Understanding the Narrative: The Crucial First Step toward the Reduction and Prevention of Radical Jihadism

This piece originally appeared in the Intercollegiate Issue 2017 of the Yale Review of International Studies. This piece was written by Megan Bryn, a junior at West Point. 

Despite the unilateral and coalitional responses of the U.S., other states, and the broader international community, terrorist movements associated with violent jihad have gained traction and resilience over the last thirty years.  The devastating and symbolic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 turned the attention of the U.S. and the world to the rising threat of violent extremism in the name of Islam, and led U.S. President George W. Bush to declare that the U.S. would become one of the major leaders in this “Global War on Terrorism.”  This “War on Terror” has been primarily understood in terms of political violence, but military action and “hard force” have proved insufficient in responding to this phenomenon.

Dina Al Raffie, in September 2012, offered a sober assessment of U.S. efforts in this counterterrorism campaign:

Perhaps the biggest mistake in [this war] was the belief that the destruction of Al-Qaeda’s training camps would lead to the demise of the group, its affiliated movements and the Salafi Jihadist ideology to which the organization is understood by many to belong.  Few paused to consider if Osama bin Laden and his cohorts were perhaps only the tip of a substantially larger iceberg.  Now, eleven years down the line, two wars and 1.283 trillion dollars later, politicians and scholars alike are still devoting time into furthering our understanding of groups like Al-Qaeda and their associated Salafi Jihadist movement. More importantly, much focus has been given to the ideology that underlies the phenomenon of Salafi Jihadism in an effort to understand why it continues to inspire local initiatives and individuals to act on its behalf.[1]

In the last decade, as she explained, governmental and military officials leading the counterterrorism campaign have slowly begun to recognize the need for “soft” efforts in the communication arena, whether it be an enhanced focus on the propaganda mechanisms or the narratives themselves.[2]

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al-Qaeda, proudly described one of the organization’s achievements as “a clear thought and ideology […] relying on strong evidence from the Koran, the prophet’s tradition, and the respected scholars. This provided it with a solid base on which it hoisted its banner, which everyday attracts new advocates, God willing”.[3] Al-Qaeda has proven to be an extremely resilient organization in the face of much international pressure.  It is diffuse, decentralized, and worn down in some areas today, yet Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula share the same goals as Osama Bin Laden called for after the “War on Terror” began following September 11th – the establishment of a transnational pan-Islamic identity and the restoration of the Caliphate in order to unite, protect, and enable the Muslim community to actualize its full potential.[4] Groups with similar ideologies [like the Islamic State] may slight Al-Qaeda today, and it may face increasing challenges in leading its adherents and affiliates.  However, Al-Qaeda believes that the U.S. is retreating in the Middle East, and failures of the Arab spring have added greater purpose and “ideological momentum.” In spite of the international coalition’s efforts to reduce the threat of terrorism, the Salafi jihadist view of the world (a willingness to restore an “originalist” form of Islam through violence) that Al-Qaeda promotes and fights for has maintained its appeal and even gained ground over time.[5]  This dynamic demonstrates that the world must approach the challenges of religious terrorism with a longer-term perspective to understand the conditions that allow for these groups to rise and endure.  Key to understanding these conditions is an understanding of one of the common threads that run through the generations of this wave of religious terrorism associated with violent jihad: a compelling narrative.

Violent extremism creates unique problem sets that cannot be addressed with mere military force; countering this threat both at home and abroad requires deliberate and well-informed engagement with the war of ideas and the narratives each group uses.  It is therefore imperative that scholars and policy-makers alike understand how religious leaders communicate to recruit, radicalize, mobilize, and legitimize their terrorist strategies and tactics.  The most effective narratives are embedded and grounded in cultural meaning, identities, stories, history, and religious scripture.  Each of these elements stands as a support structure for the narratives and the organizations themselves. We need to understand how Salafi Jihadists build bridges between mainstream Islam and their ideology through the weaving together of religion, history, culture, and other features in an attempt to justify the propagation of violence.[6]

Research Question

The broad question I seek to answer is: what are the components of the religious and ideological narrative Al-Qaeda has sought to use in attracting followers and mobilizing its support base toward violence?  Many authors have articulated various narratives that exist within Al-Qaeda propaganda.  Though progress has been made on this subject in the last decade, there is a need for synthesis of the existing knowledge and further exploration of the steps that can be made moving forward to counter these methods of radicalization, recruitment, and mobilization.  The multitude of sources provides many ideas, but the current literature lacks a framework that captures the many dimensions, intricacies, nuances, and full sequential, cumulative logic of the narrative. It has become a very complicated landscape but the existing models are too simplified – a theoretical framework that fuses the most significant ideas together but appreciates the complexities will add value in fighting this war of ideas because it will enable us to better understand the foundational themes, underlying assumptions, arguments, strands of logic, rhetorical modes of persuasion, and smaller pieces of this patchwork that form the entire narrative.  Only by understanding each piece of the puzzle can we respond effectively. Hence, this paper will survey the literature on the narratives used by Al-Qaeda to synthesize existing ideas and construct a new, more comprehensive conceptual framework.

