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.