Islamist terrorist groups: Tailor-made ideologies

Mohamed Fayez Farahat , Wednesday 24 Jan 2018

The rise of social media as a tool has changed how Islamist terrorist groups recruit, in turn weakening their cohesion and blurring the boundaries between them

File photo: Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front gesture as they drive in a convoy touring villages, which they said they have seized control of from Syrian rebel factions, in the southern countryside of Idlib, December 2, 2014 Reuters

Ideology has long been an important key to understanding the map of terrorist organisations. Classifying them by ideology helped in plotting their relations organisationally.

Investigating their ideological sources of reference, by asking such questions as who they regard as ideological authorities, how they rank these authorities and what the required readings in an organisation are, helped pinpoint how the various organisations identified their aims, their enemies and their theatres of operation.

There was also a general matrix one could draw on in the process, defined, on the one hand, by a “strict” distinction between the “near enemy” and the “distant enemy” and which should take priority in the confrontation and, on the other, by the perceived conditions for building the Islamic State, which in turn involved approaches based on a clear distinction between the “Islamification” of the state and the “Islamification” of society, and which of the two goals was a prerequisite or a sufficient condition for the other.

Plotting organisations within the framework of this matrix helped identify their focus areas.

Ideological cohesion was a primary trait of terrorist organisations during the first and main wave of the rise of terrorist organisations in the 1980s and 1990s. This wave was characterised by the prevalence of local terrorist groups that espoused one of two approaches towards the establishment of an “Islamic State”: building a Muslim society from the ground up or, conversely, building such a society from the top down by toppling the existing state.

Subtler distinctions between them were determined by the means and methods they preferred in order to achieve their common aim. Even with the emergence of the “global” jihadist Salafist organisations and Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s, there was still ideological clarity and consistency.

A number of factors contributed to forging and perpetuating this ideological clarity and “consistency”. Among the most important was the “process” of recruitment and indoctrination within the organisations. It was a process characterised by a degree of “complexity”, from the selection of new recruits, through the processes of training, sorting and testing, to the formal declaration of loyalty.

Another important characteristic of the process was that it involved direct interaction between the recruits and the organisation’s “sheikh” or “emir”.

This complexity in the training and indoctrination process worked to reinforce internal cohesion in the group. It solidified the group “identity” and, accordingly, reaffirmed the ideological distinctions between the group and others, and it strengthened the bond with the sheikh or emir.

The indoctrination process also relied on a set “curriculum” or reading list of Islamic theological and jurisprudential works that had to be committed to heart and recited to the sheikh or emir. These religious sources, associated with revered religious authorities, lent a certain “sacredness” to the process, creating a psychological barrier to leaving the group.

We can therefore attribute the current lack of ideological clarity and consistency within or between jihadist and takfiri organisations to an important change that has taken place in the recruitment and indoctrination process. The process has lost its primary characteristics.

Above all, there is no longer a direct interaction between the recruits and the sheikh or emir. Recruitment and indoctrination — or a large part of them — take place over the Internet and social media. It is the recipient, rather than the sheikh or emir, who is in primary control here, as is the case with all learning through electronic media, which gives the recipient the freedom to set his own “curriculum” and develop his own ideological/theological “blend”.

Numerous other factors come into play in the development of this “blend”, such as personal likes and dislikes, intellectual predisposition, personal experiences, social and occupational background and social environment. This has generated the ideological diversity we see today, which runs the gamut from the “individual” or “lone-wolf” terrorist who built his convictions on the basis of this personal experiences, to the “virtual” terrorist “organisation” that might subscribe to a terrorist ideology but that, as an organisation, has no physical presence on the ground.

The transformation in the recruitment and indoctrination process has not only led to the rise of diverse types of terrorist organisations that are so ideologically intertwined and overlapping that it has grown almost impossible to categorise ideologically, it has also facilitated the ability of members to move from one organisation to the next, in view of the lack of ideological cohesion within a particular organisation and ideological distinctions between organisations.

While there are still some large and relatively stable organisations, such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which have identifiable leaderships and relatively specialised hierarchical structures, the freeness of the educational process in the terrorist “market” has rendered enlistment in the organisations, or movement to other organisations, relatively easy. This, in turn, has generated a lack of internal cohesion within these organisations themselves.

The change in the indoctrination process is not the only factor that explains the ideological fluidity within and between terrorist organisations. There are many others that are no less important and can be discussed in a subsequent article. 

* Mohamed Fayez Farahat, is an expert at the International Relations Unit of Al-Ahram Centre For Political and Strategic Studies

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*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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