As this article is being written, the international community is patting itself on the back for having conducted brilliant counter-terrorism operations and defeating some of the world’s most dangerous and destructive groups. 29 June 2019, which would have otherwise seen the fifth anniversary of the Islamic State, instead saw the international terrorist group militarily defeated and holding no territory in Iraq and Syria. Al-Qaeda, too has been down and not heard from in a long while. These achievements must certainly be attributed to the steady international efforts by governments world-wide to kill or imprison the top leadership, and successfully hindering its global financial flows.
While these have been great achievements, terrorism analysts the world over have been warning the international security apparatus that the threat remains. The terrorist threat that we are talking about, that no military is fighting has a unique name: al-Qaedaism. Al-Qaedaism, while deriving its name from the terrorist organization, is essentially the representation of its ideology and narrative. As is explain below, it is the propagation of this narrative of the need and want for a global jihad as developed by the al-Qaeda core which is sustaining the global jihad movement even today, with all its variations and caveats. It is this ideology, and its manifestations that the international community must now focus on, and conclusively defeat, if it is to end the scourge of jihadist terrorism.
The Da’wah and the Aqā’id
Al-Qaeda or the global jihad ideology, while appeasing a small section within the larger Islamic Community, has held captive the imagination of a large section of the world’s population. Its da’wah, or call, famously put together in al-Suri’s The Call for Global Islamic Resistance[i], is based on a clear, concise, reapable ideology, with clear, defined good and evil actors[ii]. It is this powerful narrative developed by the al-Qaeda core, constantly re-worked for present times, while retaining its central idea, which has made al-Qaeda, and any affiliation to it, the highest ideals for any terrorist organization. Subsequent terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State (IS), Boko Haram, Abu Sayyaf, and other, continue to use the ideology and propaganda style developed by al-Qaeda. This ideology, perpetuated into present day from the 1980s is what I refer to as al-Qaedaism. Zehr describes this phenomenon as, ‘a meaning-giving, action-guiding narrative begins with a set of ideas developed by a group of jihadi thinkers who have influenced al-Qaeda’s worldview and that it is ‘a specific religious narrative that directs a multitude of groups….that are motivated by the idea that the use of indiscriminate force put toward the goal of achieving a “proper” Islamic state is a critical and indispensable part of Muslim revitalization in the contemporary world’[iii]. It is this guiding and legitimizing narrative or aqā’id (plural of aqeedah, or belief, ideology, creed) that we need to fight.
The al-Qaeda ideological narrative or aqeedah becomes apparent in its manhaj or programme or method. It has spread and cemented its ideology across the globe not by simply announcing it via dedicated channels, but also by creating a dedicated set of cadres who spread the ideology based on local ideas and tastes. The group’s propagations and promulgations were based on a careful study of the target population, delicate preparation and creation of a collective identity of a subjugated Muslim ummah and its necessity for jihad. These ideas were subsequently reinforced by not only TV broadcasts and announcements, as well as through internet blogs and forum discussions (which have been well-studied and analysed by terrorism experts across the world), but also through a careful preparation of school educational curriculum in areas under their influence.
These ideas, which at any point of time, was acceptable only to a select group even within their target audience, were then reinforced and displayed by political and military campaigns. While Chechnya, Algeria, Egypt, and other campaigns were successful for these jihadists, their biggest break came from the Afghan Jihad. It was the jihad that brought together jihadists from across the world, many of whom did not agree with the ideology of another.
It is due to such a ‘training’ platform provided by al-Qaeda to terrorists the world over, as well as its amalgamation of various terrorist groups under its umbrella, that has allowed the continued growth and long-term sustainability of the global jihadi movement.
While we are presently seeing a decline in terrorist activities, especially of major groups such as al-Qaeda and IS, it is their meaning-giving narrative, or as I call it, al-Qaedaism, that ensures that the global jihadi movement continues. Whether it be under the tutelage of international groups like IS, or by independent, local jihadis, the threat remains high. Having militarily defeated such groups, and having ensured lack of geographical or territorial areas for them to regroup and restart, this time is perhaps the best possible time to counter the jihadi ideology for once and for all.
Narratives, including al-Qaedaism, are bulletproof. They do not go away by use of or display of force. Nor can they be defeated. One essential part of narrative formation is the use of cases that cannot be proved false, not whether they can be proved true. Countering them with correct news and proving that the established narrative is false therefore is not the best strategy.
What we need now are alternate narratives. Any counter Information Operations strategy needs to develop a strong, alternate narrative, which shifts the focus to a different set of news items. These alternate narratives, in order to effectively counter the established narratives, needs to be based on an in-depth study of the target population, and must be made short enough to be a metaphor – it then need only be stated, not explained. Finally, the international community, in developing the counter-narrative must ensure that it is not solely based on anglo-saxon sociological and linguistic traditions (that is, focused on American or Western European understandings and traditions). It must embrace the cultural affinity of the target audience, that is, it needs to work within the cultural and linguistic confines of Arabic or Maghreb culture for instance, make small amends towards their understanding of the applicability of al-Qaedaism. This is the only way to gain the trust and access to the segments that are pro-jihadist or jihadi themselves. That is the way to fight and defeat global jihadi movement.
[i] Al-Suri, Abu Musab, The Call for Global Islamic Resistance [Arabic]. While the online documents point to December 2004 as its date of publication, Brynjar Lia argues that the Call was published in January 2005. [ii] See, for instance, bin Laden’s Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, issued February 23, 1998. It provides a clear list of sins of the Americans, and pits them as the evil Satan, which needs to be countered by good Muslims who will fight the honourable jihad. Such narratives, clearly, are effective – they need no explanation, are self-evident, and present a clear dichotomy of good and evil – thereby shifting mindsets in favour of one camp or another. [iii] Zehr, Nahed Artoul, The War Against al-Qeada, Washington DC; Georgetown University Press, 2017. P. 3.