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DOI: 10.1177/1478929916675123
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Stefano Bonino

Abstract
The role played by Islamism, or political Islam, in the contemporary world holds the key to
understanding current geopolitical tensions both within the Muslim world and between the West
and the Muslim world. This article centres on four books that explore some violent and non-
violent manifestations of political Islam and offer analyses of the Islamic State, al-Qa’eda, the
Muslim Brotherhood and, more generally, Salafi-jihadism. Political Islam considers Islam to be a
totalising entity that should shape the contours of society, culture, politics and the law – that is, it
ideally seeks to achieve unity of state and religion (din wa-dawla). It expresses itself in multiple, and
at times interlinked, ways that can encompass, among many others, a largely non-violent gradualist
approach to power (Muslim Brotherhood), global terrorist action (al-Qa’eda) and sectarian
warfare combined with territorial control and state-building (Islamic State). The aim of this article
is to capture some of the multifarious ways in which political Islam manifests itself with the aid of
the four books under review.

Holbrook D (2014) The Al-Qaeda Doctrine: The Framing and Evolution of the Leadership’s Public
Discourse. New York: Bloomsbury.
Pantucci R (2015) ‘We Love Death as You Love Life’: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. London: Hurst.
Vidino L (2010) The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West. New York: Columbia University Press.
Weiss M and Hassan H (2015) ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. New York: Regan Arts.

Keywords
political Islam, Salafi-jihadism, al-Qa’eda, Islamic State, Muslim Brotherhood

Accepted: 10 August 2016

The terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 irreversibly mutated the
relationship between Western societies and Muslim communities. The subsequent mass
attacks on Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, Paris in 2015 and Brussels and Nice in
2016 exacerbated the real and perceived tensions between European polities and Islam.

Department of Social Sciences, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Corresponding author:
Stefano Bonino, Department of Social Sciences, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 8ST,
UK.
Email: stefano@stefanobonino.com
2 Political Studies Review 

Inevitably, the security threat posed by terrorists1 affiliated with or inspired by al-Qa’eda,
the Islamic State and other Salafi-jihadist groups2 has taken centre stage in public dis-
cussions. Academics and policy-makers have had to confront a truly global phenome-
non, which is well encapsulated by the thousands of European Muslims who have
recently travelled to conflict zones in the Middle East (Vidino, 2015a). Today, Islamist
terrorist plots and arrests are a normal occurrence in Europe (Europol, 2016; Herrington,
2015a; Mullins, 2016; Vidino and Brandon, 2012) and in the United States (Vidino and
Hughes, 2015).
While ‘the overall threat to the security of the European Union has increased over
recent years and remains on an upward trajectory’ (Europol, 2016: 6) and the menace of
terrorism represents a key priority for governments and security agencies across the world
(Hayden, 2016; Moorcraft, 2015; Morell, 2015), it is important that academic appraisals
of the scale of this threat maintain a sense of proportion (Kurzman, 2012; LaFree et al.,
2010; Mueller, 2006). Richard English’s (2015: 24; see also Mueller and Stewart, 2016)
reminder of ‘how comparatively limited terrorism-generated levels of death and injury
actually are when set against more major threats’ is often lost in the knee-jerk media cov-
erage and political responses that follow on from any attack on a Western target and from
which the military and defence industries keenly profit. Similarly, commentators are
often forgetful of the much bloodier history that marked European countries in the second
half of the twentieth century. Long-term trends demonstrate that ‘in the twenty-first cen-
tury, Western Europe has been much safer than in the last thirty years of the twentieth
century [i.e. 1970–1999]’ (Bonino, 2016: 18), when terrorism springing from Irish repub-
licanism, Basque separatism and revolutionary communism claimed over 100 casualties
every year for 23 out of 30 years.
Since the events of 11 September 2001, violent and non-violent manifestations of
political Islam have determined a convergence of security-related and cultural discourses
in conceptualising and understanding Islamist terrorism. Researchers have quickly capi-
talised on an increasing demand for academic, government and public research on this
phenomenon – a demand that has resulted in the mushrooming of an unprecedented
amount of often ‘markedly disjointed’ (English, 2016b: 6) scholarship. As Andrew Silke
(2008: 28) indicates, ‘the five years since 9/11 have probably seen more books published
on terrorism than appeared in the previous 50 years’.
Therefore, any piece of research covering a terrorism-related topic faces significant
challenges to break new ground and attract academic interest. The four books under con-
sideration in this article discuss different aspects of contemporary manifestations of polit-
ical Islam, yet all manage successfully to come out of the dark and make a contribution to
their respective areas of inquiry. Lorenzo Vidino’s The New Muslim Brotherhood in the
West provides the first historical account of the genesis and evolution of the Muslim
Brotherhood in the West. Raffaello Pantucci’s ‘We Love Death as You Love Life’: Britain’s
Suburban Terrorists is a minutely detailed account of the origin and development of
Islamist terrorism in the United Kingdom. Donald Holbrook’s The Al-Qaeda Doctrine:
The Framing and Evolution of the Leadership’s Public Discourse enlightens readers on
the communication strategies employed by al-Qa’eda’s former leader Osama bin Laden
and current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Finally, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s ISIS:
Inside the Army of Terror3 traces the history of the Islamic State with the aid of data col-
lected through interviews with Islamic State fighters, former Syrian intelligence opera-
tives, US officials and Western diplomats.
Bonino 3

