Composite: Alamy/Bryan Mayes
When Jihadi John, the Islamist terrorist who gloried in decapitating hostages, was exposed as Mohammed Emwazi, a spokesman from Cage recalled the west Londoner bringing “posh baklava” to the advocacy group’s offices. He described the knife-wielding murderer and gloating torturer as “a beautiful young man… extremely kind, gentle and soft-spoken, the most humble young person I knew”.
One of the people who inspired Emwazi was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, renowned for leading the group that beheaded and tortured many western hostages in Iraq, including the British engineer Kenneth Bigley. Zarqawi was known as the Sheikh of the Slaughterers, but he was also referred to as He Who Weeps A Lot, for his habit of crying during prayer.
A baklava-dispensing gentleman and lachrymose devotee who both happen to be sadistic killers? There’s something jarring about these portraits, because with good reason we tend to think of jihadists like Emwazi and al-Zarqawi as murderous automatons, singularly dedicated to the most terrifying violence. But as the Norwegian academic Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on jihadism, argues, that’s not the whole story. Even jihadists have their downtime. The question is, what do they do in it?
After a decade of studying the subject, around 2010 Hegghammer came to a realisation. Jihadists did a lot of things seemingly at odds with their brutal image: weeping, writing and reciting poetry, singing, recalling and interpreting dreams, perfecting their manners and taking an inordinate interest in their appearance.
In the language of behavioural economics, they weren’t rational actors because they were acting in ways that often ran counter to their stated interests. That may not seem like a profound insight about people whose military USP is a pronounced willingness to blow themselves up. Still, Hegghammer thought it was one worth exploring and, given the ongoing draw of jihadism, it’s perhaps one that the authorities should also consider.
Jihadism, in the sense that Hegghammer is concerned with, is a relatively new phenomenon. He dates it to the Afghan war against the USSR in the 1980s. Since then it has taken many forms in places as diverse as Chechnya, Bosnia, Nigeria and Somalia.
Most recently hundreds of young men, and some young women too, have gone to Syria from the UK, and thousands from across Europe as a whole. With the attacks in London and Manchester, and the vicious battles to retake the cities of Mosuland Raqqa from Isis in Iraq and Syria, the bloody reality of global jihad has been a prominent news story for some time. Yet we know little of jihadists’ lives beyond their obsession with death.
What Hegghammer came to see in looking closer at the background activities that gained little attention was a pattern of behaviour that amounted to a distinct and living culture. The result is a book Hegghammer has edited entitled Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists.