The Challenge of Jihadi Cool

ISIS’s countercultural appeal is real. And it must be taken seriously.

An ISIS fighter in Kobani, Syria (Reuters)

If you want to get a sense of what attracts westernized Muslims to ISIS, you could do worse than listen to one of its sympathizers, as opposed to its legion of opponents, who are liable to pathologize the group’s appeal as an ideological contagion that infects the weak, instead of taking it seriously as a revolutionary movement that speaks to the young and the strong-minded.

Check out, as just one of many examples, the Twitter user “Bint Emergent”: an apparent ISIS fangirl and keen observer of the jihadist scene. (Bint Emergent has not disclosed her identity, or gender, but bint is an honorific Arabic word for girl or daughter; like umm—mother in Arabic—bint features prominently in the Twitter display names of female ISIS sympathizers.)

“Jihadis,” she explains on her blog BintChaos, “look cool—like ninjas or video game warriors—gangstah and thuggish even—the opposition doesnt.” She concedes that “There aren’t a lot of jihadist ‘poster-girls’ displayed—they all wear niqab [face veil], but sometimes its tastefully accessorized with an AK47 or a bomb belt.” By contrast, “Team CVE [a reference to Countering Violent Extremism, or Anglo-American counterterrorism entrepreneurs whose role, state- or self-appointed, is to challenge “extremist” narratives],” consists “mostly [of] middleaged white guys with a smidgin of scared straight ex-mujahids [ex-jihadists] and a couple middleaged women.”

“Jihadis have cool weapons. And cool nasheeds [a cappella hymns],” she continues. They also have “young fiery imams that fight on the battlefield,” whereas Team CVE “has ancient creaky dollar scholars…” Most importantly:

[S]alafi-jihadism made being pious cool. It became cool to quote aya [verse] and study Quran. And CVE has absolutely no defense against this. … I love jihadi cant—dem, bait, preeing, binty, akhi [brother]… its like Belter dialect in the Expanse. And it borrows from all languages—because jihad draws from all races and ethnicities. The voice of youth counterculture and revolution for an underclass. Like ghetto culture in the US—the inexorable evolution of cool.

Bint Emergent reveals little to nothing about who she is, and without that critical context it’s difficult to assess her credibility. A lot of what she says in her blog posts is arcane and rambling, and she insists at the top of her prolific Twitter feed that “im not necessarily proforma pro- #IS”—a statement seemingly contradicted by the sympathetic tone she often adopts towards the group.

And yet Bint Emergent’s words, and especially her reflections on ISIS’s countercultural appeal to young people, are worth considering. “The bottom line,” she asserts in one blog entry, “is that the Islamic State is the classic sci-fi underdog battling a seemingly all powerful Evil Empire America against impossible odds—and in the very best sci-fi tradition—they are winning.” “Besides,” she observes in another entry, “IS [Islamic State] has a bottomless youth recruitment pool for the next 35 years, and like IS says, the fighting has just begun. You Are Not Prepared.”

She is scathing about U.S. counterterrorism efforts against ISIS, and dismisses the State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” campaign as “the most utterly clumsy and doomed propaganda effort since sexual abstinence campaigns.”

In a blog post titled “Embracing Apocalypse I: the Islamic State and the Prophetic Methodology,” she expresses particular admiration for a black-and-white photo of an ISIS fighter on the streets of Kobani, Syria. He is nonchalantly holding a machine gun, with an arm raised triumphantly in the air. Behind him is a scene of utter devastation, in which orange flames—the only color in the photo—and thick smoke cascade from a truck and building. The fighter depicted is reportedly Abu Ahmad al-Tunisi. “This iconic photo,” she writes, “distills the whole conflict into one image for me. To glory in apocalypse, to embrace it…” It also distills a possible contradiction or discrepancy: Abu Ahmad al-Tunisi is wearing, in addition to a thick, righteous beard, what appear to be a pair of Nike trainers. Nike is a large American corporation, and the distinctive Nike swoosh is a symbol of American urban cool—or, at least, it used to be. Apocalypse, Bint Emergent goes on to say, unconvincingly, is “a wholly alien concept for the west.” But the idea of the righteous, brand-wearing badass certainly isn’t.

In a chapter on “Warrior Values” in John Archer’s edited collection Male Violence, the psychologist Barry McCarthy cites the Japanese samurai as the most obvious exemplar of this idea: He is “unflinching in the face of danger, strong and energetic, cunning in tactics though honorable, proficient with his weapons as well as in the arts of unarmed combat, self-controlled, self-confident and sexually virile.”

The cross-cultural appeal of this figure is hard to deny, as Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen make clear in their study Culture of Honor: “The world over, men are sent out to sacrifice and to die, not for such purely instrumental purposes as deterrence; rather they are motivated by what they and the community expect good, honorable men to do.” “There is,” indeed, Nisbett and Cohen remark, “a romance and an allure to the Masai warrior, the Druze tribesman, the Sioux Indian, the Scottish chieftain…”

For those who are bewitched by it, there is also a romance and an allure to the jihadist warrior. In a recent article, “The Soft Power of Militant Jihad,” the terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer touches on this and the wider “jihadi culture” of fashion, music, poetry, and dream interpretation. “Jihadis,” he writes, “can’t seem to get enough anashid [nasheeds]. They listen to them in their dorms and in their cars, sing them in training camps and in the trenches, and discuss them on Twitter and Facebook.” “Jihadi culture,” he elaborates, “also comes with its own sartorial styles. In Europe, radicals sometimes wear a combination of sneakers, a Middle Eastern or Pakistani gown and a combat jacket on top. It’s a style that perhaps reflects their urban roots, Muslim identity and militant sympathies.” Hegghammer concludes that, “As the West comes to terms with a new and growing threat … we are not only confronting organizations and doctrines, but also a highly seductive subculture.”

The genius of ISIS propaganda is how skillfully it imbues the idea of jihad not only with traditional notions of honor and virility, but also a strong undercurrent of oppositional, postmodern cool.

CVE practitioners can’t possibly hope to challenge the glamor, energy, and sheer badassery of violent jihad as an ideal, still less the wider emotional resonance of the warrior ethos on which it draws. But they can reasonably hope to subvert ISIS’s claim to embody that ideal. What isn’t yet clear is at precisely whom CVE programs should be targeted, how their counter-messaging should be framed and delivered, and, crucially, by whom. Vague references to those “at risk of” or “vulnerable to” radicalization, and to “credible voices” who can offer alternatives, do little to help in this regard. Challenging ISIS’s bona fides as the true inheritor of jihad is also fraught with peril, in that it may play into the hands of other jihadist groups who profess that mantle. The bigger challenge—as Alberto Fernandez, the former coordinator of the U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, noted when I interviewed him earlier this year—is how to create a counter-narrative that is not merely negative but boldly affirmative, offering a vision that is just as exhilarating and seductive as that of jihadists. “The positive narrative,” he said, “is always more powerful, especially if it involves dressing in black like a ninja, having a cool flag, being on television, and fighting for your people.”

The problem for CVE is that in an ironic age in which few “grand narratives” remain, no one—except perhaps for the jihadists and their supporters—really knows what that narrative is anymore.