Methodological Approach

I will use an exploratory approach to examine this ideological component of Al-Qaeda’s appeal and persuasion.  This method of exploration offers great utility because it has the potential for a level of critical, honest, open-minded, and reflective engagement that is unmatched by conclusive or confirmatory research, which is driven from its start by a biased motivation to prove or validate hypotheses and “advance arguments that make exclusive truth claims”.[7] Exploratory research starts from an “original set of models, explanations, and questions, then becomes an act of gradual, structured, and theory-led heuristic expansion”.[8]  Rather than striving to prove an exclusive claim about reality or identify a final solution, this type of study aims to provide “more or less plausible and hence fruitful ways to examine and explain reality that can be shared, if successful and plausible, after a critical evaluation”.[9]  As a result, conflicting explanations have the space to coexist, and each may hold its own strengths and limitations, and may explore or explain the topic with varying levels of depth.[10]  Oftentimes exploratory research serves as a foundation upon which the scholar can complete future research.[11]  My methodological process and intent is therefore to build a conceptual framework to improve our ability to analyze, understand, and ultimately counter the narratives historically employed by Al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups such as the Islamic State.

Literature Review

Synthesized Conception of the term “Narrative,” and its Variations

Before examining the scholarship on the ideological trends of terrorism associated with the Islamic religion, it is important to discuss and clarify a few definitions. First and foremost, I will summarize and bring together various ideas about narratives themselves. Generally speaking, the term narrative can be thought of as the “story or recruitment pitch of violent extremists”.[12]  However, in my exploration of Al-Qaeda’s narrative themes, I will employ a more nuanced definition that includes different forms of narratives.

My understanding of narratives most heavily draws from Steven Corman’s definitions.  First, Corman recognizes that the academic and practical realms lack consensus on the distinctions between concepts like story, narrative, and discourse.  He then clarifies the definitions of each.  A story, he offers, is “a sequence of events, involving actors and actions, grounded in desire (often stemming from conflict) and leading to an actual or projected resolution of that desire, [while] a narrative is a system of stories that share themes, forms, and archetypes”. When stories are sequentially and deliberately tied together in this ensemble, it “creates a unified whole that [holds greater meaning] than the sum of its parts”. [13] Corman then delineates several different forms of narratives, the first being “master narratives, [which] are so deeply engrained [and well-known] that they [and the themes, memories, and values they are associated with] can be invoked by words and phrases without actually telling the stories that comprise them”.[14]  These include common stories and experiences that take on a trans-historical and even transnational nature when recounted for rhetorical or ideological purposes.[15] Master narratives can be combined to form an inclusive rhetorical vision, which “contains a stock of values, morals, story forms, and archetypical actors that can be used in narrative action”. Alluding to them can generate powerful emotional responses. Local and personal narratives are the last two kinds. Local narratives, which can emerge out of master narratives, refer to “[more specific] events in particular times and places,” and personal narratives allow individuals to determine what their role is, has been, and should be, by fitting themselves into the context of a local narrative.[16]    

Before moving onto the more specific case of Al-Qaeda, it is crucial to consider why narratives are important.  In exploring this question, I will bring together ideas and explanations from numerous scholars and practitioners, creating a logical path through which we can better understand the impact narratives have on our societies, cultures, perceptions, world-view, decision-making calculus, and even rationality.  Michael Vlahos asserts that in war, narratives serve as the foundation of all strategy, upon which all else – policy, rhetoric, and action – is built […] War narratives “can illuminate the inner nature of the war itself”.[17] Juxtaposing this upon the radical extremists’ concept of jihad, or holy war, it becomes clear that the narrative supports and sustains the strategy while providing insight into the perceived nature of the struggle as a whole.  As military theorist George Dimitriu asserts, narratives are a resource through which a “shared sense is achieved, representing a past, present and future, an obstacle and a desired end-point”.[18]  Furthermore, narratives are “both products of, and contributors to the nature of existent cultures”.[19] The interweaving of narratives constructs “social realities” by defining subjects, identities, and establishing their relational positions within a system of signification”.[20] Although the phenomenon of narratives is not dangerous in and of itself, these constructed “realities” and templates become much more disturbing when they are employed as tools for political actors to mobilize support for and acceptance of violent extremism because they “present an alternate form of rationality”.[21] Narrative rationality spurs action because of its salient link to desires, emotions, values, and its impact on how we interpret, conceptualize, and explain events within the world. Oftentimes, it trumps logical reasoning.[22] It is clear that the power of narratives, if harnessed with the intent to radicalize, draw support, and inspire violent actions, can have a significant impact on both individuals and groups.