While adherence to a certain strand of political Islam is a macro-theme cutting across


these four books, they nevertheless cover diverse topics and discuss different and non-
comprehensive ways in which Islamism can manifest in today’s world. It would be inac-
curate to conflate a largely non-violent Islamist group, such as the Muslim Brotherhood,
with Islamist terrorist organisations, such as al-Qa’eda and the Islamic State. However,
these books lend themselves to a holistic analysis of some of the ways in which political
Islam can express itself: through the apparently democratic face of the ‘New’ Muslim
Brotherhood in the West (Vidino, 2010); in the history of failed, foiled and completed
jihadi attacks in the United Kingdom (Pantucci, 2015); via unrelenting propaganda that
al-Qa’eda has traditionally disseminated within and outside the Muslim world (Holbrook,
2014); and in the shape of today’s most powerful terrorist organisation and self-pro-
claimed caliphate, the Islamic State (Weiss and Hassan, 2015). The next sections will
seek to untangle the intricate manifestations of these diverse expressions of violent and
non-violent political Islam in the West and across the globe.

Political Islam in the West: Cultural Fears and Security


Threats
The role of political Islam, or Islamism, in shaping the identities, the culture and the
social outlook of today’s Muslims has taken centre stage in scholarly debates well beyond
the niche field of terrorism studies. A form of Islam that ‘prioritizes politics over religios-
ity and political action over theological reflection’ (Volpi, 2010: 6), Islamism is a ‘reli-
gionised politics’ that concerns itself with political order, rather than faith per se (Tibi,
2012), and seeks to operate as a totalising entity that should govern society, culture, poli-
tics and the law (Roy, 2004). In other words, it ‘focuses on the capture and the remoulding
of the state in accordance with what is believed to be Islamic law’ (Akbarzadeh, 2012: 3),
essentially aiming to fuse state and religion (din wa-dawla) and establish a caliphate
(Pankhurst, 2013). But it should be noted that some authors find Islamism to be a much
less malevolent, and more historically and politically complex, concept. Notably, they
warn of the risk of advancing an ‘Orientalist’ reading of Muslim politics that assumes it
‘is a seamless web, indistinguishable in its parts because of the natural and mutual inter-
penetration of religion and politics [… and], unlike other politics, [… is] not guided by
rational, interest based calculations’ (Eickelman and Piscatori, 1996: 56–57; see also
Piscatori, 1986).
In Western countries, globalisation and modernisation have ignited the fire of various
strands of political Islam. Here, the de-territorialisation of Islam, rather than religion or
minority cultures per se, highlights ‘a gap between one’s inner identity as a member of a
Muslim cultural community and one’s behavior vis-à-vis the surrounding society’
(Fukuyama, 2006: 10) in non-Muslim social environments where Muslims face pressures
to conform to majoritarian cultural norms. Both a reassertion of an Islamic identity in an
international context dominated by Western liberal ideologies and a force oppositional to
the repressive measures employed by some Muslim-majority states against Islamists
(Burgat, 2003), the more extreme forms of political Islam are often brought up in dis-
courses that examine the adaptability of Islam to democracy and modernity. Here,
Islamism operates through a political use of the Islamic faith that, as Bassam Tibi (2012)
demonstrates, seeks to return to an invented tradition – an imagined past under Allah’s
ruling. This invented tradition is often out of touch with authentic Islamic scripture,
4 Political Studies Review 

