GUEST POST: Fringe Fluidity: How Prior Extremist Involvement Serves as a Distinct Radicalization Pathway

As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this websites administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy researchers to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

Fringe Fluidity: How Prior Extremist Involvement Serves as a Distinct Radicalization Pathway

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Blackman

In January, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Blackman published an article in the peer-reviewed journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism entitled “Fluidity of the Fringes.” The authors argued for the recognition of a distinct individual-level pathway for radicalization to violent extremism, “fringe fluidity,” that involves a person transitioning from adherence to one set of extremist beliefs to another. They contended that the validity of this theory can be seen in an observable pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism. Gartenstein-Ross and Blackman have adapted their article for Jihadology’s readers.

This article argues for recognition of fringe fluidity as a distinct radicalization pathway in the terrorism studies literature. Most studies about individual-level radicalization examine how relatively normal people come to accept, and act in service of, extremist beliefs that counsel violence. As one prominent study said, most individuals it examined were unremarkable before they became terrorists, in that “they had ‘unremarkable’ jobs, had lived ‘unremarkable’ lives and had little, if any criminal history.” But some individuals who come to accept and act in service of a violent extremist ideology do not begin their journey as unremarkable. In some cases, individuals transition from adherence to one form of violent extremism to another—and understanding their prior extremist involvement is essential. This phenomenon can be observed frequently enough that fringe fluidity should be understood as an independent radicalization pathway.

This article demonstrates the existence of fringe fluidity by detailing the pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism. In recent years, over half a dozen case studies are readily identifiable in open-source literature of individuals who either made the transition from neo-Nazi beliefs to militant Islamism, or worked to advance both causes simultaneously. As this article shows, these individuals’ trajectories cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the totality of their extremist involvement.

It may seem counterintuitive or surprising that there would be a pathway between these two ideologies. After all, Islamist militants tend to view infidels writ large as adversaries, while committed Nazis view many Muslims as racially suspect. Indeed, today members of the European far right generally view Muslims as their top enemy. Yet there is a clear pipeline between the two—not necessarily a pipeline with an enormous quantitative output, but one that exists nonetheless. This pipeline has some ideological basis, including the fact that both ideologies share a common set of enemies in the Jewish people and the West (as currently constructed) more broadly. Further, the pipeline has some historical precedent.

To concretize what we mean by fringe fluidity, it is not just a process of inter-cultural borrowing and sharing of animosities that facilitate a congruence of extremist perspectives between neo-Nazi and extremist Islamist elements. Rather, fringe fluidity should be regarded as its own individual-level pathway into Islamist militancy. (We emphasize Islamist militancy as the end point because, as our case studies show, this is the direction in which fringe fluidity typically flows for these two ideologies: Rather than Islamist militants developing an interest in neo-Nazism, people with neo-Nazi sympathies far more frequently come to embrace militant Islamism.) The scholarly literature has elucidated such individual-level pathways by which Islamist militants are radicalized as personal grievance, social networks, ideology, and status-seeking. Similarly, there is an identifiable individual-level pathway by which individuals who have already embraced the belief system of neo-Nazism become acculturated into militant Islamism.

Though this article focuses on neo-Nazism and militant Islamism, we believe fringe fluidity is likely more widely applicable. Various extremist causes can likely serve as starting points for an individual’s movement into other forms of extremism. We hope that future research will test whether fringe fluidity is in fact more widely applicable. It is not clear that all three of the factors enumerated above—recent cases of convergence, some ideological overlap, and historical precedent—are necessary for fluidity to exist between two fringe ideologies. Future research can examine which factors are necessary for fluidity between two extremist ideologies, but the relationship between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism is sufficient to illuminate the existence of this radicalization pathway.

This article makes two contributions to the radicalization literature. First, it explicates a new individual-level pathway. Previous scholarship has outlined the convergence of some elements of militant Islam and the extreme right based on a sense of shared enemies, but without exploring how there might be a radicalization pathway between the two. Other academic work has viewed militant Islam and the extreme right as phenomena harboring significant mutual animosity, with little overlap, but that produce “reciprocal radicalization” in the course of their competition. Thus, there have been valuable scholarly explorations of neo-Nazism and militant Islam, but this radicalization pathway has not been identified in the scholarly literature. Second, the article raises—though does not answer—the question of whether individuals who have radicalized through fringe fluidity pose a greater danger of violence than do other extremists. People who have come to embrace more than one extremist ideology may have greater impulsiveness, or a lower threshold for action.

Our article first turns to the relevant literature on radicalization. It then examines the three factors that in our opinion demonstrate the pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islam. We begin by explaining the ideological factors that, in the view of people who made the journey between the two extremist currents, bind them together. The article then delves into the history connecting these outlooks, before turning to contemporary case studies. The article concludes by discussing the utility of recognizing fringe fluidity, and proposing a future research agenda related to the concept.

Current Conceptions of Radicalization

There is no consensus definition of radicalization, nor is there a consensus model describing how it occurs. This section describes the conceptual frameworks that scholars have advanced, and argues that fringe fluidity has explanatory power regardless of which conception of radicalization a scholar adopts.

The lack of a consensus definition of radicalization is unsurprising, and does not call into question the concept’s validity. There is similarly no consensus definition of terrorism, nor is there a consensus definition of such critical and universally recognized concepts as war, civil war, or insurgency. As Peter Neumann has noted, most definitions of radicalization can be distinguished through their emphasis on either the progression to extremist views, or else to extremist behaviors. Fringe fluidity is relevant to the adoption of both extremist views and behaviors.

The fundamental insight of fringe fluidity is that prior extremist involvement provides a pathway by which an individual may come to engage in a new violent extremist ideology cognitively or behaviorally, at least if sufficient points of convergence exist between the prior and more newly-adopted form of extremism. These points of convergence—such as the ideological overlap and shared history that can be found in the case of neo-Nazism and militant Islamism—may allow an individual to transition between even two seemingly discordant movements. With respect to radical beliefs, an individual who has already embraced some form of extremism may find it easier to accept another extremist outlook that is also deeply counter-normative.

Mohammed Hafez and Creighton Mullins have made the important observation that, despite sometimes heated debates in the field of radicalization studies, there is “some consensus on the key variables that produce radicalization and violent extremism.” They highlight grievances, networks, ideologies, and enabling environments and support structures as variables about which there is agreement. But Hafez and Mullins note that despite this agreement on variables that may drive extremism, the field is far from a consensus on the models tracing an individual’s transformation. In many ways, radicalization models can be seen as metaphors for how the adoption of violent extremist views or behaviors comes about.

One influential metaphor has been that of a process. Some scholarship has criticized

The Clear Banner: A Brief Update On Ethnic Georgian Foreign Fighters In The Islamic State

The Clear Banner sub-blog on is primarily focused on Sunni foreign fighting. It does not have to just be related to the phenomenon in Syria. It can also cover any location that contains Sunni foreign fighters. If you are interested in writing on this subject please email me at azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

A Brief Update On Ethnic Georgian Foreign Fighters In The Islamic State
By Bennett Clifford
In 2015, the government of Georgia estimated that 41 of its citizens were active combatants in jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, while other reports suggest that the contingent may have been as large as 100.1 The bulk of the foreign jihadist fighters from Georgia originated from the Pankisi Valley, an isolated set of villages in the north-east of the country that is renowned as a source of prominent foreign fighters, including the Islamic State (IS)’s deceased minister of war, Tarkhan Batirashvili (Umar al-Shishani).2 The majority population in the Pankisi Valley are Kists. Related closely to the Chechens of the North Caucasus, the Kists maintain distinct religious traditions, customs, folk laws (adat-tsesebi), and a unique dialect of the Chechen language.
Most of Georgia’s foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are ethnic Kists from the Pankisi Valley, but the second largest demographic are ethnic Georgian Muslims.3 A database maintained by the author includes eight ethnic Georgians who successfully traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. Unlike in the Pankisi Valley, where foreign fighter recruitment is geographically consolidated, ethnic Georgian fighters come from various settlements and villages throughout the country. During Soviet rule in Georgia, particularly during its twilight years, ethnic Georgian Muslims living in the high mountainous communities of the south-western province of Adjara were resettled throughout the country due to a combination of ecological disasters and government planning policies.4 Most of the ethnic Georgian foreign fighters came from these “eco-migrant” settlements: in particular, the villages of Nasakirali and Zoti in the western province of Guria, and particular villages within the Tsalka municipality in the central Kvemo Kartli region.
This brief post covers the reported fates of three members of the ethnic Georgian foreign fighter contingent after the loss of IS territory in Syria and Iraq, revealing new information on their status and whereabouts. Perhaps most importantly, one of the major (and arguably, only) IS Georgian-language propagandists and the group’s standard-bearer, Tamaz Chaghalidze, is ostensibly alive and has returned to social media during the past few months, posting a barrage of new Georgian-language material. These posts glorify the martyred “heroes of the Islamic State,” offer justifications for IS’ losses in the sieges of Mosul and Raqqa, and provide insight on other Georgians in Syria and Iraq. One post, included in full with an English translation below, discusses the fates of two members of the group– Badri Iremadze and Murman Paichadze.
Who is Tamaz Chaghalidze?