Survey of the Literature on Al Qaeda’s Narrative

One of the most comprehensive analyses of Al-Qaeda’s narrative, completed by Alex Schmid, brings together much of the academic knowledge on Al-Qaeda’s ideological narrative that existed by the year 2014, and provides a survey of the counter-narrative efforts of the U.S. and UK.  He “[consults] the ideological writings and propaganda statements of Al-Qaeda, as contained in, for instance, the documentary collections edited by Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milelli or the ones of Raymond Ibrahim, Bruce Lawrence and Robert Marlin”.[23] Ibrahim, when examining the writings of Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri, observed that “most of their [extremist products] fit neatly into two genres – religious exegesis, meant to motivate and instruct Muslims, and propagandist speeches, aimed at demoralizing the West and inciting Muslims to action”.  Both are characterized by the claims that “the West is oppressive and unjust toward Islam, that the West supports ruthless and dictatorial regimes in the Islamic world,” and other grievances.[24] The messaging within these writings and speeches intensifies real or imagined grievances, and as Briggs describes, is a “mix of historical and political facts with half-truths, lies and conspiracy theories. These messages often convey simplistic argumentation which promotes thought-processes that include black-and-white thinking, de-sensitization, dehumanization, distancing of the other, victimization and calls to activism and militancy”.[25]

Schmid emphasizes that Al-Qaeda’s “chief message” is meant to cement the idea that “the West is at war with Islam,” and through its rhetoric has constructed a narrative of humiliation and oppression coupled with an opportunity to achieve redemption and glory by demonstrating “faith and sacrifice” through jihad. It is only by “following the course proposed by Al-Qaeda, the self-appointed defender [and vanguard] of Islam, which it claims is under systematic attack from “Zionist Christian Crusaders,” that justice and dignity can be restored, and Western influence can be eradicated in the Muslim world.[26]

Schmid lays out three structural components of the narrative: basic grievance, a vision of the good society, and a path from the grievance to the realization of the vision.  In addition, he highlights important ideas within the narrative that are not necessarily sanctioned by conventional interpretations of the faith: that suicide/martyrdom (shahid) operations are legitimate, civilian and military targets are both valid in the fight against its near and far enemies, the excommunication of Muslims is proper protocol for failures to abide by Sharia law or accept the beliefs and practices deemed right by jihadists, the pursuit of jihad (in the sense of holy war) is an individual obligation for every true Muslim, a clash of civilizations between the Muslim and non-Muslim world will occur until Sharia rule is established universally, and that the establishment of a government ruled by Sharia is a stepping stone to a Sharia based world government.[27]

Lastly, Schmid covers six ways in which the narrative “prepares the path for vulnerable young Muslims toward terrorism:” identifying the problem as an injustice rather than a mere misfortune, constructing a moral justification for violence, blaming the victims, dehumanizing the victims, displacing responsibility (ordered by God or other authorities) or diffusing responsibility (placing accountability on the group rather than the individual), and misconstruing or minimizing harmful effects (through euphemisms or by contrasting one’s own atrocities with those of the enemy.[28]

Another scholar, David Betz, contributed a basic model of the narrative, breaking it into four sequential ideas: Islam is under general unjust attack by Western crusaders led by the U.S.; jihadis are defending against this attack; the actions they take in defense of Islam are proportionately just and religiously sanctified; and, therefore it is the duty of good Muslims to support these actions.[29]

Tom Quiggin provides a list of the most relevant and influential works by Al-Qaeda and its sympathizers, and bases his analysis of the group’s ideology on this literature and its statements.  His main takeaways include a three-part structure of a set-up (that aligns well with Betz’ model), climax, and resolution in the narrative which forms the rationale behind joining the organization, and eight themes that resonate within Al-Qaeda’s jihadist discourse.  The structure includes (1) political grievances (oppression, poverty, exploitation) in its claim that Muslims are under attack, (2) the notion that Al-Qaeda’s mission is to be the heroic vanguard and agent of the oppressed and only the organization and its followers are fighting the opponents of Islam, and (3) the claim that if you are not supporting Al-Qaeda, you are supporting the oppressors (a call to action).[30] The eight concepts within the narrative are: jihad (struggle through war), bayat (pledge of obedience to the leader of a group as one would give to Mohammed), daru Islam (an Islamic state), the Ummah (collective Muslim community), takfir (accusing others of being infidels or non-believers), shaheed or istisyhad (martyrdom and migration to Allah to be rewarded after a suicide act), Al-Wala’ Wal Bara’ (us versus them, friends versus enemies), hijrah (migration – surrendering worldly inclinations for the sake of heavenly goals and Allah).[31]

Although Schmid, Betz, and Quiggin’s narrative structures are easy to understand, there is room to fill in the gaps, elucidate the complex set of assumptions, logics, appeals, and justifications behind each component, and build upon their ideas with a more nuanced framework.

Richard Engel draws out a powerful account of an “arc of history” that Osama Bin Laden relied upon in much of his rhetoric, and that “every Muslim schoolchild is taught” and grows to resent: “Islam’s golden era of the Arab caliphate, the Crusades, the Mongol devastation, the rise of the Ottomans, World War I, the carving up of the Middle East by Europe, and the poverty, weakness, and wars in the Muslim world of the last century”.[32]  Though Engel acknowledges that only a small percentage of Muslims agree with terrorist tactics, millions understand this world vision.[33]  Bin Laden’s account of history places blame for every problem and time of adversity Muslims faced or currently face on the West.  This narrative sees nation-building and policing efforts as a subversive attempt to “reinforce a foreign system under the banner of democracy” in such a way that it makes the region weak, Israel strong and secure, and favors secular, pro-American autocracies.[34] Bin Laden’s solution for changing the trajectory was to attack the U.S., the “modern crusader,” wear and bring it down, enact change in the world order by doing so, and enable the Islamic caliphate to rise again through this Salafi jihadi movement.[35]