teaching and history. While Islam is open to democracy, tolerance and mutual coexist-
ence, not all Islamist movements possess the power-sharing principles and respect of
other world views that are inherent in democratic systems (Tibi, 2012).
The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West makes an important contribution to discus-
sions about the role of Islamism within liberal democracies. Vidino offers an appraisal of
the possibilities and limits for the ‘New’ Muslim Brothers, namely, people who draw their
doctrinal inspiration from Hassan al-Banna and share similar goals but operate as inde-
pendent thinkers and activists, to contribute to religious diversity, cultural discourses and
political deliberations in Western countries. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt
in 1928, ‘championed the restoration of the caliphate as the ideal system of government
for the Islamic world’ (Bunzel, 2015: 8) and inspired jihadi ideologues and splinter groups
with ambitions for such a restoration. But there is a history of changing trajectories
through moderation and, later, renewed conservatism in the life course of the Muslim
Brotherhood that shows the tensions of a group that combines the features of a political
party with those of a religious movement (Hamid, 2014). At the same time, the restoration
of the caliphate historically relied on ‘the ascension of the Islamic individual in society,
and [was] not […] the essence of any political revival’ (Pankhurst, 2013: 92) and has
often been ‘more of a long-term goal than an immediate objective’ (Bunzel, 2015: 8).
From Vidino’s perspective, the debate about the Muslim Brotherhood in the West – he
specifically focuses on the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States – becomes a
battle between the ‘optimists’ and the ‘pessimists’. ‘Optimists’ believe that the Western
Brothers are democratic Islamists (whom Holbrook (2014) equates to social democrats)
who can effectively counter the propaganda of al-Qa’eda recruiters (whom Holbrook
(2014) equates to communist revolutionaries). ‘Pessimists’ are more sceptical about the
real motivations of the Western Brothers. They consider them to be a crafty, informal
network of Islamists influenced by the controversial intellectual Yusuf al-Qaradawi and
skilled at practising ‘double speak’, which entails presenting a democratic image to the
public while maintaining more ambiguous stances (see also Bowen, 2014) towards
violence in private.
Notably, ‘pessimists’ accuse the Western Brothers of pursuing a gradualist agenda via
a two-pronged strategy directly or indirectly inspired by Marxist intellectual Antonio
Gramsci: first, a non-violent war of position and, subsequently, a war of manoeuvre
aimed at seeking power and imposing Islam on the wider society. Former Spanish ambas-
sador to Egypt, Fidel Sendagorta (2005), captures this perceived cultural threat to Western
societies when he maintains that the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to ‘Islamise’ modernity
via an ultra-conservative moral and religious approach that is, however, open to economic
and scientific modernisation and innovation. In many ways, these perspectives are a
contemporary revival of the so-called ‘pan-Islamic danger’ that European powers per-
ceived to threaten the world order and their own geopolitical interests between the late
nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century (Landau, 1994).
Overall, Vidino aims to offer a balanced representation of the Muslim Brotherhood in
the West. However, this representation often runs along rather clear-cut ‘good’ versus
‘evil’ binary lines. The final chapter discussing whether, with regard to terrorism, the
Brothers are ‘firefighters’ or ‘arsonists’ is a case in point. The author commendably pro-
vides an empirically grounded study of the network in three different Western countries,
yet fails to offer the analytical depth of those grey areas that Carrie Wickham (2013), on
the other hand, masterfully explores when revealing the internal conflicts and the power
struggles of the Muslim Brotherhood in its native Egypt.
Bonino 5

