What jihadis do when they are not fighting

In a lecture he delivered earlier this year, Thomas Hegghammer said: My starting point is the truism that military life is about much more than fighting. Look inside any militant group – or conventional army for that matter – and you will see lots of artistic products and social practices that serve no obvious military purpose. Think of the cadence calls of the U.S. Marines, the songs of leftist revolutionaries, or the tattoos of neo-nazis. Look inside jihadi groups and you’ll see bearded men with kalashnikovs reciting poetry, discussing dreams, and weeping on a regular basis.

It took me a long time to even notice these things. I’ve studied jihadi groups for almost fifteen years, and for the first ten, I was addressing standard questions, like, how did group A evolve, what has ideologue B written, who joins movement C, etc. The thing is, when you study one type of group for a while, you take certain things for granted. I knew that these groups were weeping and reading poetry, but it didn’t really register – it was background noise to me, stuff I needed to shove aside to get to the hard information about people and events.

Then it occurred to me one day that these practices are not obvious at all; in fact, they are really quite strange. For one, there is the incongruence of hard men doing soft things. It is curious, for example, that Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi should be known simultaneously as “al-dhabbah” (the slaughterer) and “al-baki” (he who weeps a lot). Second and more important, these “soft” activities pose a big social science puzzle, in that they defy expectations of utility-maximising behaviour. Terrorists are hunted men with limited resources; they should be spending all their time on “useful” things like training, raising funds, or studying the enemy. Yet they “waste” time – quite a lot of time actually – on activities like the ones I’ve mentioned. So I started paying attention to these things, and the more I looked, the more I saw.

But when I turned to the academic literature for help to make sense of it, I didn’t find much to read. Studies of terrorist groups tend to focus on the hard stuff of rebellion or “the great men and events” of terrorist history. We’ve devoted much more attention to attack histories, organizational structures, and financing sources than to the softer side of rebel life. [Continue reading…]

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