Part 2: “Upon the prophetic methodology” and the media universe

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IS publishes a rich blend of propaganda on a daily basis, ranging from text documents to professionally produced videos. Any release by IS – as much as the intention of AQ media – seeks to inform, educate and convince the consumer that the jihadists are the only “true” Muslims, following the correct “prophetic methodology.” For jihadists, the heavy use of the media is part of their war for the “hearts and minds” – and the quest for authority, to be acknowledged as the only sincere representatives of ‘true’ Sunni Islam.

Among the major successes IS was able to reclaim for itself was the tearing down of the border between Syria and Iraq. While AQ has been theorizing about liberating and re-uniting Islamic territory for years without end, it was the “Islamic State” in 2014 that was physically able to implement what AQ claimed to fight for. The texts, published in classical print magazines of the 1980s and 1990s and later on the Internet have been enriched by Sunni extremist videos – with the same modus operandi (from off-line media to digital since the early 2000s). Anyone who knows the Sunni extremist literature, can read the videos in full, understanding all embedded codes, visual language, the habitus of the propagated Sunni Muslim identity etc.

evolution of jihadist magazines

IS turned the tables. By applying a great deal of Sunni extremist literature upon real territory, a population and having the space to document what was unprecedented (such as the execution of alleged homosexuals by plunging to death from roof tops), IS was able to establish a repository of videos in mainly Arabic but also other languages, where theology has been applied – and where the lesser initiated can become followers even without reading the massive amount of Sunni extremist materials available online. The videos bridge the language gap and serve as a pull factor into the mindset of Sunni extremism: those who do not speak Arabic and have questions about the Sunni Muslim identity offered by IS can find answers themselves by tuning into – for example – English language explanations of shirk (loosely translated as “polytheism” for now) by foreign fighters from Cambodia[1], or get a picture of the importance of the tearing down of the border between Syria and Iraq by a foreign fighter from Chile.

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Without reading the Arabic core documents, however, theological nuances that echo into contemporary IS motifs and mindset is missing. This is where non-Arabic language translations and tabloid-styled magazines come into play and provide further explanations – yet serving as a further opening for the non-Arabic able consumers to dig deeper into the electronic treasure trove of Sunni extremist books and videos of the past 35+ years, including dedicated English, German, French, Russian, Bahasa etc. materials (including said books and videos). And these are the very documents that make up the Sunni extremist mindset and that lead IS to the application thereof where they can derive the theological framework for their non-combat actions or governing rules (from destroying museums to systematic destruction of Shiite mosques or enslaving Yazidis). Liberating territory defined as “Islamic” and enforcing shari’a rule carried out by the extremists, who would then establish special police units to assure any violation of religious commandments will be punished. This, naturally, targets the local population in an attempt to “reformat” or replace local Islamic customs and give religion the space it did not have before. Most of these theological concepts, parameters and nuances can be referred to the “prophetic methodology” – if we follow the extremists in their words. Thus the “caliphate upon the prophetic methodology” as a slogan represents in sum what jihadists and their sympathizers struggle for. This too, is not new if you recall AQAP slogans of the 2000s such as “akhriju l-mushrikin min jazirat al-‘Arab” and the deployment of the first bi-weekly electronic magazine “sawt al-jihad”.[2] These materials serve as a legacy for IS to establish itself in the 2000s and to unfold in 2013/4 onwards. In turn the legacy of IS and the massive quantity of contemporary materials will be the legacy for future Sunni extremist groups that are operationally sometimes but theologically always connected. With the demise of parts of IS-held territory, the coherent audio-visual narratives – nearly all of the over 2,000 videos are in full-HD, 16:9 – remain and serve as inspiration to restore rule by the “prophetic methodology” for future generations. This is where the nostalgia will kick in with all the jihadist legacy expressed by the texts, videos, nashid, poetry, even humor.[3]

IS was able to enforce theological authoritative texts and religious decrees using a solid basis by “AQ scholars” and consequently document the output by audio-visual means, which then on top had been consistently released on social media. At first massively on Twitter[4] before moving on to Telegram.[5] And of course there is the strategy to spray IS materials on all levels of the Internet. Telegram has replaced Twitter as the core and is the first line of dissemination from which onwards specific content gets pushed out. On Telegram not all content is being disseminated outside the core IS-groups into the ‘open net’, (might do an extra post on this sometime).

