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Understanding Salafi‑Jihadist Attitudes Towards Innovation

Understanding Salafi‑Jihadist Attitudes Towards Innovation
19th January 2021 ICSR Team
In Reports

The full report can be accessed here.

Please read on for the Executive Summary.

Introduction

  • One of the most notable features of the salafi‑jihadist movement has been its consistent effort to explore technological innovation. Indeed, there is a generally permissive attitude towards innovation in this area.
  • Where debate does exist, it does so with regard to the application of such technologies and their impact on civilians – which is itself a hotly contested definitional issue within salafi‑jihadist circles.
  • This paper has chosen to focus on three case studies where salafi‑jihadist innovation has been most acute. These are: (i) improvised explosive devices (IEDs); (ii) strategic communications; and (iii) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones.

 

Methods

  • The project team drew on a range of Arabic‑language sources collected over the course of the last two decades.
  • These include: (i) thousands of verified internal Islamic State (IS) documents found in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan; (ii) hundreds of doctrinal texts authored by senior figures from across the global jihadist movement; and (iii) an obscure 575‑page manual cited by leading members of both al‑Qaeda and IS as an important theological treatise on asymmetric warfare.

 

Doctrine

  • The Arabic term for ‘innovation’ is bid’a (بدعة), which applies to heretical theological innovations that fall beyond the religion’s purview. The term is therefore used in negative contexts. This does not apply to the use of new technologies that are not seen as falling under the category of bid’a.
  • Despite the Western/non‑Muslim origin of some inventions in modern military warfare, using these inventions is generally accepted in salafi‑jihadist propaganda and literature. This is because these groups distinguish between ‘civilisation’ (hadarah) and ‘material output’. What this means in practical terms is that while some physical products – such as an ornamental crucifix – depict a certain viewpoint about life, material progress is itself neutral. Thus, a mobile phone and all the technology within it are not specific to any particular kind of civilisation and do not denote something about the individual’s belief system. This ascription of neutrality to technology means that salafi‑jihadist groups are willing to exploring innovation in this area.

 

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)

  • The use of IEDs is perhaps one of the most familiar tactics deployed by salafi‑jihadist groups. The most common form of attacks involving IEDs is planting them along roads or on vehicles to target enemy personnel.
  • Strategy
    • At the strategic level, IEDs can be seen as a classic example of guerrilla warfare. This thinking has been outlined repeatedly in IS’s official propaganda, which has boasted on multiple occasions about the strategy of attrition designed to wear down the enemy through inflicting nikaya (‘damage’).
  • Deployment
    •  IEDs are often delivered through ‘amaliyyat istishhadiyya, which translates as ‘martyrdom operations’, more commonly known as suicide bombings.
    • Although suicide bombings are controversial within Islam, the issue is no longer regarded as contentious within salafi‑jihadist circles. The arguments on both sides are, by now, well rehearsed and adherents to militant Islam are comfortable with the tactic, considering it doctrinally valid.
    • Where there is debate, it tends to focus on issues of target selection, for example, surrounding civilian targeting.
  • Doctrine
    • In the broadest sense IEDs are planted to inflict damage on the enemy, although their use is not approved in every scenario. Indeed, even Islamic State has imposed some limits in this matter, arguing they should not be used in places that will lead to harm to Muslim civilians if alternatives are available.
    • An important work for IS that justifies its frequent use of suicide bombers is Abu Abdullah al‑Muhajir’s Issues of the Jurisprudence of Jihad: Twenty Issues of the most important of what the mujahid needs.

 

Strategic Communications

  • Salafi‑jihadist strategic communications went mainstream in the 2010s, in the sense that they became both more accessible and more notorious than ever before.
  • Strategy
    • The strategic logic that underpins salafi‑jihadist communication activities has proven to be inelastic in recent decades, even as the means by which their communications are deployed has transformed.
    • Salafi‑jihadists see strategic communications as a way to pursue one of three objectives: (i) propagation; (ii) legitimisation; and (iii) intimidation.
  • Deployment
    •  The most prominent use of strategic communications by salafi‑jihadist groups in recent years has come via mainstream social media channels. This later shifted to instant messaging services and by mid‑2020, there were signs that another migration was on the horizon. For years, pressure has been mounting on Telegram to rid itself of salafi‑jihadists. Meanwhile, a raft of other encrypted and privacy‑maximising platforms, such as TamTam, Riot, Rocket.Chat and Threema, have started to offer a similar array of functionalities.
  • Doctrine
    •  Strategic communications are couched in rhetoric around total war and the need to repel a ‘Crusader enemy’. In this respect, the role of media operatives is elevated such that they become key players in a ‘cosmic’ war that threatens the very essence of Islam.
    • Outreach as a weapon of strategic or even existential importance is frequently emphasised by salafi‑jihadists. Strategic communications are therefore an end in themselves, not just something that complements real‑world military or terrorist activities.

 

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs; more commonly known as drones) have become an increasingly common sight on the battlefield, particularly after President Barack Obama intensified their use in such conflict arenas as Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
  • Strategy
    • Groups like Islamic State have weaponised commercial drone technology, which is becoming more advanced and readily available. They have achieved two strategic goals with drones: (i) propaganda/symbolism; and (ii) reconnaissance.
    • The propaganda utility of drones is derived from their ability both to produce and to serve as propaganda. With regards to the former, much has been written about the high production values and slick, filmic appeal of IS videography. The very fact that the group has managed to utilise drones on the battlefield is celebrated among their supporters; the mere use of the technology has value as propaganda.
  • Deployment
    • It has been relatively straightforward to secure almost complete and total aerial dominance against non‑state actors who have not traditionally had recourse to sophisticated technological resources within the aerial space.
    • Groups like IS have deployed drones for hostile reconnaissance, to identify enemy positions and roadblocks. Most dramatically, this has allowed for real‑time attack management by the group when fighting against the Iraqi Security Forces and Syrian Democratic Forces.
    • IS has also developed the capability to deliver modest payloads via adapted drones. A wide variety of different warheads have been used, among which the most common has been 40mm grenades.
    • One clear limitation in this regard is that commercially available drones simply lack the mechanical power needed to transport more sophisticated weapons due to their weight and size.
  • Doctrine
    • Unlike the other case studies within this paper, there is no specific doctrine relating to drones. The reason for this is that drones are a tool, rather than a tactic. While there is a large doctrinal discourse around IEDs insofar as they pertain to suicide, and around propaganda because it relates to proselytisation, drones are merely one of many battlefield tools used by salafi‑jihadists.

 

Conclusion

  • In all of the cases explored within this paper – IEDs, strategic communications and drones – it is clear that technological advancement has progressed rapidly.
  • Not only have these technologies become exponentially more powerful over time, but their availability has also increased dramatically.
  • The contemporary salafi‑jihadist movement encourages malevolent creativity when considering the application of new technologies on the battlefield and this emphasis on innovation is unlikely to change.

 

Policy Implications

  • This eager embrace of technological advances serves as a useful indicator when considering the future of battlefield innovation: almost nothing is considered off‑limits.
  • Given that the salafi‑jihadist appetite for technical and technological innovation is largely unfettered by ideology, policymakers should respond by:
    • Deploying continuous horizon‑scanning research programmes looking to detect and mitigate early uptake of and/or experimentation with new and emerging technologies.
    • Assessing the extent to which salafi‑jihadists are more concerned with certain technologies for symbolic and prestige‑related reasons (such as CBRN and drones).
    • Revisiting and revitalising approaches towards strategic communications such that responses to salafi‑jihadist narrative‑led warfare are similarly nuanced and consistent.

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