The Terrorist Argument: Modern Advocacy and Propaganda
Brookings Institution Press, 2018, 352 pp., $35.99
Digital World War: Islamists, Extremists, and the Fight for Cyber Supremacy
Words are Weapons: Inside ISIS’s Rhetoric of Terror
Yale University Press, 2017, 256 pp., $30
It usually takes time for mature thought and scholarship to catch up with galloping political realities, so it is no surprise that the recent appearance of three highly instructive books on the communications strategy of salafi terrorist organizations comes just as the territorial might of the Islamic State is about to be extinguished, mainly by force of arms. But we should not give in to temptations of irony, for the end of the Caliphate is not the same as the end of the Islamic State. And even if it were, it is not the end of salafi terrorism, which is likely to persist in several manifestations so long as the wider conditions propitious to it endure.
The appearance of not one or two, but three, insightful books on this subject within such a short time is also likely to strike genuine experts as a bit shocking, for the earlier literature on the communication strategies of terrorist organizations has been of limited quality. Previous works are narrowly descriptive; authors discovered many trees but saw no forest.
Contemporary terrorism is instantaneous and unpredictable, and it has become capable of instilling terror across the globe thanks to the power of modern media. The most recent manifestation of Middle Eastern/Islamist terrorism, namely the Islamic state—a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL, Daesh—has exceeded even the reputation established by its predecessor, al-Qaeda, in part because the internet and social media enabled a global communication strategy far beyond anything that went before it. Therefore, since the proclamation of the Caliphate by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on June 29, 2014 in Mosul, rivers of ink have been consumed to describe, analyze, and dissect the Islamic State’s communication strategies.
Those analyses were stimulated by the sense that something new was afoot. But, as already suggested, they were mostly unfit for consumption because they ignored the historical background, social roots, and precedents that antedated the Daesh phenomenon. Part of the reason is that many ISIS media strategy groupies were either technologists narrowly focused on means but not ends, or journalists in search of marketable stories who simply lacked substantive knowledge of Islam and Muslim societies. For example, few analyses bothered to examine the initial publications of radical groups or individuals, who were experimenting with different media as early as the 1980s. A striking case is Sheikh Kishk (1933–96), known as the “Star of Islamic preaching,” whose sermons reverberated from Cairo to Casablanca and from Baghdad to the North African neighborhood of Marseilles, France.
From the mid-1990s on, the first radical websites were often dismissed because of their meager outreach; their early penetration of the net was far from pervasive due to a lack of technical mastery. Deeper studies commenced only in the early 2000s, when the first polished propaganda videos appeared online. But many of the strategies evolved long before then, and the thinking behind them long before that.
With the advent of social media in the 2010s, the situation changed dramatically: The complex links between terrorism, propaganda, and online recruitment became primary subjects of research. Nevertheless, the research still largely lacked depth and context. Scholars, analysts, and policymakers began to realize that nothing in terrorist communications is left to chance; but they often missed the fact that not everything is focused on reaching external audiences to establish brand and gain credibility. Reassuring, retaining, motivating, and controlling those already on the inside of the group is also a critical part of the communications strategy, largely because their membership was often spatially diffuse, variable, and shrouded in secrecy. Western analysts grasped the aim of proselytizing among potential recruits and pre-terrifying potential targets; but they usually missed the larger picture formed by the multiple links between senders, message, medium, recipients—not to mention the wider context of the communicative act.
The three books under review here—Christopher C. Harmon and Randall G. Bowdish’s The Terrorist Argument, Modern Advocacy and Propaganda, Haroon Ullah’s Digital World War, and Philippe-Joseph Salazar’s Words are Weapons—succeed because they share a quality that most of their predecessors lacked: a sensitivity to the context in which these multiple links play out. Each book focuses on different components of the context and the relationship between terrorism and multiple kinds of media, ranging from social media platforms to encrypted messaging, from newspapers to television programs. Harmon and Bowdish focus on a broad selection of terrorist media; Ullah applies both qualitative and quantitative analysis to the ways in which Islamists and other extremists engage with social media; Salazar deals with ISIS’s rhetoric and the reasons for its relative persuasiveness. All three books either focus on or refer to historical precedents, most evince a broad appreciation of technology, and one concentrates on the nature of rhetoric itself as it manifests in Middle Eastern and Western languages. All get at pieces of the multi-layered nature of terrorist communications strategies, which both target a diverse audience and exploit diverse sets of techniques and media. For that reason, the three books complement one another, and are most usefully read together.