Post from an autobiography on Tamaz Chaghalidze’s WordPress site. “Ahmad Jurji, also known as Tamaz Chaghalidze, was born on December 3, 1988 in the village of Zoti in Chokhatauri municipality.”
Tamaz Chaghalidze (kunya: Ahmad Jurji), largely unknown outside of Georgia, is directly responsible for the majority of IS propaganda in the Georgian language. Born in 1988 in the village of Zoti in the province of Guria, Chaghalidze left for the city of Batumi in Adjara in 2006, where he studied international economics at Shota Rustaveli State University. During his eight years in Batumi, he transitioned from participation as a political operative for a major Georgian party to an active figure in the local Islamist scene, and in 2014, he traveled to Syria to join the jihad.5 As an opening salvo in a flood of propaganda, shortly after his departure to Syria he published a video in August 2014 declaring his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and threatening Georgia for its mistreatment of Muslims.6
The video reached viral status in Georgia and resulted in the opening of an investigation by Georgia’s State Security Services into Chaghalidze’s threats against Georgia.7 Chaghalidze remained active online, utilizing a still-active Odnoklassiki profile which he opened before his departure to disseminate even more threats. Stylistically, Chaghalidze’s content errs towards self-promotion and directly appeals to ethnic Georgian Muslims, particularly eco-migrants. In many posts, he utilizes Adjaran dialect and slang, punctuating Salafi-jihadist religious teachings with invectives targeting members of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Georgian Muslim institutions, the Georgian armed forces, and others:

Attention- to the kaafirs in Georgia who did anything against Islam and Muslims as part of NATO missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa,8 or in Georgia itself in Lapanquri,9 Pankisi, Guria, Adjara, Javakheti or other regions. We know all your actions and you will pay for everything with your dirty kaafir blood. I warn you again- do not touch any Muslim brother or mosque or anything that concerns the name of Islam; otherwise, one day, when the black flags fly over Georgia, you will have nowhere to escape. You will beg on your knees, and they will show it on TV programs. You rats will regret the day you were created. We will cause so much trouble for the Patriarchate in Adjara that you robe-wearing rats10 will wish you were created as reptiles. I swear, by Allah, every kaafir will pay with their dirty blood. The one chance that civilians have is to accept Islam and pledge allegiance to the Caliphate.”

From 2015 until 2017, Chaghalidze maintained an extensive online presence from his base in Syria, running his own personal WordPress blog. In addition, he contributed to several other sites on WordPress, Facebook, Tumblr, Odnoklassiki, Myspace and Telegram entitled “Xalifat” [Caliphate] or “Daula” [The State], and ran multiple sock-puppet Facebook accounts. These pages disseminated efforts by Chaghalidze and other Georgian-speaking foreign fighters to translate official IS media products, such as the magazines Dabiq and Rumiyyah and the al-Bayan radio service, into their native tongue. As part of an ongoing investigation, the Georgian government repeatedly blocked the IP addresses of these pages, shutting off access in Georgia.11 Each time a page was shut down, another appeared in its place. Eventually, many of Chaghalidze’s efforts were consolidated into the group Bushra, which operates a still-active Facebook group, several Telegram channels, a account and uses a TutaNota email address.

Posters for two official Islamic State releases in the Georgian language- “Message to the Georgian people” (2015, top) and “My God! I hasten towards you so that you would be satisfied with me” (2016, bottom)
Eventually, partially due to the success of Chaghalidze’s efforts in the unofficial realm, IS official media outlets published two releases in the Georgian language. In November 2015, IS’ al-Furat Media Foundation released “Gzavnili kartvel khalkhs” [Message to the Georgian People], its first full-length video in the Georgian language. The 12-minute video featured four ethnic Georgian fighters from Guria and Kvemo Kartli: Khvicha Gobadze (aka Abu Mariam al Jurji), Roin Paksadze, Mamuka Antadze, and Badri Iremadze. The second release, “Ghmerto chemo! Me vichkare shensken, rom iqo chemit kmaqopili” [My God! I hasten towards you so that you would be satisfied with me], was released in February 2016 and featured Chaghalidze, Iremadze, and the Kist fighter Mukhmad Baghakashvili eulogizing three slain Georgian IS fighters. In the second video, Chaghalidze appears in an IS police uniform—elsewhere, on his eponymous WordPress

GUEST POST: Coming Home: Explaining the Variance in Jihadi Foreign Fighter Returnees Across Western Europe

As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this websites administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy researchers to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.
Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

Coming Home: Explaining the Variance in Jihadi Foreign Fighter Returnees Across Western Europe
By Reinier Bergema and Colonel RNLAF (ret.) Peter Wijninga

Little is left of the Islamic State’s territorial control, which, at one point, stretched from Aleppo, Syria to Fallujah, Iraq. The intensification of the 60 nation coalition’s effort to defeat the Islamic State has borne fruit, regaining control over key urban strongholds, such as Raqqa and Mosul. Yet, with the degradation of Islamic State territorial control, European nations may face an influx of returnees. The international intelligence and security community has already indicated that, while the IS’s territorial control may cease to exist, it is highly likely that IS as an underground terrorist organization will continue its jihad against Middle-Eastern and Western targets. Not only do they fear that returning fighters have, while in the trenches, adopted the radical anti-Western ideologies of their jihadi peers, but also that they would return to European soil, heavily traumatized and familiar with a wide range of heavy weaponry and explosives. The fact that the 2014 shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the November 2015 Paris attacks, and the 2016 Brussels bombings involved returned operatives appears to confirm this.

With at least 6,800 European nationals fighting in Syria and Iraq1, and estimates suggesting that approximately a quarter – nearly 2,000 – have already returned, the risk is not insignificant. Monitoring these returnees has added significant strain to European intelligence and security services. Closer examination of the available data shows a variance in the number of returnees per country. A (rough) distinction can be made between Northern and Southern European countries (see figure). While countries such as Italy (10.5%, 13/124), France (14.2%, 271/1910), and Spain (14.7%, 30/204) are facing relatively low percentages of returnees, countries such as Denmark (49.6%, 67/135), the United Kingdom (50%; 425/850), and Finland (53.8%; 43/80) have a significantly higher share of jihadi foreign fighters returning. Where does this variance stem from?