Similarly, Bruce Hoffman touches upon this need for “far-reaching changes in the world order,” describing the choices Al-Qaeda saw itself facing: “either to accept it with submission, which means letting Islam die, or to destroy it, so that we can construct the world as Islam requires”.[36] When distinguishing between secular and religious terrorists, Hoffman asserts that the militancy justified with religion is even more unrestricted than that of secular terrorist groups who are susceptible to political, moral, and practical imperatives.  First, “for the religious terrorist, violence is a sacramental act or divine duty executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative. Terrorism assumes a transcendental dimension;” thus, religious terrorists are virtually unimpeded.[37]  For instance, the structural differences in audiences ‘leads to a sanctioning of almost limitless violence against a virtually open-ended category of targets […] and explains the rhetoric common to holy terror manifestos describing persons outside the terrorists’ religious community in denigrating and dehumanizing terms, such as “infidels,” “nonbelievers,” “children of Satan,” and “mud people.” The deliberate use of such adjectives to condone and justify terrorism is significant in that it further erodes the constraints on violence’.[38]

Heather Gregg, in her discussion of the definition of religious terrorism, points out that “non-religious factors may cause groups to use terrorism for religiously salient goals. For example, groups may use terrorism with the aim of overthrowing governments that they believe are not upholding the tenets of a particular religion and installing a religious government in its place. The cause of the terrorist act is something outside of the faith, but the goal is uniquely religious”.[39] This idea may have salience with the way Al-Qaeda constructs its narrative appeals and frames its ultimate objective.

Moving deeper into how religion drives the narrative, in her article about Salafi Jihadism, Dina Raffie provides an assessment of how religion is used as a pretext for violence. She stresses that the groups often redefine and re-contextualize religious terms and concepts to align with jihadist narratives. [40] Similarly, Quintan Wiktorowicz characterizes the religious dimension of the narrative as a “dichotomous struggle for God’s sovereignty on earth [which] eliminates the middle ground and sets the stage for a millennial, eschatological battle between good and evil”.[41]

Finally, three of the stories or concepts most heavily used within Islamist Extremism’s strategic communication provide insight into the major themes and underlying beliefs: Al-Nakbah (this invokes themes of the catastrophe in the loss of Palestine to Israel then deliverance because champions from the ummah step forth to restore the community), Crusaders (this is the common colonization story of Christian invasions of the Middle East in the 10th through 12th centuries, followed by subjugation and humiliation of the community until they’re repelled), and the Pharaoh (this is a label to “apostate leaders” in Muslim countries whom extremists consider to be corrupt and dictatorial, encouraging the audience to resist the tyrant and take on the role of God’s agent).[42] The main conclusions of each of these are that the struggle requires a champion to reconcile the injustice, and that all in the Muslim community should join and contribute. These stories represent calls to action, and have the potential to inform my understanding of the deep cultural values, beliefs, and worldviews that drive behavior.

Synthesized, more Inclusive & Nuanced Framework

The wide array of sources provides many ideas, but the current literature lacks a framework that captures and embraces the complexities, dimensions, nuances, and full sequential, cumulative logic of the narrative.  Each of the scholarly works offer a few components that are important, or a structure to the narrative.  Although simplification helps provide order to complex phenomena, oversimplifying the dynamic and intricate processes characterizing Al-Qaeda’s narrative may be limiting our ability to understand and counter the terrorist activity.  Taking this existing literature and each of the overlapping, diverging, and unique contributions into account, I have created a fused framework that maps out the relationships between the broad themes, ideas, claims, and beliefs nested within Al-Qaeda’s narrative. I offer a nuanced and detailed thematic framework that captures how commonly experienced emotions, grievances, thoughts, beliefs, and values can be intensified, radicalized, and mobilized to build a willingness to commit acts of violence.  Counter-narrative efforts must first and foremost be based upon a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the narratives themselves; in order to question, identify hypocrisy, and dismantle the validity of the narrative and its assumptions, one must first understand the full spectrum of and relationships between the ideas it propagates.  I propose ten major themes, messages, or functions that create a cumulative effect when intertwined to form Al-Qaeda’s compelling narrative.

1) Grievances as Unjustly Imposed

The first broad narrative theme is the idea of grievance.  Within this context, Al-Qaeda invokes a story of victimization, and recounts a history of humiliation through invasion, oppression, exploitation, discrimination, marginalization, and other forms of mistreatment.  Osama Bin Laden placed emphasis on what he described as the “puppets” of the U.S. and the unjust influence and involvement of the U.S. and West in the Middle East, and grounded much of the narrative in the underlying premise that the main problems Muslims face and have faced throughout history “were caused by the American occupiers”.[43] This deflects responsibility for “war” from the terrorists to the ‘oppressors’.  The notion of grievance is thus multifaceted, and spurs thought processes and belief systems that lead to alienation of the Muslims who have grown to resent Western influence, and blames the necessity of jihad on the West.

