A thousand men who fear not for their lives are more to be dreaded than ten thousand who fear for their fortunes.
The evidence based approach to analysing the Jihadi movement includes how the movement creates their visual images. Deconstructing these images into their components demonstrates that many of the different elements are included deliberately to communicate specific things. These elements must be interpreted within the appropriate habitus.
In part, as the late Reuven Paz noted, this means recognising that;
The Jihadi militancy is … almost entirely directed in Arabic and its content is intimately tied to the socio-political context of the Arab world.
Reuven Paz, Reading Their Lips: The Credibility of Jihadi Web Sites as ‘Soft Power’ in the War of the Minds
The other part of interpreting images within the appropriate habitus, is an appreciation of the Jihadi culture, in the sense as-Suri used “the cultural level of the mujahidin“.
At times, it is possible to heighten the cultural level of the mujahidin, and it is also possible to heighten the level of preparation and acquired skills, and this will contribute to refining the talent …
The trainers and those supervising the foundation of Resistance cells must discover those talents and refine them with culture and training so that they find their place in leading terrorist operations in this type of blessed jihad…
Later in the text as-Suri notes:
..one of the most important fundaments for training in our jihadi Resistance Call is to spread the culture of preparation and training, its programs and methods, with all their aspects, by all methods of distribution, especially the Internet, the distribution of electronic discs, direct correspondence, recordings and every other method.as-Suri, Global Islamic Resistance Call
The socio-political and cultural elements of the habitus in which Jihadi media is created are fundamental to evidence based research into what this material intended to communicate. When this evidence based approach is applied, notions of “jihadi cool”, going from zero-to-hero, crime and gangsta rap, along with claims of utopia and ‘utopian narratives’ all become unsustainable as interpretations of what Jihadi groups intend to communicate.
Jihadi culture has drawn influences from theology, the history of muslims, history of Jihadi groups and draws on experiences from earlier iterations of the movement. Jihadi culture is inextricably linked to their understanding of evidence and scholarship, specifically the vast archive of text, audio, and video which precedes the emergence of the contemporary al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya.
Evidence based approach
This image has been part of the Jihadi information ecosystem and is part of a wider genre of images.
These images are composites of numerous elements, the inclusion of which are intended to communicate concepts which have also been referenced in earlier jihadi material.
Deconstructing the image
The original image ‘training the brothers in street fighting’ was produced by hadrawmawt Yemen. This training session depicts the practical application of theology in meeting the obligation to prepare for Jihad and life on ribat. This obligation is emphasized by the quote from Surah al-Anfal (Quran 8:60) which features in the final sawa’iq media image.
And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them whom you do not know [but] whom Allah knows. And whatever you spend in the cause of Allah will be fully repaid to you, and you will not be wronged.Surah al-Anfal 8:60
Like the interconnection between contemporary jihadi material and historic precursors, the original image of the training session also appears in other content. Here it is used in combination with another image of training, also referring to Quran 8:60, emphasizing the mujahidin are obligated to prepare for combat.
The importance of preparing (training) appears frequently in documents from previous iterations of the Jihadi movement, including those by as-Suri (quoted above) and discussed in detail in Zaad e Mujahidin. For example;
Generally the military training ought to be acquired by every healthy Muslim. Even the disabled Muslim could perform various military duties, due to the modern method of warfare….
After the compulsory requirement of the Imaan and the Taqwa, the Mujahid ought to pay careful attention to the following three points:Zaad e Mujahidin
– Highest standard of military training.
– Prudence and Contrivance.
Our battle today is a battle of attrition – prolonged for the enemies. They must come to terms that jihad will last until judgement day. And that god commanded for us jihad while not decreeing for us to win. Therefore, we ask god for steadfastness, determination, guidance, righteousness, and success for us and for our brothers.
The Jihadi movement is clear about their aim and purpose, these are constants in their material not ‘latest trends’. As Reuven Paz quoted Indian scholar, Dr. Om Nagpal,
The Mujahidin do not hide their intentions. They do not use diplomatic or apologetic language. On various occasions they have used aggressive language. Repeatedly from the different corners of the world, they have proclaimed in categorical terms that their mission is Jihad. Jihad inspires them. Jihad invigorates them. Jihad gives them a purpose in life. Jihad for them is a noble cause, a sacred religious duty. Jihad is a mission
Paz, Reuven. “The brotherhood of global jihad.” (October , 2001) http://www.e-prism.org
Once the theological underpinning of the Jihadi movement is recognised, interpretation of the imagery can focus on the framework (or Habitus) within which it is created and the concepts which it is intended to communicate.
The dominant narrative among Western governments, policy experts and the mainstream media has been that Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups embrace a violent “ideology,” rather than specific religious doctrines that pervade and drive their agenda.
Rüdiger Lohlker continues,
It is crystal clear to virtually anyone who has the linguistic capacity to grasp and the opportunity to witness what jihadists are actually saying, writing and doing, both online and offline, that religion matters.
The Jihadi movement interprets waging jihad as a religious duty and they consider innovation in religion unacceptable. As a result, Jihadi culture is based on what they consider evidence; evidence rooted in a long tradition of theological writing, divine comandment and historical human acting (i.e. tales of the sahaba and selective readings of the Sunna).
That evidence is the key to an authentic interpretation of the imagery the movement produces. If commentary and academic interpretations cannot explicitly site the evidence and connect their interpretation to the long history of Jihadi theological writing, it risks becoming significantly more about what Western researchers imagine they see; an interpretation trapped in a western habitus rather than an authentic interpretation of the Jihadi movement.