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Interview with Pieter Nanninga – Group dynamics within IS

Dr. Marjo Buitelaar interviews Pieter Nanninga on the popularity of IS among youth.
Hello there. I’m on my way to the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, which is just around the corner here. I’m going to see my colleague, Pieter Nanninga. Pieter has written this wonderful study on jihadism and suicide attacks. It’s about Al Qaeda and the meanings of martyrdom for people of Al Qaeda. I’m going to interview Pieter about his study and about his views on the attraction of organisations like IS and Al Qaeda for Muslim youth in Europe. Will you join me?
Well, thank you, Pieter, for having us. You’re welcome. Happy to be here. You’ve written your Ph.D. Dissertation on jihadism and suicide attacks. The subtitle of your study is called “Al Qaeda, As-Sahab and the meanings of martyrdom.” Could you tell us something about your research? Yeah. I did my research at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies on jihadism and suicide attacks, on the role of suicide attacks in jihadism, the jihadist movement. First, I think it’s important to say that “suicide attacks” is very contested term, that the perpetrators or these attacks do not call them suicide. Suicide is forbidden in Islam. So, they resist this label, this label “suicide attacks”. They call them “martyrdom operations”.
The concept of martyrdom is very important in jihadism. And this is what my research focus is about. So, it is important to realise that these different terms or labels for this violence represents different views on the legitimacy of the violence. So, I have analysed the role of martyrdom– martyrdom operations, suicide attacks– in the jihadist movement. And for this purpose I have studied martyrdom videos, which are videos that are produced by Al Qaeda. And especially by Al Qaeda’s media group– their specialised media department, which is called As-Sahab, which means “the clouds” in English. And this media group produces videos which are quite extensive– videos approximately an hour long– in which they tell the stories of martyrs and their attacks.
The attacks are praised as martyrdom operations, and the attacks are legitimised. And they also explain why they commit these attacks, why they commit this violence.
I have especially focused on the meanings of this violence for the perpetrators. So, not so much on the strategic value of suicide attacks, but on the meanings– social, cultural meanings of the violence for the perpetrators. And what I found is that when we think about suicide attacks, we often think about, well, they do it for paradise and for the virgins in paradise. But what my study shows is that far more important are terms such as honour and dignity, terms such as martyrdom. The example of the prophet is very important.
So, they have the idea that they, with their actions, stand up for Islam, for the Islamic community, defend the honour of Islam, defend the dignity of Islam in the footsteps of the prophet Muhammad. That is, I think, the main conclusion of my research. So, your focus is on violent jihadism. Why is it that they think Islam should be defended in the violent way? Yes. What I see in these videos, in these Al Qaeda videos, is that they have the idea, the perception that they are engaged in a conflict, a conflict between the Muslim world, the Muslims, and the infidels. And in their view, the Muslims are oppressed. They are oppressed by the West.
They are in a war with the West, America and its allies. But they are also oppressed by the regimes in the Muslim world, by dictators such as, well, in the past, Mubarak and Saddam Hussein and the king of Saudi Arabia. They are oppressed by this coalition as they see it, a coalition of enemies. And the only outcome in this war is violence, according to themselves. Muslims are, in their view, too passive. They look away while their brothers and sisters are suffering in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq. And jihadists see themselves as those who stand up for Islam, who defend Islam and who are the only ones who defend Islam and defend their religion. And violence is crucial in this situation.
You’re presently doing research on videos that are made by IS, the Islamic State, the organisation called by that name. If you compare that to the videos made for martyrs of Al Qaeda, how do they compare? Yeah. These videos are comparable in a lot of aspects, I think. The message is comparable to a certain extent. The Islamic State also claims that they defend Islam and defend the ummah by means of their actions. There are also remarkable differences between the videos of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The videos produced by the Islamic State are more professional. They produce more videos. And these are more sleek, so to say, so, more professional as the videos produced by Al Qaeda.
But what is interesting to see is that the Islamic State, in its videos, also really tries to present itself as a state. So, not as an organisation that wages jihad, but really as a state. It produces videos showing that they established hospitals, showing that they have social programmes in the cities they rule. They have songs that, more or less, function as a national anthem. So, they really try to represent themselves as a state. That’s an important difference with the videos produced by Al Qaeda. What is also a difference is that the videos by the Islamic State– well, as we all know, I think– are even more explicitly violent than the videos produced by Al Qaeda.
That’s what you see in, for example, these beheading videos. They have produced some videos in which Western Americans and British journalists, aid workers were beheaded. But far more videos in which Syrians, Iraqis were beheaded. This is something Al Qaeda has always opposed– the broadcasting of videos like these. So, IS is even more explicitly violent than Al Qaeda. And that also has to do with differences in ideology, but maybe more important, on strategy. Because Al Qaeda said it is not strategic to publish videos like these, because we have to win the ummah, we have to win the hearts and minds of the Muslims for our cause. And videos like these do not do that.
So, they are comparable, but also many differences, which is interesting because that shows that jihadism is not a unified movement, but a very diffuse and diverse movement. So, what might be the strategic value of displaying this extreme violence that IS does in its videos? I think the most important reason for doing so is that IS wants to draw media attention to its cause. And by producing and distributing videos like these beheading videos, they have been able to gain media attention in the West, make media attention in the US and Great Britain and Europe, and bring their cause to the fore, to the audience.
