- Digital Frontiers
- Feb 21 2017
A comparative approach for the study of transnational jihad
The recent evolution of online propaganda from the Islamic State (ISIS) brings experts and policymakers to constantly rethink how one might define and respond to emerging forms of online radicalisation. In light of what ICSR researchers have observed when studying and witnessing this phenomenon over the last couple of years, it appears that the very concept of online radicalisation, as it has been debated in relation to ISIS’ recruitment strategy, can be understood from two different perspectives. On the one hand, online radicalisation refers to the process through which radical ideological discourses are promoted and disseminated online and via different kinds of digital media, ranging from publicly available networks interacting on mainstream social platforms to private group forums with restricted access.
On the other hand, online radicalisation may be defined as the set of strategies that are being jointly applied by radical violent groups to consolidate and maintain a transnational audience of supporters. From this perspective, online radicalisation is to be understood as a paradigmatic shift likely to explain how individuals become exposed to radicalisation in the digital age. As such, it does not only relate to the process through which radical views are being expressed online, but also to the relationship between the distinctive forms of radicalisation that operate both online and offline. As I will argue in this essay, thinking about online radicalisation from this perspective allows us to anticipate some of the issues one might face while implementing long-term counter-radicalisation policies to prevent emerging forms of radicalisation. As policymakers across the world face the challenge of responding to the changing nature of jihad, it has become crucial to analyse and identify the fundamental motive of ISIS media strategy: the aim to create a transnational audience. Beyond the issue of online radicalisation, it is the ‘transnationalism’ of a jihadi ideology that needs to be addressed, so as to anticipate and prevent future claims for such forms of violent radical discourses.
According to the French expert on jihadism Gilles Kepel, ISIS transnational communication and recruitment strategy introduced a third generation of jihadi terrorism, which is concomitant with the emergence of social media and Web 2.0. The first generation of jihadism refers to the way terrorist networks were consolidated locally and in the war zone, as occurred in Afghanistan in the 1980s and late 1990s. 9/11 introduced what Kepel describes as second-generation jihad, during which terrorism directed against the West was also designed to gain visibility in mainstream media and on the international political scene. With the creation of ISIS, today’s third-generation jihad has contributed to bringing into practice a theory initially formulated by one of Al Qaida’s leading strategists, Abu Mus’ab al-Sury, in his call to global jihad. In his manifesto, al-Sury envisions a communication strategy very similar to that of ISIS, which is meant to target a transnational community of sympathisers willing to act in their local environments but in the name of global jihad. Kepel argues that al-Sury foresaw what we know today as the phenomenon of foreign fighters and anticipated the shape that jihadism was about to take on the transnational scale. This precisely exemplifies how one may understand online radicalisation in relation to ISIS’ transnational propaganda.
Along with the fact that emerging forms of salafi-jihadism are now more likely to reach a transnational audience, these ideological stances promote a utopia like that of the caliphate that is now considered transnational in nature for challenging national politics. Amongst the terms that better expresses this idea is the notion of ‘virtual caliphate,’ conceptualised by ICSR researcher Charlie Winter. This idea of a virtual caliphate does not only resonate with the fact that ISIS propaganda involves online networks, but also with the fact that it is designed to convey the feeling of belonging to a transnational community of true believers committed to one ideology. This virtual community will, however, exist independently from the technologies originally used to spread propaganda, and it appears to be what is most likely to survive in the event the self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria is defeated. As Winter demonstrates in a forthcoming ICSR report, ISIS recently released a document outlining its new “media operative” in June 2016, which specifically highlights the importance of maintaining the perception of belonging to such an idealised vision of a transnational Islamic state.
This particular aspect of ISIS’ propaganda effectively brings us to consider the theme of online radicalisation in the broader spectrum to successfully anticipate its evolution in the long run. Admittedly, policymakers and key members of civil society have significantly raised awareness about the spread of ISIS propaganda on social media since 2014. Experts already evidenced the fact that the visibility of these networks considerably decreased on mainstream social platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, after security agencies, governments and tech-companies started to implement online surveillance and censorship policies. One could therefore easily argue that policymakers across the world have been relatively proactive when handling the technical aspect of this crisis, whereas they may not always be aware of the challenges that the more ideological nature of ISIS “media operative” has laid before them.
