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Misleading Ideology

How does the Terrorist Mindset Manifest on Social Networking Sites?

19 October 2016

Misleading Ideology

How do terrorists think? What do they read? How are their perceptions formed by their references and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) books? Who are the most influential imams (Muslim scholars, theologians or jurists) that terrorists cite or refer to formulate their extremist ideology? Who are the most prominent and most influential terrorist leaders for extremists? What are the most notable arguments upheld by extremists to justify their rhetoric and acts? What are the most prominent issues being addressed by extremists nowadays?

To answer these questions, Future for Advanced Research & Studies hosted a workshop to analyze the findings of research conducted by its media monitoring team in the first half of 2015. In “Characteristics of the Terrorist Mindset as Reflected on Social Networking Sites,” the team examined a total of 46,313 posts: 45,254 tweets from 83 Twitter accounts of extremist figures or supporters of terrorist groups, 789 videos on YouTube, and 270 blogs on 18 blogging sites.

The first session titled "How is the Mind of a Terrorist Formed?" was moderated by Dr. Hasan Qaid Al Sabihi, Professor of Media at the UAE University. Dr. Nasr Arif, Professor of Political Science at Cairo University and Mansour Alnogaidan, Director of the Dubai-based Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center, offered commentary on the first session findings. The session addressed the ideological and Sharia references cited by extremists and the most prominent and authoritative imams and leaders they followed.

The second session, titled “How does the Mind of a Terrorist Operate?” was moderated by Dr. Abdullah Al Jasmi, Head of the Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Kuwait University. Ali Baker, a researcher of Islamist movements in Egypt and Dr. Khalid Omar Ben Qaqah, a researcher of Islamist Ideology in Algeria both provided commentary on the session’s findings which addressed the essential arguments and ideas used by terrorist groups and the main topics discussed by extremists on social networking sites.

The third session covering intra-Jihadist rivalry was moderated by Aisha Sultan, Founder and Director of Dar Waraq Publishing House, Dubai, and a columnist at Abu Dhabi's Ittihad newspaper. Commentary by Dr. Hani Nasira, director of Al Arabiya Institute for Studies and a researcher of Islamist movements and Dr. Shady Abdel-Wahab, coordinator of the Security Trends Program at Future for Advanced Research and Studies ensued.

Topics of the session included similarities between ideological and fiqh doctrines pursued by extremist organizations, intra-Jihadist, leading to an ideological and fiqh conflict between al-Qaida and ISIS.

The following are the main findings of the research project:

  • Most quoted scholars in extremists' postings are, respectively, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Ibn Hazm, Ibn al-Uthaymeen, Sayyid Qutb, Abdul Aziz ibn Baz, Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, Ibn Kathir, Al-Tamimi, Al-Shoaibi, Al-Tarifi, Abul Faraj ibn al-Jawzi, Al-Ghazali and others.
  • Most quoted books are: Sahih al-Jami al-Saghir, Majmu al-Fatwa al-Kubra (The Great Compilation of Fatwas), Ma'arij al-Qabul bi-Sharh Sullam al-Wusul, Hilyat al-Awliya' wa-Tabaqat al-Asfiya (The Adornment of the Saints and the Ranks of the Spiritual Elite), Zad al-Ma'ad (Provisions of the Hereafter), Fath al-Bari Fi Sharah Sahih al-Bukhari (Illustrating the Sahih Bukhari), Mokhtasar Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Injad fi Abwab al-Jihad, Stealing Al-Qaida's Playbook, Isa'ad al-Akhyar fi Ihya' Sunnat Nahr al-Kuffar (Pleasing the Good with Reviving the Tradition of Beheading the Infidels), Ighathat al-lahfan (Aid for the sorrowful), idha'aat fi althrir ala'kdi (Ilustration of Belief), Al Tebyan fi Kufr Man A'an Al American (Proving that those who help the Americans are disbelievers), Al Jami Li Silselah Al Mumayyaza (A Compilation of the Unique Series), Ahkamul Qur'an by Ibn Arabi (The Legal Rulings of the Quran), Jami' al-rasa'il (A collection of treatises), Tafsir al-Qurtubi (Quran exegesis by al-Qurtubi), Management of Savagery and others.
  • Most prominent leaders cited in posts by terrorist groups are: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Salafi jihadi Islamist) and (leader of al-Nusra Front, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaida.
  • Most prominent arguments used by extremist groups to recruit new members, subsequently, are: Jihad is obligatory; infidelity of a ruler; infidelity of society; society's ignorance of divine guidance; weakness of society; the inevitability of confrontation with the infidels; promotion of virtue and prevention of vice; rulers are controlling people; self-purification; and anti-revolutions.
  • A majority (59.7 per cent) of arguments used by extremists to justify terrorist attacks are political ones, while religious arguments account for 21.4 per cent and social arguments for 18.6 per cent.
  • The most significant issues mentioned in tweets and shares on personal Twitter and Facebook accounts focus on jihad and victories of terrorist groups (9.4 per cent); tweets criticizing ISIS and interactions with them (7.3 per cent), media statements made by these groups (4.9 per cent).
  • Videos showing attacks and victories by terrorist groups account for 21.3 per cent of all the videos they shared.
  • In blogs, the most prominent issues are the disagreement between ISIS and al-Qaida (15.6 per cent), jihadist acts and victories (14.1 per cent) and religious views and thoughts (15.6 per cent).
  • Terminology most used in blogs are “Jihad” (37.7 per cent), “martyrdom” (9.4 per cent), “Khilafa” or caliphate (8.4 per cent), the “Khawarij” or disbelievers (5.2 per cent). On Twitter too, the term “Jihad” is the most-used term with a higher percentage of 19 per cent, followed by “brotherhood” (11 per cent) and “Khawarij” (10.2 per cent).

