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Jihadist ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Appeals: Propaganda Wars for the Moral High Ground

14 Mar 2019
Short Read by Haroro J. Ingram

The notion of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) is typically associated with the global obligation of states to protect populations from mass atrocities; a principle which was endorsed by the United Nations in 2005. Two decades earlier, Abdullah Azzam’s fatwa Defense of Muslim Lands: The First Obligation After Iman (1984) established what could be described as modern jihadist R2P doctrine. Its principles have been used as a powerful propaganda device by groups such as Islamic State, Al-Qa’ida, the Afghan Taliban and others. Given the frequency with which it is deployed, jihadist propagandists appear to believe that R2P appeals are an ‘information battleground’ where they have an advantage. Moreover, jihadist R2P appeals are often used to challenge Western claims that it is prioritising the protection of civilians in its military and diplomatic efforts. Western policymakers are currently grappling with how best to respond to humanitarian crises impacting Muslim populations in Yemen, Myanmar, and China, the implications of military drawdowns in Syria and Afghanistan, and whether to repatriate citizens from former Islamic State-controlled territories. Against this backdrop, understanding modern jihadist R2P appeals and their implications for radicalisation and mobilisation is pertinent.

The pioneer of modern Jihadist R2P

Abdullah Azzam’s (1941-1989) influence on the evolution of Sunni jihadist thought and practice is profound. With a PhD in Islamic jurisprudence and battlefield experience, Azzam epitomised that most revered of jihadist leaders: the warrior-scholar. In Defense of Muslim Lands: The First Obligation After Iman (1984), Azzam presented a jurisprudential ruling (fatwa) regarding the legitimating conditions for jihad and its consequent individual and collective obligations for Muslims. Azzam contended that the jurisprudentially sound jihad dichotomy is between defensive jihad as an individual obligation (farḍ al-'ayn, فرض العين) and offensive jihad as a collective obligation (farḍ al-kifāya, فرض الكفاية). He argued,

…if the kuffar infringe upon a hand span of Muslim land, jihad becomes fard ‘ayn [an individual obligation] for its people and for those nearby. If they fail to repel the kuffar due to lack of resources or due to indolence, then the fard ‘ayn [individual obligation] of jihad spreads to those behind, and carries on spreading in this process, until the jihad is fard ‘ayn upon the whole earth from the East to the West.

The implications of Azzam’s fatwa were far-reaching – it elevated defensive jihad to the status of Islam’s pillars (“a compulsory duty… like praying or fasting”), transformed the global ummah from a rhetorical device to a strategic imperative, and legitimised the “killing of Muslim captives” during battles against the kuffar – and his work significantly shaped strategic and operational trends for decades to come. Boosted at the time by the high-profile approval his fatwa received from senior ulema and his own adeptness as a propagandist, it was translated into multiple languages, helped inspire waves of foreign fighters to participate in the Afghan-Soviet war (1979-1989), and deeply influenced the strategic intent of Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qa’ida. While Azzam, with his emphasis on defensive jihad as an individual obligation, helped establish the fundamentals of modern jihadist R2P thinking and practice, these ideas have evolved into a multifaceted propaganda tool that leverages morality and duty to justify violence in protection of Muslims and Muslim lands.

Jurisprudence, Reciprocity & Juxtaposition

Jihadist R2P messaging is primarily used as a jurisprudential ‘just war’ device. From Azzam’s emphasis on violence in defense of Muslim lands, Bin Laden (and many others since) built upon this premise to legitimise terrorism outside the territorial confines of the immediate combat zone: “For we only killed Russians after they invaded Afghanistan and Chechnya, we only killed Europeans after they invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and we only killed Americans in New York after they supported Jews in Palestine and invaded the Arabian Peninsula”. From a psychosocial perspective, such calls reflect a dual cost-benefit rationale where enemies are reminded that their violence begets violence and supporters are compelled to engage in violence as a jurisprudential obligation.