As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, Vidino (2015c) argues in his later work on
the topic that British-based Brothers and groups influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood
seek to pursue three main objectives: (1) to mainstream their religious and political doc-
trine to British Muslims; (2) to reach positions of political influence; and (3) to support
Islamist causes at home and abroad. The British terrain within which the Brothers operate
is particularly receptive to the activities of the network. While it is true that they have
never controlled many British mosques, two-thirds of which are instead affiliated with the
Deobandi (43%) or Barelvi (25%) denominations (Naqshbandi, 2015), it is certainly true
that they ‘have in the past shown an enormous ability to monopolise the Islamic dis-
course’ via ‘unrelenting activism, large funding and poor organisation of competing
trends’ (Vidino, 2015c: 15). Not only confined to the United Kingdom, the ‘global Islamist
movement has also actively sought to influence Western Islam’ (Vidino, 2010: 10) via
both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamat-e-Islami, which established small, informal
groups in Europe and North America as far back as the 1950s. Since that time, the ‘New’
Muslim Brotherhood has attempted to monopolise the discourse on Islam in the West and,
eventually, to make ‘Islam become the world’s only religion […] through patient work
that entails dawa [proselytism] and cozying up to Western elites’ (Vidino, 2010: 94).
In essence, Vidino’s book enters the sensitive debate on the real and perceived cultural
and security threats posed by Islamist groups to Western societies. Here, the blurred dis-
tinction between non-violent extremism and violent extremism is particularly relevant as
it lifts the veil on majoritarian political expectations towards minority groups, insofar as
‘the idea of using violence only when it is deemed the most fruitful tactic’ (Vidino, 2010:
212) casts doubts over the Muslim Brotherhood’s potential to adopt fully democratic
values. A staunch proponent of the need to view non-violent and violent extremism
through the same conceptual lens is Alex Schmid (2014: 18), who posits that ‘the differ-
ence […] is often only one of strategy and tactics’. By way of example, the Islamist group
Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks to establish a caliphate that can unite Muslim countries and that can
implement a strict application of sharia law (Pankhurst, 2016). While it calls for the non-
violent overthrow of democracy, at times it has directly engaged in violent militancy
(Vidino, 2015b). Similarly, the now-proscribed Islamist group al-Muhajiroun inspired
many people to join violent jihad but often managed to walk a legal tightrope and stay just
about clear of directly encouraging terrorist action (Lowles and Mulhall, 2013). At the
same time, some scholars (Lambert and Githens-Mazer, 2011) propose that there is no
causal link between Islamic or cultural practices, political ideas and terrorism, while oth-
ers (Bartlett et al., 2010) advocate a more nuanced perspective that differentiates between
violent radicalism that results in terrorist activity and non-violent radicalism, however
defined, which does not result in committing, aiding or abetting terrorist activity.
The question on the roots and causes of the more violent manifestation of political
Islam in the West – that is, terrorist action – has been recently inflamed by a heated public
debate between two leading French intellectuals, Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel. On one
hand, Roy blames psychological factors and, notably, a generational rebellion against a
society that terrorists reject (Dakhli, 2016; Peace, 2016). Roy’s viewpoint (see Symons,
2015) aligns itself with Francis Fukuyama’s (2006) idea that the Western project of
Islamist extremism is one born out of modern identity politics, which parallels the appeal
that the extreme politics of anarchism, fascism and Bolshevism had for young people in
the twentieth century. On the other hand, Kepel (2015) maintains that it is the fundamental-
ist religious doctrine espoused by Salafism that has attracted many socially, economically
and politically disenfranchised young Muslims to join the so-called ‘third generation of
6 Political Studies Review 

jihad’ (see also Peace, 2016). These are young Muslims who can easily access jihadi
propaganda thanks to modern technologies, online platforms and social media, rather
than in the mosques and the bookshops of the past (Pantucci, 2015).
Pantucci’s empirical work helps to shed light on the causes and roots of terrorist
action in the United Kingdom. The complex political, cultural and social dynamics that
shape the contours of more evidently violent manifestations of political Islam are well
captured in ‘We Love Death as You Love Life’: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. Pantucci
explores with clarity, authority and competence the minute details of the Islamist terror-
ist plots and the intelligence and law enforcement operations that have marked the recent
history of the United Kingdom. Notably, he highlights the increasing and diversifying
terrorist threat faced by British society today. In doing so, he seeks not only to explain
how terrorist plots have been planned (and mostly thwarted) but also why they have been
planned in the first place. Pantucci locates the process of violent Islamist radicalisation
at the nexus of ideology, grievance and mobilisation. The author (Pantucci, 2015: 17)
mentions the existence of other ‘factors beyond Britain’s control [… that have led to] the
emergence of the United Kingdom as the heart of the jihad in Europe’, including the
relocation of al-Qa’eda bases to Pakistan following the invasion of Afghanistan and
British involvement in the war in Iraq.
Yet it would have been helpful to read a more forceful critique of the role played by
aggressive foreign policies in unwittingly fuelling terrorism propaganda and activity both
domestically and globally. Kepel (2006) has convincingly demonstrated that Western fail-
ure to understand al-Qa’eda eventually led to short-sighted foreign policies that backfired
and, as Roland Dannreuther (2007; see also English, 2009, 2015) argues, increased both
terrorism inside and outside Iraq and support for jihadi violence in Europe and the Middle
East. The lack of a truly critical assessment of the geopolitical destabilisation created
by Western military intervention that has resulted in the emergence of the Islamic State
and a new wave of global terrorism is not unique to Pantucci’s work but often pervades
orthodox terrorism studies.
Pantucci’s book links in with wider scholarship that has chronicled the numerous acts
of violence perpetrated by Islamist groups in various European countries for more than
20 years. Petter Nesser’s (2015) Islamist Terrorism in Europe: A History usefully comple-
ments Pantucci’s work by extending its gaze to the European landscape. It builds upon the
tripartite system of violent radicalisation indicated by Pantucci and demonstrates that
terrorism in Europe has been motivated by three key factors: (1) cultural grievances, in
particular perceived offences to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (e.g. the Danish car-
toons in 2005); (2) European involvement in conflicts within the Muslim world; and (3)
sustained campaigns conducted by the Armed Islamic Group and al-Qa’eda. When adding
to these factors individuals’ history of criminality (Intelligence and Security Committee,
2009) and those ‘embodied skills of violence and a prior acquaintance with violent
milieus’, which Manni Crone (2016: 604) posits to be ‘more often a precondition for
perpetrating terrorism than are extremist opinions’, the complex picture of the multiple
causes and roots of domestic terrorism starts to take shape. Both Pantucci and Nesser are
of course very attuned to the evolving nature of the terrorist threat and discuss at length
the unpredictable risk posed by both lone actors (see also Pantucci, 2016) and small cells
conducting a decentralised jihad (Nesser, 2015), or individual jihad (Hegghammer and
Nesser, 2015), in the absence of a direct connection to terrorist groups (Europol, 2016).
Pantucci’s work also analyses the sinister networks that have provided ideological
inspiration to terrorist action, including the London bombings of 2005. These networks
Bonino 7