In this regard, this essay broaches some of the questions that ISIS transnational propaganda raises from a comparative perspective and by considering different political and cultural environments. It will first discuss the cases of Europe as well as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Secondly, it will introduce a reflection on the way ISIS “media operative” resonates with the history of salafi-jihadism in Southeast Asia by commenting on the early evolution of Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and Malaysia. In doing so, it will explore how salafi-jihadism progressively took shape in this part of Southeast Asia and consider to what extent this environment distinguishes itself from other environments of radicalisation.
The European perspective: identity crisis and identity politics
Online radicalisation may often occur as the symptom of a crisis, through which constitutive elements of national politics are being questioned and challenged. With today’s third generation of jihadism policymakers across the world have come to the realisation that they are facing an internal threat. For this reason, radicalisation is now being addressed, particularly in Europe, from a perspective very different from that of the post-9/11 debate on the war against terrorism in the United States.
Since governments are witnessing proof of radicalisation from within, they have begun to apply self-criticism and reflect on some of the local and national issues that potentially act as factors of radicalisation. In Europe, recruitment of foreign fighters has raised particular concerns with regards to the way second- or third-generation immigrants within local Muslim communities, as well as young individuals recently converted to Islam, are facing a form of identity crisis. As a result, the issue of radicalisation in Europe often relies—explicitly and implicitly—on a broad range of debates relating to immigration, cultural integration, and the relationship between secularism and democracy. Over the last two to three years, commentators have ironically faced with a more challenging task when evaluating these parameters, as the debate on radicalisation has introduced a trend towards identity politics from which many parties and political leaders have considerably benefited. The European case shows that anticipating radicalisation cannot only be achieved by acknowledging existing identity concerns, but also by preventing all political actors from capitalising on a resultant identity crisis.
A recent comparative case study conducted as part of Vox-Pol European research framework and in partnership with ICSR emphasised the significance of just this challenge. In order to assess the visibility of different violent radical groups on Twitter, the study compared two sets of publicly available accounts of right-wing nationalists and from the pro-ISIS community. Preliminary findings indicated that, whereas the pro-jihadi network interacting via Twitter appeared to be disrupted by the censorship policy currently applied to eradicate ISIS’ propaganda, violent far-right nationalist groups have become increasingly visible. This provides substance to the argument that radicalisation in Europe does not only operate within the Muslim community and is not only limited to the question of how Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans can cohabit. To a large extent, the issue of radicalisation raises a broad range of questions relating to what defines a ‘European’ identity and what ‘democratic’ values mean in a context of multiculturalism. This identity crisis, however, manifests itself in very different ways and has benefitted ISIS’ transnational recruitment strategy as well other violent and non-violent radical groups.
Middle East and North Africa: questioning the legitimacy of political Islam
Unlike most European foreign fighters, ISIS’ target audience in the MENA region understands Islam as constitutive of its cultural and political environment. To a certain extent, the average citizen’s theoretical and empirical knowledge of Islam in the Middle East does not lead to the same kind of identity struggles witnessed in the European context. Alternatively, Islam in the region became an object of politics, which had been recurrently used to rethink cultural and ideological identity in the post-colonial era. This phenomenon was jointly introduced by early reformist/modernist thinkers, Islamist activists and Pan-Islamist opposition movements. For this reason, ISIS’ recruitment strategy in the MENA region should be analysed in relation to the historical evolution of political Islam as well as to the representative voices now competing for power in the region and on the international stage.
As much as ISIS portrays itself as the ultimate counter-culture by claiming to offer an alternative to secular democracy in the West, it also breaks with a long tradition of post-colonial thinkers and parties that contributed to the rise of political Islam in MENA countries. Admittedly, salafi-jihadism per se may already have initiated this transition by substituting jihad to political action as a way to implement a state policy, which conforms to the sharia and a rather literal interpretation of the Islamic tradition.
Indeed, prior to ISIS emerging forms of propaganda, salafism and salafi-jihadism had already upheld the concept of tawhid, which refers to the uniqueness of God as well as to the consolidation of the ummah (the community of believers). As applied by ISIS in its propaganda, this concept leads to the negation of pluralism and contests democratic deliberation, for it involves confronting diverging opinions instead of applying Islamic law as a unique and unquestionable truth. This concept is therefore crucial to ISIS ideology because it conveys the assumption that, unlike well-established political parties, those who advocate tawhid shall deliver a timeless and universal message, which aims at transcending politics. It is here where most of the distinction lies between ISIS propaganda and the broader range of political movements in the Pan-Islamist tradition. Amongst all political leaders, traditionalist parties and other jihadi groups competing for power in the region, ISIS appears to be the one that is most reluctant to compromise. In fact, other jihadi groups such as Al Qaida recently appeared as comparatively “moderate” for being willing to implement sharia progressively, after reaching a consensus. This further establishes the image of ISIS as an institution that is willing to sacrifice in order to achieve its heavenly mission, therefore refusing to play the political game. Commitment to jihad, preservation of tawhid and the eschatological narrative act as the ultimate alternative to political action, thereby promoting a message which remains, in all appearances, apolitical.
In addition, ISIS propaganda consistently directly attacks Islamist parties that have gained recognition after running for parliamentary or presidential elections. For example, conservative movements such as Erdogan’s administration in Turkey, Ennahda party in Tunisia or the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which reveal different facets of political Islam, are all being strongly contested by ISIS. Each of these political institutions is not only criticised for their national and foreign policies but also for the fact that they have participated in democratic processes to gain representation in government. In doing so, these Islamist parties have contributed to turning Islam into an object of debate restricted to national politics, which ISIS considers a threat to the fundamental principle of tawhid.
This partly explains why ISIS intends to strategically differentiate itself from both Islamist movements and other salafi-jihadi groups as well as from Western democratic governments. By breaking with a long tradition of political Islam, while portraying itself as apolitical, ISIS appears to target a young population still willing to engage and act on behalf of anti-imperialism, yet considerably disillusioned with politics. For this reason, implementing a successful de-radicalisation policy in the Middle East and North Africa raises different issues as those currently debated in the European context. Indeed, in order to anticipate such forms of radicalisation in the MENA region, policymakers may have to reflect on the relationship between emergent forms of salafi-jihadism and the longer tradition of political Islam. This will involve not only acknowledging how claims for political Islam historically laid the groundwork for the rise of radical violent groups, but also identifying under which conditions political Islam may alternatively help to prevent radicalisation and benefit pluralism.
The evolution and creation of JI in Southeast Asia: exemplifying and defining transnational jihad
To a certain extent, some of the questions addressed above may also resonate with the case of Southeast Asia. For instance, commentators have recently witnessed both Islamic and non-Islamic parties—such as the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and the United Malays National Organisation—pave the way for a specific ideological approach of Islam, which appears to be less compatible with pluralism. However, as the work of Kumar Ramakrishna would suggest, studying the history of salafi-jihadism in Southeast Asia may be particularly helpful when it comes to identifying some of the characteristics of transnational or global jihad. His in-depth analysis of Malaysian and Indonesian jihadism in the aftermath of the 2004 Jakarta terrorist attack perfectly outlines the evolution that political Islam has undertaken from being a component of national politics to becoming what Al Qaida strategist al Sury conceptualised as global jihad. One of the reasons why this evolution can easily be traced and understood in the cases of Malaysia and Indonesia is because there is ready and visible evidence of the ideology transition initiated by the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) leaders: Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir.
Studying what can be considered as the early stages of JI shows how connections sporadically occurred between regional terrorist organisations. JI’s history also reveals how this transnational network of supporters came to advocate one and only ideology to respond to local conflicts and national debates. Furthermore, it contributes towards explaining why JI pledged allegiance to ISIS in July 2014 and why the concepts of caliphate and an Islamic state resonate at the transnational scale. At the time of the Indonesian Darul Islam (DI) movement led by S. M. Kartosuwirjo in the 1950s, these terms already endorsed part of the meaning they have today. Indeed, Kartosuwirjo’s vision was that of a state committed to the application of sharia law, for which one should engage in the ultimate sacrifice of jihad. This initial form of radical Islamism was progressively exposed to various influences over the second half the 20th and early 21st centuries, as Kartosuwirjo’s disciples became familiar with both violent and non-violent schools of political Islam across the world.
Ramakrishna reminds us that the DI movement itself appeared to have developed a close relationship with the Saudi-based World Islamic League, thereby promoting a scholarship and an approach of Islamic law “increasingly drawn to Saudi-style Wahabism.” In the 1970s, Sungkar and Bashir were far more influenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood when consolidating what was about to become the JI terrorist group. After being incarcerated for nine years in Indonesia and having rebuilt their network in Malaysia, they embraced an approach of radical Islamism that was now driven towards salafi-jihadism.