R2P appeals also provide jihadist propagandists with an emotionally powerful way to compel its audiences to perceive the world as bifurcated between warring in-group and out-group identities. Organisations regularly use graphic imagery of persecuted and slaughtered innocents to justify extreme violence against enemies. The most graphic execution scenes in Islamic State’s videos are inevitably preceded by emotional narratives and explicit imagery of enemy violence targeting Sunnis. Gruesome executions – such as the burning to death of an air force pilot and extinguishing the flames with rubble – are symbolically staged as acts of reciprocity.

It is equally important to consider how jihadist R2P appeals seek to provoke juxtapositions in its target audiences’ minds by stirring up and legitimising extant (and often justified) frustrations about the lack of international action in response to Muslim persecution. For example, Al-Qa’ida’s propagandists have used graphic footage and emotive rhetoric to highlight the plight of China’s Muslims and condemn the systematic killing of Rohingyas for years. In contrast, the governments of Muslim-majority countries have hesitated to criticize China while Western governments delayed more robust diplomatic responses by misguidedly hoping Aung San Suu Kyi would intervene.

A particularly powerful example of juxtaposition is when jihadist R2P rhetoric and action is strategically contrasted with Western rhetoric and action. For example, Islamic State often contrasted its early involvement in the Syrian war with the stalling and missteps of its adversaries. In a 2013 speech, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi used an R2P rationale to explain why he deployed forces into Syria: “when the situation in Al-Sham reached to the shedding of blood and violating of honors, and people of Al-Sham called for help and the people of earth abandoned them, we were obliged to rise up to support them”.

Later, Islamic State propagandists asserted that its caliphate provided Muslims with the ultimate protection mechanism. Islamic State’s R2P appeals then increasingly claimed that the West, dissatisfied with merely ignoring Sunni suffering, now wanted to destroy its only protection. As Al-Adnani declared in his final speech: “Where are the Kafir West’s alleged defense of ‘civilians’ and protection of ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom’? Indeed the false and deceiving mask of nobility has fallen, showing its ugly face under the Nusayri barrels of death, destruction, and gas.” His speech concluded by calling for attacks in the West as an obligatory act to protect Muslims in the Levant: “Know that inside the lands of the belligerent crusaders, there is no sanctity of blood and no existence of those called ‘innocents’”. In this example, attacks on the West are legitimized as strategic extensions of a larger war to protect Muslim lands. These are not isolated examples as Islamic State’s propagandists have drawn on a range of issues over the years – from the death of Muslim migrants at sea to anti-Daesh ground and air operations resulting in civilian deaths – and will continue to do so as it again transitions from a proto-state back to an insurgency.

Counterstrategy Implications, Exploiting the ‘Opportunity to Protect’

While it is broadly recognized that in-group victimisation narratives are used to mobilise supporters to violence, the concept of R2P provides a useful lens to examine interconnected psychosocial, strategic and jurisprudential argumentations used by propagandists to mobilise supporters towards the jihadist cause over others. Such analyses could have significant implications for practitioners. For instance, the regularity with which jihadist R2P appeals are deployed suggests that its architects believe it resonates. According to studies by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, Program on Extremism, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe a key motivating factor for many travelers was a desire to protect civilians; a motivation not unique to jihadist foreign fighters. The role of altruistic motivations on the demand-side and the ubiquity of jihadist R2P appeals on the supply-side represents an important conjunction of issues for both scholars and practitioners.

Better understanding jihadist R2P as a propaganda device may also offer valuable lessons for refining Western rhetoric and practice. For example, the chief advocates of jihadist R2P have tended to be warrior-scholars versus the politicians, academics and policy wonks who have been the West’s leading proponents typically seated thousands of miles from the conflict. Perhaps for this reason, the former has tended to have a greater appreciation for seeing humanitarian crises as opportunities to protect and, in doing so, sought to ‘outcompete’ adversaries for the moral high ground in the ‘information theatre’ and local support ‘on the ground’. There is value in Western policymakers adopting an ‘Opportunity to Protect’ frame in its consideration of humanitarian crises within the context of not only broader security and foreign policy priorities but state and non-state adversaries seeking to project influence. More broadly, narrowing the say-do gap between Western rhetoric and action on human rights, rule of law, and promises to local allies will be essential to limiting the opportunities such adversaries so relish.