5 Questions with Thomas Hegghammer on Jihad and Jihadi Cocktails


This is the latest edition of our Five Questions series. Each week, we feature an expert, practitioner, or leader answering five questions on a topic of current relevance in the world of defense, security, and foreign policy. Well, four of the questions are topical. The fifth is about booze. We are War on the Rocks, after all.

This week we spoke with Dr. Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) in Oslo. Hegghammer is the author and co-author of several books, including Jihad in Saudi Arabia (Cambridge 2010) and The Meccan Rebellion (Amal 2011).


1.  Thanks for doing this Thomas! What has been the reaction of other Islamist groups—from the politicos to the jihadis—to the declared return of the “Caliphate”? To what extent are these reactions important? How has it been different from al-Qaida in Iraq calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq years ago?

Thanks for having me. I can’t wait to get to the last question. In the meantime, let me say that reactions from other groups to the Caliphate declaration have been largely negative. With some notable exceptions, established groups outside Iraq and Syria seem not to be signing up. To be sure, several groups, not least those in the al-Qaida franchise, have yet to respond formally, but I will be very surprised if we see a wave of joiners. At this point the biggest question is more how furious or sarcastic Ayman al-Zawahiri’s response will be. The same is true of the best-known jihadi ideologues. With some exceptions, they’re mostly against.

These reactions are important in the sense of “good for us,” because a transnational jihadi movement united under a single leader would be a terrible prospect for all who believe in democracy. Whether they’re important in the sense of “reliable as an indicator of international jihadi opinion” is another matter. On the one hand, these groups and ideologues clearly command a substantial following of activists and sympathizers. On the other hand, they may not represent the young guard of activists who came of political age during the Syrian war. We may be overestimating the opposition to the caliphate by looking only at the names we know best. I think this is particularly true of radical Islamist communities in the West, where I see a lot of support for the Islamic State (IS). The Westerners fighting with IS have a lot of friends back home who express support for IS on social media. On Friday there was even a pro-IS street demonstration in the Netherlands. It’s probably no coincidence that Anjem Choudhry, the doyen of radical Islam in northern Europe, has not condemned the caliphate.

You are right to bring up the analogy of the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006, because it tells us that the caliphate declaration is but the latest in a series of escalating statehood claims by jihadi groups. In the 1970s and 1980s, groups were groups and leaders were leaders. Starting in the late 1980s, groups started calling themselves “emirates” and leaders things like “commander of the faithful” with increasing frequency. After 2003 we have seen the emergence of around fifteen jihadi “emirates” and one “Islamic State”. Since 2006 we’ve had two “Commanders of the faithful”, Mullah Umar and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi (and his successors in ISI). This is clearly the result of a bidding game, i.e. a competition between jihadi groups for the attention of recruits and donors. The result has been a watering down of the sanctity of these terms and titles. “Caliphate” has been the last taboo, hence the reactions, but over time I think Islamists will come to view this as just another group name. We may even see other “caliphates” declared in the future.

2.  So much of the U.S. debate over what to do about this current crisis revolves around whether ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State (whatever you want to call it) is or one day can become a threat to the United States. As one of the pioneers of the subfield of jihadi strategic studies, I have to ask you: Is this the right way to look at it? Is this calculation possible to make? Based on its theological and strategic discussions and leadership, what would you say is the group’s main rationale for activism and do you see that changing?

Yes, I do think it is the right way for Western governments to look at it. It would be great if there was something one could do to weaken all militant Islamist groups, but there isn’t. If you try to go after all radical Islamist groups, you end up making a lot of unnecessary enemies and forging alliances with truly unsavory regimes. Western governments are primarily responsible for the security of their own citizens, so they should concentrate their limited analytical and coercive resources on those groups that demonstrate a sustained willingness and ability to attack in the West.