Based on these findings, the workshop reached the following conclusions and recommendations:

FIRST. Based on the results of this project and previous and current experiences, the mindset of terrorist groups appears to be based on a number of pillars the most notable of which are the following:

  1. Obscuring reason. This is manifested in their rejection of any questions and debating any issues of intellectual or epistemological nature. This is attributed to two things. First, employing the meaning of monotheism in a way that contravenes the profound sense of "Iman," i.e. faith and trust in on God, which implies the continuous use of mind and reasoning. Second, the eternal power struggle between religious bodies and civil agencies and a lack of coexistence between them.
  2. Total loyalty to the organization and complete subjugation of followers. This is manifested in the loyalty to the terrorist group or organization based on the presumption that loyalty achieves a high degree of faith, that overshadows leaders and, with the passage of time, the group or organization becomes more important than the idea or notion, the vision and even the faith. Hence, the utmost priority is the organizations that have exceptional capabilities to subjugate its followers, an achievement that the modern state fails to make despite pursuing all varieties of the carrot-and-stick approach.
  3. Conjuring up history. Terrorist groups conjure up a fearsome and provocative version of history, viewed from their perspective, where no past experiences are recognized for their peculiarity, relativity or temporal context. Although marred by defeats and debacles, groups see this history as total victory where they conjure up assaults on individuals like the Sahaba, or the companions of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), and major events that had crucial undertones for the faith, like the hijra, or Migration to Abyssinia, as well as historical places like Baghdad, for instance.
  4. Geography of open space. These organizations move in open space as they do not recognize nation-states and borders, take modernism for granted and reject all human achievements including legal systems governing modern societal relations. Hence, these organizations present themselves as an alternative to the state and their bid succeeded in certain cases related to daily life, when they were able to close gaps resulting from the incapacity of the state and create incubators for the needy in particular regions.
  5. Policy of endurable hostility. Based on the foundations above, and to spread a culture of terrorism, terrorist groups insist on expanding the scope of enmity. They have a policy of "either you are with us, or you are against us." The hideousness of their crimes should be viewed through their hostile policy toward all others, including their elements.

SECOND. Extremists and jihadists seek to create a parallel virtual world on the internet to achieve several goals, including creating a collective jihadist identity, mobilizing the worldwide web with information that would enable them to spread their ideology, recruit youth, and bolster their legitimacy. It should be noted that this parallel world of the terrorist is more dominated by politics than by religion.

A majority of 59.7 per cent of their tweets, for instance, are politically-motivated, compared with 18.6 per cent socially-motivated tweets, and 21.4 per cent religiously-motivated tweets. This shows that 78.3 per cent or arguments used to convince the Twitter audience with the legitimacy of jihad, are not religiously-motivated, but rather politically and socially motivated dominating terrorist twitter feeds.

Moreover, in this parallel world, terrorists and extremists and their supporters seek to provoke the emotions and not the minds of their Twitter audience. This is evidenced by the fact images account for 42 per cent of all tweets, compared to 21.3 per cent for videos, 14.3 per cent for thought-provoking text tweets, and only 1.4 per cent account for views on fiqh. That is because images stimulate emotions while texts address the mind. Moreover, they seek to create a sense of adventure with an inspiring content featuring scenes from battles and victories, which entail in 37.5 per cent of tweets.