First, there is a difference in terms of approach between the mostly Southern European countries on the one hand and the Northern European, especially Scandinavian, countries on the other, with the latter tending to focus much more on the reintegration and rehabilitation of returnees. This soft approach may lower the threshold for disillusioned jihadis that are hoping to return to their home country.2 In Sweden, authorities have experimented with housing, employment, education, and financial support, with the aim to reintegrate returnees back into society.3 The Danish so-called ‘Aarhus model’ aims at disengagement, offering returnees a second chance.4 On the other end of this continuum, the prospects of returning to normal life in countries taking a more repressive approach are significantly limited, given the probability of severe penalties upon their return. For example, France, with a significantly lower share of returnees, takes a much more repressive approach, as it is capable of stripping fighters from French nationality, revoking passports, and/or sentencing them to long jail terms.5 The Pontourny Center, France’s first, and only, deradicalization program closed its doors in August 2017.6 In Italy, administrative deportation of foreign suspects is a common measure: since early 2015, the authorities have deported more than two hundred individuals deemed a threat to national security.7

Second, apart from the perspectives upon their return, there is a distinction to be made in terms of national approaches in facilitating return journeys. Danish foreign fighters wishing to return to their home country are actively repatriated, a tactic that fits its inclusive approach.8 The Netherlands requires its nationals to report to a Dutch embassy or consulate, before they acquire the right to be repatriated.9 This requirement makes it inherently difficult to return, given the limited possibilities of free and safe travel in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, passports and travelling documents were oftentimes confiscated by IS upon arrival in the Caliphate, or sometimes deliberately burned by the fighters themselves, making travel even more difficult. Other countries simply refuse to repatriate its citizens, as they suggest jihadis should be tried or even killed abroad.10

Third, in an attempt to prevent fighters from returning, several countries, including France and the United Kingdom, but also the United States, have formulated a hit list, deliberately targeting their own nationals, aiming to eliminate them and thereby prevent them from returning. Although such extrajudicial killings are obviously far from undisputed, they prefer a dead jihadi over a captured one – a notion that is shared by countries without such a list.11 Although not all countries have formulated such a hit list, it is possible that these countries provide crucial intelligence that may lead to the targeted assassination of its own nationals. The Netherlands, for example, could provide intelligence to its coalition partners, that may contribute, directly or indirectly, to the targeting process.12

Fourth, although there is limited data available on the European level, and the lion share of returnees were part of IS (in Belgium: 64/353; 18.1%), data on the Belgian sample shows that the relative share of returnees who were members of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (14/55; 25.5%) seems to be bigger.13 Although there is no similar data available for the Netherlands, approximately twenty jihadis returned before IS became a player in Syria, potentially implying a similar process at work.14 This seems to be in line with the general belief that IS tends to be significantly more repressive when it comes to fighters attempting to leave their ranks.15 (Suspected) defectors are generally considered as spies or traitors, resulting in execution.16 Hence, a possible explanation for the different numbers of returnees may lie in the different policies of the organization the jihadis have joined. This hypothesis requires further exploration.

So far, a higher share of returnees has not necessarily translated into more terrorist attacks. The 2014 shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the November 2015 Paris attacks, as well as the 2016 Brussels bombings were conducted by returnees of French and/or Belgian origin. Moreover, the perpetrators of these attacks returned to Europe under the radar of the European intelligence and security community. It is unclear how many jihadis – with or without malicious intent – have returned to Europe beyond the gaze of intelligence and security services. So far, the number of returnees that was involved in terrorist attacks in Europe has been limited. Yet, given their vast number, they represent a significant security challenge for their home countries. Even with the so-called Islamic State collapsed, the conflict in Syria and Iraq has provided a new impetus to global jihadism for years to come.

Reinier Bergema is a Strategic Analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies and Colonel RNLAF (ret.) Peter Wijninga is a Subject Matter Expert in Defense & International Security at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies



1 See: 2 Charles Lister. Returning Foreign Fighters: Criminalization or Reintegration? (Doha: Brookings Institution, August 2015). Retrieved from 3 Lizzie Dearden, “Swedish city to offer returning Isis fighters housing and benefits in reintegration programme”. Independent (October 20, 2016). Retrieved from 4 Alastair Reed & Johanna Pohl. Tackling the Surge of Returning Foreign Fighters (The Hague: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), July 2017). Retrieved from


GUEST POST: "Who Is a Muslim?”: Mubi Mosque Attack, Masjid ad-Ḍirār, and the Historical Attempt at Defining a Muslim in the 19th, 20th and 21st Century Hausaland and Bornu

As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this websites administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy researchers to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net. Click here to see an archive of all guest posts. — “Who Is a Muslim?”: Mubi Mosque Attack, Masjid ad-Ḍirār, and the Historical Attempt at Defining a Muslim in the 19th, 20th and 21st Century Hausaland and Bornu By Abdulbasit Kassim Nigeria has once again made the global headlines and this time the place of interest is not Chibok, but the town of Mubi in Adamawa state where Abu Bakr Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram conducted a suicide attack in a mosque in the early hours of the morning prayer on November 21, 2017, killing up to 50 people. Mubi is home to the famous International cattle market “Kasuwa Shanu” and was previously renamed by Abu Bakr Shekau as “Madinat al-Islam” alongside Gwoza in Yobe state which was renamed as “Dar al-Hikmah” in his August 23, 2014, video titled “إعلان الخلافة الإسلامية” (Declaration of the Islamic caliphate). As usual with most commentaries after Boko Haram’s attacks, the larger question about what exactly spurred the incessant attacks on mosques, specifically by Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram, is disregarded in place of superficial analysis and specious judgments that obscure the underlying body of ideational thought that undergird the justification of attacks on Mosques or to use Shekau’s obnoxious parlance the attacks on “Masjid ad-Ḍirār,” a reference to the “Mosque of Dissent” whose destruction was ordered by the Prophet Muhammad after his return from the battle of Tabuk (see Qur`an 9:107-110). The little attention paid to the corpus of books and lectures Shekau delivered on this topic which contributed to the schism in his group with Abu Mus`ab al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur has confounded our understanding of this trend which is due to continue unabated.
Before the next mosque attack, this short piece is an attempt to answer the following questions: What are the underlying ideational thought that undergird Shekau’s justification for mosque attacks? How does Shekau’s understanding of this subject differ from the interpretation of his rivals in the Islamic State’s West African Province, Abu Mus`ab al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur? And finally, how does the theological debate of “who is a Muslim,” a debate whose historical precedent dates back to the 19th century in Hausaland and Bornu contribute to Shekau’s justification of mosque attacks. This short piece is set to provide a panoramic view of the landscape that must be properly understood for insightful judgment on the current trend on mosque attacks in Northeast Nigeria.
In their Arabic letter of protest against Shekau’s leadership written in 2011 to the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Shari`a advisor `Abdallah al-Shinqiti, the future leaders of Ansaru [Abu Muhammad al-Hausawi, Abu Ahmad al-Kishnawi, Khalid al-Barnawi, Abu al-Bara`a al-Nurini al-Akinawi, Abu `Ubayda al-Kanawi, Abu `Abdalla al-Imam, Abu Muslim al-Ibrahimi, Abu Khalid al-Yerawi, Abu Nusayba al-Bushawi, Abu Maryam al-Ya`qub, and Abu `Asim al-Hasani] raised the first objection against Shekau’s excessive use of takfīr against other Muslims. In the letter, they wrote: “al-Shekawi uses takfīr for all those who participate in elections disregarding the principles and rules of takfīr. He makes things worse by not stopping at this point, but adding to this the permissibility of bloodshed and confiscation of possessions as clearly explained at the beginning of this letter as if he was a graduate from the school of Antar al-Zouabri (the leader of the Algerian group, GIA).”
Shekau is not the first person to be accused of using excessive takfīr against other Muslims. The genealogy of the doctrine of takfīr in Hausaland and Bornu can be traced to Shaykh Jibril `Umar, one of the teachers of Shaykh `Uthmān Ibn Fūdī who was also the first to pledge allegiance to him before the Jihad in 1804. In his book “نصائح الأمة المحمدية لبيان الفرق الشيطانية التى ظهرت في بلادنا السودانية,” after praising his Shaykh and warning against having bad thoughts about him, Shaykh Ibn Fūdī went further to exculpate his teacher from the charges of being a Khawarij: “It may be that he had an explanation for this which we are unaware of because he was a great sea of knowledge. O Brethren! Do not think ill of this great Shaykh, I do not know if we would have been guided to the way of the Sunna and the quelling of evil practices had it not been started by this Shaykh. For it was him who began to destroy evil practices in this Sudan land of ours and it is for us to complete that works.”
Although Shaykh Ibn Fūdī respectfully declared that his teacher erred in his declaration of takfīr on Muslims who engaged in grave sins (kabā`ir) or indulge in local customs that do not contravene the dictates of Islam, he would later apply a more orthodox interpretation that limit takfīr to major polytheism (Shirk al-Akbar) to the Hausa rulers whom he accused of practicing syncretism and also on the Borno Muslim rulers whom he argued allied themselves with the Hausa rulers. In his book “نجم الإخوان يهتدون به بإذن الله في أمور الزمان,” Shaykh Ibn Fūdī stated the three reasons for fighting the ruler of Kanem Borno and his followers: 1. their partial acceptance of Islam; 2. their hostility towards those who embrace Islam; and 3. their support and assistance to infidels (Hausa rulers) fighting against the Muslims: “The reason we considered the ruler of Bornu and his follower as unbelievers is because of their partial acceptance of Islam. There is no doubt that these people are overtly infidels. But with regards to those who embraced Islam among them, we still declared them to be infidels and this is similar to what al-Maghilī said to Sonni `Ali and his followers in his books `Ajwibat al-Maghilī `an asilat al-Amin al-Hajj Muhammad Askiya’ and Miṣbahu al-arwāh fī usūl al falāh’.”
Takfīr does not only excommunicate a Muslim from Islam, it also makes permissible the shedding of the blood of a Muslim accused of unbelief even before the killing of an original infidel (Kafir al-asl). For a detailed discussion of the concept of Takfīr and how it applies to the Jihadis read Nelly Lahoud’s book “The Jihadis Path to Self-Destruction”. Most of the books of Shaykh Ibn Fūdī where the discourses of takfīr were discussed are frequently cited in the books authored by Shekau to justify his declaration of takfīr on present-day Nigerian leaders ruling by the secular constitution and also on Muslims who support democracy and “man-made legislation.” To be fair and objective, even though the historical periods are different, the charges leveled against the Hausa rulers and the present-day Nigerian rulers are analogous, the charges of unbelief (Kufr) for ruling by other than the Shari`a. But even with his expansive list of what constitutes major polytheism including voting in elections and condoning democracy, Shekau did not stop at the declaration of takfīr alone, he further make permissible attacks on those who flee from his caliphate for the Nigerian state, which he described as “Dar al-Kufr” (most attacks on IDP camps are carried out by Shekau’s faction) and he also legalized attacks on mosques attended by those whom he declared as infidels under the guise of “Masjid ad-Ḍirār” i.e. in his words, the mosques were not built for the purpose of piety but for the purpose of combining the worship of God with the polytheism of calling for the support of democracy, secular constitution and man-made legislation all of which according to him constitute unbelief (Kufr). Before explaining how Shekau arrived at his reasoning, it is important to explore the second epoch of contestation over the doctrine of takfīr which took place in the post-colonial period mainly between the Izalas and the Sufis of the Tijaniyya order. In his book “العقيدة الصحيحة بموافقة الشريعة”, Shaykh Abubakar Gumi declared a subtle takfīr on the Sufi leaders whom he compared to the Jews and Christians who knew the truth of Islam but refused to follow it. Shaykh Gumi went further to declare that the use of Ṣalāt al-Fātiḥ excommunicates the Sufis from Islam. In his response to the polemic of Shaykh Gumi and his critic from the Tijaniyya order, Ibrahim b. Sidi Muhammad b. Muhammad Salma who accused him of secretly supporting the Izalas, Shaykh Ibrahim Saleh wrote the two books “التكفير اخطر بدعة تهدد الوحدة بين المسلمين في نيجيريا” and “المغير على شبهات أهل الأهواء وأكاذيب المنكر على كتاب التكفير.” In the first book, Shaykh Saleh wrote a rejoinder to Shaykh Gumi’s subtle takfīr on the Sufi leaders specifically his notion that members of the Tijanniya order revere Ṣalāt al-Fātiḥ more than the Qur`an which he countered by emphasizing that Shaykh Ahmad Tijani never sanction such comparison. The second book was written in defense of Sufi beliefs and a re-examination of some doctrines of the Tijanniya order. At the second epoch, the takfīr debate was mainly restricted to devotional acts of worship and there was little or no connection of the debate to the issue of politics and governance like the time of Ibn Fūdī. This restriction will radically change in the third epoch.

