The first thing that I noticed in the gruesome pictures of two gunmen fleeing the scene of their attack on Charlie Hebdo was that the men were dressed from head to toe in black.
It might sound strange, but terrorist couture is a surprisingly relevant detail from which to start making sense of what happened in Paris, and how it connects to other acts of jihadi terrorism worldwide.
The attackers dressed to look like members of a paramilitary force not to trick their way through a security check, but to symbolise their belonging to an army – albeit an imagined one.
The spectacle of the balaclava-clad figures was reminiscent of many scenes which I have studied from jihadi propaganda videos produced in Pakistan and Afghanistan. One of the strongest themes projected throughout those videos is military toughness: they show young men in training camps being put through assault-course style exercises, just as they would be in a regular army or commando unit.
The trainees sometimes pose wearing headbands inscribed with the words “Allahu Akbar” and talk about the missions they are supposed to undertake against infidel armies.
These images are very deliberately assembled to project the notion that those waging a jihad in contemporary Afghanistan and Pakistan (and beyond) actually do command an Islamic army. Of course, the reality of the conflict is one of unphotogenic landmines and booby-traps, augmented by assassination attempts and massacres at schools.
Given the ugly reality of what’s going on, it has fallen to jihadi propagandists to project the idea that their forces are strong, organised and state-like, and that task has involved multiple layers of deceit.
The 21st century version of jihadism did not come out of nowhere. It is firmly rooted in the politics of the post-colonial Muslim world, and is based on the idea that the predicament of Muslim societies reflects the global imbalance of power – most of all, the ability of the US to prop up client regimes in the Middle East and project its values globally by force.
That gives today’s jihadi groups a political appeal that insulates them from the scorn of the mainstream. The authoritative Islamic scholars of the ancient al-Azhar University were quick to condemn the Paris attacks as un-Islamic, and numerous commentators have pointed out that mainstream Sunni Islamic theology rejects this kind of response to alleged blasphemy. But the organisers of the modern jihad are immune to such theological arguments.
To those scripting the jihad, the significance of the Kouachis’ act will not have been that it avenged blasphemy, but that it demonstrated that the Mujahideen have started to redress the military imbalance against the West.
One device which they use is the idea of the “ameer”, or divinely guided commander. A footsoldier waging jihad submits to the authority of his ameer and relies on him to deal with issues of right and wrong and settle accounts on the day of judgement.
These hierarchical militaristic ideas are the ones we tend to miss in Western commentary on the attacks: those who inspired or ordered the attacks were quite probably not trying to win a theological argument about an insult to the Prophet Mohammed, but to demonstrate a military reality.
And once we look at the attacks through this military lens, it should not be surprising that six months after the Islamic State emerged as the world’s pre-eminent jihadi organisation, the Paris attackers instead proclaimed a link to al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen.
Al-Qaeda and Islamic State are separate organisations, with a history of intense rivalry, but they are both part of a broader and more amorphous movement made up of multiple groups who share a set of core doctrines about the modern jihad and a commitment to violence.
People and ideas move between groups in this movement, and so the rise of Islamic State has goaded al-Qaeda into further action, not dormancy (see the admittedly farcical rollout of the new franchise, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent). An imagined army, after all, can transcend the petty differences between rival factions in its drive to recruit new members.
Back in black
Taken alongside all this, the attackers’ black outfits are still the starkest clue to the thinking behind their actions.
One of the tendencies in the jihadi Islamic movement is to attach serious apocryphal and apocalyptic significance to black flags. This stems from a much-disputed tale from the life of the Prophet Mohammed, in which he is supposed to have prophesied that the arrival of an army flying black flags and coming from the direction of Khorasan (Afghanistan) would be a prelude to the day of judgement.
Jihadi fighters inspired by this story do not just imagine being in an army which stands up to Western might; they dream of being a part of the dramatic events at the very end of the world. The colour black signifies that dream.
The violence unleashed on Charlie Hebdo by black-clad assassins was an act of violence deliberately employed by a movement whose leaders think globally and politically. The “ameers” of this movement claim religious inspiration, employ religious rhetoric and display piety, but they are also immune to any theological objections.
And yet, along with the jihadis’ very worldly use of armed struggle, many are also susceptible to magical thinking and tales of modern miracles, with many of the hallmarks of a cult.
To avoid more attacks like those in Paris, we must challenge the jihadists’ dream that they belong to a real army with a just cause. That, of course, is easier said than done. Undermining the appeal of an imagined army will require more subtlety and reflection than we apply to any other global problem.
The first line of defence will always be security force action, but the problem may simply be too big and too amorphous to be handled by the security services. One novel way to undermine the appeal of the jihadi recruiters would be for Europe to do a better job of projecting itself as a protector of peace and justice at the global level – but such an approach would require some challenging rethinking of the Euro-American allies’ military involvement in majority-Muslim countries, which could well last for decades.
A more direct approach would involve exposing the hypocrisy and contradictions with which the groups of the jihadists’ Islamic movement are riddled. Some of the people who can challenge the jihadi militarists’ narrative most effectively are those who have themselves served in the Islamic Movement, but who have since rejected violence. They are informed by an insider’s understanding of reality inside the cult.
Their voices should be nurtured and promoted. But for that to happen, countries in Europe and the Muslim world will have to keep open pathways for those exiting the jihad back to normal life, at a time when popular pressure will demand the opposite.