2) The Perceived Need to Defend Islam in the Face of an Existential Crisis

By painting grievances as imposed by the West rather than just misfortunes, and by framing Western actions as part of a larger attempt to strengthen themselves at the expense of the Islamic world, the “local stories” are translated into broader national and transnational narratives of collective and unjust suffering that must be reconciled.  This second message Al-Qaeda broadcasts is that this continued historical struggle is evidence that Islam is under siege.  Al-Qaeda therefore depicts its ‘defensive war’ as the justified and provoked response to an existential crisis. As Engel describes, Osama Bin Laden argued that the secret intent behind Western presence, policing, and stability efforts was to “keep Muslims locked in a nation-state system that thwarted the rightful destiny of Islam”.[44] As a result, Al-Qaeda classifies its acts of violence as resistance to the aggression from an enemy bent on weakening Islam.  The implications of this framing is that the narrative encourages Muslims to believe that Al-Qaeda, in employing a strategy of terrorism and engaging in violent, indiscriminate tactics, is responding proportionately to decades and even centuries of ‘injustice’.  Al-Qaeda’s mission is to thus rectify the world order so that it is conducive to Islam’s survival and prosperity.[45]  By framing the narrative in this way, it can then be perceived as a “struggle to uphold Islam, not terror”.[46]

3) Seeing the World in Black and White

Third, Al-Qaeda has crafted an interpretation of the battleground and enemy that is extremely polarized. The reduction of the complex and dynamic relationships between actors in the international arena into simple, clichéd dichotomies dividing humanity into good versus evil, friend and foe, and us versus them is epitomized by the term al-Wala wa’l-Bara, meaning those one has “to love, support, help, follow, defend […], and those one has to despise, desert, denounce”.[47] This polarization defines the struggle itself as a grand, divine war against the corrupt and impure enemies of Al-Qaeda using the notion of takfir: labeling “infidels” or apostates like the US, Israel, and other Jews, Christians, polytheists, pagans, and secular leaders.[48] The degradation and dehumanization of ‘enemies’ makes it easier for Al-Qaeda to present these groups as almost unworthy of living, and distance themselves further from their targets.  By portraying the West as Christian and Zionist crusaders, the organization builds the narrative around these ‘predators’ to further differentiate between what is good and evil.

4) An Irreconcilable Eschatological Conflict between these Forces of Darkness and Light

The problem the narrative helps to create is also underlined by a sense of irreconcilability.  It essentially renders any possibility of a middle ground, compromise, or peaceful coexistence null; the conflict itself becomes a zero sum game.  Instead, Al-Qaeda calls upon Muslims to help obliterate these dark forces of Western influence so that it can ultimately lead the establishment of a Sharia state after eradicating its largest threat.  Therefore, not only does Al-Qaeda circulate the theme of unjustly imposed grievance and create the perception of an existential struggle against evil, but it also interprets the conflict as eschatological, rooting it in highly connotative and subjective interpretations of the past, present, and future.  This system of interpreted historical events, emotionally-charged memories, powerful stories, and perceptual themes elevates the decision to join as a moral imperative.

5) Al-Qaeda as the Only Way: The Divinely Appointed Agent of the Oppressed

The fifth narrative theme is the premise that Al-Qaeda is the vanguard that embraces and calls upon Muslims of all nations and ethnicities around the world.  It claims to be both an agent of the oppressed, and an agent of Allah.  Al-Qaeda, under Osama Bin Laden, was especially concerned with its brand and made efforts to ensure its affiliates were sanctioned and following its protocols to remain true to this identity and control its message.  Al-Qaeda often invokes the idea of bayat in the context of followership, which highlights that followers and operatives should show the same level of obedience to Al-Qaeda as they should show to Allah.  It has often been presented as a theological imperative, or duty incumbent upon all Muslims to demonstrate piety and devotion to the faith through Al-Qaeda membership.  A highly important nuance to consider is that Al-Qaeda frames adherence as the only rightful path, stressing that if one is not supporting the organization, they are instead supporting the oppressors and defying Allah.  In this way, the narrative seeks to persuade Muslims that the only way to rectify and achieve redemption for the injustices, lessen their grievances, protect their religion to ensure its survival in the face of dark and powerful adversaries, and show true obedience to Allah is to join Al-Qaeda.

6) Exploiting the Idea of Transcendence to Dismiss the Laws of the World as Illegitimate

Al-Qaeda has sought to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize in pursuit of its political agenda by religious-based justification of violent means.  First, Al-Qaeda’s narrative exploits the transcendent nature of religion itself by weaving an argument together that invalidates the laws and rules of society and the international system.  The organization sees the values, institutions, and conflict resolution mechanisms currently in place as illegitimate, and furthermore draws upon the idea of the cosmic world being more important than the physical to justify why it ought to not be constrained by secular rules.[49]

7) Enticing Potential Followers with Promises of Immediate Heavenly Rewards and Glorifying ‘Champions’ of the Islamic Community

The seventh theme is a powerful message about the morality of violence. The narrative highlights the value of force because of the expediency of those tactics in the attainment of individual heavenly reward and in the fulfillment of Al-Qaeda’s vision of the ideal world.  Another primary element within this theme of glorification of violence is the “social-heroic” idea, which venerates violent acts of terrorism and their perpetrators.  Acts of terrorism themselves are regarded as noble, sacramental acts of devotion. The idea of “personal responsibility to protect fellow Muslims from harm,”[50] the idealization of martyrdom and celebration of former fighters as saviors or “champions of Islam” within the Al-Qaeda community, and the promise of immediate heavenly rewards and deliverance upon death fall within this religious-ideological concept.  This piece of the narrative encourages and incentivizes fellow Muslims to exhibit a willingness to sacrifice for the cause.