The takfīr debate was furthered in the third epoch by new actors, the Saudi returnees who furthered the arguments of the Izala clerics but with a more refined Saudi-influenced theology and the firebrand students who were mostly the students of the Saudi returnees and who refused to abide by the limitation set forth by the Saudi returnees. According to the firebrand students whose leading figure was Muhammad Yusuf, the takfīr debate should not be restricted only to the polemics against the Sufi clerics but it should also be extended to the discourse of politics and governance like the period of Ibn Fūdī. In his Markaz Ibn Taymiyya, Muhammad Yusuf and his followers pitched their discourse of takfīr on the political rulers who govern by qawānīn wad`iyyah (man-made laws) and he argued that their Kufr is not different from the Kufr of the Sufi leaders, therefore if the Salafi establishment can condemn the Sufi leaders as infidels, they must do the same for the political rulers. While often citing the book of Imam Sharastani titled “الملل والنحل,” Yusuf convincingly refuted the Kharijites appellation penned on his group. In his debate with Mallam Isa Ali Pantami on June 25, 2006, Yusuf laid out his understanding of takfīr:
“All the followers of Sunna have reached a consensus on the principle of declaring a Muslim as an infidel. Anything that constitutes unbelief, if an unbeliever does it; he is already an unbeliever, no query. He does not have to do it to become an unbeliever. But if a person is a practicing Muslim and he

GUEST POST: Hymnal Propaganda: A Closer Look at 'Clanging of the Swords'

As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this websites administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy researchers to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.
Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

Hymnal Propaganda: A Closer Look at ‘Clanging of the Swords’
Nashīds are a prime example of the Islamic State’s efforts to combine old and new rhetorical features to promote and legitimize its violent ends
By Alexander Schinis
Part of the Islamic State’s (IS) claim to fame is its high-value media productions. Some of its most popular productions are its hymns, or anashīd, which have spread around the world in the past years. The hymns serve as a rallying cry to their listeners, a call-to-arms on behalf of the terror group’s military goals. More than just overt calls for war, though, anashīd serve the group as foundational and legitimizing texts. Coded within the works of IS-produced anashīd are clues about its efforts to cast itself as the leader of global jihad.
This article will examine some of the structural features of one of IS’s most popular anashīd. In addition to these features, an assessment of the martial lyrical content of the nashīd will follow. Analyzing these features together will reveal some of IS’s many strategies in legitimizing itself as heir to leadership over the Islamic ummah.
What is a nashīd?
A nashīd (plural: anashīd) is a vocalized chant, frequently polyphonic and often without any instrumentation. There is significant variation across genres of anashīd. The work of Behnam Said includes some of the most comprehensive research into the history and cultural relevance of these types of works (Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 2012).
The focus here is on the public-facing anashīd produced by IS. The qualities of these anashīd place the works somewhere between an exultant battle hymn and self-righteous national anthem.
One of IS’s most well-known anashīd, called Clanging of the Swords,” offers a compelling example of what such a nashīd looks and sounds like. This nashīd was retrieved from Aymenn al-Tamimi offers one version of the English translation, linked here. Featuring the vocals of the munshid Abu Yaser, the nashīd made its debut in the video propaganda production of the same name in the summer of 2014.
Repetition in the nashīd
It will not take long for the listener to recognize how repetitive “Clanging of the Swords” is. Repetition is an integral part of many of IS’s anashīd. However, this should not be read as a lack of creativity on the part of their creators. Instead, the nashīd presents itself as a medium that enjoys a strong relationship with memory. Charles Hirschkind, in a study of sermons and the practice of “ethical listening” in Egypt, found that sermons could be easily memorizable because of their use of repetition (Columbia University Press, 2006). He points to Marcel Jousse’s theory of gesture and memory, which states that gestures, such as aural patterns, are predisposed to easy memorization. The nashīd’s use of repetition is likely a strategy used by IS to facilitate their memorization by its intended audience.
Repetition in “Clanging of the Swords” appears on a few levels. The first is its repetition of the chorus, made up of four lines. The hymn repeats this chorus of four lines seven times – sometimes back-to-back – in the period of the hymn’s approximately three minute run time.
The second level of repetition in the anthem appears in an echo-like effect for certain lines, immediately after their utterance. The hymn has three discrete stanzas, all of which demonstrate this pattern, and the last line of each stanza is repeated. Taking into account the repetition of its chorus, in this scheme, 34 lines of verse are repeated at least once. Of the hymn’s total of 40 lines, only six lines do not find repetition in the hymn. This makes the non-repeated verses outliers in the verse repetition scheme of the nashīd.
The third level of repetition in “Clanging of the Swords” is the reiteration of a number of themes and words. This is partly a function of the two tiers of repetition noted above. Across the chorus and stanzas there are specific words that appear several times. If the subject of the hymn is the listener, the object is “the enemy.” The anthem invokes the word “enemy” or “enemies” (in Arabic, عدو \ أعداء) “oppressors” (in Arabic, الطغاة) or “aggressors” more than any other object in the work. Other recurring words and phrases that appear across lines and stanzas are ideas of a righteous “path,” the notion of “sacrifice,” and references to “God.”
The extensive and multi-layered use of repetition, when taking into account the theories of Hirshkind and Jousse, serves the political aims of IS’s cultural productions by lending the works to quick memorization by the listener.
Monorhyme in the nashīd
Structural repetition makes this and other anashīd catchy and quick to commit to memory, but other features lend the nashīd deeper significance to certain audiences. One such feature in “Clanging of the Swords” is the use of monorhyme, i.e., the rhyming of each line of verse with all other lines.
Each line of the hymn is made up of two hemistichs, and in the original Arabic of the hymn, the last vocalization of each line’s second hemistich rhymes with an “a” sound. This is achieved with a few different schemes. One includes rhyming different letters with similar sounds. This is seen in the chorus, where the use of the

