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Long-term developments in jihadi militant ideology and its transnational impact

Final Report Summary - ARABSPRING (Long-term developments in jihadi militant ideology and its transnational impact)

The project investigates long-term developments in Islamist ideology between 2001 and 2015 by analysing media statements from three different jihadi groups al-Qaeda (AQ), AQ’s regional affiliate in Syria Jabhat an-Nusra (JN), and the Islamic State (IS). To this end we developed and applied a content analysis tool (Islamist Content Classification Tool I-CCT) to identify, compare and monitor the various socio-political positions, grievances, claims and strategies expressed in the statements of these groups. Based on these findings we currently develop a second tool to measure individual attitudes of respondents in regard to a set of socio-religious topics identified in the ideological messages (Islamist Thinking Endorsement Scale Test, I-TEST)
The preliminary results show how the military doctrine of the Islamic State evolved and in what way it is different from al-Qaeda’s ideology. Although both groups separated in June 2014 after ten years of unity due to organisational disputes, they still share many tenets. However the results of the project clearly indicate that the Islamic State also introduced ideological innovations that diverge from al-Qaeda’s classical ideology. Ideological credibility and coherence is one (among many other) important factors for recruitment and mobilisation of jihadi terrorist networks. The Islamic State adopted a seemingly contradictory, yet successful, recruitment strategy in Iraq and Syria: it utilized its ideological assets and salafi reputation to recruit new followers among the Sunni population. But at the same time it opened the organization to less pious individuals, namely ex-Baathists and Iraqi nationalists. The political players among the new recruits did not necessarily believe in the salafi ideology, but they understood that the ideology could be exploited to gain power in Iraq and Syria. AQ and JN, on the other hand, advocate a theologically more coherent version of jihadism.
After AQ dismissed ISIS from its franchise organization in April 2014 the group rebranded itself IS and declared the caliphate. As a consequence IS appeared to be literally liberated from former ideological restraints. The new doctrinal independence changed IS’s conduct of war: It commits acts that al-Qaeda’s leadership considers to be a breach of Islamic military law, such as ethnic cleansings, burning prisoners of war, and indiscriminate tactics against Iraq’s Shia population. The IS also changed its organizational style. Instead of building an international franchise system, as AQ did, IS consolidates its power through a system of self-governed provinces (wilayat).
The results and the methodology of the study give policy makers and de-radicalization practitioners systematic insights into the long-term developments of jihadi ideology. The methodology of the study can be used to track and monitor jihadi discourses and narratives. It provides a set of 96 variables that indicate the various socio-political themes in Islamism as they discussed in the jihadi propaganda and in Social Networks. Thereby it deconstructs the rather meaningless and contested concepts “Islamic extremism and radicalization” into measureable components that specify particular positions on particular socio-religious issues, themes and narratives. I-CCT can be used, for instance, to profile ideological content, i.e. to identify characteristic patterns of grievances, claims, and strategies.
The second assessment tool (I-TEST) is currently under development. It is a socio-psychological inventory that measures the attitudes of respondents in regard to a set of socio-religious topics that we identified in the content of Islamist statements. Once completed, I-TEST can be used as a standardized questionnaire in survey research or as an individual (risk-) assessment tool. The final construction, pre-test and empirical validation of the scale was planned for project month 12-24. Due to professional reason the research fellow Dr Armborst will not continue the project. Within its new position as the head of the National Center for Crime Prevention (NZK) in Germany the instrument can be further developed, tested and applied as part of the research activity of the Center.
The Islamist Content Classification Tool provides valuable information about more sustainable changes in the local and global strategies of jihadi groups that can be used in long-term strategic planning and policy making. However it does not predict immanent threats. The survey instrument I-TEST translates the assessment of ideological content to the assessment of individual attitudes. It can be used to design more tailored deradicalistion programs and interventions, for forensic purposes and for further research on the question how and to what extent jihadi ideology influences people’s attitudes.
Taken together the two instruments link the global ideological dimension of jihadism to the local and individual dimension. This is an important innovation because one cannot adequately understand and effectively prevent jihadi violence when ignoring one of the two dimensions. Jihadi terrorist operations in the EU have an undeniable link to the political developments in the Middle East. It is therefore important to monitor the position of jihadi groups towards these developments and assess their implication for the EU.
For further information please contact:
Dr. Andreas Armborst