8) Appealing to the Faith and Using Claims of Protecting the Religion as a Shield Against Challengers and ‘Debunkers’

When Al-Qaeda fits its efforts and mission in the context of the religion, it bolsters its legitimacy and draws upon elements of the faith that mainstream Muslims can relate to. Al-Qaeda relies upon an “eclectic patchwork of cherry-picked elements from sources considered sacred, [including the Qur’an and the Hadith among other classical theological concepts],” and has built appeal and justification into its narrative by incorporating Salafist and jihadist Islamism in the religious tradition.[51]  Doing so also allows the narrative to retain a sense of impenetrability or “invulnerability” because any attack on it or attempt to “debunk” the fallacies can be framed as an attack on Islam itself, which reinforces aforementioned themes.[52]

9) Transforming and Mobilizing a Religious Constituency to Create Political Change Through Force

On whole, Al-Qaeda’s primary audience is the worldwide Muslim population, and its narrative is carefully and deliberately crafted to ultimately transform its initial religious constituency into a politically motivated group that can serve as an agent of coercive change. As shown above, Al-Qaeda’s narrative appeals to deep-seated grievances, fears, pride in the religion, moral drives, a belief in obedience, a desire to be a hero and contribute, and lastly a strong sense of piety and devotion. The religious and ideological narrative seeks to intensify these feelings, thoughts, values, and beliefs to ultimately mobilize the individuals to commit acts of violence.  The thought processes triggered by each thematic aspect of the narrative are intended to first politicize then radicalize those who are susceptible to the messages such that they are willing to train and use force in accordance with Al-Qaeda’s global mission.

10) The Narrative’s Impact on Al-Qaeda’s Strategic Flexibility and Long-Term Resilience

Finally, Al-Qaeda’s narrative plays a significant role in its overall strategy and resilience.  First, the narrative allows the organization to build legitimacy and credibility regardless of whether it succeeds or fails in the shorter-term.  For instance, the terrorist attacks of September 11th served Al-Qaeda as “propaganda of the deed”.[53]  Consistent with the understanding that its primary audience is the Muslim community, this was intended to have a great impact on the confidence of Al-Qaeda’s potential supporters who might begin to see the U.S. as vulnerable, and trust Al-Qaeda more as a powerful, capable organization worthy of supporting. Even if it would cause a greater security dilemma for Al-Qaeda, it seems the second objective was to provoke the U.S. to act in such a way that would further anger, alienate, and drive Muslims into the welcoming arms of Al-Qaeda.[54]  Both goals could further strengthen the narrative. Therefore this parallels insurgency warfare: the military defeat of the group in a certain location like its stronghold, safe-haven, or primary training ground may temporarily disrupt and dismantle the body of the organization, but it may actually contribute to its longer-term political or strategic success by providing more empirical evidence that can be woven into an already compelling, multi-generational narrative.  Al-Qaeda constantly seeks new and promising markets for the circulation of its message, ways to socialize new generations of followers, and ways to link world events to its narrative. The adaptable narrative protects the organization by maintaining a reservoir of collective memories about successes, and framing any military failures, Western, or U.S.-led efforts to destroy it as further confirmation of the requirement of violence in this great “war on Islam”.

Conclusions and Implications

Assessing the state of the literature on Al-Qaeda’s ideological and religious narrative, there are a variety of sources that offer useful theories to describe the structure or logic of Al-Qaeda’s overarching message.  However, the current literature lacks a framework that is thorough enough to encapsulate the nuances, and full sequential, cumulative logic of the narrative.  I have therefore created a synthesized framework that maps out the themes and the details nested within: commonly experienced emotions, grievances, thoughts, beliefs, and values that can be intensified, radicalized, and mobilized to build a willingness to commit or at the very least grow complicit in the proliferation of acts of violence.  I have proposed ten major themes, messages, or functions that hold a cumulative effect in Al-Qaeda’s narrative.  Though parsimonious theories hold value in the way they strive to deconstruct complex realities, oversimplification when it comes to understanding the narratives of violent extremists potentially disables efforts to counter and respond to those narratives; my framework provides a thorough delineation of the stories, themes, appeals, and logics within the ensemble.       