GUEST POST: The Fitna in Deraa and the Islamic State Angle

As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.
Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

The Fitna in Deraa and the Islamic State Angle
By Aymenn al-Tamimi
International attention has justifiably focused on the recent Islamic State [IS] attacks in Brussels, but at the same time within Syria the most intense round of infighting among rebel factions in the southern province of Deraa has broken out. This fighting is said to be tied to the existence of IS cells and affiliates in Deraa, though IS itself has not said anything about the events on its official media channels, and to date there is no wilayat Deraa (‘Deraa province’) declared in the area. So who are the groups involved? And how far are they connected to IS if at all?

The most prominent aspect of the infighting is a continuation of the war in the southwest corner of the province between Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade- LSY) and Syrian al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which is a leading player along with Ahrar al-Sham in a southern Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in imitation of the successful rebel alliance that expelled the Assad regime from Idlib province in spring 2015. The war itself traces back to clashes between Jabhat al-Nusra and LSY in December 2014 on the grounds that the latter had links with IS.

Though there was widespread skepticism of that notion at the time, it is apparent from LSY’s own media output, discourse and actions since the initial clashes that it has open affinity with IS. Even so, LSY continues to deny in its own statements that it has links with IS, and on this basis many reports still characterize LSY as just pro-IS and/or a ‘wannabe.’ However, it is most likely that the LSY denials are encouraged by IS for fear of jeopardizing the project of building links and influence in Deraa. The reality is that LSY’s connections began around the summer of 2014, after the MOC operations command in Amman suspended support for LSY and IS announced its Caliphate. These first links were established online and through visits to IS territory.

A key figure in these initial interactions was the LSY Shari’i official Abu Muhammad al-Masalama, a veteran of the Afghan jihad who returned to southern Syria and eventually joined LSY. He was assassinated in November 2014. If one understands his role in establishing the connections between LSY and IS, it becomes clearer why Step News Agency described him in an obituary as “an important leader among the supporters of the Dawla organization in Deraa.”

More recently- and relevant to the latest developments- LSY announced the surprise appointment of a Saudi as its new amir: Abu Abdullah al-Madani. The move was unusual because the Deraa environment is much less welcoming than the north of Syria for muhajireen, partly because of local hostility but also because of the watchful eye of Jordanian intelligence and tight border controls.  In keeping with the public denial of an IS connection, LSY framed the appointment of Madani as the owing of allegiance to him. However, he was actually sent by IS on account of the poor administrative skills of Abu Obeida Qahtan: a Palestinian-Syrian veteran of the Afghan jihad who was among the founders of LSY and succeeded the original leader al-Khal following his assassination in November 2015. The reshuffling of the leadership can perhaps be tied to plans for the new offensive LSY has launched, capturing the localities of Tasil and Sahm al-Jowlan from Jabhat al-Nusra and the rebels.

A group cooperating with LSY in the latest round of fighting is Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya (Islamic Muthanna Movement- HMI). Whereas LSY, despite al-Khal’s radical background, was initially founded as an FSA-brand group, HMI was founded from the outset in 2012 as a Salafi jihadi group, headed by former Sednaya detainee Aamer Ayyub al-Masalama. That said, aware of local sensitivities and wishing to build popular support, HMI has always maintained a policy of rejecting muhajireen.

HMI is suspected by many of having links with IS- and for this reason has been on the radar of Israeli intelligence- but one does not see the open display of affinity that comes out in LSY. What may be considered as relevant evidence does not necessarily point one way or another. For example, a statement was issued by HMI in spring 2015 on the subject of IS: while HMI made clear it does not accept IS’ Caliphate declaration, the group praised IS for having fought “the states of kufr [disbelief] and their aides from the apostates,” and took a stance of neutrality on the fighting between IS and other factions, praying for an end to fitna. In addition, critics of HMI see IS affinities in its tactics of assassinations of rivals and running of secret prisons, which culminated in open clashes with a number of FSA Southern Front factions in January 2016, contributing to the fall of Sheikh Maskeen to the regime. HMI also rejects the authority of the Dar al-‘Adl, which is the main judicial authority among southern rebels, and has not participated with Jabhat al-Nusra and southern Jaysh al-Fatah in the war on LSY.

On the other hand, the group issued an internal directive in 2015 warning against reckless takfiri behaviour and was actually one of the first to clash with LSY in summer 2014 as LSY began establishing links with IS. Also, there is a degree of localization as regards HMI’s involvement in the latest fighting. For example, there are no signs of clashes between HMI and other rebels in Deraa al-Balad, the southern half of the provincial capital. The local outlet Naba’ media told me that this is because “members of al-Muthanna in the city have announced that they are only obligated to fight the regime.” As for the rejection of the Dar al-‘Adl, under which HMI initially worked but withdrew about a year ago, it should also be noted that Jabhat al-Nusra similarly rejects the body for its use of the Unified Arab Code, which combines civil and Shari’a law as opposed to jihadist groups’ vision of rule solely by God’s law.

Analytically, it is perhaps most appropriate to see a HMI as similar to Jund al-Aqsa, whose leadership rejects the IS Caliphate but insists one can only fight IS in strict self-defence, while some of its members sympathise with IS and have even defected. That said, the analogy is not exact because

GUEST POST: From al-Shabab to the Islamic State: The Bay‘a of ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min and Its Implications

As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.
Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

