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The Discreet Charm of White-Collar Jihad

On the internet habits, social anxieties, and class biases of Al Qaeda recruits

Incitement: Anwar Al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens. Harvard University Press, 352 pages.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens’S Incitement may in some ways seem old hat. His subject, Anwar al-Awlaki, has been dead for almost a decade, a remnant of a forgotten war. A Yemini-American born in New Mexico, Awlaki charted a winding path into the labyrinth of radical Islam, preaching to disaffected Muslim youth in the United States and Britain in the 1990s before moving to rural Yemen in 2004 and joining Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Fluent in English and Arabic, and familiar with Western culture, he turned the internet into his pulpit, reaching out to people across the world with a toxic brew of victimhood and misinterpreted scripture. He released endless videos, authored many widely disseminated religious tracts, and founded the slick extremist magazine Inspire. At the peak of his influence, he is said to have disagreed on tactical matters with Osama bin Laden—and prevailed. All this was too much for the CIA, which put him on a kill list in 2010. Barack Obama ordered his assassination in 2011. Today Awlaki is best remembered as the first American to be killed in a drone strike.

Incitement covers this biographical ground, sketching a portrait of the enfant terrible of American Islam. Much of the book is a detailed study of Awlaki’s voluminous output, whose political and theological roots Meleagrou-Hitchens judiciously sifts through. But what makes the book important now is not Awlaki’s beliefs or his bombs. Rather, it is the magnetic appeal of this radical pseudo-preacher, who cast a spell over so many disaffected men around the world. As Meleagrou-Hitchens shows, Awlaki was a strange kind of modern ideologue, unmoored from—indeed, perhaps unfamiliar with—the constraints of formal Islamic doctrine, even as he presented himself as a true interpreter of the Quran, replete with beard and robes. His secret lay in his ability to present himself to audiences as at once an authoritative Salafi scholar and a counterculture icon.

With his fluent English and command over internet culture, Awlaki had tremendous appeal for a cohort of Bangladeshis who took to extremism.

In this story I have a personal interest. From around 2013, I began reporting on a series of killings by religious extremists of liberal, secular Bangladeshi activists, bloggers, and civil society leaders. Often, the attacks were quite gruesome. For instance, on April 25, 2016, the LGBTQ+ activist Xulhaz Mannan was set upon in his Dhaka apartment by a group of six young men, who hacked him and a friend to death with cleavers before firing gun shots into their mangled bodies, chanting, “God is great!” Bangladesh has historically been a tolerant Muslim nation whose people have sought more mystical, locally relevant interpretations of Islam, often incorporating elements of Hinduism. Radical Islam is a decidedly new phenomenon in the country. This is partly what disquieted me about the attacks.

Over time, as I investigated these killings, I came to understand that there was a full-fledged, transnational jihadist presence in Bangladesh. Though the attacks were locally planned and orchestrated, it was clear that their perpetrators—many of them, disaffected middle-class youth—were taking inspiration from jihadists with a “larger profile” in the middle east and North Africa.

Awlaki’s was a name that I found regularly cropping up in these jihadist circles. With his fluent English and command over internet culture, he had tremendous appeal for a cohort of Bangladeshis who took to extremism. For them, he appeared as a heroic figure, bold enough to turn his back on the supposed values of the West, and noble enough to preach about the frustrations of those on the supposed hinterlands of globalization.

Other scholars corroborated my observation. According to the intelligence expert Ashequl Haque, Awlaki was a major source of inspiration for Jasimuddin Rahmani, the spiritual guide and co-founder of the local Al Qaeda affiliate, Ansarullah Bangla Team, which later pledged allegiance to a larger organization, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). “Rahmani was heavily influenced by Awlaki,” Haque told me recently via email. “His sermons [were] often directly copied from Awlaki. Rahmani was the first major jihadi propagator working in the Bangla language to bring in the global jihadi ideology to [a] Bangla speaking audience.”

AQIS was—and remains—the most active of the extremist organizations whose crimes I reported on. Though focused on a single person geographically distant from Bangladesh, Incitement casts a clarifying light on their operation.

Flag of AQIS. | Wikimedia Commons

AQIS was formed in Pakistan in 2014, most likely by the Egyptian jihadi stalwart Ayman al-Zawahiri. Over time, this regional outfit spread into a local “cluster” of cells across South Asia, including in Bangladesh. However, its  proliferation was not directed by a central authority, but rather arose in a “bottom-up” manner. The individual AQIS units often start as prayer groups at private—that is, more affluent—universities, or even as Facebook groups. Most go nowhere, but some lead to members declaring an oath of allegiance to AQIS. If accepted by the transnational group (and rejections are not uncommon) they become junior partners in a syndicate.