Implications for Policy and Further Research

As many scholars, policy-makers, and practitioners have noted, kinetic force is not sufficient in countering terrorism.  There are several dimensions to the threat, and the more recent rise of the Islamic State illustrates that this phenomenon of radical jihadism is recurrent and multigenerational.  This renders the ideological domain even more important, because the propaganda rhetoric and narratives religious terrorist organizations rely on draw from decades and centuries of history, as well as current events, to paint a picture of the world and their religious constituency’s existing and rightful place in the order. The Islamic State has invested heavily in this arena, and has constructed powerful propaganda mechanisms that use the latest social media platforms to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize homegrown terrorists, supporters in the Middle East, and foreign fighters.  Though it is a sobering and unsettling realization, the threat of radical jihadism is not one that can be fully eradicated or defeated, but must be instead conceptualized as a “chronic disease like cancer,” and thus managed and contained.[55]  There is a need to pinpoint effective ways to act more preventatively and proactively rather than just reacting to attacks themselves including (but not limited to) “identify[ing] at-risk segments of the population, interdicting those who have become radicalized before,” building cooperation between the public and private sectors to adapt to the ever-evolving nature of the war of ideas in the context of the rapid pace of technological innovation, strengthening multilateral relationships to synchronize and coordinate but also delegating and allocating resources and mission sets, tactfully leveraging partnerships with the Muslim community at home and abroad to engage in credible counter-radicalization and counter-narrative efforts that help reveal hypocrisies, fallacies, and inconsistencies with the mainstream interpretations of the world religion of Islam, empowering preemptive education programs, community groups, and political action communities, and bridging the relationship gap to lessen the supposed need to posture oneself to defend its religion in light of a perceived existential crisis.[56] Understanding the narrative first will enable us to continue to problem-solve and address the root causes of this type of violence.

Building upon these implications, there are a few more suggestions from this exploratory research in the counter-narrative challenge.  First, it is imperative that we strive for greater understanding, especially by increasing the transparency of our intentions in and with various regions and states.  We need to strive to acknowledge the political, economic, and social grievances many Muslims face around the world to demonstrate greater empathy, support, and sensitivity to the cultural, societal, and historical contexts in which we operate and involve ourselves.  We need to engage in diplomacy and work to not truly show that we are not at war with Islam in our own country and beyond.  These ways should be incorporated into our strategic vision, and will address the first four components of the narrative in my framework. Moving forward, we need to aid the broader Muslim community to invalidate and shed light on the hypocrisies of Al-Qaeda’s claims that jihad is the rightful path and that legal and moral codes of the modern world are indeed legitimate and necessary to uphold for the security and prosperity of all of humanity.  Finally, Muslim leaders in both the U.S. and international arena must highlight inconsistencies between Al-Qaeda’s methods, tactics, and premises and the foundational texts of the faith.  All in all, as Hoffman concludes, we need a broader solution range and greater awareness of the various domains in which this national and international security challenge manifests itself, as well as a true investment in the longer-term battle against radical extremist ideologies that arise at home and abroad.

 


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 Endnotes

[1] Dina Al Raffie, (2012). Whose Hearts and Minds? Narratives and Counter-Narratives of Salafi Jihadism. Journal of Terrorism Research. 3(2). DOI: http://doi.org/10.15664/jtr.304

[2] Alex P. Schmid, ‘Al-Qaeda’s “Single Narrative” and Attempts to Develop Counter-Narratives: The State of Knowledge,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (2014): 1.

[3] Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Foreign Broadcasting Information Service (FBIS)-NESD-2002-0108.

[4] Heather S. Gregg, “Defining and Distinguishing Secular and Religious Terrorism,” Vol 8. No. 2, 2014.

[5] “The Unquenchable Fire”, The Economist (28 Sept. 2013). Available online at http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21586834-adaptable-and-resilient-al-qaeda-and-its-allies-keep-bouncing-back-unquenchablefire. See also, Engel, Richard. And Then All Hell Broke Loose (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016): 36.

[6] Dina Al Raffie, (2012). Whose Hearts and Minds? Narratives and Counter-Narratives of Salafi Jihadism. Journal of Terrorism Research. 3(2). DOI:http://doi.org/10.15664/jtr.304

[7] Bernd, Reiter, “The Epistemology and Methodology of Exploratory Social Science Research: Crossing Popper with Marcuse,” (2013). Government and International Affairs Faculty Publications, Paper 99. http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/gia_facpub/99

[8] Ibid., 7.

[9] Ibid., 4.

[10] “Exploratory Research,” Research Methodology, accessed April 7, 2017, http://research-methodology.net/research-methodology/research-design/exploratory-research/.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sara Zeiger, “Undermining Violent Extremist Narratives in South East Asia,” Hedayah, 2016.

[13] https://info.publicintellige Steven R. Corman, “Understanding the Role of Narrative in Extremist Strategic Communication,” in “Countering Violent Extremism: Scientific Methods and Strategies,” July 2015. 35.

[14] Ibid., 36.

[15] Dina Al Raffie, (2012). Whose Hearts and Minds? Narratives and Counter-Narratives of Salafi Jihadism. Journal of Terrorism Research. 3(2). DOI:http://doi.org/10.15664/jtr.304

[16] Ibid., 37.

[17] Michael Vlahos. “The Long War: A Self-defeating Prophecy,” Asia Times, 9 September 2006.

[18] G. Dimitriu, Strategic Narratives, Counternarratives and Public Support for War: The Dutch government’s explanation of the Uruzgan mission and its influence on the Dutch Public (Leiden University: Master Thesis, Campus The Hague, 2 February 2013), p. 13.