Consequently, they became exposed to a new range of influences as they continued to seek theoretical as well as operational knowhow. In the early 1990s, they were receptive to the ideas of the Egyptian Mohammed al-Faraj, who advanced a far more radical approach than Islamist philosophers Mawdudi and Qutb. Finally, their engagement in Afghanistan led them to extend their network and to consider themselves as part of global jihad under the influence of Al Qaida leaders, who contributed to the conceptualisation of global jihad as a means to establish a transnational caliphate:
These shifts in global radical Salafi ideology post-Afghanistan were not lost on Sungkar and Bashir. In addition to their discussions with returning Indonesian veterans of the Afghan war, such as Hambali and Mukhlas (Neighbour 2004), both men met with international jihadi groups in Malaysia. Consequently, by 1994 Sungkar and Bashir were no longer talking about establishing merely an Islamic state in Indonesia. Over and above this, they were now talking of establishing a “khilafah (world Islamic state)” (Poer 2003). In this construction, a “world caliphate uniting all Muslim nations under a single, righteous exemplar and ruler” is the ultimate goal (Behrend, 2003).
Arguably, the process through which Sungkar and Bashir introduced a transition from radical Islamism to salafi-jihadism in Southeast Asia hardly compares to the way this evolution took shape in the MENA region. As suggested earlier, emerging forms of salafi-jihadism in the Arab world tend to position themselves in opposition to a long tradition of political Islam. In addition, the divide between ISIS and other jihadi groups involved in the Syrian crisis, such as Jabhat al-Nosrah, indicates that salafi-jihadism recurrently faces internal struggles. In fact, one of ISIS’ weaknesses potentially lies in the fact that imposing itself and acting as an absolute and apolitical transnational power will prevent it from answering to people’s specific needs and engaging with local issues. As a result, the organisation will hardly maintain its legitimacy as long as it is competing with radical Islamist parties as well as with local opposition movements, which themselves range from more liberal to more conservative approaches of political Islam, across the MENA region.
Alternatively, the context in which JI was created suggests that the transition from radical Islamism to salafi-jihadism was rather uninterrupted and successively exposed to a range of influences that potentially made it more open to the idea of a transnational caliphate relying on global jihad. In light of this, policymakers in the region may be particularly well placed to anticipate some of the issues relating to ISIS’ transnational communication strategy as well as to online radicalisation in the broader spectrum.
Since the early 2000s, the case of JI has already led counter-radicalisation experts to discuss a set of questions that only recently became highly relevant in the European context. Among these were the issues of prisons as a favourable environment for radicalisation and the benefit of incorporating former members of terrorist organisations within de-radicalisation programmes. Researchers in this field also referenced concerns that hold appeal in the MENA region. For example, they highlighted the fact that some of the leading political forces competing for power nationally share a responsibility in the radicalisation process as soon as they capitalise on the way national and Islamic identities are understood. Across the literature, experts agree that repression and autocratic means are hardly efficient to restrain the spread of violent radical discourses. It may, however, be extremely helpful to identify the structural weaknesses of such transnational networks.
- From Southeast Asia to South Asia
Bringing the discussion back to transnationalism and global jihad would also be particularly beneficial when implementing a successful long-term counter-radicalisation strategy in Southeast Asia as well as in South Asia. Indeed, extending the debate on online radicalisation to transnationalism allows us to conceptualise the terrorist threat beyond the case of ISIS and to consider whether other jihadi groups in the region are likely to reaffirm interest in global jihad. According to Thomas Lynch, ISIS appears to be less appealing to South Asian local jihadi groups remaining loyal to Al Qaida:
ISIS’ impact in South Asia has been conspicuously less than in other regions in general and especially on a Muslim per-capita basis. (…) Dozens of other longstanding jihadist outfits in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh remain firmly with al-Qaeda; in the case of Lashkar-e-Tayyiban in Pakistan, it remains tied to the nationalist-Islamist aims of the security and intelligence services.
Nevertheless, anticipating emerging forms of radicalisation involves assessing the propensity of these groups to embrace the fundamental ideological principles of global jihad, which had been initially conceptualised by some of the Al Qaida leaders.
Although South Asian jihadi groups may have been considered as less likely to identify themselves as part of ISIS transnational communication strategy, they remain exposed to the same conceptual frameworks, which have been used by ISIS strategists to legitimise global jihad. Despite the fact that local jihadi terrorist organisations would appear to share more connections with Al Qaida, they may evolve to cultivate the idea of a “virtual caliphate,” regardless of the outcome of the Syrian crisis. Comparing the cases of Southeast and South Asia in further details would, however, considerably benefit future research. This would not only help identify common denominators between different local jihadi groups across Asia, but also contribute in determining to what extent jihadism draws on transnationalism in a specific political environment.