often trace their roots to fundamentalist preachers who fled repressive Arab countries and
sought political asylum in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s, eventually domi-
nating the jihadi scene in London (see also Nesser, 2015), promoting a politically extreme
global struggle (see also Herrington, 2015b) and radicalising several British Muslims.
According to these preachers, Western governments were legitimate targets of violent
jihad for ‘their recognition and support of Israel and their support for autocratic and cor-
rupt regimes in the Middle East and North Africa [that] had effectively resulted in the
occupation of Muslim lands by non-Muslims’ (Bowen, 2014: 66). South Asian influences
arguably played a role too. In the early 1990s, the cleric Masood Azhar transcended the
nationalistic Kashmiri struggle to become an inspirational jihadi propagandist. By then
already ‘a close associate of Osama bin Laden and […] involved in militant operations in
Somalia as well as Kashmir’ (Bowen, 2014: 32), Azhar’s rhetoric still influences young
Britons today (Pantucci, 2013). In this sense, the home-grown terrorist threat in the
United Kingdom needs to be considered in light of the wider global jihadi struggle that
continues to find ideological inspiration from and/or foster direct linkages4 with violent
Islamist groups abroad.
But it would be a major omission not to highlight the fact that the most virulently vio-
lent manifestations of political Islam have often emerged from Salafism (Kepel, 2006), a
literalist doctrine whose jihadi (rather than the peaceful pietist) strand has endorsed vio-
lence as a legitimate tool with which to defend against foreign threats to Islam. Saudi
Arabia plays a central role insofar as it has spread this doctrine (Kepel, 2015) across
Western countries through sustained funding for Wahhabi-leaning mosques, religious lit-
erature and ‘Saudi government scholarships for those who want to study at the University
of Medina’ (Bowen, 2014: 68). The short-sightedness of the British-American geopoliti-
cal arrangements that sought to overthrow the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein, yet
retained Saudi Arabia as a key ally (Kepel, 2006), is well encapsulated in the emergence
of the Islamic State. An organisation ‘predicated on an extremist and minoritarian reading
of Islamic scripture that is also textually rigorous, deeply rooted in premodern theological
tradition, and extensively elaborated by a recognized cadre of religious authorities’
(Bunzel, 2015: 7), the Islamic State has taken the Salafi-jihadist idea to its extreme and to
an even more markedly hard-line orientation than al-Qa’eda ever did.

From al-Qa’eda to the Islamic State: The Evolution of


Global Salafi-Jihadism
While terrorism in Europe caused more casualties in the latter part of the twentieth cen-
tury than it has caused in more recent times, its operational capacity and strategic remit
tended to be relatively limited. On the contrary, the terrorist campaigns waged by al-
Qa’eda in the past 25 years, and particularly after 2001, and by the Islamic State in the
past 2 years have taken anti-Western terrorism to a truly global scale. Communications
have historically played a key role in effecting terrorism’s goals of fear inducement and
psychological warfare (Hoffman, 2006). Today, the possibilities offered by the Internet
and social media platforms (Bodine-Baron et al., 2016) have allowed terrorist groups to
reach audiences across the world and to sustain their propaganda on a long-term basis.
Holbrook’s The Al-Qaeda Doctrine: The Framing and Evolution of the Leadership’s
Public Discourse comes at a propitious time, when governments and security agencies
need to develop counter-messages that can effectively respond to jihadi propaganda that
is spread via narratives reinforcing the values, dichotomies and crises that Islamist
8 Political Studies Review 

