The influence of globally available jihadist propaganda on the web is well established. But we know less about how and to what extent word-of-mouth and other more local channels of communication contribute to the creation of terrorists.
A vigorous “media jihad” has been central to the way al-Qaeda has changed in recent years from actually commissioning and directing terrorist operations to providing ideological and rhetorical support and guidance on practical measures for the aspiring jihadist.
The online English-language magazine Inspire was first published in 2010 by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to support this strategic shift to the strategy of “open-source jihad”.
Since its editor Samir Khan and leading ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki were killed in a drone attack in September 2011, the magazine’s future has been uncertain, but there are many other online sources of similar “inspiration”.
There is very little in the way of political analysis in jihadist propaganda, and - perhaps surprisingly to those who see Islamist terrorism as deeply linked to Islam - there is often very little religious content, other than in the invocation of an imagined global Muslim community.
The appeal of this material to the consumer is typically based on a dramatic representation of victimhood, which aims to evoke righteous anger at the perpetrators of violence upon the victims and to mobilise that anger in a vengeful assault on the perpetrators.
Parallels with crime reporting
We are familiar with this sort of thing in other contexts. Popular response to violent crime, especially that involving children and old people, often follows a similar path, usually steered in the UK by a tabloid press and its depictions of “evil”. This not to see popular attitudes towards crime as entirely engineered by an outraged press, as some crimes really are worthy of the horror they provoke in the newspaper-reading public.
The dynamics of victimhood portrayed in jihadist propaganda differ from that type of crime reporting in several ways. First the victims are portrayed as Muslims everywhere. The perpetrators, meanwhile, are portrayed as all non-believers, i.e. everyone else, plus those Muslims who are in fact not true Muslims. So, unlike in the reporting of crime, in jihadist propaganda everyone is involved. The suffering and blame are everywhere, and the duty to take revenge cannot be avoided.
Second, the consumer of the propaganda is invited to identify totally with the victim. While a virulent anti-Americanism may sometimes take centre stage in the identification of the perpetrator, and the murder of children or the rape of women may be the narrative content of a propaganda piece, the victim is always the collective body of the Ummah, the global community of Islam, of which the viewer or reader is assumed to be a part.
Because the stakes are set so high, many who may encounter such material are not influenced by it, at least not in the sense of taking up its challenge, as it asks far too much. But for some of those with an acute sense of their own victimhood, it is a potentially seductive brew. It promises to replace shame at a feeling of impotence or worthlessness with the experience of triumph. It makes a direct appeal to a core feeling of humiliation and inserts into it a narrative of heroic resistance.
The feelings of humiliation which may render someone vulnerable to propaganda of this kind are not necessarily based in any social or political reality. They may have roots in early emotional development within a family - but, whatever their origin, they are a powerful internal reality.
Emotion trumps reason
There is very little cold reasoning involved in the propaganda. There is no foreseeable end to the jihad against the West, no instrumental rationale to persuade people to join it, and only occasional close examination of the actual consequences of terrorist attack (for example the calculations that September 11 and its various consequences would destroy the US economy).
The appeal is an entirely emotional one. Significantly, the jihadist role which it offers is, like the victim portrayed in jihadist propaganda, one of subjection. The humiliating subjection to a murderous foe (for example the US, the whole of the West or “kaffir” - non-Muslim - world) is replaced by a subjection to a God-given cause.
There is an increasing danger that this kind of appeal may hit its target. As internet use increases globally there will be more people seeking solutions to life’s problems online. Among these there will be individuals with a deep sense of inner humiliation and a need to try and find relief by taking action in the external world.
But, in absolute terms, the numbers moved by jihadist propaganda to engage in terror will remain small (though the threat they present could be great). Criminalising such material would probably create more problems by increasing the excitement attached to it and giving it an aura of transgressive power. And any attempt to clamp down on one online source may be like trying to dam a stream with a fork.
In any case, as with our attitudes towards crime, the media are not solely responsible for how people who read it feel. Far better to work on a civic environment, offline as much as online, in which individuals who might otherwise see violent jihadism as a solution to their lives can more easily find reasons to reject it.