In their The Terrorist Argument, Modern Advocacy and Propaganda Christopher Harmon—a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies of Honolulu—and Randall Bowdish—a lecturer at the University of Nebraska and assistant professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy of Colorado Springs—examine how terrorist groups in recent history have used propaganda, adapting useful techniques from the past to new communications technologies. The book explores nine case studies of how armed groups have used communications techniques with varying degrees of success: radio, newspapers, song, television, books, e-magazines, advertising, the internet, and social media. Many analysts have attributed jihadi propaganda success solely to social media, thus excluding from their studies the fundamental historical background. While social media is undoubtedly a critical component today, it is only part of a much bigger media campaign that has historical precedents of primary relevance.
The nine case studies range from the role of Franz Fanon in the now-forgotten radio campaign of 1956–62 carried out by the Algerian National Liberation Front, to the old-fashioned newspaper The Irish People, a New York weekly of the end of the 19th century. They also include Hezbollah’s television station Al-Manar, formed in June 1991 and now banned in many Western countries including the United States, and the Islamic State’s multi-messaging efforts, which can be defined as the exploitation of many sources while targeting many audiences. Every case study analyzed in The Terrorist Argument shows a different degree of success; some are shorter, or longer, in their expanse of years, but from all of them the authors draw several pivotal conclusions.
First, terrorism is purposeful activity. It aims above all to score psychological impact, to unsettle the brain of the body politic.
Second, the ideas and arguments advanced in terrorist propaganda greatly matter. Terrorist entrepreneurs tend to see their organizations as constructive more than destructive, and this makes it possible for them to believe in their cause and maintain a strong sense of belonging. Communication is the realm in which both show most clearly.
Third, successful terrorist and insurgent groups have propaganda systems of scope and size, as well as multiple audiences.
A particularly original element in Harmon and Bowdish’s volume is their discussion of books that must be analyzed in order to understand the overall communications strategies that terrorist develop and deploy. They name a few, but their principal example is The Call to Global Islamic Resistance by Abu Musab al-Suri, the nome de guerre of the Syrian jihadi Mustafa Setmariam Nassar. This encyclopedic work of strategy and history, which is also a call to arms, still influences many Islamists the world over. Not many living jihadis have seen such extensive dissemination of their ideas as al-Suri, whose key ideas have been summarized in Inspire, the online magazine of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Indeed, over the past decade intelligence officers have found audio and video recordings of al-Suri’s lectures in terrorist safe houses in multiple countries: Syria, Jordan, Italy, Germany, and the United States. Al-Suri himself was captured in Pakistan in 2005, jailed in Syria soon thereafter—and apparently released in early 2012. As the authors shrewdly note: “One paradox in international terrorism is that one may both a fugitive and yet be ever-present in the media.” This Syrian ideologue is one of the globe’s known ghosts: He is probably still alive, though no one is sure if or where.
The sharpness of the description of al-Suri offered by Harmon and Bowdish is characteristic of the whole book, which provides an impressively detailed historical framework for each chapter, as well as clear pictures of diverse scenarios and settings. The Terrorist Argument’s main contribution to the scholarship is a new understanding of terrorist messages in the context of the media used to propagate them, and of how are separable action and public argument are in modern terrorism. As the authors warn in their introduction, even though Inspire has now seen the deaths of its two famous American-born editors, Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaki, there will always be other terrorist editors, and other ideologists, to take up the intellectual cudgels and fire rhetorical bullets to punctuate their arguments.
Whereas Harmon and Bowdish display their sensitivity to context in their reconstruction of diverse historical phases in different regions of the world, Digital World War provides an exhaustive overview of the least well-known social media used by Islamists and radicals. Written by the American diplomat Haroon Ullah, Digital World War focuses on social media and digital communication networks, applying both qualitative and quantitative analysis to the ways in which extremists engage with social media.