terrorism seeks to propagate for its own strategic goals (Ingram, 2016). Holbrook’s work
is unique insofar as it analyses hundreds of English translations of public statements and
communiqués delivered by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. There are certainly
limitations inherent in research that seeks to evaluate the ‘primary sources’ of al-Qa’eda
entirely on the basis of second-hand translations. However, Holbrook (2014: 171) goes to
great lengths to describe the methodological triangulation efforts that he undertook to
ensure source reliability and to highlight the fact that his work focuses on ‘general themes
that emerge over time, rather than specific linguistic elements of specific statements’.
Holbrook (2014: 5) convincingly demonstrates that al-Qa’eda’s preoccupation with pub-
lic statements and communicative work lies in its goals to ‘legitimize their movement and
its violence […,] propagate the movement by spreading the message to potentially sym-
pathetic audiences [… and] intimidate their opponents and exploit the ripple effects of
attacks’. Arguably, Holbrook’s approach courts the criticism that it conflates a terrorist
group’s leadership with its operational behaviour, ideas and planning – as Anthony Celso
(2016) has already pointed out. But it is undisputed that al-Qa’eda’s ideological and stra-
tegic directions have been indissolubly tied to its leaders: first, Osama bin Laden and
then, after his death in 2011, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Drawing on an exploration of literatures on social movements and collective action
and an analysis of al-Qa’eda’s public statements, Holbrook frames the dissemination of
public messages around three core tasks. The first task is to present a diagnostic element
– that is, the public message needs to identify a problem, such as foreign occupation,
religious ignorance, the absence of a caliphate and so on. The second task is to embed a
prognostic component in the public message – that is, offering a solution to rectify the
problem(s). This solution is often centred on violent jihad. The third and final task is to
employ a motivational ingredient in communication work, which seeks to ‘direct the
content of the diagnostic and prognostic observations towards specific audiences in an
emotive narrative in the hope of encouraging specific changes to take place’ (Holbrook,
2014: 45). Al-Qa’eda often constructs a grievance narrative through takfiri rhetoric and a
Manichean prism, which views the world of dar al-Islam as being under continuous
attack by Western governments and by local regimes within the Muslim world. From al-
Qa’eda’s perspective, the Muslim world must rid itself of non-Islamic influences and
rebuild according to Islamic law. Therefore, defensive violence becomes an instrumental
tool to achieve both short- and long-term goals and ‘a necessary response in the face of
an existential threat’ (Holbrook, 2014: 83). But Holbrook is very clear in identifying the
key limitation of al-Qa’eda’s communication work: a very narrow rhetoric that has
ignored those millions of Muslims who inhabit Western societies, some of whom could
well be mobilised by the global militant agenda of al-Qa’eda.
The Arab Spring presented a key test for al-Qa’eda’s communication strategy. At a
time when a democratic upsurge was sweeping through the Arab world, al-Qa’eda sought
to present a version of events that could both appeal to protestors rallying against the Arab
regimes and exploit the disillusionment that would follow on from the protests and civil
wars (Holbrook, 2012). Importantly, al-Qa’eda used communiqués and various media
initiatives in the hope of both consolidating its position ‘amid the lawlessness, [the
reduced national security focus on al-Qaeda and other transnational groups (Hoffman,
2013)] and power vacuums that have emerged in some regions following successful
revolutions and in areas experiencing ongoing conflict’ and marketing jihadism as ‘the
most appropriate way to protect collective interests, eliminate adversaries, eradicate vice
and establish a zealously pious social order’ (Holbrook, 2012: 17). While al-Qa’eda
Bonino 9

