Jihadi Culture: An Interview With Thomas Hegghammer

Thomas Hegghammer, a renowned specialist on violent Islamism, discusses one of the most underexplored terrains of research on political violence, the culture of jihadi groups.

Q. Your book, Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists was recently published. This edited volume is the first book to explore the culture of various jihadi groups. When and why did you decide to start researching what jihadi groups do when they are not fighting and examine the cultural aspect?

Image credit: Noofa2401/Wikimedia.

I started working on this as far back as late 2009. At that time I had already been working on jihadism for almost a decade, but I felt that the field had stagnated a little, so I was looking for new perspectives. I started reading a bit more widely, and I found myself intrigued by fields like behavioural economics and signaling theory which tried to make sense of apparent irrationality. I became more alert to seemingly irrational behavior and found a lot of it in the jihadi universe, especially in the cultural domain. It occurred to me, for example, that it is really odd that hunted militants should spend time on poetry; or that jihadi leaders should claim to be making important decisions based on their dreams. I also realized nobody had looked systematically at this, so I decided to explore it further.

Q. The word “culture” can sometimes be employed in quite a vague manner these days. When you describe “culture” what do you mean by the term?

Yes, culture can mean a lot of different things, but in this context I define it as products and practices that are functionally non-essential. Central to this definition is the idea of apparent superfluousness. For example, a group needs to articulate a message, but it does not need to do so through poetry or music. A fighter needs to stay warm, but he does not need clothes of a particular colour or an array of different hats. The music and the poetry and the colour palette and the hats are all part of the group’s culture.

Q. The book contains research from scholars of various disciplines. Which specific jihadi groups did the authors examine and what sources where consulted as part of the research? 

I realized early on that I couldn’t do this research alone, because each of the key elements of jihadi culture is very complex and requires highly specialized knowledge. So I brought on board people from anthropology, musicology, Arabic literature, religious studies, history, and political science. We decided to focus on transnational jihadi groups such as al-Qaida, Islamic State, and their supporters. We don’t include more nationally oriented groups such Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Taliban. We used a wide range of primary sources, such as propaganda from jihadi websites, autobiographies and travel accounts, and interviews with defectors. The big weakness of our study is that we couldn’t do participant observation – it’s too dangerous with groups like this.

Q. What were some of the most interesting discoveries from research carried out by the other contributing writers for the volume and how did their discoveries feed into your own research?

Perhaps the most striking finding was that jihadi culture had “liberalized” over the years. Not only had it become more and more audiovisual over time; it also increasingly incorporated cultural practices from its archenemies, be it internal enemies such as the Sufis or external enemies such as the West. In other words, they had compromised on salafi doctrinal principles to incorporate certain cultural elements. This suggests culture does something important for them, because these guys are not normally the compromising kind.

Q. When looking at the various jihadi groups from around the globe examined in the volume, were there any variations in the cultural practices they engaged in? For example, where there some cultural rituals unique to certain jihadi groups and not others?

Yes there is quite a bit of variation across groups and geographical regions, which reflects the fact that groups are influenced by their environment and have to adapt to the tastes of the local recruitment pool. So we see, for example, that Yemeni and Saudi jihadis are more interested in poetry than most other jihadis, and that Jihadis in the West have a distinct sartorial style influenced by Western street culture. Still, there is a remarkable degree of overlap across regions, so we clearly dealing with a global culture.

Q. What function (s) do you think jihadi culture serves for groups? 

We need a lot more research before we can answer this. I suspect different elements of jihadi culture do different things. Still, at a very general level I believe culture serves at least two important functions. One is to stir members’ emotions in such a way as to make recruitment and retention of members easier. The other is to help groups distinguish committed recruits from less committed ones. Having a rich and complex body of culture allows for better testing and vetting of members, because “true believers” will usually internalize and master cultural knowledge faster than opportunists or infiltrators.

Q. Arguably one of the most interesting things about culture has been its complex relationship with technology. Have technological innovations effected jihadi culture and, if so, how?

Yes, technology has had important effects on jihadi culture. It has allowed for cultural products to become more audiovisual, it has facilitated the global spread of jihadi culture, and it has opened up new spaces in the digital sphere with their own cultural codes and dynamics.

Q. How do you think this research can help counterterrorism efforts? 

I think it can help in several different ways. It can help intelligence analysts understand aspects about a group’s worldview that are not made explicit in the group’s writings. It can help law enforcement correctly identify and classify radical actors, so that they do not overlook potential threats or arrest innocent people. It can help train better infiltrators by making them better versed in the cultural intricacies of the host group.  It can help design better countermessaging campaigns and design more effective CVE programs. There are lots of practical applications – we should not be fooled by the topic’s apparent esotericism.

Q. This is still a relatively new approach to what could be described as “terrorism studies”, where do you see this type of research heading in the future and what are the main gaps that need to be explored?

Yes, indeed – this book has only scraped the surface. There is a lot more basic descriptive work to be done; we need to know more about what the different jihadi groups do, and about the specifics of the various elements of jihadi culture. I also hope to see more comparative work, not only across different types of Islamist groups, but also between Islamist and non-Islamist militant groups, and even between non-governmental and governmental organizations, like our own militaries. Finally we need to find out more about how exactly cultural products and practices affect individuals who are exposed to them. There is scope here for truly multidisciplinary work, branching out to experimental psychology and even neuroscience.

Thomas Hegghammer (CV) is an academic specialist on violent Islamism. He is currently senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) and adjunct professor of political science at the University of Oslo. Dr. Hegghammer is the author and co-author of several  books, including Jihadi Culture (Cambridge 2017), Jihad in Saudi Arabia (Cambridge 2010), al-Qaida in its own words (Harvard 2008), and The Meccan Rebellion (Amal 2011). He has published widely in academic journals, including the American Political Science Review and International Security. He has testified in the U.S. Congress and British Parliament, written op-eds for the New York Times and al-Sharq al-Awsat, and appeared on CNN‘s Amanpour and Anderson Cooper shows.