[19] Dina Al Raffie, (2012). Whose Hearts and Minds? Narratives and Counter-Narratives of Salafi Jihadism. Journal of Terrorism Research. 3(2). DOI:http://doi.org/10.15664/jtr.304

[20] Richard Jackson, “Constructing Enemies: ‘Islamic Terrorism’ in Political and Academic Discourse”, Government and Opposition 42, (2007), 396.

[21] Ibid., 37

[22] Ibid.

[23] Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milelli (Eds.), Al-Qaida Texte des Terrors (München: Piper, 2006); Raymond Ibrahim, The al Qaeda Reader, (New York: Doubleday 2007); Bruce Lawrence (Ed.), Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden (London: Verso, 2005); Lorry M. Fenner, Mark E. Stout and Jessica L. Goldings (Eds.), Ten Years Later: Insights on al Qaeda’s Past and Future through Captured Records (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2011); Robert O. Marlin (Ed.), What Does al Qaeda Want? Unedited Communiques (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2004); See also, Jim Lacey (Ed.), The Canons of Jihad. Annapolis (Naval Institute Press, 2008); Karen J. Greenberg (Ed.), Al Qaeda Now: Understanding Today’s Terrorists (Cambridge: University Press, 2005).

[24] Raymond Ibrahim, The al Qaeda Reader (2007), pp. xii, 2 and 5-6.

[25] R. Briggs, S. Feve Review of Programs to Counter Narratives of Violent Extremism (2013), 9.

[26] Alex P. Schmid, ‘Al-Qaeda’s “Single Narrative” and Attempts to Develop Counter-Narratives: The State of Knowledge,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (2014): 6.

[27] Alex P. Schmid, “The Importance of Countering al Qaeda’s ‘Single Narrative’”, in E.J.A.M. Kessels (Ed.), Countering Violent Extremist Narratives (The Hague: National Coordinator for Counterterrorism, 2010): 47.

[28] Alex P. Schmid, ‘Al-Qaeda’s “Single Narrative” and Attempts to Develop Counter-Narratives: The State of Knowledge,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (2014): 8.

[29] David Betz. 2008. “The virtual dimension of contemporary insurgency and counterinsurgency,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2008, p. 520.

[30] Tom Quiggin, “Understanding Al-Qaeda’s Ideology for Counter-Narrative Work,” Terrorism Research Initiative Vol 3, no 2 (2009).

[31] Ibid.

[32] Richard, Engel.  And Then All Hell Broke Loose (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016): 33.

[33] Ibid., 37.

[34] Ibid., 34.

[35] Ibid., 34.

[36] Bruce Hoffman, “Holy Terror: The Implications of Terrorism Motivated by a Religious Imperative,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 18, No. 4 (1995), pp. 274.

[37] Ibid., 272.

[38] Ibid., 273.

[39] Heather S. Gregg, “Defining and Distinguishing Secular and Religious Terrorism,” Vol 8. No. 2, 2014.

[40] Dina Al Raffie, (2012). Whose Hearts and Minds? Narratives and Counter-Narratives of Salafi Jihadism. Journal of Terrorism Research. 3(2). DOI:http://doi.org/10.15664/jtr.304

[41] Wiktorowicz, Quintan. “A Genealogy of Radical Islam.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 28, no. 2 (2005): 81.

[42] Steven R. Corman, “Understanding the Role of Narrative in Extremist Strategic Communication,” in “Countering Violent Extremism: Scientific Methods and Strategies,” July 2015. https://info.publicintelligence.net/ARL-CounteringViolentExtremism.pdf. 27.

[43] ‘The New Powder Keg in the Middle East: Mujahid Usamah Bin Ladin Talks Exclusively to ‘Nida’ul Islam’‘. Nida’ul Islam 15 (Oct.-Nov. 1996), http:==www.fas.org=irp=world= para=docs=LADIN.htm.

[44] Engel, Richard. And Then All Hell Broke Loose (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016): 34.

[45] Bruce Hoffman, “Holy Terror: The Implications of Terrorism Motivated by a Religious Imperative,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 18, No. 4 (1995), pp. 274.

[46] Ramakrishna, Kumar. “Deligitimizing the Global Jihadi Ideology in Southeast Asia.” Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 27, No. 3 (December 2005), pp. 343-369.

[47] Alex P. Schmid, ‘Al-Qaeda’s “Single Narrative” and Attempts to Develop Counter-Narratives: The State of Knowledge,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (2014): 1.  

[48] Ibid.

[49] Bruce Hoffman, “Holy Terror: The Implications of Terrorism Motivated by a Religious Imperative,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 18, No. 4 (1995), 272.

[50] Ibid., 9.

[51] Alex P. Schmid, ‘Al-Qaeda’s “Single Narrative” and Attempts to Develop Counter-Narratives: The State of Knowledge,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (2014): 4.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Mark Sedgwick, “Al-Qaeda and the Nature of Religious Terrorism,” Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 15, No. 4 (2004): 800.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Price, Bryan C. “15 Years after 9-11: the State of the Fight Against Islamic Terrorism,” Prepared testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, 2016. http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS00/20160921/105337/HHRG-114-AS00-Wstate-PriceB-20160921.pdf.

[56] Ibid., 13.  See also Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. Columbia University Press, 2006. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/hoff12698.

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