Hence, nothing of what IS does is new – however, the scale and pace of enforcing these theological parameters physically (and filming and disseminating this online) is new, with the exception of execution of alleged spies, hostages or “apostates” (as had been outlined by – of the many – Abu Yahya al-Libi, 2009). This is partly why the ‘narratives’ of IS are highly coherent and attractive. AQ often referred to ‘aqida (creed) and minhaj/manhaj (methodology) when outlining what defines a Sunni Muslim. This ranges from proper prayer conduct to destroying graves of holy men (awliya’) whenever possible. AQ was only able in a limited way to enforce this “prophetic methodology” when in control of pockets of territory in Iraq and especially in Yemen and partly in Mali and when AQAP 1.0 was active in Saudi Arabia targeting the “mushrikin”. The claim to re-enact the lives of early Muslims under the command of prophet Muhammad, acting on said “prophetic methodology” and applying divine laws as opposed to man-made laws is a core element of Sunni extremist theology and hence part of the wider mindset tied into the “Muslim identity” – by the standards of the extremists. Abu Mus’ab al-Suri (2004) romanticized about this as one of the objectives for any mujahid in his 1600 page long book “Global Islamic Resistance Call” (pages 42, 92). Al-Suri referenced a popular hadith, predicting “the return of the caliphate upon the prophetic methodology.” Ayman al-Zawahiri in his “fourth open interview” (2007), conducted online and published by al-Sahab – back in the day that communication took place within vBulletin community forums –, demanded that Sunni jihadist organizations in Iraq ally with “the Islamic State in Iraq” to liberate territory and consequently re-establish the “abode of Islam” (dar al-Islam) by introducing the “prophetic methodology”. End of July 2014, the al-Furqan Media Foundation (which was founded over a decade ago) released a video entitled ‘ala minhaj al-nubuwwa.

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Claiming “prophetic conduct” means claiming infallibility. Dozens of IS videos in the past years show the enforcement of shari’a law regulations and applied theology – not only the hard power side such as the execution of spies, the amputation of hands, but also the collection of taxes, the enforcing of health regulations at food markets or state provided dental care. A great deal of this is carried out by the al-Hisba, the religious police, which not only enforces proper Islamic clothing but is also often seen in videos where contraband such as alcohol and tobacco are burned or items related to shirk) are destroyed.

From Theory to Practice & the On-/Off-Line Relationship

Religious references to the ahl al-Sunna wa-l jama’a are often made[6], meaning the Sunni Muslims who act according to the prophetic tradition (Sunna), emulating prophet Muhammad and his companions. Sunni extremists claim to be in the closest proximity to God by re-enacting the example and guidance, as set by the Sunna of prophet Muhammad and his companions (sahaba). IS has taken this concept to a new level by popularizing their slogan “upon the prophetic methodology” (ala minhaj al-nubuwwa). This means that they justify every action, ranging from the destruction of Shiite mosques to the execution of non-Sunni Muslims, with reference to certain, selectively chosen parts of divine scripture and the prophetic tradition.

Jihadist media operatives document all of these actions, who then produce professional, full high definition 16:9 videos. These videos are released on social media platforms that, in turn push contents onto the mobile devices and desktop computers of users.

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The billboard above reads: “the messenger – peace be upon him said: “between a man and shirk and disbelief  stands the abolishing of [ritual] prayer.”

As IS applies a great deal of theological documents and theories penned by generations of AQ theologians, argumentatively, AQ remains most important and has regained an active role by offshoot groups and individuals who subscribe to this monopoly of truth. The theological parameters and interpretations of Islamic sources give out a highly coherent set of ‘narratives’. While the role model of the ‘proper’ Sunni Muslim according to these principals of faith (‘aqida) and religious methodology (manhaj/minhaj) is embodied by the jihadists who claim purity and absolute proximity to god. The doctrine of Sunni extremism provides a clear identity of what it should mean to be a ‘true’ monotheistic Muslim (muwahhid) and how to profess the divine laws of God (shari’a) as based on the authoritarian interpretations and guidelines freely available on the Internet – giving answers to real life grievances in zones of conflict across diverse Islamic countries. Fighters and clerics likewise and sometimes in rotating roles relate the written ideology into actions and fierce emotional sermons conveyed by the extremist’s most powerful platform: Telegram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and more; jihadi forums and dedicated websites. These role models, the corpus of texts, and most important the jihadi-affiliated and hijacked iconography most prominently represented and identifiable by the black banner with the imprinted shahada,[7] has successfully manifested within majority Sunni Islamic societies, and has even more so gained visibility within the Arab public space amid the chaos and aftermath of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.[8] Perhaps even more so in times of upheaval and (re-) spawning of militant groups throughout the countries affected by the ‘Arab Spring’, first and foremost Syria, the emphasis of jihadist media advisors, strategists and contributors is set to emphasize their own role and importance:

