Legitimising jihad now takes more than words

One of the findings of our recent ESRC-funded project on media and radicalisation is that a shift has occurred in the way violent extremist or 'radicalised' jihadists justify suicide bombings. Around late 2007, as we begun the research, the most credible and authoritative figures in the eyes of online jihadist members were those with impressive rhetoric, grasp of religious scripture, and a place at the top of the Al-Qaeda hierarchy. Bin Laden and Al-Zawarahiri were the big draws. But the lack of action from Al-Qaeda itself, particularly the failure to act against Israel during the conflict with Gaza in December 2008, undermined these leaders' support. By early 2009 we found popularity was shifting to jihadist members themselves who stopped posting, went 'offline' and swapped virtual, rhetorical warfare for the 'real' battle, dying in the field. A new article in Foreign Affairs gives some examples of this. Does this make counter-measures against jihadists more difficult? If credibility and authority now come from deeds rather than words then this creates a more diffuse threat because any of jihadist supporter around the world may see an opportunity for glory and superstardom. But is a more diffuse threat necessarily a greater threat? Is security policy going to be driven by (intelligence) data confirming there is a pool of people actually willing to blow themselves up, or will it be dictated by the possibility that there might be?