- Conclusion: priorities for a transnational counter-radicalisation strategy
Understanding online radicalisation as a paradigmatic shift involves acknowledging the fact that ISIS-type salafi-jihadism is ideologically designed to resonate within a transnational audience. As such, it intends to substitute national politics for an absolute and supposedly apolitical form of power. To a certain extent, digital technologies contribute to this phenomenon in facilitating transnational communication flows. However, online radicalisation may also be understood in relation to the way ISIS is framing and structuring its ideology. As such, it cannot only be defeated by technical or technological means, such as censorship, surveillance and online policing. Alternatively, the threat of a virtual caliphate could be overcome by stimulating pluralism on the local level and by helping distinctive political voices regain legitimacy on the national scale. However, this can only be achieved by ensuring that all the parties and political actors involved genuinely commit to preserving pluralism and do not pave the way to strengthening radical views by engaging in identity politics. This is the most important challenge that all policymakers—regardless of specific political and cultural contexts—will face in future.
This article was originally published in ‘Raisina Files: Debating the world in the Asian Century
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 N. H. Ismail and C. Ungerer, “Jemaah Islamiyah: A renewed struggled?,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, July 16, 2009, https://www.aspi.org.au/publications/jemaah-islamiyah-a-renewed-struggle-by-noor-huda-ismail-and-carl-ungerer.
 Gilles Kepel, Terreur Dans l’Hexagone: genèse du jihad français (Paris : Gallimard, 2016).
 2016 ICSR conference on Constructions of Terrorism, http://icsr.info/2016/12/constructions-terrorism-reconciling-human-rights-human-security-countering-terrorism/.
 C. Winter, “Media Jihad, The Islamic State’s doctrine for information warfare,” ICSR report, forthcoming.
 M. H. Bin Jani, (2016) “Cyber Ribat in Malaysia: countering IS’ new online guards,” RSIS commentary, March 22, 2016, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/CO16062.pdf; J. C. Liow, “ISIS in the Pacific: Assessing terrorism in Southeast Asia and the treat to the homeland,” Brookings, April 27, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/isis-in-the-pacific-assessing-terrorism-in-southeast-asia-and-the-threat-to-the-homeland/.
 Kepel, Terreur Dans l’Hexagone.
 M. Conway, Vox-Pol EU Network of Excellence, forthcoming.
 J. Thomas, “Al Qaeda appears ‘moderate’ compared to Islamic State, veteran jihadist says,” Long War Journal, October 25, 2015, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/10/al-qaeda-appears-moderate-compared-to-islamic-state-veteran-jihadist-says.php.
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 K. Ramakrishna, “Delegitimizing Global Jihadi Ideology in Southeast Asia,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 27, no. 3 (2005): 343-369.
 Ibid, 347; A. H. Abdul Hamid, “ISIS in Southeast Asia: Internalized Wahhabism is a Major Factor,” Middle East Institute, May 18, 2016, http://www.mei.edu/content/map/isis-southeast-asia-internalized-wahhabism-major-factor.
 Syed Abdul A’la Mawdudi (1903-1979) was a Pakistani Islamist philosopher and founder of Jamaat-e-Islami. Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) was a leading Egyptian political thinker, disciple of Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) and member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
 Ramakrishna, “Delegitimizing Global Jihad,” 356.
 Ismail and Unger, “Jemaah Islamiyah.”
 N. Nuraniyah, “Returning Indonesian Fighters from Syria and Iraq: Learning from the Past,” RSIS commentary, February 17, 2015, 1-3, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/cens/co15035-returning-indonesian-fighters-from-syria-and-iraq-learning-from-the-past/#.WHXlNdJ97s1.
 V. Arianti and N. I. Saripi, “Indonesia’s Counter Radicalisation Programme: Challenges from the Radicals,” RSIS commentary, January 5, 2012, 1-3, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/rsis/1663-indonesias-counter-radicali/#.WHXkydJ97s0.
 T. F. Lynch III, “The Impact of ISIS on Global Salafism and South Asian Jihad,” Hudson Institute, August 15, 2015, http://www.hudson.org/research/11608-the-impact-of-isis-on-global-salafism-and-south-asian-jihad.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).