clearly failed to gain substantial power in these countries, its ideological Salafi-jihadist
evolution, the Islamic State, has attempted to make amends.
The Islamic State has managed to become a key military player, holding swathes of
territory in Syria and Iraq, within 2 years of having declared a caliphate. While maintain-
ing strategic linkages to al-Qa’eda’s original doctrine of targeting the ‘far enemies’ in the
West (Europol, 2015) – the mass terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and the United
States in 2015 and 2016 are a case in point – the Islamic State has predominantly waged
a fierce sectarian war that prioritises territorial control in the Muslim world (Byman,
2016; see also Bunzel, 2015), especially in the Middle East and in North Africa. Weiss
and Hassan’s ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror sheds light on the genesis and evolution of
the Islamic State that can help scholars, practitioners and the general public to compre-
hend what lies at the heart of today’s most powerful global terrorist organisation. It sets
itself apart from competing titles by detailing the factors that helped the formation of the
Islamic State within the regional dynamics of a turbulent Middle East, thanks to a unique
set of data gathered via interviews with Islamic State fighters and former Syrian intelli-
gence operatives, as well as US officials and Western diplomats.
Weiss and Hassan demonstrate how the power vacuum and the de-Ba’athification that
emanated from the war in Iraq helped the consolidation of al-Qa’eda in Iraq (AQI) and
eventually allowed the Islamic State to be born, under the strong ideological influence
exerted by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of AQI. But while the genesis of the
Islamic State is narrated in detail, the analysis of the self-proclaimed caliphate lacks theo-
retical depth. Scholars will find this book a useful reference point on the topic but will
probably search for a more conceptually rich treatise (see, for example, Napoleoni, 2014)
that can locate the Islamic State within the following: a long history of theological and
political battles between Shia and Sunni Muslims; a region that has been destabilised by
foreign policies that failed to devise a long-term plan to ensure institutional, political and
social stability; and an extremely literalist interpretation of Islam that traces its roots to
the Salafist doctrine harboured in Saudi Arabia.
The rift between al-Qa’eda and AQI recently revealed by a series of declassified docu-
ments of Osama bin Laden (Miller and Tate, 2016) is, in essence, an ideological fracture
between al-Qa’eda and today’s Islamic State, which emerged from the ashes of the Iraqi
faction of AQI, the Ba’ath Party and insurgent groups (Tønnessen, 2015).5 This of course
should not overshadow the fact that ‘the actions of the one [al-Qaeda] set in motion events
which organically grew into the other [the Islamic State]’ (English, 2016a: 70). Weiss and
Hassan correctly highlight the deeply sectarian nature of the Islamic State, which contin-
ues to wage war against Shia Muslims and minority groups and strategically to co-opt
Sunni Muslims whenever Shia Muslims respond to provocation, for example, in the case
of Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Weiss and Hassan also demonstrate that fear
inducement, violence and a strict enforcement of Islamic law, in forms that tribes have
found to be a useful tool to maintain order and discipline, represent core features of the
Islamic State’s strategy of governance. It must be pointed out, however, that Daniel Byman
(2016) speaks of the Islamic State’s brutality, ongoing reliance on foreign fighters and
endless game of enemy-making as constituting major weaknesses of the organisation.
Byman’s (2016) recent review of the most up-to-date scholarship on the Islamic State
also reveals it to be a strongly pragmatic organisation centred on a highly instrumental ide-
ology that draws strength from the weaknesses of its adversaries. Its primary goal of acquir-
ing and governing territories (Dodwell et al., 2016) represents an operational evolution
from the more typical terrorist activities of al-Qa’eda’s strand of Salafi-jihadism. Therefore,
10 Political Studies Review 

it is not surprising that foreign fighters tend to be attracted to the Islamic State by its promise
to build a truly Islamic society, a government and a military, that require ‘personnel to fill
roles like conventional soldiers, sharia officials, police and security, or administrative posi-
tions’ (Dodwell et al., 2016: v), rather than requiring suicide bombers alone.
The Islamic State has pushed the boundaries of Salafi-jihadism beyond the mere activ-
ities of engaging in short-term conflicts or launching mass terrorist attacks, although
these remain key tactics in its arsenal: in the first three-quarters of 2016, the Islamic State
killed over 1300 people and injured over 2800 across the globe. When also considering
groups and organisations affiliated with today’s Islamic State, research shows that 4900
terrorist attacks were conducted worldwide between 2002 and 2015, resulting in over
33,000 deaths, 41,000 injuries and 11,000 people being kidnapped or held hostage (Miller,
2016). Weiss and Hassan posit that the Islamic State has long shown military prowess that
could well lead to a full-blown jihadist civil war across the Middle East. They conclude
that the Islamic State is destined to remain with us for a long time.
Here, political analysts hold divergent views on the most suitable Western responses to
the ideological, political and military spread of the Islamic State in the region. Western
military intervention can be successful in defeating the self-proclaimed caliphate (Byman,
2016) but will probably fail to achieve lasting peace and stability in the region in the
absence of a long-term strategy that can mend the ‘societal and political failures in Iraq
and Syria’ (Lister, 2015: 11). Even more problematically, a military campaign ‘can actu-
ally strengthen the Islamic State’s ideology by lending credence to its conspiratorial
worldview: namely, the view that the region’s Shia are conspiring with the United States
and secular Arab rulers to limit Sunni power in the Middle East’ (Bunzel, 2015: 36).
While the role of force is historically a ‘factor in the calculations and actions of govern-
ments’ (Roberts, 2012: 180), containment, rather than defeat, may well be the most prag-
matic course of action (Byman, 2016) to halt the diffusion of the Islamic State and restore
a modicum of stability in the region.