The most tangible asset that a transnational group like AQIS or ISIS (which also began proliferating in Bangladesh in the same period) offers is their media apparatus and “brand name.” In 2016, for example, the central unit of ISIS “live-streamed” an attack on Dhaka’s Holey artisan bakery conducted by their Bangladeshi followers. As the local jihadis held a restaurant hostage, killing twenty-nine people, ISIS shared photos of the barbaric event with their senior partners, who in turn broadcasted them online in what was considered a sort of first.

That said, the level and forms of cooperation between the transnational groups and their syndicates is a source of contention, with individual units having various degrees of agency. In practical terms, the hardware for violence is usually sourced locally, as are the targets. But the actors themselves are no longer alone; they are now part of an apparently glorious struggle on behalf of the ummah, the global community of Muslims. In that sense, what a transnational franchise like Al Qaeda offers is a kind of belonging. 

Most commentators overlook the distinct class differences running through the adherents of Awlaki’s “holy war.”

Indeed, belonging is central to the story Meleagrou-Hitchens tells in his book. He pays close attention to Awlaki’s slick online communications—something AQIS units try to emulate— revealing how, for a certain kind of modern extremist, easily digestible online messaging had become as important as the violent act itself. He unpacks the appeal that Inspire, with its high-end graphic design and rhetorical panache, has for young, disgruntled, web-native Muslim men, who feel alienated from the Western ideologies that permeate traditional media outlets. This kind of propaganda is crucial to giving the disparate, often tendentiously connected individuals in different extremist cells, or at the hinterlands of cultures, a sense of kinship with a coherent movement.

Just as online propaganda is important, so is the message ostensibly sent through violent actions. In this, Bangladesh’s AQIS outfits differ from the local affiliates of Islamic State. While ISIS affiliates tend to go in for random acts of mass murder, AQIS takes a more measured approach, murdering in the name of what they describe as “societal values.” In practice, this means targeting a secular or liberal figure, then framing the attack as a kind of anti-imperial response to American values: a rhetorical move straight out of the Awlaki playbook. As Meleagrou-Hitchens describes, Awlaki presented “so-called Western values and ideas . . . as a pernicious influence on Muslims, who had to protect themselves by becoming more insular.” He used to unctuously complain that Western ideas were being “forced down the throats of everyone on the face of the earth.” (In response, Awlaki discussed the notion of al-wala al-bara, which stands for unity and a disavowal of the supposedly diluting and corrupting influences of any foreign idea.)

Xulhaz Mannan’s murder is a case in point. In addition to running an LGBTQ+ publication, Mannan worked for the American agency USAID. And in their statement claiming responsibility for his murder, AQIS yoked together their own homophobic bigotry with rhetorical denunciations of the great Satan:

We are astonished by the shamelessness of these Americans. They are the ones who are continually committing crimes against fundamental human ethics, morality, civilizational values and humanity. They are the ones who are working relentlessly to spread their own depravity, obscenity, perversion, wickedness & debauchery throughout the world . . . And these are the shameless ones who dare to teach the Muslims of Bangladesh humanity & morality?

Mannan’s murder was a propaganda success. It not only mobilized adherents to AQIS but won the tacit approval of Bangladesh’s Home Minister, Asaduzzaman Khan. “Our society does not allow any movement that promotes unnatural sex,” Khan claimed. “Writing in favour of it is tantamount to criminal offence as per our law.” Never mind that the Home Minister was wrong about the law, which only criminalizes a specific sexual act, not discourse in favor of it. What’s most ironic is that the source of anti-sodomy injunctions in Bangladesh is not the Quran, but colonial British law. Victorian jurists were as concerned about “the abyss of sin” in the nineteenth century as Al Qaeda leaders are now.

Meleagrou-Hitchens does a thorough job of explaining the reach and appeal of Awlaki’s ideas. What he overlooks—what most commentators overlook—is the distinct class differences running through the adherents of Awlaki’s “holy war.” We tend to picture extremists and suicide bombers as desperados from the bottom-rungs of society; this may be true in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. But in Bangladesh, as in many other centers of transnational jihad, it is members of the middle class that are the most likely to join terror outfits. This will be evident to anyone who looks at an AQIS online messaging board or chatroom, where vague leftist exhortations rub shoulders with the kind of hot topics you’d find on a middle-class student’s Facebook wall, such as protests over road accidents in Dhaka. In a 2016 paper, the political scientist Ali Riaz noted that a large proportion of arrestees linked with terror in Bangladesh were educated. (Similarly, in their 2016 book Engineers of Jihad, the academics Steffen Hertog and Diego Gambetta showed that there’s a statistical correlation between higher education and likelihood of participating in extremist activities, broadly defined, the world over.)

