The dust has settled on Barisha in northern Syria where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed on 26 October. Thousands of his followers and their children are today detained in insecure camps. It is a good moment to take stock of the rise and fall of Da’esh and Al-Qaida, their persistence, and their future heirs. For while the removal of their leadership dealt them a blow, no-one seriously believes this is the last chapter in the history of religious extremism.
Al-Qaida and Da’esh were both bi-products of war, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Twenty years ago almost nobody foresaw that clandestine organisations manipulating a violent distortion of Islam would regularly inflict significant civilian casualties around the world. Who, twenty years ago, would have imagined that substantial new resources, military, police, intelligence, would be needed to apprehend people planning religiously motivated terrorist acts? And who would have foreseen the need for preventative measures to address the motives, thoughts and feelings of potential terrorists, and the reaction to them? The world was unprepared.
Religious terrorism offers spurious legitimation for preexisting hatred and violence. Against an Islam preaching a merciful and compassionate God in the modern world, Da’esh posited the resurgence of an – imagined - beleaguered seventh century Medina community mutating by Allah’s power into a militarised expansionist political entity, a Caliphate. Al-Qaida re-interpreted the Islamic duty of jihad, abandoning the original concept of a defensive war, a community obligation requiring authorisation by the Caliph, for an individual obligation and decision to take up arms. Al-Qaida’s individualism was perversely modern. Following a distinctive approach, Da’esh advocated war to revive the Caliphate, and did so, making it the touchstone and supreme test of obedience to Allah.
Al-Qaida and Da’esh disagreed about when a Caliphate might be re-founded. From its origins Al-Qaida decided that creating a Caliphate would be premature and that any attempt to found one would bring down the wrath of the ‘kafir’ superpowers. Al-Qaida was both right and wrong. Da’esh made Raqaa in Syria the capital of a functioning, geographical political entity. It performed several functions of a militarised State or Caliphate, and provided both an allegedly legitimate outlet for violence and a supposedly Islamic community for its members. And as Al-Qaida had predicted, Da’esh did provoke a powerful military response (as, of course, did Al-Qaida’s attack on the Twin Towers after 9/11).
Al-Qaida’s and Da’esh used similar recruiting techniques but with significant differences. Al-Qaida’s propaganda was wordy, textual and mapped onto the logical, linear reasoning processes characteristic of the brain’s left hemisphere. It shared with Da’esh a sharply binary world of divinely sanctioned right and wrong, no grey areas, and espoused a single value, jihad, in the face of the clashing values of a multicultural, multi-religious modern world.
Da’esh, on the other hand, became adept at visual propaganda so its appeal has greater reach. Its simple, powerful messages, spread through social media, mapped onto the brain’s right hemisphere and limbic system where the core emotional and motivational centres are located. The Caliphate was presented visually as an end-times utopia. In it recruits would find redemption from a sinful past withdrawn from the hostile world of infidels, a place where all desires were fulfilled. Da’esh recruits took on a new identity, solidarity, and the camaraderie of a closely knit in-group. Such promise of belonging was a powerful pull.
The extreme brutality of Da’esh provided an emotional counterpoint to the warm feelings of belonging. Da’esh’s own violence was presented alongside films about Western killing of Muslim innocents shockingly portrayed in video clips. Recruits’ emotions were doubly assaulted and captivated: by moral shock and by a sense of Muslim victimhood stimulating fear, fight, flight, freeze responses. The effect was to short-circuit moral thought by generating a state of anxiety, anger and fear in which brutality became normative.
Da’esh propaganda made independent thinking highly dangerous. It truncated time, conflating an ideal past and a blissful future with their actual brutal militarist, patriarchal rule. The concept of the Caliphate, in the past but lived now, collapsed linear time. The shock of watching videos of decapitations and torture was countered by the promised rewards of the Caliphate: an idealised family life – even fluffy kittens appeared on their media sites – and the long-desired just society. The visual impact of this emotional and cognitive bombardment was to eliminate and displace moral reflection and rational thought. The violent behaviour of Da’esh jihadis, their misperception of social and political reality, the torture, rape and murder around them, stems from something grievously awry in the structure of their thinking and their emotions. The particular horror of this for Muslims was the way elements of Sunni - Salafi – religious discourse were used and twisted to legitimate a descent into barbarism.
A common feature of the young people to whom extremist propaganda appealed seems to be their need for simple binary explanations of, and solutions to, problems of mental health, anger, identity and belonging. The number of petty criminals who become jihadis was significant. The high level of cultural dissonance and social mixing resulting from migration, and the recent communications-led wave of globalisation, which called identities into question, contributed to radicalisation of the few in leadership positions. And there were clearly recruits, difficult as it is to imagine, who went to Iraq and Syria out of a misplaced idealism. The key to Da’esh success was its use of social media to change minds and change perceptions of the world.
What difference has the death of Al-Baghdadi made? Killing him and Bin Laden has worked political wonders for American Presidents. But it fails to touch the root of the problem: the recruitment methodology and manipulation of Qur’anic verses that attracts young people and affects their mindset. There are estimated to be 45,000 children detained in the Da’esh family camps many of whom will be at risk of radicalisation. They have to be offered an Islamic alternative. Youth radicalized, for whatever reason, need to discover that their ideals can be lived out without violence and without the tragic loss of family, friends, and life. Everyone needs to have their identity and deepest values respected. Coercion does not work. It is vital to create an environment in which thinking develops spontaneously as the consequence of a new set of social interactions, gainful employment, new friendships, and without invalidating the needs and core values that drew the would-be, or actual, extremist into a Da’esh or Al-Qaida cell.
As things stand this seems an impossible dream. Yet it is vital that the 45,000 young occupants of the Da’esh family camps are given some hope, some future, or in only a few years’ time they will follow their fathers, and some of their mothers, into terrorism. Their different nation-states of origin should urgently take responsibility for them before it is too late. This is not simply a matter of international humanitarian and moral concern it is a matter of national security.
See also “What’s Next for Al-Qaida and Da’esh” TheArticle.com 30/10/2019