Because after a long day of planning to strike fear into the hearts of the heathens, sometimes a guy only wants to take a relaxing bubble bath and read some Emily Dickinson.

It is indeed curious that so many militants, who are some of the most wanted men in the world, should take the time to study prosody and write lyrics in monorhyme – one rhyme for what is sometimes many dozens of lines of poem. This is far easier to do in Arabic than in English, but it still takes practice. And it is not only jihadi leaders who engage in such activities. On the contrary, verse is widely practised in militant circles, and judging by the posts in discussion forums it is also widely appreciated. Certain members of the rank-and-file have been recognised for their literary abilities, earning sobriquets such as the Poet of al-Quaida or the Poet of Jihad. One of these is a young woman whose verse has constructed her a cultural celebrity among the militants.

The above is extracted from an essay by Robyn Cresswell and Bernard Haykel in Jihadi Culture

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