Inside the Jihadi Mind


Inside the Jihadi Mind

Emman El-Badawy, Milo Comerford and Peter Welby

06 Oct 2015

Inside the Jihadi Mind: Understanding Ideology and Propaganda

New research from the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics finds a common ideology communicated through the propaganda of three leading jihadi groups. Read our summary of the report's key findings and how these can inform our response.

Download the report here.

Understanding Jihadi Ideology

There is increasing recognition from politicians and policy makers, including by both President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron at the UN General Assembly in September 2015, that the ideology of jihadi movements must be countered to undermine the threat. Its combination of theology and political objectives needs to be uprooted through rigorous scrutiny, and sustained intellectual confrontation.

After the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda had approximately 300 militants. ISIS alone now has, at a low estimate, 31,000 fighters across Syria and Iraq. Understanding how ideology has driven this phenomenon is essential to containing and defeating violent extremism.

But violent ideologies do not operate in a vacuum. A fire requires oxygen to grow. A broader political culture overlaps significantly with some of the assumptions of the jihadi ideology, without necessarily being extreme or agreeing with its violence.

The jihadi ideology preys upon those who are sympathetic to some of its aims. Unless we understand how the ideology relates to wider beliefs, we cannot uproot it. 

"The single best work I have read on the ideological foundations... of jihadi violence" Professor Bruce Hoffman

The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics has analysed a cross-section of 114 propaganda sources ranging from April 2013 to summer 2015 from three Salafi-jihadi groups: ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Its aim is to identify precisely what ideology is shared by the three groups, as revealed in their propaganda, in order to inform effective counter-narratives from mainstream Muslims, governments and civil society.

This report provides an evidence base for what is already assumed by many, that the ideology of Salafi-jihadism is a vital motivating force for extremist violence, and therefore must be countered in order to curb the threat. 

Independent support for the report:

Professor Bruce Hoffman, Director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University has described Inside the Jihadi Mind as "a needed and incisive analysis of one of the core issues behind the current jihadi threat, the manipulation and exploitation of scripture to provide a religious justification for their violence".

Professor Hoffman said, "This is the single best work I have read on the ideological foundations and theoretical underpinnings of the ongoing wave of jihadi violence. Accordingly, it makes a valuable contribution both to the literature on terrorism and radicalisation and to the measures and efforts needed to most effectively counter the appeal of the jihadi message."

Dr Omar Ashour, Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics and Security Studies at the University of Exeter, said, "The authors have done an excellent job in analysing the narratives and ideologies of the ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the supportive sub-cultures. This is the first study that does so quantitatively and qualitatively."

Key Findings

• There is a distinct difference between the ideology of Salafi-jihadism and the Islam practiced by the majority of the world's Muslims. The Salafi-jihadi ideology is built upon Islamic religious principles, which it distorts to produce a single-minded focus on violent jihad.

• The three groups share fundamentally similar ideologies, challenging the concept that "ISIS is more extreme than al-Qaeda".

• Ideological values, which form the moral basis of the groups' actions, are present in 80 per cent of all the propaganda sources; these include Islamic creedal values in 62 per cent, the values of honour and solidarity with the Muslim community in 68 per cent, and explicit references to the end of days in 42 per cent.

• The importance of tawhid (monotheism) is revealed in a number of themes throughout the propaganda, in different strands of the ideology: one God, one state, and one ummah (the global Islamic community). These themes appear in over 74 per cent of the propaganda.

• An emphasis on the nobility of jihad runs throughout the propaganda, often presenting it in chivalric terms, with pictures of fighters on horseback, or references to Saladin. Altogether, such references appear in 71 per cent of the propaganda.

• The importance of honour, and the solidarity of the ummah is also central, appearing in 68 per cent of the propaganda. The virtue of martyrdom – common to many religions, but here applied deliberately to death in battle – forms a significant part of the value of honour, appearing explicitly in 32 per cent of the propaganda, and implicitly in 68 per cent.

• Altogether, justifications from the Quran, Hadith or from scholarship appear in 87 per cent of the propaganda. One ISIS statement contained 24 references to the Quran, making up 26 percent of the entire statement. Of these 24 references, 13 different surahs (chapters) were referenced.

• While Quranic justifications are usually presented without context, reinforcing the accusation that the groups 'cherry pick' passages that support their case, the ideology makes extensive use of scripture: half of the propaganda references the Quran, with 63 out of the 114 surahs referenced.

• Hadith justifications are used much less than Quranic justifications, appearing in only 22 per cent of the sample. The accusation that Salafi- jihadi groups pick Hadith that suit their vision may be bolstered by the ways in which they use them: authoritative Hadith are cited with the full details of their origins; the referencing of those of more doubtful provenance is much more vague.

• When the groups are criticised for their actions by rival Salafi-jihadi groups or others, the Quran and the Hadith are the first reference points that are used for the rebuttal. Hadith in particular are used in bulk when groups are attacked by other followers of the ideology.

• Nevertheless, the vaunted Salafi rejection of much Islamic scholarship as 'innovation' (ISIS refers to established scholars as "donkeys of knowledge") is belied by references throughout the propaganda to 45 different scholars from all the major schools of jurisprudence apart from the Hanafi school.

The ideological themes presented above appear throughout the propaganda, with a clear internal logic, although its application is often inconsistent. The themes – whether found explicitly or by implication – form a hierarchy, with the ideological values providing a basis for groups' objectives and ideal conduct, and thus their group identity. The themes come together to form a coherent ideology, representative of Salafi- jihadism.

It is this ideology that drives the groups' behaviour. When they attack one another, it is not ideological differences that drives the conflict, but differing narratives: the ways in which they apply their ideology to reality. The Salafi-jihadi movement will not be defeated by focusing on these narratives: it will only be defeated if we understand and engage the ideology. This report works to provide that understanding through detailed qualitative and quantitative analysis.

Data Findings

All percentages are of total sources (these themes overlap and should not add up to 100%).

Download the Report

To read the findings of the report Inside the Jihadi Mind: Understanding Ideology and Propaganda in full, click here.


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