The terrorist rhetoric in the blog space targeted specific and knowledgeable people and is focused on persuasion. That is why the majority of posts (83.1 per cent) revolved around religious arguments.

THIRD.  Among central threatening issues in the ideology of these organizations, which becomes even disastrous in some cases, is that terrorists and extremists use the same essential books which are viewed as a part of Islam, including al-Albani’s books such as Sahih al-Jami al-Saghir, in addition to the most extremist and hardline books. This represents a real crisis that is even beyond the scope of reforming the thought and school curricula. That is, extremists rely on the epistemological sources and authoritative books of Islam, yet they treat it in a different manner and extract the interpretations that serve their purposes. Moreover, they seek individual sources to justify their acts. Works of Abu al-Hassan al-Mawardi and Ibn Taymiyyah, for instance, cannot be debated, and extremists break the intellectual and fiqh structure to contravene from the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) traditions of the ancestors who refused to pursue a certain school of fiqh thought.

Based on the aforementioned, what happened in modern times is in the fact that the sociological aspect of fiqh was ignored, which helped extremists to take rulings outside their historical and temporal context. For instance, they use the fiqh which prevailed in the age of power during the period of decline and seeks to apply the fiqh followed by the majority over the fiqh of the minority.

That is why this deformed system of fiqh rulings can only be treated through the two following approaches. First, reconsidering the whole legacy and not only seeking to renew the religious rhetoric. Second, the Muslim world should inevitably make more efforts to prevent the plurality of sources of reference, which was exactly what the West had done at the dawn of the modern age where it unified its intellectual concepts, from Socrates to Quine, to come up with the 18 concepts that now constitute the pillars of the Western civilization. Hence, we should stop being a nation that does not have an agreement with sources for intellectual, conceptual and fiqh thought or the production of terrorist minds will persevere.

FOURTH. Discussing the intellectual sources of reference for extremists would not be possible without raising other issues, including relations with others. That is, extremists, use the Quran and Sunna not to build a perception of relations with others from the perspective of tolerance and multiethnic ties between peoples in the dawn of Islam, but to institute their practices and ideology on the point of view of having hypocrites who stir up sedition in Madina City (as described in the Surah Al-Ahzab), and to stress the need to have a permanent enemy such as the Persians and the Romans.

Within the same context, i.e. the intellectual source of reference, there is a need to elucidate the important fact about the problematic of defining what 'munkar' is (wrong or evil deeds). Extremists believe that munkar should be changed or removed, which is in fact beyond individual responsibility. That is why they excommunicate or declare as kafir (non-believer or infidel) individuals, bodies, societies as well as rulers to justify waging war on them, despite the fact that this is not authorized in Islam. In doing so, extremists ignore and rule out Islamic Sharia.

That is why terrorists and jihadists seek to isolate their subordinates from society where the majority (48 per cent) of their religious arguments are based on declaring society as infidel, with only 25 per cent based on the necessity of waging jihad and 10 per cent based on the need for ruling in accordance with Allah's revelations, or Quran.

The dominance of the historical paradigm on all extremists is evidenced in their desire to revive and apply conditions of the past through a wrong approach and context, where, for instance, restoring markets for sex slaves, features in their concepts and practices, contrary to the commands of Quran, Sunna and the jurists of early Islam.

FIFTH. Generally speaking, the findings indicate that what we have today is a political Islamist movement that aims to seize power, which means that the issue does not only revolve around thought and culture. That is, the phenomenon of terrorism today is more motivated by politics than by religion, a fact that is evidenced in the intra-jihadist conflict between terrorist organizations on the one hand, and the overlapping and mutual influence between the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, on the other.

Today's happenings are perhaps similar to those in other religions in the past, including internal divisions and dissent of groups from the central movement, which reveals that these groups adopt only a part of religion so much so that the most extremist are the most attractive, brutal and the most terrifying.

This needs to be countered by explaining the moderate views stated in the books they use as sources of reference, on the hand, and defining the Muslim world, on the other. Furthermore, efforts should be made to begin the creation of a unified reference for the Arab and Islamic civilization, which necessitates the deconstruction of the behaviors of these extremist organizations through the deconstruction of beliefs, religion and ideology, and restore the status and respect of fiqh sociology, fiqh al-Maqasid (teleological jurisprudence) and historical jurisprudence.