From Al-Shabab to the Islamic State: The Bay‘a of ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min and Its Implications
By Christopher Anzalone
Note: These are not definitive conclusions but initial thoughts.
On October 22 a poor quality mp3 recording was posted online of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min pledging allegiance (bay‘a) to the amir of the Islamic State (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and thus switching his allegiance from the Somali jihadi-insurgent group Al-Shabab to IS.  Mu’min, a longtime Al-Shabab preacher, ideologue, and leader, created a stir among jihadis and jihadi supporters online, particularly those supportive of IS, as well as analysts.  There is no doubt that his defection from Al-Shabab to IS is of major symbolic importance in the competition between Al-Qa‘ida Central (AQC) and its regional affiliates and IS, which has succeeded in attracting pledges of allegiance from a host of groups, from Jama‘at Ahl al-Sunna li-l-Da‘wat wa-l-Jihad (“Boko Haram”) in Nigeria and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Sinai to a faction of the former unified Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan umbrella led by Hafiz Sa‘id Khan, the former TTP amir of the Orakzai tribal agency in Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas.  It is important, however, to keep Mu’min’s defection with a group of rank-and-file fighters from Al-Shabab’s Puntland branch in and around the Golis mountain range in perspective and not to exaggerate its immediate impact.  In this article, which is based on two long series of tweets posted a few days ago (see here and here), the symbolic importance of Mu’min’s bay‘a to al-Baghdadi and its potential impact will be examined in order to provide some additional context to the preacher’s role within Al-Shabab and shed more light on why his departure from its ranks is significant.
Mu’min, a onetime resident of London, returned to Somalia in mid-2010 and by the summer of 2011 had publicly emerged as a player within Al-Shabab, making great use of his status as a religious scholar (‘alim) and skilled preacher in giving the jihadi-rebel group an added aura of “religious” authenticity and support.  In the summer of 2011, he played an integral role in the insurgents’ outreach to local communities and clan elders at a time when Al-Shabab was facing a renewed African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali federal government offensive.  Mu’min and other Al-Shabab officials, including the then-Shabab governor of the Banaadir region, Muhammad Hasan ‘Umar Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman, met with local community leaders, merchants, religious scholars (‘ulama), and poets in neighborhoods around Mogadishu in an attempt to win their support against AMISOM and the Somali government.  Mu’min was particularly active in making pitches to other ‘ulama in order to win their support.  In May 2011, Mu’min was one of the Al-Shabab officials chosen to speak at the group’s official memorial conference and ceremony for the late AQC amir Usama bin Laden.  Mu’min also was a featured speaker in February 2012 at another major Al-Shabab event, its official celebration in Lafoole in the Lower Shabelle region of the formalization of its affiliation with AQC.  
The preacher’s symbolic importance also comes from the promotion previously by Al-Shabab and its media apparatus of his lectures, including a lengthy series of lectures of his oral tafsir of the Qur’an, featured roles in a series of official propaganda films, and the promotion of his recorded remarks and statements on its radio stations.  In 2012, Mu’min relocated to Puntland where he worked to further Al-Shabab’s goals of expanding in that region.  As part of this campaign, he continued to record interviews and statements that were broadcast on Al-Shabab’s terrestrial radio stations and in 2015 he was featured in a series of official films produced by the group’s Al-Kata’ib Media Foundation.  His most recent appearances were in a series of three Ramadan lectures filmed in the Golis Mountains released in July.  Up until mid-September, he was still participating in Al-Shabab’s media operations campaign.
The exact number of rank-and-file fighters from Al-Shabab’s Puntland branch who left with Mu’min remains unknown with any certainty.  The majority of initial reports placed the number at being between 20 and 25, though other sources claimed that a much higher number of fighters, perhaps the majority of the 300 or so strong Puntland branch, had also defected with the preacher.  Although the number is important, and a higher number of defections would more greatly affect Al-Shabab logistically since it is suffering from defections of fighters who have taken advantage of offers of amnesty from the Somali government, Mu’min’s defection is still a symbolic blow to the group regardless of the exact number.  This challenge, however, while important, is not necessarily insurmountable as of this time.
Recent signs suggest that the central Al-Shabab leadership, including regional governors, are disposed to remaining loyal to AQC amir Ayman al-Zawahiri, though they have clearly been struggling for some time about how to react to the growing popularity of IS.  The late amir of Al-Shabab, Ahmed Godane, uneasily navigated this question and ultimately decided to remain loyal to al-Zawahiri.  His successor, Ahmad “Abu ‘Ubayda” ‘Umar, also quickly reaffirmed the group’s loyalty to the AQC chief upon taking over the rebel group.  Al-Shabab was also one of the first AQC-aligned groups to eulogize Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar, the founding amir of the Afghan Taliban.  After it was made public in late July that ‘Umar had died of natural causes in April 2013, Al-Shabab organized funeral prayers (salat al-janaza) for him and continued referring to him as “amir al-mu’minin” (commander of the faithful), a title also claimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  
Al-Shabab’s media, though it has always been attracted to Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi and the late Islamic State of Iraq leaders Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, continues to speak respectfully of al-Zawahiri.  Al-Shabab’s senior leadership has not responded publicly yet to Mu’min’s defection, but his move has been criticized by Al-Muhajiroun, a group of Swahili-speaking jihadis aligned with the Somali insurgents and particularly Ahmad Iman Ali, the Kenyan jihadi preacher in charge of Al-Shabab’s Kenyan foreign fighters coming from the Muslim Youth Centre/Al-Hijra recruiting networks in Nairobi, Garissa, and the Swahili Coast.  It also took the Al-Shabab leadership some time to formulate an official response to dissident American foreign fighter Omar Hammami in 2012, with Hammami publicly announcing his break with the group and commencing with extensive online criticism of it in March but Al-Shabab not releasing a detailed response to his allegations until mid-December of that year.  IS has yet to officially accept Mu’min’s bay‘a, though there is little question that the group’s leadership will do so because it is an economical way of projecting an image of expansion and influence without having to make any significant initial investment of resources.  
Ultimately, the medium and long-term impact of the defection of Mu’min and those Puntland-based fighters who left with him rests on future on-the-ground developments in Somalia and East Africa.  If the preacher is joined by other important figures and factions within Al-Shabab’s ranks, for example Ahmad Iman ‘Ali and significant numbers of Kenyan and other East African foreign fighters, who make up a significant number of Al-Shabab’s strength now, the balance could shift against the group’s AQC-aligned leadership.  If discord grows within Al-Shabab’s ranks, it may also enable the Somali government and AMISOM to woo away fighters disillusioned with internal infighting and violence.
Christopher Anzalone is a PhD candidate (ABD) in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.  He has published articles previously on Al-Shabab, the Kenyan Muslim Youth Centre/Al-Hijra, Al-Qa‘ida, the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,  jihadi media operations, foreign fighters, Islamist visual cultures, and the Islamic State.  You can follow him on Twitter and

GUEST POST: ISIS and the Hollywood Visual Style

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.
Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

ISIS and the Hollywood Visual Style
By Cori E. Dauber and Mark Robinson
The slick production techniques ISIS uses in its propaganda are the reason people have written about their videos as “Hollywood quality” or “like Hollywood movies.” Obviously this is not, strictly speaking, true. When people write about ISIS videos being like “Hollywood action films,” they don’t mean that in a literal sense – Hollywood blockbusters, after all, cost on average several hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. But that doesn’t mean people saying that aren’t onto something. They’re seeing something in ISIS videos that is reminiscent of Hollywood films that they don’t see in the videos of other groups. Yes, ISIS videos are of far higher quality than are those of other groups – we would say they are, technically, a generation ahead of most others. But there’s something else going on here that people are cueing on. We would argue that, visually, ISIS videos mimic what could be called a “Hollywood visual style.” And this is being done so systematically and carefully that, while its entirely possible that it’s accidental, we find that very unlikely.
While there has been a great deal of work done on the way ISIS uses Social Media to distribute their materials, our focus is on the content of their output, specifically, on their visual material. We believe this focus is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the enormous amount of empirical research that argues that visual material, in many contexts, can actually be more powerful than textual. That is to say, the image can trump the word: it more effectively draws the viewer’s attention, it is remembered more accurately and for a longer period of time.
That’s all well and good, but what specifically does it mean to say that ISIS material is sophisticated in visual terms, or that their videos are done in a “Hollywood visual style?” While that’s a complicated question to get after, one can start by breaking it down in terms of the way ISIS makes use of some of the compositional elements of production to contribute to the persuasive power of their materials, in a way that other groups either cannot or simply do not. We’ll directly contrast some of their videos with some of Jabhat al Nusrah’s to make the point.