Conclusion
While Islam has often been unfairly depicted in the public discussions that have followed
on from the events of 11 September 2001, the role played by its more markedly political
form, Islamism, has been either overlooked or directly equated with Islam itself. The
ideological, cultural, political and military tensions that gnaw at parts of the Muslim
world and reverberate within Western societies can be neither comprehended nor
explained without analysing some of the multifarious expressions of political Islam.
Vidino, Pantucci, Holbrook, Weiss and Hassan have gathered a trove of primary data,
including interviews with security officials, Islamic State fighters and members of the
Muslim Brotherhood, court files, public statements and many more, which illustrate some
of the global manifestations of violent and non-violent political Islam. The Islamist use of
faith for political goals, so that Islam will eventually act as a totalising entity that governs
society, culture, politics and the law (Roy, 2004), cuts across the analyses of the Muslim
Brotherhood, al-Qa’eda, the Islamic State and groups aligning with a Salafi-jihadist ide-
ology. The most important aim of truly committed Islamist movements is to seek power
in the national contexts in which they operate and, eventually, to restore a caliphate that
can dominate the Muslim world and, ideally, the entire world.
But while groups such as the Islamic State are actively seeking to pursue this course
of action, informal networks such as the Muslim Brotherhood are more pragmatic about
Bonino 11

the fact that any attempt to build a caliphate is illusory. The attitude of political Islam
towards violence differs across the plethora of Islamist movements that populate the
world. While the Muslim Brotherhood in the West maintains an ambiguous stance
towards, yet largely abstains from, committing violence, Salafi-jihadist groups such as
al-Qa’eda and the Islamic State explicitly resort to terrorist action and/or warfare as part
of an instrumental strategy that seeks to induce psychological fear among populations,
effect a response on the part of governments or gain territories. The multifarious expres-
sions of political Islam are often nothing other than a consequence of the many ways in
which geopolitics has historically played out, and continues to play out, both inside and
outside the Muslim world.

Acknowledgements
The author would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their useful comments on an earlier draft of
this article and Rene Bailey for her editorial support.

Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.

Notes
1. Throughout the article, the term terrorism will conform to the revised academic consensus definition of
terrorism. Therefore, it will be understood as ‘calculated, demonstrative, direct violent action without
legal or moral restraints, targeting mainly civilians and non-combatants, performed for its propagandistic
and psychological effects on various audiences and conflict parties’ (Schmid, 2011: 86).
2. The concept of Salafi-jihadism became an attempt to make sense of the ideology of al-Qa’eda and reli-
giously justified violence within terrorism studies circles in the aftermath of the events of 11 September
2001. Shiraz Maher (2016) has recently devoted a book to the topic. In it, he considers Salafi-jihadism
to be ‘a thought, or ideological strain, with which individuals can identify’ (Maher, 2016: 16) rather than
a specific group. He further posits that Salafi-jihadism possesses five key features: (1) tawhīd (oneness
of God), (2) hākimiyya (Allah’s sovereignty), (3) al-walā’ wa-l-barā (loyalty to Islam and repudiation of
unbelief), (4) jihad (the internal spiritual struggle to live as a ‘good Muslim’ and/or the outer struggle to
defend Islam against its enemies), and (5) takfīr (excommunication of other Muslims).
3. This paper reviews the 2015 edition of the book. An expanded version was published in mid-2016.
4. By way of example, Bruce Hoffman (2014) demonstrates that the bombings in London in 2005 were
directed by al-Qa’eda’s leaders based in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, contrary to
popular opinion that they were an entirely home-grown terrorist incident.
5. However, the core of the Islamic State’s membership is much more heterogeneous, as a recent major
analysis (Dodwell et al., 2016) of over 4600 unique Islamic State personnel demonstrates.

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Author Biography
Stefano Bonino is a Lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences at Northumbria University and a Fellow of
the Royal Society of Arts. He previously worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Durham University and was
educated at the Universities of Edinburgh (PhD and MSc) and Turin (BA). He is the author of Muslims in
Scotland: The Making of Community in a Post-9/11 World (Edinburgh University Press, 2016) and has pub-
lished several academic articles on various aspects of Muslim life in Great Britain in Contemporary Islam,
Scottish Affairs, Patterns of Prejudice and Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs.