GUEST POST: Why Jihadi Ideology Matters

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By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

On January 19, Joshua Foust posted a rather interesting article at Jihadology questioning Anwar al-Aulaqi’s importance as a jihadi ideologue, and in so doing, also called into question the assumed linkage between Islamist ideology and behavior. Though Foust’s post raises interesting and valid questions, and introduces bodies of research that are often ignored in debates over terrorist radicalization, I find his conclusion problematic for three reasons. First, Foust seems to be arguing against a strawman on the question of how ideology can have an impact on behavior. Second, the applicability of his general observations about the connection between ideas and behavior is questionable in the context of Islamist ideology. And third, erecting the very high evidentiary standard with which Foust concludes his article is not at all helpful when it comes to a problem set like terrorist radicalization, which it is necessary to address now.

Strawman Opponent?

It is somewhat unclear what Foust is objecting to within the current literature on radicalization—which, in fairness, is reflected in his post’s title, “Some Inchoate Thoughts on Ideology.” But to the extent his article refutes a definable set of ideas, it seems to argue against monocausal explanations of behavior. Specifically, Foust writes:

The assumption behind the ideology discussion appears to be that behavior is a gun, and ideology is a trigger. That is, you have a person, they accept ideology, and then the output is behavior (in this case, violence). But that just isn’t how people work, and using some basic logic and self-knowledge can reveal that. We are not mono-causal creatures, even in relatively simple matters like choosing where to eat lunch.

The last point is undoubtedly correct: we are not monocausal creatures. But which authors, specifically, share this set of assumptions? A careful reading of Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens’s Foreign Policy article that is the hook for Foust’s piece reveals no such monocausal assumption, though Meleagrou-Hitchens clearly does conclude—contrary to Foust—that ideology is important. Nor does Foust point to other authors who write about ideology as though it is the sole cause of terrorist violence.

This framing of the discussion seems designed to bolster the importance of Foust’s refutation. But the contribution an author can make by refuting a clearly exaggerated interpretation of a subject is minimal when that exaggerated interpretation does not represent the conventional wisdom in a field. And in the academic discussion of terrorist ideology, it seems that the dominant opinion among prominent scholars—including Marc Sageman, Jessica Stern, Robert Pape, Jerrold Post, and now apparently Brian Michael Jenkins—is that religious ideology is relatively unimportant. (There are of course plenty of scholars on the other side of this debate, including Mary Habeck, Assaf Moghadam, and myself.)

So let’s define the debate in a more reasonable way. The question is not whether terrorists are automatons who read something on the Internet and then act in service of that idea. They aren’t, full stop. Rather, the question is whether religious/ideological factors seem to provide a robust explanation for both terrorist radicalization and also terrorist actions.

One Man’s Experiences

Before turning to the role of al-Aulaqi specifically, I’d like to address the role that Islamist ideology has on behavior. Foust writes: “The heart of my problem with discussing Islamist ideology is that I don’t understand how it affects behavior.” This is because behavior is complex, encompassing such causal factors as “constraints, signaling from peers, intent, and capability.” On the question of how Islamist ideology can impact behavior, I believe the answer is so obvious as to be virtually indisputable. Note that Foust frames the issue as Islamist and not jihadi ideology. I don’t know whether this framing was purposeful, but I’m glad that he put the question this way, because an examination of Islamist behavior is illuminating.

As I recently discussed on a Bloggingheads appearance with Matt Duss, and as a number of readers will know, before my entry into the counterterrorism field I worked for an Islamist charity, the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, that has now been named a specially designed global terrorist entity by the U.S. Treasury Department. I had converted to Islam in college, and worked for Al Haramain in 1998-1999 between college and law school. I entered as a relative Islamic novice, with a very moderate conception of the faith; during my time at Al Haramain, my behavior changed substantially and I ultimately adopted an interpretation that I now consider extreme. Though I wrote a book about this period in my life, until now I have not really introduced my experiences into my own academic work on radicalization due to my awareness that people often universalize their own experiences improperly. However, their applicability should be clear in this response to Foust; and then I will introduce my empirical work on the subject.

At its heart, Islamism holds that human instincts and inclinations do not provide a reliable guide for determining morality. The reason Islamists believe that society should be governed by sharia is because man-made laws are contingent, and subject to shifting views of morality. Only God’s guidance, as best exemplified in the Qur’an and sunna, provides a reliable and unquestionable framework for determining how a society should be run. But if we can only trust God—and, related to that, Muhammad’s example—for the making of laws, isn’t it just as true that only the sunna can provide a guide to how we should live our own lives?

Thus, within Islamism, one’s behavior is clearly and unequivocally controlled by ideology. I encountered an intricately legalistic system within Al Haramain, wherein the restrictions were virtually all-encompassing. Growing a beard was required for men; likewise it was necessary to eat only with the right hand and roll one’s pants legs up above the ankles. Petting a dog, listening to music, and shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex all clearly transgressed the bounds of morality. Quite clearly ideology played a role in these behavioral outcomes. Absent the prevalent ideology (which could be described either as Islamism or Islamic conservatism), there is simply no explanation for why a relatively large number of people would decide to grow their beards out in a similar way, see dogs as unclean, stop making physical contact with members of the opposite sex, et cetera. While Foust writes that behavioral changes occur “in an unpredictable way,” in this case the behavioral changes all comported with the dominant ideology.

Moving beyond my own experiences, one of the remarkable aspects of Islamism—giving lie to Foust’s claim that behavioral changes in this area are unpredictable—is the consistency of behavioral changes across a broad array of cases. To be clear, not all Islamist interpretations of the faith are alike, and there are variegations among known Islamists, but in case after case the behavioral changes mirror those I experienced during my time at Al Haramain. One example is the Duka brothers—Shain, Eljvir, and Dritan—who were arrested with three others in May 2007 for plotting to attack the military base in Fort Dix, New Jersey. As the brothers turned to Islamism, they alienated family members with the announcement that “[t]he playing of music—a centuries-old tradition at Albanian weddings—had been banned” at Eljvir Duka’s wedding. Similarly, they spent an extended conversation captured via covert surveillance exploring the legalistic rules of how their beards should be kept:

Dritan Duka: That’s not really the way it [the beard] should be kept, it should be kept trimmed.

Unidentified male: It’s supposed to be neat, not, right trimmed but not over your lip.

Dritan Duka: Not shaved off completely.

Shain Duka then told a story about how a man in a Popeyes Chicken restaurant, after staring at them for a short time, asked why young men like them had such large beards. Shain recounted that “then we explained to him listen all the prophets wore beards and were Muslim so we wear the beards because all prophets wore beards.” Similarly, Daniel Joseph Maldonado’s behavioral changes included “wearing traditional Arab clothing, including the galabeyah, an ankle-length gown with long sleeves that covered the tattoos on his arms.” Tattoos are considered haram (prohibited by Islamic law) within the dominant conservative interpretations of Islam. Maldonado also tried to grow a beard; when he failed, “he blamed his Puerto Rican heritage and began chastising fellow Muslims who could grow a full beard and chose not to.”

Both Adam Gadahn and John Walker Lindh stopped listening to music. Gadahn had previously been seriously obsessed with death metal, but gave away virtually his entire music collection. Explaining this to the recipient, Gadahn said: “Well, I turned Muslim.” Lindh’s obsession had been not death metal, but rather hip hop. He even posed as a black rapper online, declaring himself “Hip Hop’s Christ” in one Internet forum. After he converted, he took the strictures of his new faith seriously. In July 1996, he asked in the alt.religion.islam discussion forum if musical instruments were actually haram. By July 1997, he had offered to sell his entire music collection.

There are many, many examples beyond this. Rather than being unpredictable, the behavioral changes associated with Islamist practice are in fact remarkably consistent. Without yet turning to jihadist ideology, it is very easy to glimpse the connection between Islamist ideology and behavioral change.

An Empirical Examination of Jihadism

Turning from Islamism to jihadism, the evidence also suggests links between ideology and behavior. While I am not equating religious conservatism with extremism or violence, one obvious connection should be stated: if you are not allowed the moral agency to determine what hand to eat with, or how far up your pants legs should be rolled, how can you have the moral agency to determine matters of war and peace?

This natural connection can be seen in the radicalization of Adam Gadahn. Soon after his conversion, he fell in with a small group of men at the Islamic Society of Orange County who, as the Washington Post puts it, “wore turbans, long robes and long beards, and … spent a lot of time criticizing other members of the mosque.” Zena Zeitoun, a convert to Islam, told the New Yorker that “[e]verything was haram to them in the United States.” She said, “If they saw a girl walking down the street in a short skirt, that’s haram. If they saw you with a beer bottle in your hand, that’s haram. If they saw a man and a woman holding each other, that’s haram.”