This is what IS is very good at, very innovative in its strategy and its tactics of drawing media attention by means of violence and by means of videos. And this combination is very important.
Could you say something about the role of this presentation, the role it plays in the appeal that IS might have to Muslim youth– be they living in the Middle East, Europe, elsewhere in the West? Yeah. In the first place, I think it is very important to emphasise that it is very hard, or even impossible, to make general statements about what the appeal of the Islamic State for Muslims. The motivations for joining the Islamic State, or for having sympathy for the Islamic State, are very different, for example, from Muslims in the Middle East who have joined the Islamic State.
Muslims in the West, which have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State– it is very hard to make general statements about this. But I think there are some patterns we see. And I also think that these videos are very important in this respect, because these videos are a means for the Islamic State to represent themselves to the audience. And what I just explained– IS claims to defend Islam and defend the ummah. This idea can be attractive for some people in both the Muslim world and the West, because, in these times of globalisation, there are more and more people who identify themselves with their fellow Muslims, their co-religionists, in all the place of the world.
For example, Muslims in the Netherlands who identify with Muslims in Palestine, in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and also with the suffering of Muslims in these places, who are touched by the suffering of their fellow believers. And then the idea that there is a group, or a movement, which stands up for these believers, which defends these believers, which fights for these suffering Muslims and revenges the suffering of these Muslims– that can be appealing, I think, for Muslims.
And it also gives them, the Islamic State, the jihadist ideology also gives them a model to take action, an idea, a sense of agency, that they can do something, that they can contribute something to the fate of their religion and fellow believers. And not just do something, but do something very important, something in the footsteps of the prophet Muhammad. And they also migrate, as the prophet Muhammad once did, migrate to another country, migrate from a situation of oppression to another situation in which they can fight for their belief and their religion.
And so, also not just a sense of agency, but also a sense of empowerment is very important, I think, that they can be part of this is historical movement, this caliphate. From countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, we know that it is particularly youth who are attracted to IS and who actually move to Syria to fight the jihad there. And, as I gather, this is also the case for Middle Eastern countries themselves– that its particularly youth who participate in this jihadism. How do you explain that? Yeah. They are, indeed, almost exclusively youth, young people who go to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State. I think there are several points which are important here.
In the first place, youth– the period between, well, say 15 and 30, 15-25– is a period in which people try to find out who they are. They try to construct their own identity. They search for ways to give meaning to their lives. So, this is the period in which– in this period, therefore, jihad, jihadism, can be attractive for some of these young Muslims who are struggling with their identity, with giving purpose to their lives. Because jihadism offers a very clear worldview, it offers a very strong identity with clear boundaries between who is good who is not good. So, especially in this phase of their lives, this jihadism can be attractive.
What is also important, I think, is an idea of heroism, an idea of– for men, they are mostly men– an idea of manliness– that you can fight, you can revenge the slaughter of Muslims in Syria and Iraq, an idea that you have a heroic role as a knight of God, as they call themselves. And for women, who also went there– for women the idea– some idea of romanticism. And there are several stories of women who fall in love with fighters in Syria and Iraq and who go there, follow their heart and go there to their romantic– So, these are also ideas that– especially in this phase of their lives– can be attractive for young Muslims, I think.
What also plays a role is the difference between generations. And these youth rebel or oppose themselves towards their parents, and they want to do things differently as their parents. It is also an idea that they are against the establishment, not just parents but also politics and the establishment, which gives them their own position, their own role in society.
And with their parents, opposing their parents, the idea also plays a role that they didn’t want to compromise as their parents did in their view. Their parents did not live, or do not live according to this pure Islam which they seek, or which they had heard. Their parents did not fight for their religion. They look the other way while their fellow Muslims were suffering in the Middle East. They want to do things differently. So, this is indeed also important. It’s also a difference between generations, yes. This is all very intriguing, and very informative, in fact. So, thank you very much for this interview, Pieter. It’s been most helpful. OK. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
So what is the message of IS? What particular selection of symbols, rituals and stories selected as ‘performative tools’ prompt so many Muslim youth from different parts of the world to join them? Find out more by watching the interview with our colleague Pieter Nanninga of the department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Groningen.
Together, the topics that come to the fore in the IS propaganda videos that Pieter Nanninga has analysed constitute a powerful narrative or ‘model for action’ that addresses many of the existential questions that present day Muslim youth face; the story IS tells them is of a global conflict between Muslims who are oppressed by a coalition of enemies consisting of local regimes and imperialist powers. It also promises, however, that Muslims have the power to regain their dignity by reviving collective memories of a glorious past and follow the example of the Prophet Muhammed to stand up for the Umma or Muslim community.
Pieter points out that in addition to providing a concrete model for action, the IS narrative also offers a strong identity and clear boundaries between in- and outgroups. In short: the IS narrative provides both a model for agency and a model for identity or belonging.
If you do not have time to watch the entire interview with Pieter Nanninga, we suggest you view the following sections:
3.16 – 5.50 : motivation for violently defending Islam
9.46 – 13.11: appeal of IS for Muslim youth
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