How Jihadis Exploit Racism for Recruitment
11 Jan 2016
Al-Shabaab and ISIS present themselves as racially equal utopias. How is racial tension in the West being appropriated as a recruitment tactic?
The latest propaganda video from Somali jihadi group al-Shabaab captured headlines this week for its use of Donald Trump's calls for a ban on Muslim immigration to the US to demonstrate the supposed enmity of America towards Islam.
However the 51-minute film 'Path 2 Paradise' also showcased a growing trend in jihadi propaganda aimed particularly at the US: extremist groups attempting to foment racial tensions to encourage violence and attract fighters to its struggle.
Starting with the claim that the "US is a land of injustice and institutionalised racism," the opening minutes of the video focus exclusively on historic racial tension in America, with no mention at all of Somalia or Islam.
Al-Shabaab presents its ideology as the answer to black oppression.
The film glorifies the civil rights activism of Malcolm X, despite the fact that his 'Nation of Islam' religious interpretation would no doubt be rejected as apostasy by the Salafi-influenced jihadi group. (This inconsistency is found in much jihadi propaganda; the 12th century commander Saladin is often held up as a paragon of jihad, but his Sufi belief system is trashed as heretical.)
Al-Shabaab presents its ideology as the answer to black oppression, "For the millions of black people living in the US there is an alternative, which is Islam." Perhaps undermining this evangelistic sentiment, the video makes a parallel claim of institutional Islamophobia. Al-Shabaab's conclusion is that American policy has "left Muslims with little choice but to flee this oppression to the lands of Islam." It offers two choices, "Hijrah or Jihad – you must leave and live among Muslims or fight," offering the example of Nidal Hassan, the shooter at Fort Hood who killed 13 people in 2009, as one who "fulfilled his duty of fighting for Allah's cause."
Al-Shabaab militants have killed more than 2,000 soldiers and civilians across east Africa in the last two years, including 148 students at a university in Garissa, Kenya last year. However it nonetheless frames its campaign in terms of human rights, saying that in America, "justice and tolerance do not apply if you are a Muslim... infringing on basic human rights and casting them out of society."
The Somali group is particularly able to blur this line between black and Muslim persecution because of its core recruitment demographic in the US: Somali Americans, mostly from the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. A section of their video profiling American militants is called 'From the Twin Cities to the Land of the Two Migrations,' a name for Somalia derived from early Muslim journeys to the region to avoid persecution.
Seeking to demonstrate a force in which racism is absent because of profound religious brotherhood, fighters from the US, Canada, Sweden, UK, Sudan, Uganda are paraded, a roster capturing both al-Shabaab's 'near' and 'far' enemies.
An emphasis on racial 'equality' is also found in ISIS propaganda. In 2015, the 11th issue of ISIS' English language magazine, Dabiq, contained a manifesto of its policy on race.
As well as giving insight into its core ideology, it shows the narratives it uses attract people to its cause. Racial hatred is described as a tool of Satan, which has "no place in Islam," and skin colour is described as a "superficial characteristic." "A Muslim's loyalty is determined, not by his skin color, his tribal affiliation, or his last name, but by his faith. He loves those whom Allah loves and hates those whom Allah hates." The story is used of Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, spending a large amount of money to free Bilal, an Ethiopian, from slavery, to demonstrate the "bond between a believing Muslim and his brother, regardless of race or ethnicity."
ISIS' racial equality policy is concerned more with those who should be killed, not spared.
However, as one might expect with a group as violent as ISIS, its racial equality policy focuses on those who should be killed, rather than those who are to be spared. "Those who wage war against Islam and the Muslims will not be spared on account of their skin colour or ethnicity. The fate of an [apostate] waging war against the Muslims is one and the same across the entire racial spectrum – slaughter."
The group goes on, "The American Muslim is our beloved brother, and the kafir Arab is our despised enemy even if he and we were to have shared the same womb." ISIS is true to its word: the vast majority of its casualties are Muslims who refuse to subscribe to ISIS' extreme interpretation of their religion.
There is a clear element of the utopian about the group's claims: "[ISIS] is a state where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers." Smiling pictures of Uighurs arm-in-arm with Saudis, might indicate a certain defensiveness about the strong vein of Arab supremacism within the group alleged by defectors.
But it is not just official propaganda seeking to mine what they perceive to be a rich seam of disenfranchisement. ISIS supporters online have leapt onto slogans and hashtags associated with controversial race related incidents in America.
US intelligence predicted ISIS would be "too racist" to join with Boko Haram.
Perhaps this is simply a case of supporters trying to ride the crest of the social media zeitgeist. Dr Erin Saltman, senior researcher for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, has emphasised the adeptness of ISIS "bandwagoning national and international social media trends," outlining similar moves from activist accounts using the hashtags of the Scottish independence referendum and the World Cup in 2014.
However, Western policy makers have in the past underestimated the internationalism of the ISIS brand. In early 2015, US intelligence officials predicted that ISIS would be "too racist" to join with Boko Haram, as Arab jihadists "don't see black Africans as equivalent to them." A few weeks later, Boko Haram became ISIS' 'West Africa Province,' raising the brand power of both groups and adding credence to ISIS' claims to be a 'global Caliphate'.
Although we should certainly be sceptical about jihadi groups' allusions towards equality and justice, the claims of ISIS and al-Shabaab to be vessels for resisting racial persecution represent a strong narrative in their propaganda. Understanding the powerful religious identity these groups purport to represent, transcending nationality, race, background and gender, will be essential to undermining the credibility of their ideology.
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