Gadahn began to adopt this legalistic outlook early on, as he grew out his beard and started wearing Saudi-style robes. He became close to Hisham Diab and Khalil Deek—two discussion group members with extremist views and connections to international militancy. To Saraah Olson, Diab’s ex-wife, Gadahn’s blind obedience stood out. “He took everything they said as the Holy Grail,” she recalled. After Diab and Deek told Gadahn to stop wearing jeans, he complied. Olson provided another example: “At first, [Gadahn] would come into the house, and if I would be making tea he would say, ‘Thank you, sister,’ very loudly into the kitchen. But he never, ever said anything again to me after Hisham told him, ‘You never thank them. That’s their duty.’”

The legalistic interpretation of Islam that Gadahn had accepted blended into his political radicalization, as his companions lectured to him just as naturally about global politics as they would about the need to stop wearing jeans. Olson and her son Ryan described a cult-like atmosphere in which Gadahn was not even allowed to speak with his own family, and was told that “if you’re a good believer, you’ll kill them.” He reportedly joined “heartily” in discussions focusing on the evils of the West and Israel.

While the connection between ideology and jihadism is intuitive in this way, I believe—as Foust does—in empirical evidence. Thus, in a 2009 report that I co-authored, I sought to measure relevant factors that indicated the role of religious ideology in terrorist radicalization. The relevant sample for this study was 117 homegrown jihadi terrorists from the U.S. and Britain. Five factors that I examined are indicative of ideology’s influence on the subjects: adopting a legalistic interpretation of Islam, trusting only select (i.e. salafi jihadi) religious authorities, perceiving the West and Islam as irreconcilable for theological reasons, displaying extreme intolerance for perceived theological deviance, and attempting to impose one’s religious beliefs on others. These factors showed up frequently throughout the sample. While one can ask a number of questions about causation, a couple of important findings emerge from this study. One is that the ideological factors I identify can be measured across a broad range of homegrown jihadi terrorists. The second finding concerns the adoption of religious ideology prior to political radicalization. For the homegrown terrorists who exhibited signs of political radicalization, the study found that religious awakening preceded political awakening 40.7% of the time. In contrast, I found that political radicalization preceded any kind of religiosity only 11.6% of the time. (In the other 47.7% of cases, it is unclear whether political or religious ideology came first.)

While Foust is correct that “we are especially bad at explaining our beliefs and behavior,” my study overcomes this problem because it does not depend on the terrorists’ post hoc justifications for their actions. Instead, it measures ideological variables as they were radicalizing. Thus, I believe my study makes a powerful case that a nuanced look at the role of religious ideology in homegrown terrorists’ radicalization suggests that religion likely plays a fairly important role.

Conclusion

As I have said, questions of causation can—and should—be asked about my study’s findings. But what I succeeded in doing is taking a much more granular look at the relationship between ideology and jihadism than other studies that deny the link without measuring any ideological factors.

And this brings us to Foust’s specific objection concerning al-Aulaqi. He contends that it is impossible to say that al-Aulaqi is “the most persuasive supporter of jihad for Muslims in the West.” Much of this conclusion rests on his skepticism about whether ideology maters at all. But, in my view, the evidence I outline above suggesting that ideology is important to terrorist radicalization (though not the sole factor) is more persuasive than evidence suggesting it is not. If one agrees with my argument so far, the next question is: who are the major influencers?

It is here that evidence suggesting al-Aulaqi’s importance is more compelling than Foust’s skepticism. As the Telegraph has put it, his “lectures have been found in possession of almost every radical Islamist who has executed, or attempted to execute, attacks on Western targets.” And we do not have to simply accept terrorists’ post hoc explanations of al-Aulaqi’s influence. For example, the would-be Fort Dix attackers spoke of his persuasiveness in covert recordings during the course of their plot. Nidal Hassan sought al-Aulaqi’s sanction prior to carrying out his attack at Fort Hood, as did Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before his attempted Christmas Day 2009 attack on Northwest Airlines 253. Al-Aulaqi’s prevalence in case after case, with terrorists actively seeking his guidance, is strong evidence that he is indeed an important influencer.

Foust objects that any argument about ideology’s importance “requires a standard of evidence that is, in practical terms, impossible to achieve.” This is a strange evidentiary standard indeed, particularly when ideology appears to be influencing people to carry out attacks right now. Is it better to wait for scientific certainty—which is the standard of proof Foust urges—or to proceed based upon the best available evidence?

For these reasons, it seems that there is a stronger connection between ideas and behavior within both Islamism and jihadism than Foust admits. And he seems to be erecting an evidentiary standard more suitable to a behavioral science lab than to pressing policy debates about the impact of jihadi ideology on terrorists’ propensity to violence.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and is a Ph.D. candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America.

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