  1. What the viewer will notice first: the opening graphics package and the clarity of the image.

ISIS employs “industry standards” for video. That doesn’t necessarily mean standard for Hollywood, it might mean what you see in commercial video or advertisement, but its what we have become accustomed to seeing, what the eye has become accustomed to for anyone who watches a good bit of professionally shot and uploaded media. Neither of us can speak to what is standard outside of Europe and North America, but it seems worth noting that ISIS is systematically working to use visual standards that will give their videos an underlying professional look to someone whose eye is accustomed to a European or North American industry standard.
This is done through a variety of techniques: for example, through the way they deal with the colors in their videos, by adjusting the range of colors you see. They minimize the color palette that comes across on video so that, for instance, there are fewer variances, fewer “shades of red,” presented in their videos than there were in the physical world seen through the viewfinder when they were filming. The result is that the reds they do show you are more vibrant, brighter, higher contrast, and they come across looking sharper and clearer. Just look at how saturated the colors of the produce are in this frame from one of the Mujatweets Episodes:
This requires planning, both pre-and post-production. Many of their videos were clearly shot by a media team trained (and trained sufficiently) to execute in a “digital age” style. So you see this kind of color saturation, high contrast, and an emphasis on resolution. You also see a shallow depth of field – in other words, there is a tight focus on something or someone, but the rest of the visual field is intentionally out of focus. That’s a good example of what we mean by “Hollywood style.” It points specifically to a contemporary trend set by younger media professionals, but someone who had just randomly picked up a camera certainly wouldn’t know to do that. If you look at the most expensively produced Hollywood films of the 1970s or ‘80s, you won’t see a shallow depth of field, because it’s a fairly recent development. As an example:

When video is shot (and when someone prepares to share it via the web or phone) the video must go through a compression process. This makes the files smaller at the cost of lost resolution and visual impact. Most videos we look at are grainy in part because of this process. Another reason ISIS’ videos read as so crisp and clear relative to those of other groups is that they have been shot more carefully and compressed much more carefully.
In less professional videos, already compressed sequences are put together, then exported through a compressor. These lesser quality videos are thus compressed to a point that they appear amateurish, since they read as if the person who produced them didn’t know or, at least, didn’t care that the resolution drops significantly when videos are prepared this way. This is what creates the grainy, pixelated effect. Think about how you automatically can tell the difference between the professionally shot and prepared footage from a news network and the amateur footage that network pulled from some random guy who just happened to be there with a cellphone camera in his pocket when a newsworthy event took place.
IS videos that are crystal clear suggest that there was a crafting hand behind them, one that was trained and careful.
Earlier videos from AQ and the affiliates paid no attention to contemporary industry principles and standards. More recent videos from ISIS (and more and more from some other groups) mark a clear movement: they are being produced according to knowledge and execution of industry standard in the entire process, from pre- to post-production. It seems clear that their media teams are getting trained somewhere.
There is no question that the content of some of the most recent videos released by JN were substantially better than what had been their baseline. But as often seems to be the case with groups other than ISIS, these major advances do not then override, with the prior, weaker style disappearing. There is not a single, controlling visual style, so that even after videos of much higher quality are released, those videos will then be followed by others that look the same as earlier, weaker releases did.
In this JN video that was released recently, they didn’t really know what they were doing, so they were filming with a non-professional, handy-cam, while moving way too fast:

If we just take a still of the sign you can see why that footage appears to be of low quality. Look at the leaves around the sign, and you can see that the image is actually pixelating.
As far as graphics are concerned, as software became available making it easier and easier to produce computer-animated graphics, not only did it become commonplace for these videos to begin with animations, they are often now relatively sophisticated even if the accompanying video is of very low quality. Still, ISIS is in a class by themselves here for several reasons: the consistency of the quality, the crisp resolution of almost all of the graphics they use, and, a key factor, the design. Many groups acquired the ability to incorporate animations, but not necessarily any ability to design ones that worked. Often they go on forever, they’re distracting, they’ve got so much going on, the eye can’t figure out where to focus, and so on.
On this measure, JN made enormous leaps forward recently:

It isn’t, by the way, only JN making these leaps. This one from AQAP is hard to miss: its eye-catching, attractive, and likely took several days of work by someone who really knew what they were doing:

But of course groups now insert graphics into the middle of videos, not just at the beginning.

And compare that to the way ISIS uses graphics in the Mujatweets series:

  1. Composition:

Most ISIS videos appear as if every frame of every shot of every scene has been carefully calculated, thought through, and laid out.
Just consider the stock piece of footage that they use over and over (and that some news networks use as a “visual metaphor” for ISIS): two rows of fighters, one in the black “ninja” outfit, the other row dressed in white, both marching in unison, shot in slow motion and from below. Keep in mind, it is a truism that what is filmed from below will appear larger, more imposing, more authoritative, and so forth. It’s stock footage for them because it came out so well.
Now consider the JN version by way of comparison. You hardly need a communication or media specialist to point out the differences – the outfits don’t match, the editing is jumpy, “professional” is hardly the word that leaps to mind here. But part of the reason it looks this

GUEST POST: TTP Says That Baghdadi’s Caliphate Is Not Islamic—But Is Anyone Listening?

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.
Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

TTP Says That Baghdadi’s Caliphate Is Not Islamic—But Is Anyone Listening? 
By Dur-e-Aden
On June 15, 2015, the Taliban in Pakistan released a 66 page document in Urdu detailing why Baghdadi’s caliphate is not Islamic. While organized in the form of an academic paper, with a central thesis and scholarly citations, the document itself is hastily written and is an exercise in repetition. Nevertheless, it gives a glimpse into the strategic thinking of TTP, and indicates that they feel threatened enough by Baghdadi to release this statement.
The introductory paragraphs discuss the time of the Prophet, and contrasts Baghdadi’s actions against it. For example, when the Prophet was militarily weak in Mecca, he did not break any idols in the Kaaba since this would have opened up a war on multiple fronts. Moreover, he did not kill those hypocrites who claimed to be Muslims but were actually enemies of Islam, as people would have accused him of killing his friends and starting a civil war. In short, he was a pragmatic military strategist, and doing so didn’t entail that he was giving in to the kuffar (infidels). Today, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan see themselves as following this path by only fighting the occupying forces, while both Hanafi and Salafi Muslims reside on this land. However, ISIS’s actions against other Muslims, especially in the Nangahar province, from the Taliban’s perspective is benefitting the enemies of Islam.
The document then lists 24 reasons laced with religious references, both from the Islamic history of different caliphates, as well as the opinions of various Salafi and non-Salafi scholars. The central theme is that a caliph cannot be appointed without the consensus of the majority of the Umma. In the case of Baghdadi, neither the majority of the Muslim Umma, nor the majority of the Jihadi Umma, have pledged allegiance to him. The document lists examples of people such as Mullah Omar, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, Abdollah Mohsini, Abu Qatada al-Falasteeni, as well as emirs of Al-Shabaab, AQAP, and South-east Asian militant groups, whose lack of support has rendered his caliphate to be invalid. Finally, even if Baghdadi claims to be elected by a Shura of representatives, how can a caliph that is supposed to be the leader of Muslims worldwide be selected only by a regional Shura?
The document goes on to discuss certain responsibilities of a caliph that Baghdadi is not equipped to carry out. For example, a caliph is supposed to defend all Muslims and create conditions where they can live in peace.  However, considering that Baghdadi himself is in involved in war, how can he protect Muslims worldwide, from Xinjiang to Morocco, who are embroiled in different conflicts? Furthermore, a caliph has to be involved in the day to day affairs of his people such as resolving disputes, collecting zakat from the rich to give to the poor, and making people follow Sharia. Baghdadi on the other hand, can’t even appear in public. While talking about these issues, the document refers to a Prophet’s saying, which states that “Both me (the Prophet) and God curse him who forcefully imposes his rule without the consent of the Muslims.”
The final part of the document challenges specific interpretations of ISIS with regards to the primary Islamic sources. TTP argue that all the “misguided” sects throughout history have quoted the texts to justify their ideological positions. For example, Mu’tazila believe that Quran is a created book because God says in the Quran that “God created everything.” Similarly, Barelvis claim that Prophet is present everywhere because Quran mentions, “And among you is his Messenger.” However, the TTP argues, these interpretations are still wrong. Therefore, when Baghdadi quotes the hadith which urges Muslims to pledge allegiance to their caliph or they would die in ignorance, it does not refer to his caliphate. It only refers to the caliphate of a specific Imam who is appointed according to Sharia, and whose appointment fulfills all the conditions of the bayah. As we (the TTP) have shown, that is not the case.
But is this document going to be effective in persuading people to not join ISIS? It is very unlikely. As both Graeme Wood and Hassan Hassan have argued, one of the important characteristics of ISIS’s ideology is that it is anti-clerical. Hence, going against centuries of established Islamic traditions, and directly to the text of Quran and the Hadith gives them a certain purity. As a result, when others claim that ISIS is not Islamic, they are not only immune to this messaging, but actually enjoy it. ISIS refers to the Prophet’s hadith which states that during the end of times, there will be 73 sects of Muslims, and only one of them will be the true one. Seeing so many other Muslim sects united against them actually proves their point. Therefore, when it comes to the new generation of jihadists, even those in Afghanistan and Pakistan can get motivated by ISIS’s peculiar religious ideology, accompanied by a winning narrative, illusions of grandeur, and a promise to be part of an historical project.
However, because Pakistan in particular has a plethora of jihadist groups, their core members are unlikely to shift their allegiance to ISIS, especially if they have fought for a particular cause for a long time (e.g. against India, against Coalition forces in Afghanistan, against Pakistani state etc.), and that cause has become central to their identity. Being part of a coherent organizational structure increases the likelihood that those members are clearheaded of what their short term goals are, and being part of a worldwide caliphate doesn’t appear near the top of their lists.
Finally, while this is true that some of the defectors from these established groups, such as the TTP itself, have pledged allegiance to ISIS; it should be noted that those members defected at a time when they were dissatisfied with their positions in the existing organization, and the organization was going through infighting. In other words, there might be an underlying opportunistic motivation for their defection, as opposed to an ideological one. Not to mention that Taliban comes from a Deobandi tradition within Islam, which is distinctive from the Salafist background of ISIS. This can spell good and bad news for ISIS. The good news is that they have helped ISIS in establishing a presence in the Af-Pak region. The bad news is that opportunistic fighters are more likely to accelerate the divisions within ISIS’s ranks as well, as they compete for money and power (the reasons that they left their previous organizations for). Moreover, they are more likely to neglect or disobey ISIS’s orders over the long run, especially if the ideological commitment to ISIS’s cause is absent.
Therefore for now, as far as this document goes, TTP might be preaching to an already convinced audience.
Dur-e-Aden is a PhD student at University of Toronto where her research focuses on rebel recruitment within Islamist insurgent organizations. She holds a MA in Political Science from University of British Columbia, and tweets @aden1990.