Ullah investigates the unprecedented impact of social media across the MENA region and Southeast Asia and demonstrates how it has profoundly changed relationships between regimes and peoples and among different social actors. The book is based on a unique data set and a large number of interviews with political elites, focus groups, and organizational and social media leaders across the Muslim-majority world, including Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Indonesia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Turkey. It also draws on primary and secondary archival and published sources.
Digital World War’s particular emphasis is on how extremist groups became “sophisticated sculptors” of their social media activities. Yet Ullah sees a positive side to the technological tsunami as well, stressing the role of social media in empowering citizens. In short, the new technology is a multiplier of social pluralization, which is a prerequisite for more pluralist political attitudes. He correctly notes that Muslim social networking is a major causal factor in the exponential increase of new voters in the Islamic world, for example. He also highlights “edutainment” as a new phenomenon in the political arena, referring to media designed to educate through entertainment, not excluding outright comedy and satire. It is slowly convincing young people in the region and beyond that taking part in politics is worth the trouble and, sometimes, the risk.
Ullah outlines what a proper understanding of social media can teach us about regional and international politics and diplomacy, showing deep knowledge of different global contexts and of Southeast Asia in particular. Nevertheless, he leans at times toward excessive optimism. Ullah credits the supposedly inherently “democratic,” anti-establishment impact of digital technologies, to wit: “Rather than needing deep pockets and years of work to organize and mobilize enough bodies to threaten a sitting government, now it takes only a few hours and a $20 per month internet connection to start a revolution.”
In so doing, Ullah underestimates several factors likely to disappoint his expectations, such as persisting censorship and the lack of a mature political culture. The latter is due, perhaps ironically, to the advent of ready-made opinions available everywhere thanks to technological flooding. The result is that few people have ideas; rather, half-baked ideas have them. He also fails to heed past cases of technology-driven enthusiasm that have been foiled by reality. “Invent the printing press and democracy is inevitable,” wrote Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century; alas, things did not quite work out as he supposed.
Alas, now as then, things are more complicated. Revolutions may indeed now be easier to start than in the past, but they are still not easy. We all recognize the important role of the internet and social media during the so-called Arab Spring; but we also know how that turned out—not many happy endings to date, to put it mildly.
When it comes to specific uses of digital technologies by Islamists and extremists, Ullah applies a more prudent approach. He knows that social media does not offer a panacea, or a promise that Islamists will become more open-minded or democratic. There is nothing to indicate that even the most digitally literate Islamist leaders will embrace liberal democracy.
Here a word of caution is required: Ullah distinguishes Islamists from extremists, positioning them on a continuum. The term extremism indicates, in his usage, engagement in a specific set of behaviors that threaten democracy or seek to prevent its rise in authoritarian settings. Islamists believe that Islamic teaching should inform public policy and support calls for civil enforcement of some religious laws, but without necessarily promoting coercion or violence or seeking autocratic power arrangements. Though Islamic parties can be differentiated from extremist groups, in practice the distinctions have a way of blurring, or even disappearing.
Nevertheless, Ullah uses the distinction to highlight several interesting, often overlooked points. First, in terms of their use of social media, most media-wise Islamist parties attempt to play to a “mass market” with an eye toward competing and winning in the mainstream political arena. For most extremists, on the other hand, an electoral revolution is not of interest: They are geared instead toward attracting niche audiences, first of all local and foreign fighters, and fueling local fears in order to leverage security payments—otherwise known as extortion.
Second, a continuum exists between “a sacred state excluding human will” and “a secular state excluding divine will.” Ullah points out that religion-based political parties and extremist groups frequently move back and forth along this spectrum in order to gain tactical political advantage; they do not typically occupy a permanent position. Some prefer to strategically support an outright religious theocracy, others a more moderate, outward-looking government with secular trappings. The bottom line is that Islamist organizations become more extreme or more moderate depending on the political and social contexts in which they find themselves. They will do what is beneficial to maintaining political viability, and their use of social media is a means to that end.
