Why is jihadi literature so bad?

When my kids were young they liked to engage in an activity called “Mad-Lib”.  What is a “mad-lib”?  Thanks to the ever useful Wikipedia I learned that this “phrasal template word game” (!) was invented in 1953.  It is nothing more than a story or narrative in which several key words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) are left blank.  Users fill in the spaces with whatever word they want with the intent of creating comical or non-sensical results.  You can try some here.

I thought of mad-libs today as I was reading issue 4 of Rumiyah, an online Islamic State (IS) zine.  I have been reading this kind of jihadi literature for a very long time (too long?), ranging from longer works like Abdallah Azzam’s In Defence of the Muslim Lands to Sayyid Qutb’s Al Ma’alim fil Tariq (Milestones in English) to magazines such as Azad, Inspire and Dabiq.  After all these years I am convinced that much of this literature is nothing more than a series of elaborate mad-libs.  Allow me to explain.

If you read more than one zine you quickly realise that they are heavily formulaic.  They contain the usual Quranic quotes and hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad).  Scholars both recent (Anwar al Aulaqi) and long-dead (Ibn Taymiyyah) are cited here and there.  And there is page after page of diatribe against the “enemies of Islam” and an exhortation to smite them.  They all go something like this:

“O Mujahideen/Muwahhideen!  Islam is under siege from the ______ (dastardly, infidel, hegemonic, Satanic, Cross-worshipping, cow-loving, polytheistic) _______ (Crusaders, Franks, murtaddin – a reference to the Shia – tawaghit – non-Muslim rulers) and you must _____  (kill, hack, maim, burn, behead, hurt badly) them in their ______ (homes, shopping malls, airports, backyards) so that the one true faith can ______ (reign, spread, dominate) supreme forevermore.”

Or something along those lines.

Aside from poor sentence structure – which I suspect in part is an effort to emulate Arabic rhetorical devices – the hundreds of articles and millions of tweets and other social media postings are not really much different one from the other.  It’s as if the authors all went to the same school for bad writing (a good analogy would be the contest that calls on wannabe writers to compose really bad introductory sentences – like “It was a dark and stormy night…”).

So if this stuff is essentially unreadable, why is it resonating with so many people?  Well, actually, it is NOT resonating with the vast majority of the world’s Muslims who unreservedly reject the murderous terrorists who compose this crap.  But it is clearly reaching some people. I suspect that what is really working here are the accompanying pictures as well as videos and the nasheeds – poetry put to music with a catchy, if haunting, tone.  Terrorist groups are very good at putting together visual and audio products that sell their brand and present their programme as utopian in nature.  In light of the fact that the audience they are trying to recruit, i.e. young people, is increasingly one attracted by imagery, this would seem to be a good strategy.

Of course not everything they publish in text format is god awful prose. They also include recipes for explosives (Inspire had the famous “how to build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom”), recaps of allegedly successful operations and excerpts from mainstream media.  But it is the heavily religion-infused sections that seem to hew to a pre-set frame.

Alas there does not appear to be any end to this material.  Each group has its canon and some even change vehicles in midstream (like how Rumiyah superseded Dabiq).  It is almost as if every organisation wants to see its work on the virtual newsstand.  That, combined with the ease of online publishing and distribution, essentially ensures that the output will be read by some.

I am not convinced, however, that we need to keep analysing these zines to death the minute they become available.  I doubt they contain “secret messages” for operatives and I don’t think they really play a huge role in convincing those sitting on the fence to sign up.  That is not the way radicalisation to violence works.

So get ready for more unbearable writing.  In the end, I  really can’t see any of these idiots winning the Giller Prize.  Then again, if Bob Dylan can get the Nobel for literature, perhaps I shouldn’t rule that out.

Just kidding.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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