Deconstructing the ISIS narrative
Tunis - A youb el-Khazzani, a 25-year old Moroccan, watched jihadist chants or anashid on his mobile phone on a busy high-speed train before bursting out from a toilet cubicle armed and shirtless.
His attempt to shoot passengers of the Amsterdam-Paris train was foiled in August 2015 when he was subdued by American off-duty servicemen, their friend and a 62-year-old British consultant.
Khazzani was carrying an assault rifle, 270 rounds of ammunition, a pistol, a bottle of petrol, a box-cutter and a hammer.
The Moroccan had attended a radical mosque in southern Spain. His itinerary resembled that of dozens of thousands of young Muslims lured by the extremist fringe of Salafist subculture, which boasts thousands of anashids.
Jihadists listen to the chants in safe houses, training camps and battlefield trenches and often when they prepare for suicide attacks.
The subculture, which underpins the narrative of jihadist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda and al-Shabab, is of interest to Mohamed Toumi, of the Tunisian Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CERES), a government-run think-tank. He is a university teacher who specialises in the deconstruction of terrorist discourse.
Like many researchers, Toumi checks Salafist propaganda to try to understand why tens of thousands of young Muslims voluntarily choose to live under strict puritanical ISIS rule and bear its black flag.
He looks to offer guidance to experts trying to fashion effective counter-narratives to stem the flow of ISIS recruits.
Toumi said ISIS and other radical Salafist groups follow an “absolute Salafist path” although they “embrace aspects of modernity in their confrontation”, including the choice of media they use to pitch propaganda.
Radical Salafists have carved out a convenient Islamic subculture with its symbols and interpretations. They have come, for instance, to reinterpret crying as a signal of spiritual passion and devotion contrary to its perception in the mainstream culture as an unmanly emotion.
Radical Islamists are encouraged to construe crying as a sign of devotion and submission to Allah. In jihadist lore, there are many stories of militants weeping as they drive explosive-laden vehicles on suicide missions.
Jihadists also shed tears when listening to anashids, watching propaganda videos, sharing news about the predicaments of fellow Sunni Muslims or dreaming about the afterlife.
Anashids are connected to poetry, another staple of jihadist subculture. Across the Arab and Islamic world, poetry is more widely used as a means of communicating emotions than in most other cultures. Militants use the genre to their own ends and jihadist poets have developed a vast library of extremist poetry.
“Through the use of literary Arabic in most of their anashids they erase specific identities within the Muslim world,” said Toumi.
The most famous ISIS poet is a Syrian woman in her 20s known as Ahlam al-Nasr — “Dreams of Victory”. Her best-known collection, Blaze of Truth, has lines such as: “Shake the throne of the cross and extinguish the fire of the Zoroastrians / Strike down every adversity and go reap those heads.”
More important, radical jihadists have reinterpreted the meaning of jihad to align with their wishes. Within Islamic texts, as interpreted by traditional scholars, the concept of “jihad” is described as a two-fold struggle: “smaller jihad” and “greater jihad”. The “‘smaller jihad” — the jihad of the sword — represents the last form of struggle against non-Muslims to free occupied land. “Greater jihad” involves an individual’s inner struggle to triumph over evil impulses.
Radical Salafists have, however, ensconced violent jihad as a duty for every Muslim. It is what justifies Muslims toppling “tyrannical” or “corrupt” rulers and vanquishing non-Muslim “aggressors”.
Radical Salafists, Toumi said, “base their military narratives on their particular interpretation of Islamic history. They believe the forefathers of Islam prioritised their efforts in order to deal with the enemy at home, first, before turning to the ‘far enemy’ as were the Persians and Romans.
“The discourse justifies terrorism by providing a narrative that shows sympathy and empathy with oppressed Muslims around the world.”.
It was not known what bits of ISIS narrative the Moroccan migrant aboard the high-speed train was watching in the moments before he attempted to attack passengers. But the radical Islamist narrative has fighters dreaming of meeting beautiful women in heaven shortly after they are killed in the battlefield or in suicide attacks.
“The obsessive draw to women appears with intensity in the jihadist narrative. Fair females with wide lovely eyes appear at the end of the journey as the ultimate goal which lures youth to sacrifice their lives cheaply. The attraction to women overshadows the whole picture of the paradise they seek,” Toumi said.