Third, as most Western observers fail to fully realize, it is not only ISIS but also many other extremists, as well as more moderate Islamist groups, that are harnessing the power of social media. This is a crucial point, since both the academic and think-tank worlds have been hyper-focused on the Caliphate, failing to approach the broader spectrum of extremist communications strategies, targets, and media.
Fourth, by analyzing Islamists and extremists’ online presence, it is possible to detect the most important strategies they tend to select, which include the wide dissemination of facts (and propaganda) on government and military corruption, the exposure of the ruling party’s inability to deliver basic goods and services and neglect of certain ethnic regions and minorities, and even out-and-out gossip about the ill-gotten gains and “diseased inclinations” of individual politicians and elites.
Ullah’s list, however, neglects some of the most important strategies of both Islamist and extremist communications—especially those related to supposed Muslim victimhood and the widespread discourse of grievance and self-pity, be it individual or collective. This sensitive but central topic is worth a dedicated analysis, which is unfortunately missing from the scope of Ullah’s book.
Overall, however, Digital World War stands out for two reasons. First, its geographical and historical breadth is very wide, ranging from the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami that in 2006 began uploading anasheed (religious songs) on Youtube, to the exploitation of social media by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah to increase their grassroots support under the umbrella of charity. Second is its superlative accuracy, not only in the historical reconstructions presented, but also in its descriptions of the Islamists and extremists’ use of less well-known online platforms. These include JustPaste and SoundCloud, which, while largely unfamiliar to the general public, represent crucial forums for radical recruitment and propaganda dissemination. That inclusiveness helps Ullah portray a cyber-savvy community that is much more complex and diverse than it appears in other analyses that focus exclusively on Twitter and few other platforms.
A similar analytical sharpness can be found in Philippe-Joseph Salazar’s Words are Weapons. Salazar, a distinguished professor of rhetoric at the Sorbonne, is mainly interested in rhetoric as a primary manifestation of power. This work is unquestionably one of the most elevated dissertations on terrorist communications we have. Throughout its two hundred pages, it elucidates with stunning acuity why the standard Western approach to ISIS and more broadly countering jihadi communication is doomed to failure.
The main reason is that the West keeps looking at jihadi communications strategy from a Western-centric point of view, projecting its own frames of reference onto the target of analysis without realizing it. So, with some exceptions, it focuses on leaderships and presumably coherent organizations, because Western organizations are assumed to have leaders and be coherent. In practice, it therefore rejects arguments stressing “leaderless jihad.”1
Even more damaging, it manifests a rationalist fallacy in thinking that jihadi communications strategy is based on explicitly ideological arguments, ignoring the emotional, affective side of language and the roiled Middle Eastern cultural context in which it rests. Westerners presume, in effect, that ideas float around in the air unto themselves; in fact, ideas are invariably socially embedded, as analysts such as Scott Atran have been at pains to point out. Hence, while intellectual arguments are important to jihadi leaders, and leadership obviously matters in extremist organizations, emotional appeals work far better for rank-and-file members. Jihadi communications leaders know that their members are not motivated mainly by intellectual appeals; they know, too, that only a minority are well-educated enough to even understand such appeals. Most Western and especially American policy types seem somehow not to know this.
Hence, for example, what seems florid, exaggerated, and ostentatious to Westerners in the harangues of the Caliphate and online propaganda—and hence dismissible as “over the top”—does not appear that way to those who naturally speak in this manner. It certainly does not seem so to those who propagate the call to jihad and submission to the Caliphate via highly emotional appeals. Against the Caliphate’s rhetoric style Westerners are disarmed, since European and American political languages, in comparison, are sterile, rhetorically banal, and poetically deficient.
To get the point across, Salazar stresses the existence of a Strongspeak—the Caliphate’s rhetoric—as opposed to the West’s Weakspeak. So as far as Western counter-radicalization and de-radicalization initiatives are concerned, Salazar is justifiably pessimistic: “The counterpropaganda techniques and the de-radicalization assembly line make the pitiable but understandable mistake of thinking that these are precisely substitute values they are offering. But it is not possible to respond to the caliphal appeal with a homologue power unless values both precede and follow it, which is not the case.”