“We are indeed convinced that the battlefields of the media jihad are of the most important streams of jihad and a elementary front thereof in this raging war with our enemies. Therefore, we [media workers] commit ourselves just as any jihadi brigade, working correspondingly with our brothers in the fields of war, directly encountering the enemies.”[9]

The media in principal is used on a tactical level, not only to incite and recruit individuals worldwide, but to create theological denominators and operational paradigms with policy guidelines for various jihadist groups. While “jihad” is first and foremost agreed to as being implemented by militant and violent means in general, or in short linked to “combat” (qital), the media thereof follows the rationale of propagating Islam (da’wa) and the proper religious methodology (manhaj/minhaj). This propagation thus is part of the overall objective to “establish the rightly guided caliphate” while uniting various Sunni fighting groups and individuals under this particular propagated manhaj.[10]

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With the Islamic State having endured for years as the “established rightly guided caliphate”, stretching across Syria and Iraq as its core area, and the day-to-day application of the “prophetic methodology”, the legacy it already leaves behind for future jihad theaters is part of the many challenges to overcome modern-day global terrorism.

[1] Markaz al-Hayyat li’-l ‘ilam, Stories from the Land of the Living – the Story of Abu Khaled the Cambodian from Australia,

[2] Nico Prucha, Die Stimme des Dschihad “Sawt al-gihad”: al-Qa’idas erstes Online-Magazin Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovač, 2010

[3] See the statements by Thomas Hegghammer: https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/23/the-culture-that-makes-a-jihadi-thomas-hegghammer-interview-poetry-militancy

[4] Ali Fisher and Nico Prucha: The Call-Up: The Roots of a Resilient and Persistent Jihadist Presence on Twitter, Global Ecco, CTX vo.4 no.3, August 2014, https://globalecco.org/nl/the-call-up-the-roots-of-a-resilient-and-persistent-jihadist-presence-on-twitter

[5] Nico Prucha: IS and the Jihadist information Highway – Projecting Influence and Religious Identity via Telegram, Perspectives on Terrorism, vol. 10, no. 6 (2016), http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/556

[6] For example the major IS video release “The Clanging of the Swords, part 4”, published in May 2014. The video shows IS in the early stages of conquest and consolidating territory in the al-Anbar province of Iraq. Ali Fisher, Nico Prucha, Is this the most successful release of a jihadist video ever?, Jihadica, May 2014, http://www.jihadica.com/is-this-the-most-successful-release-of-a-jihadist-video-ever/

[7] The black flag comprises a centric grey circle imprinted with (from down upwards) “Muhammad – rasul – allah”, a reference to the Islamic creed “There is no God (allah) but God and Muhammad is the messenger (rasul) of God.” The symbolic is amplified as this exact layout and wording had been the seal of the prophet (khatim al-nabawiyya) whereas the contemporary jihadists further seek to position a monopoly of truth by signing documents and by placing the flag as an expression of divine will and power. The use of the Prophetic seal, placed not only on the flag but also to sign ‘official Islamic State’ documents and rulings, is served as a nonnegotiable authority, backed by the interpretation and application of Qur’an and Sunna – speaking in the name of God and His messenger, Muhammad, furthering the belief of being in a direct lineage to divinity and expressing the entitlement of the soldiers of God (jund allah).

[8] The manifestation of pro-AQ styled jihadist groups, exercising violence or ‘soft-power’ such as restoring basic infrastructure and handing out supplies to the Sunni population is evident by the trans-national appearance of the Ansar al-Shari’a network. The Ansar al-Shari’a groups propagate openly jihadist iconography and a similar rhetoric based on the fundamental teachings of AQ. The Libyan branch based in Bengazi and Derna as well as the chapter in Tunisia had been declared by the U.S. State Department as “foreign terrorist organizations” and “global terrorist entities” following the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, September 11, 2012. Thomas Joscelyn, State Department designates 3 Ansar al Sharia organizations, leaders, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/01/state_department_des_2.php, January 10, 2013.

[9] Mu’assasat al-Ma’sada al-I’lamiyya / Fursan al-Balagh al-I’lam (eds.), Bayan nusrat al-ansar li-ikhwanihim al-Mujahidin al-abrar, https://shamikh1.info/vb/showthread.php?t=212520, October 10, 2013. This statement is signed by the most influential contemporary jihadi media key figures.

[10] Mu’assasat al-Ma’sada al-I’lamiyya / Fursan al-Balagh al-I’lam (eds.), Bayyan nusrat al-ansar li-ikhwanihim al-Mujahidin al-abrar, 3-5.

 

 

Explore posts in the same categories: ISIS, Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Social Media Sunni Extremist Activism, Theology of Violence

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