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April 19th anniversaries & Hegghammer’s “terrorist culture”

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — Thomas Hegghammer has an important new piece out, and today’s anniversaries offer an insight into why it’s important ]

Waco OKC

upper panel: the end of the siege of Mt Carmel, Waco, TX, 19 April 1993
lower panel: aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, OKC, 19 April 1995


The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City took place twenty years ago today. Defense attorneys for Timothy McVeigh, who was execute for the atrocity, suggested to the court that the bombing took place on the date set for the execution of Richard Snell, who had earlier plotted to blow up the same building. From the Denver Post:

A white supremacist executed 12 hours after a bomb ripped through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building “was the driving force” behind a plot to bomb the building 12 years earlier, according to a government memo filed by Timothy McVeigh’s lawyers.

The report was filed in U.S. District Court as McVeigh’s attorneys attempted to bolster their appeal of his conviction and death sentence with arguments that people other than McVeigh may have been involved in the bombing.

Richard Wayne Snell was mad at the Internal Revenue Service in 1983 and wanted to blow up the Oklahoma City building as revenge for IRS agents raiding his home, Fort Smith-based federal prosecutor Steven Snyder told the FBI in June 1995.

April 19 1995 was also the second anniversary of the final holocaust in the siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas. Mc Veigh himself told reporters Lou Michael and Dan Herbeck in a letter:

If there would not have been a Waco, I would have put down roots somewhere and not been so unsettled with the fact that my government … was a threat to me. Everything that Waco implies was on the forefront of my thoughts. That sort of guided my path for the next couple of years.

Furthermore, in their book, American Terrorist, Michael and Herbeck report:

The date he chose for the bombing was significant in two ways. Not only was it the second anniversary of the Waco raid, just as important to McVeigh, April 19, 1995, was the 220th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Corncord, the “shot heard ’round the world” that began the war between American patriots and their British oppressors. To McVeigh, this bombing was in the spirit of the patriots of the American Revolution, the stand of a mpodern radical patriot against an oppressive government.


I hope to put a post up in which I excerpt from and comment directly on Thomas Hegghammer‘s Wilkinson Memorial lecture shortly. I have been in internet hell recently, having difficulty accessing this site to edit and post, and given the date I thought it would be appropriate to post this first, however, as an example (to my mind) of what Hegghammer is talking about.

April 19 — today’s date — was triply significant to McVeigh, then, in a way that corresponds closely to Hegghammer’s definition of jihadi culture:

I define jihadi culture as products and practices that do more than fill the basic military needs of jihadi groups. This is very close to what the anthropologist Edmund Leach called “technically superfluous frills and decorations.” [ .. ]

Now think of a jihadi group. It has certain “basic needs”, such as the capacity to deploy violence and the ability to muster material resources. These needs can, conceivably, be fulfilled in a minimalist, no-frills fashion: you train, fight, raise funds, purchase weapons, write a communiqué, get some sleep, repeat the next day. To put it simply, these are the “functionally essential” elements of rebellion; everything else is culture.

The Oklahoma City bombing was held on a date that meant a great deal to Timothy McVeigh – in terms of Waco, in terms of the shot heard around the world – and on the very day of the execution of a noted white supremacist who had plotted to bomb the Murrah building, and who lived to see McVeigh destroy it shortly before he died.

Putting that another way, we can see the workings of a sort of poetic appropriateness – akin to “poetic justice” – from McVeigh’s point of view, in destroying the Murrah building on this particular day. The timing is not, in Hegghammer’s terms, “functionally essential” — it is cultural.

And what Leach called the “frills” and Hegghammer “culture” may be easily overlooked because the no-frills functional essentials seem at first glance more important –- but such things are not inessential to McVeigh, nor to Hegghammer’s jihadists who sing anasheed and write poems.

They’re essential – to the terrorists, and to our understanding of terrorism.

That’s why today is important – and Hegghammer’s lecture, likewise. I hope to return to a fuller exploration of his text as soon as my computer woes are ended.

Recruitment, poetry and tears

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — Hegghammer on testing and trusting as precursors to AQ recuitment ]

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).


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.


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.


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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