This is a brave perspective in the current Western context, and American policymakers in particular need to take it seriously. Erudite in both Western and Islamic traditions, Salazar demonstrates the power of the word at the core of Islam, something that has always been strong, that jihadism excels at exploiting, and that is incommensurate with the classical Greek principle of Logos, from which Western rhetoric stems. Salazar offers luminous examples of the role of the word and rhetoric in Islam and Islamic traditions. He emphasizes, for example, that Muslim identity itself is based on the utterance of faith, the shahada, which opens the doors of Islam for those who would convert.
In this respect, a reference to the Quranic concept implied by kun fayakun would have enhanced Salazar’s argument. Kun fayakun—“(God says) ‘Be’ and it is”—illustrates the power of God to create through a simple utterance. The phrase can be found in the Quran eight times. Of course, this passage in the Quran mirrors the opening paragraph of Genesis, for Islam derives from Judaism, but the similarities go deeper. Both Judaism and Islam emphasize the spiritual centrality of hearing over seeing. The Greeks, and hence the West, do the opposite, and the resulting failure of each to really understand the other is profound.
Consider an example Salazar brings. Westerners have long accused Islamic cultures of scriptural literalism—never mind the irony of Western literalism that litters premodern Western thinking. Salazar masterfully explains, in his section dedicated to the Caliphate and the literal reading of the Quran, that the reading must be literal in order for analogic reasoning to work, since analogical reasoning is always based on literal fact. That doesn’t mean, however, that Muslims take text literally, any more than Jews do. But Westerners tend to systematically reduce the issue to the alternative that is familiar to them: a literal, hence misleading, closed interpretation versus an interpretation open to debate. Westerners, Salazar suggests, fail to grasp the force of analogy and how it animates the Caliphate’s propaganda, which is something imagistic, not rational as such. It aims at seducing the imagination, not convincing the intellect. This is one way that Words are Weapon illustrates the Caliphate’s rhetorical power, showing us the ways in which we do not understand its persuasive oratory. In so doing Salazar shows that if we fail to acknowledge this essential characteristic of Islamic thought, every counter-narrative effort we concoct is doomed to fail.
To win the fight against Islamic radicalism at the level of propaganda and communications strategies, Western democracies must radically change their approach to their enemies’ rhetoric. Salazar does not play the banal and reductionist game of civilization versus radicalism, and he does not offer one-size-fits-all explanations or quick solutions. He urges serious people in the West to learn about others, to achieve discernment through genuine thought. Salazar’s is ultimately a passionate analysis that aims at practical ends.
We gain from Salazar an understanding that the main goal of the Caliphate’s propaganda is probably best summed up by the term “seduction”: The Caliphate has wanted and still wants, even in its reduced ambit of power, to attract and charm. It is here that one of the sharpest insights of Words Are Weapons aids our understanding. The Caliphate does not do “marketing” as Westerners understand the term. It is not a brand. Its products cannot be replaced by other products. The reason is that, according to its founding narratives, the values it offers and pursues are absolute, not relative and interchangeable. The absolutization of jihadi discourse cannot be further removed from contemporary Western categories of thought. And that is why Westerners have such a hard time understanding the “other”—in this case an other that is a deadly enemy.
We would be wise to contextualize our own efforts to counter what terrorists try to do by becoming more aware of our mental blocks and biases, which foil our efforts to grasp the challenge we face. No communications strategy gains power until users consume it, be they enemies or potential recruits. So to understand how jihadi communications strategy works, we have to understand not only those who fabricate messages but how recipients think about them within their social contexts.
All three of these books send a single warning: Our knowledge of terrorist communicative strategies, media, and goals is small and deficient. Greater awareness of context, a flexible perspective that enables us to look both backward and forward, and the analysis of leadership goals as well as the receptivity of a diffuse rank-and-file will improve our ability to contextualize properly the communications phenomena before us. We are very far from being able to do that now.
1See Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); “The Reality of Grass-Roots Terrorism,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2008); “The Next Generation of Terror,” Foreign Policy, October 8, 2009.