In the end, divine calling was no match for the middle-class labor division or the aspiration to sit behind a computer.

One upshot of this class cleavage is that groups like AQIS end up developing distinctly inegalitarian, hierarchical structures that are quite contrary to the stated aims of Islam. The leaders or theorists of extreme outfits tend to come from middle-class backgrounds and hold degrees from private universities; they focus on the “white-collar” elements of jihad—public relations, editorial, online messaging, trolling, and so forth. By contrast, foot soldiers tend to be youth drawn from the lower classes, and usually from the countryside; more “blue-collar” tasks like the procurement of arms, surveillance, and, of course, divine murder are left to them.

Two recent episodes demonstrate this class stratification. The first is the murder of an atheist blogger, Washiqur Rahman. On the morning of March 30, 2015, Rahman was walking to work when he was set upon by three young men with machetes. Not satisfied with the initial blows to his face, which were fatal, the assailants stood over his body, stabbing him further. As they attempted to make their getaway from the mangled corpse, a twenty-one-year-old transgender woman, Labannya, strode into the street and grabbed two of the assailants. A machete tumbled out of a ruck sack as they fought her grasp. Soon enough the police arrived at the scene.

These were some of the very few AQIS murderers to be caught red-handed. When interrogated by the police, it emerged they did not even know what a blog was. Both were schooled at religious seminaries (madrassas) of the kind that take in students whose parents simply cannot afford to feed or educate them. Clearly, these men had been “instructed” to carry out a task by one of their overseers. This was less a matter of divine violence than labor outsourcing.

Consider, by contrast, the story of two Bangladeshi brothers who sought out and made direct contact with Awlaki. Rajib and Tehzeeb Karim were part of an upwardly mobile Bangladeshi family; the latter’s father-in-law had founded one of Bangladesh’s largest Islamic banks. After troubling episodes in his personal life, including the loss of an older brother, Tehzeeb travelled to Yemen in 2008 to work with Awlaki on Inspire. Meanwhile, Rajib moved with his family to the UK in 2006 to work in IT; eventually, he found a job there at British Airways.

Awlaki was thrilled to learn that the reverential Rajib worked for an airline. He thought this would be a way to plant a package onto a plane flying to America. But Rajib wasn’t so keen on orchestrating a real terror attack. He simply wanted to follow his brother to Yemen and enjoy some proto-theocratic internet trolling. Nevertheless, at Awlaki’s insistence, Rajib attempted to mobilize “two brothers” working in baggage handling, but before anything could transpire, security services intercepted his communications and he was arrested and jailed for thirty years by the British government.

In the end, divine calling was no match for the middle-class labor division or the aspiration to sit behind a computer. Rajib and Tehzeeb were just disgruntled, educated, third-culture kids, with one foot in the West and another firmly planted in the internet, a world that promised both religious succor and the social status they so craved. In embracing jihad, they had chosen a challenging career path, but they nevertheless wanted a white-collar, desk job in the movement.

Awlaki is not so different from his fellow YouTube star Jordan Peterson.

In the West, Awlaki’s story is usually presented as a parable about the dangers posed to the United States and Europe by “home-grown” terrorism. This concern about his influence on so-called “lone wolves” is more than justified. But perhaps Awlaki’s real significance lies in developing countries like Bangladesh, where the certainties of material security, kinship, and identity are in a state of greater flux. Certain men in these societies suddenly feel a great anxiety about their social position, which is slipping lower every day. Looking around, they see that women are increasingly earning incomes, that land—which you could once depend on for rent or agricultural income—is falling in economic value (when it isn’t being flooded), and that status and aspiration, whose barometers were once more certain and localized, are increasingly being measured on an international scale. These men may not be economically underprivileged, but they perceive themselves to be terribly far from “the center” of the globalized narrative of shared existence gaining traction online.

Such men feel a strong sense of what thinkers like the German sociologist Max Scheler term ressentiment. For them, it’s as if the world is in chaos, and they desire what Hertog and Gambetta describe as a “thirst for order.” Awlaki’s genius was to speak directly to this malaise. He stripped Islam of its scriptural complexity and linguistic challenges, allowing unmoored young men to feel that they were in contact with theocratic purity, when in fact they were absorbing a watered-down, Hans Christian Anderson version of the religion. In this, Awlaki is not so different from his fellow YouTube star Jordan Peterson, whose 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos also offers a distinctly masculine cure to societal breakdown. The overlap between such apparently different thinkers should tell us something about the fragile ego of the modern, status-anxious male, be he in Mirpur or Maryland.