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Recruitment, poetry and tears

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- Hegghammer on testing and trusting as precursors to AQ recuitment ]
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I’ve been having trouble finding any of the anasheed Ibn Siqilli was posting on his site, many of which have been taken down — but this one, found in a comment of his on Leah Farrall‘s site, has somehow survived:

Craftsmanship in search of emotion, in service to the jihad.

Thomas Hegghammer has a fascinating article out titled The recruiter’s dilemma: Signalling and rebel recruitment tactics from which I’ll only tease you with the bits of special interest to me, viz those that speak to religion (roughly, scripture and ritual), and culture (narrative, music and poetry).

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First, matters clearly involving religious piety and its expressions:

At the same time, personal piety at the time of recruitment was certainly a necessary condition for joining. Failure to observe any of the basic rituals or engaging in sinful behaviour – by skipping prayers, smoking, or watching Hollywood films – would have constituted a very negative sign. Moreover, even at the far end of the piety spectrum there were small signs that distinguished the extremely pious from the very pious. These signs were not in material objects such as clothes, but rather in body language and habits. QAP martyrdom biographies would highlight the piety of some but not of others, which suggests some variation. Judging from texts and videos, the behaviours that were appreciated included reading the Qur’an at every available spare moment, weeping while reciting the Qur’an, frequent minor pilgrimages (umra) to Mecca, efforts to acquire religious knowledge, etc. However, to observe these signs, recruiters needed to already be in direct contact with the recruit.

Piety, however, was not enough. Recruiters would also need to see signs of ideological commitment of a more political nature, in particular approval of violent activism.

Particularly interesting to me here is the sentence, These signs were not in material objects such as clothes, but rather in body language and habits.

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And then, culture…

To find out whether a person had really been abroad for jihad, recruiters would solicit signs of jihad experience, either by engaging the recruit in conversation, or if in a larger group, steer the conversation toward the topic of foreign jihad fronts. They would presumably look for displays of three types of knowledge, the combination of which would be very hard to acquire for a person who had not been to any of the major battlefronts.

The first was knowledge of people, places and events specific to the conflict in which the recruit claimed to have taken part. [ more ... ]

The second type of distinctive knowledge was weapons expertise. [ more ... ]

The third type was familiarity with ‘jihad culture’, a set of peculiar practices and artistic expressions that emerged in the Arab Afghan community in the 1980s and developed in subsequent jihad fronts. One important component was anashid, battle hymns sung a capella during training and socializing. A similar component was poetry. Arab fighters in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya would continuously compose new poems and recite them in the camps. Veterans would be familiar with at least part of this material and would share it during social gatherings in the kingdom. Yet another aspect of jihad culture was the telling of war stories from the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors. While some of these stories were part of the basic religious education of most Saudis, it required extra effort to learn many or all of them, and to be able to cite them verbatim, as custom required. In the training camps and the trenches, such stories were told all the time (Nasiri, 2006), so jihad veterans typically knew many more such stories than the average Saudi.

Of course, non-veterans could acquire some of this knowledge if they wanted to, but to mimic jihad experience, impostors would need to emit large and consistent clusters of correct signs – a considerable challenge.

I’m reminded of Abdullah Azzam‘s book The signs of Ar-Rahmaan in the Jihad of Afghanistan, which I quoted in an earlier post Of war and miracle: the poetics, spirituality and narratives of jihad.

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Here’s how bad we are at learning the local mores of the various war zones we keep dropping in on, in the words of FPRI’s Adam Garfinkle, in Mali: Understanding the Chessboard, posted recently:

As the article says, when the Tuareg rebellion in Mali gained steam after the denouement of the Libya caper, greatly stimulated by the return of heavily armed Tuareg brethren from that fight, these three Tuareg commanders defected to the rebels, bringing soldiers, vehicles, ammunition and more to the anti-government side. Anyone who was surprised by this is at the very least a terminal ignoramus. And anyone in the U.S. military who failed to understand the ethnic composition of the country’s politico-military cleavages, such that he let U.S. Special Forces training be lavished on Tuareg commanders, was clearly insufficiently trained to do his job. And believe me, that’s about as nice a way to put that as I can summon.

How do things like this (still) happen, after what we should have learned from years of dealing with Iraqis and Afghans and others on their home turf? I happen to know someone who teaches in the U.S. military education system, and this person happens to be a field-experienced Harvard Ph.D. in anthropology. This person tries very hard to clear away the thick fog created by the innocent Enlightenment universalism that pervades the American mind—the toxic fog that tries to convince us that all people, everywhere, are basically the same, have the same value hierarchies, the same habits of moral and tactical judgment, and mean the same things by roughly comparable translated words.

Now imagine how good we’d be at infiltration, getting the anasheed, poetry and stories right…

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