GUEST POST: The Syria Twitter Financiers Post-Sanctions

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.
Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

The Syria Twitter Financiers Post-Sanctions
By Asher Berman
A new type of financier supporting Islamist armed groups emerged during the initial years of the Syrian conflict. These Gulf-based financiers openly advertised their activities on social media, using the medium to attract donations from across the Gulf. In some cases, they publicly documented their successive trips to Syria and meetings with prominent Islamist rebel leaders, which made them celebrities in the Islamist Twitter scene. One particularly prominent network of financiers was associated with the Umma Party, a Salafist opposition movement that was started in Kuwait in 2008 and spread to other Gulf countries during the Arab Spring. Other financiers worked independently or banded together to form joint fundraising campaigns.
The international community moved slowly to neutralize these financiers, but in August 2014, the US government sanctioned two of the most prominent individuals, Hajaj al-Ajmi and Shafi al-Ajmi of Kuwait.i The UN also sanctioned Hajaj and Shafi, and Kuwait, through which most of the money was being funneled, passed laws designed to end the use of Kuwait as a weigh station for money moving to terrorist groups abroad.ii,iii,iv The financiers, both sanctioned and unsanctioned, have greatly curtailed their activities since August 2014 and have seen their celebrity diminished. Those who are still active use social media to fundraise for humanitarian projects in Syria and are no longer publicly supporting armed groups. The one exception is ‘Abdullah al-Muheisini, who is unique in that he left the Gulf and lives inside Syria fulltime. Although the sanctions announced in August 2014 did not target all of the individuals publicly fundraising for Islamist armed groups in Syria, it did create a new environment in the Gulf in which these activities are no longer being tolerated and seem to have stopped. The one exception, al-Muheisini, lives in Syria and is therefore not subject to the same governmental pressures as Gulf-based financiers.
The Financiers:
Hajaj al-Ajmi: Hajaj al-Ajmi was a relative unknown prior to the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, but he skillfully used social media to attract attention by documenting his successive trips to Syria, and quickly became well known in the Middle East. After the US announced sanctions targeting Hajaj, Twitter shutdown his account. Hajaj quickly created a new account and a hashtag was circulate called “#Campaign_for_a_million_followers_for_Hajaj_al-Ajmi” which helped him regain roughly 100,000 followers of the nearly 500,000 that he had pre-sanctions.v Hajaj, still an active social media user, seems to feel that the sanctions are unfair, recently complaining on Twitter that members of the Kuwaiti parliament continue to support the al-Assad regime without consequence, while he was sanctioned and can no longer engage in normal business Hajaj appears to be struggling to adapt to life under sanctions. He told an interviewer that he is trying to work in the perfume business but cannot get the government to register a car or business in his name.vii His contacts in Qatar reportedly invited him to work with them, for which Hajaj expressed his appreciation on Twitter, but regretfully declined the offer due to an ongoing travel ban.viii
Although Hajaj was sanctioned by the US and the UN, sanctions did not target the charity that he ran and utilized to fundraise for armed groups in Syria, al-Haiah al-Sh’abiyah l-D’am al-Thawrah al-Suriyah (The Popular Commission to Support the Syrian Revolution), nor his partner in running the charity, Umma Party member Irshid al-Harji. The charity remains operational under al-Hajri’s leadership, but has changed its name to al-Haiah Zakat al-Sh’abiyah (The Popular Charity Commission).ix,x Despite the name change, the charity is using the same logo, Twitter account, and directs donors to the same address in Kuwait’s Aqilah neighborhood as prior to August 2014.xi,xii The organization now focuses on distributing relief in Syria, and recently delivered supplies to Syrians in Idlib and Lattakia Provinces in cooperation with the Umma Party’s Istanbul office.xiii
Muhamed al-Mufrih: Muhamed al-Mufrih was a Saudi-Arabian financier and head of the Saudi branch of the Umma Party, which formed in 2011 at the beginning of the Arab Spring. Saudi authorities, who do not permit organized opposition movements, quickly arrested the Umma Party leadership, but al-Mufrih was able to flee the country, surfacing in Istanbul. During the Syrian revolution al-Mufrih appears to have played an important role in the constellation of Umma Party-associated financiers, accompanying Hajaj al-Ajmi on trips inside Syria and dedicating an Umma Brigade training camp in honor of a United Arab Emirates Umma Party leader who was killed while fighting with Ahrar al-Sham.xiv,xv
Al-Mufrih died in December 2014 following a sudden and mysterious illness. Hakim al-Matiri, founder of the Umma Party, characterized al-Mufrih’s death as an assassination-by-poisoning, which was understood as an accusation aimed at the Saudi Arabian government.xvi The possibility of al-Mufrih getting assassinated was on the minds of the Ummah party leadership prior to his death in December 2014 due to assaults targeting al-Mufrih that occurred earlier in 2014 in Istanbul. The Umma Party responded to the preceding assaults by publishing a public letter to Turkish officials in May 2014 calling on the Turkish state to protect al-Mufrih from assassination.xvii
Al-Matiri’s eulogy for al-Mufrih provided greater detail on al-Mufrih’s role in financing Islamist groups in Syria. Al-Matiri cited al-Mufrih’s early involvement in the Syrian revolution, praising him for working with Abu Abdul Aziz al-Qatari in 2011 to support Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist armed group that operates alongside al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusrah, while it was in its formative stages. Al-Qatari was a veteran of the Afghan Jihad in the 1980s and was known for being close with Jabhat al-Nusrah. He founded and led Jund al-Aqsa, a jihadist group based in Idlib Province, until he was captured and killed in 2014 by the Syrian Revolutionaries Front.