NOTE: There is a distinct difference between the ideology of Salafi-jihadism and the Islam practiced by the majority of the world's Muslims. The Salafi-jihadi ideology distorts Islamic religious principles to produce a single-minded focus on violent jihad.
Findings from the Study
The research identified five key motivational themes common in the Jihadi propaganda studied:
(1) Group Identity, occurring in 89% of the messaging. The ummah (the global Muslim community) is by far the most dominant aspect of jihadi group identity, with almost twice as many references in the propaganda as any other identity theme, according to the study. The importance of tawhid (monotheism) is revealed in a number of themes throughout the propaganda, in different strands of the ideology: one God, one state, and one ummah.
The importance of honour, and the solidarity of the ummah is also central. The virtue of martyrdom – common to many religions, but here applied deliberately to death in battle – forms a significant part of the value of honour, appearing explicitly in 32% of the propaganda, and implicitly in 68%.
While Quranic justifications are usually presented without context, reinforcing the accusation that the groups 'cherry pick' passages that support their case, the ideology makes extensive use of scripture: half of the propaganda references the Quran, with 63 out of the 114 surahs referenced. Hadith justifications are used much less than Quranic justifications, appearing in only 22% of the sample. The accusation that Salafi- jihadi groups pick Hadith that suit their vision may be bolstered by the ways in which they use them: authoritative Hadith are cited with the full details of their origins; the referencing of those of more doubtful provenance is much more vague.
When the groups are criticised for their actions by rival Salafi-jihadi groups or others, the Quran and the Hadith are the first reference points that are used for the rebuttal. Hadith in particular are used in bulk when groups are attacked by other followers of the ideology. Nevertheless, the vaunted Salafi rejection of much Islamic scholarship as 'innovation' (ISIS refers to established scholars as "donkeys of knowledge") is belied by references throughout the propaganda to 45 different scholars from all the major schools of jurisprudence apart from the Hanafi school.
(3) Appeals to right Conduct occur in 82% of the propaganda. This includes extolling the virtues of jihad, seeking the disgrace of enemies, and ending humiliation.
An emphasis on the nobility of jihad runs throughout the propaganda, often presenting it in chivalric terms, with pictures of fighters on horseback, or references to Saladin. Altogether, such references to jihad appear in 71% of the propaganda.
(4) Propaganda related to Value occurred in 80% of the messages. Ideological values, which form the moral basis of the groups' actions, are present in 80% of all the propaganda sources; these include Islamic creedal values in 62%, the values of honour and solidarity with the Muslim community in 68%, and explicit references to the end of days in 42%.
The study concluded that the three violent jihadist groups share fundamentally similar ideologies, challenging the concept that "ISIS is more extreme than al-Qaeda".
(5) And calls to accomplish certain Objectives were present in 66% of messaging.
38% of propaganda included calls for establishing the Caliphate, including the desirability or inevitability of a universal Islamic state. 66% focused on Near or Far Enemies: These are themes that relate to the appropriate targets for jihad. And 34% had calls for the end of a perceived ‘humiliation’ of the global Muslim community.
The report - authored by Emman El-Badawy, Milo Comerford and Peter Welby - provides an evidence base for what is already assumed by many, that the ideology of Salafi-jihadism is a vital motivating force for extremist violence, and therefore must be countered in order to curb the threat.
The ideological themes presented above appear throughout the propaganda, with a clear internal logic, although its application is often inconsistent. The themes – whether found explicitly or by implication – form a hierarchy, with the ideological values providing a basis for groups' objectives and ideal conduct, and thus their group identity. The themes come together to form a coherent ideology, representative of Salafi- jihadism.
The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics presents informed analysis on the interaction of religion and conflict globally. The Centre has analysed a cross-section of 114 propaganda sources ranging from April 2013 to summer 2015 from three Salafi-jihadi groups: ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Its aim is to identify precisely what ideology is shared by the three groups, as revealed in their propaganda, in order to inform effective counter-narratives from mainstream Muslims, governments and civil society.