I do think it is possible to specify the anti-Western targeting intention of a given group; not in binary terms of course, but in degrees. You do it by looking at how large a proportion of overall attack activity is aimed at the West, and at how large a proportion of the overall ideological production is devoted to slamming the West. The key term here is proportion; you don’t want to go after any group that has attacked the West once in word or deed, but those groups that are systematically doing so over time. The question is not: “could IS ever launch an attack in the West?” Of course it could—any militant Islamist group could. The question is: “will IS adopt a strategy of attacking the West repeatedly over time?” So far, IS has clearly not adopted such a strategy, and it is probably because the group’s main short- to mid- term objective is to seize and govern territory (i.e., what I would call a “revolutionary” rationale for activism, though with heavy sectarian streaks). Now, I don’t see IS ever turning into a new al-Qaida Central, i.e., an organization that devotes all its resources to attacking in the West, simply because so much of its image is connected with running a state. However, it might conceivably become a new al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), meaning, a group with a primarily local project, but with a substantial anti-Western side operation. Such a change is most likely to occur when there is a sizeable Western military intervention against IS in Iraq or Syria.

Like many other jihadi groups, IS does not want to pick a fight with the US military—they have enough local enemies as it is—but the desire for revenge can become irresistible. A complicating factor in all this is the control problem – the possibility that a lower-ranking member or ex-member carries out an operation in West without the leadership knowing. I am really quite worried about an escalation scenario in which 1) an IS renegade does something in the West, 2) Western governments blames the IS leadership and intervenes, and 3) the IS leadership launches a campaign as retaliation for the intervention.

3.  You’ve written extensively on jihadist motivations and recruitment. What strikes you most about the fighters flocking to ISIS presently, and what might this portend for the future of the jihadist movement?

I do not really know the motivations of local (Iraqi and Syrian) recruits, but I can speak about the Western foreign fighters. What strikes me most is their confidence and sense of invulnerability. Previous foreign fighters were relatively cautious and afraid of being caught; those going to Syria today are bashful and cocky. They operate much more openly on the Internet than previous generations of foreign fighters used to do. They post Facebook pictures of themselves in the field, run Tumblr blogs with travel advice for prospective foreign fighters, and solicit questions for live Q&A sessions on Ask.fm. On Twitter they mix playfulness and extremism, posting self-ironic jokes one moment and decapitation videos the next. Of course, previous foreign fighters might have done similar things if they had the same communication tools, but I do think today’s fighters are particularly confident because they face less repression from their home governments. They get away with more and they know it.

What others might also find striking is the degree to which adventurism trumps ideology as a motivation. You rarely see people discuss the finer points of al-Adnani’s latest statement, but they can’t stop talking about how much they love being out in the field and how great it makes them feel. I say “others” might find this striking, because this is not unique to the foreign fighters in Syria. It was the same with the people who went to Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya in the past; we just didn’t see it as clearly because Twitter didn’t exist at the time.

4.  Do you think it is correct and/or wise for Western media outlets and analysts to accept this organization’s self-proclaimed label of the “Islamic State”? The “Caliphate”? If not, what would you suggest as alternatives?

Yes, I think we should use these terms so long as they clearly and expediently communicate which organization we are talking about. I firmly reject the proposition that non-Muslims’ use of Islamist labels endorses the normative claim in the labels. It’s a cheap argument that shifts attention away from the substance of the debate (which should be: what do the organizations do and why?) to vague insinuations about Westerners somehow being responsible for the organizations’ continued existence. The normative debate about what a legitimate caliphate is or what jihad really means in Islam is for observant Muslims to take; non-Muslims obviously have no stake in it. The problem with the claim that observers should stop using terms like “jihadi”, “Islamist” or “caliphate” is best illustrated by transposing it to a different ideological family. Imagine a Christian terrorist group calling itself “True Believers”; should we avoid using that name just because other Christians dispute the group’s claim to true belief? Or take the extreme right: should we stop referring to Anders Behring Breivik or Timothy McVeigh as “right-wing” just because other parts of the political right do not want to be associated with them? Obviously not.

5.  If al-Qaida and ISIS were cocktails, what would they be (and you can’t use Molotov Cocktail)?

Al-Qaida Central represents a very simple and hard-hitting political doctrine, so we need a drink that reflects this. There should be nothing fancy in there, and certainly no umbrellas. We’re also talking about an organization that appreciates the art of clandestine operations in Western cities, as opposed to rough-and-tumble guerrilla operations, so I think a variant of the 007 drink might be appropriate. I suggest a Dirty Martini, but with less Vermouth and more olive juice (for more dirtiness) than usual. ISIS, on the other hand, is a bit more rural, less classy, but also much more presumptuous than al-Qaida Central. Clearly a Kir Royal (1/2 ounce crème de cassis, 5 ounces Champagne).


Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks and the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest.