The Sad Jihadist

April 11, 2016

A look of heartache is not what you imagine on a jihadist's face, but perhaps it might reveal how to get him out of al-Qaida.

Photos: Still photos from Pål Refstad's documentary Dugma.

Photos: Still photos from Pål Refstad's documentary Dugma.

NRK recently aired the documentary Dugma, in which director Pål Refsdal presents intimate portraits of some young men who are training with the jihadi militia Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as al-Qaida in Syria. The men we meet in Refsdal’s movie are all on the terrorist organization's list of willing jihadists, waiting to perform suicide attacks against Syrian government forces

How to Watch a Terrorist?

The airing of the documentary on Norwegian state TV was a curious case in itself. While NRK has purchased the rights to show the movie in Norway and has made it permanently available on their websites, you cannot view it without NRK’s in-studio “wrapping”. By merging the movie into the Urix format of foreign affairs journalism, NRK introduces the movie by showing their own reporter’s footage from the aftermath of an ISIS attack on civilians. Then we are shown a panel session of Refsdal, NRK ethical editor Per Arne Kalbakk and expert on international law and armed conflict Cecilie Hellestveit commenting on the movie’s context and ethical dilemmas before it is even shown.

With all this build-up, you would be forgiven for expecting some sort of apology for jihad from Refsdals’s film. It is nothing of the sort, but the director does take a minimalist approach to his subject matter, making few critical comments and certainly not challenging his subjects on their ideology or extreme choice of violence. What we get is an inside look into the world of terrorism, filtered through Refsdal’s choice of lingering shots and open-ended questioning. In such a dangerous context (if government forces found out their location, Jabhat al-Nusra would be bombed and Refsdal with them), very few are willing or able to document what is happening “on the ground”. The documentary is therefore a very welcome contribution. It further attests to the importance of his work that Refsdal’s movie is not, in form or content, quite the story of terrorism you’d expect.

Jihad and Heartache

The movie opens on a strong and disturbing note. One of the volunteer jihadists shows us around the vehicle he will use to perform his attack, detailing how the explosives will be detonated and the extent of the harm they will cause. Then comes a perplexing detail that suddenly brings into the picture more than the bestiality of calculating mass death. The jihadist holds out a phone and says he has promised to call his father just before he detonates his load. “He should also be let to feel that he is sacrificing his son for God”, he explains. It is a rattling comment on the father’s part in his suicide, yet the reference to martyrdom somehow numbs us to the relational aspect by slipping the statement into a narrative of religiously justified violence that we have learned to know.

The moment when the humanity of the jihadists truly shines through comes later, in a surprisingly moving scene when another one of these young men, a bilingual foreign fighter who speaks fluent English, is talking about jihad. During the conversation with the director, it comes up that the young man just married. His face lights up as he speaks, somewhat bashfully, about how he suddenly feels completed by this new relation in his life. But his name has been put on the list, his death is decided. The smile evaporates from the young man's bearded face when the director asks him what his wife has to say about this. He doesn't reply in anger, or in fervent ideology. If you could ever imagine a heartbroken jihadist, that would be the words that described his face.

The Jihadist as a Man

We are used to seeing jihadists as angry macho men. Indeed that is part of the appeal for terrorist organizations like al-Qaida or ISIS. According to Michael Kimmel, who was recently appointed adjunct professor of sociology and gender research at the University of Oslo, it's a recruitment mechanism for extremists of many colors. During his inagural lecture in March, Kimmel offered some cues on how gender studies can improve our perspective on extremism and its appeal. He argued that for many men, joining an extremist group or movement is partly a project of reclaiming one's masculinity. In that, there is also an opportunity for exit strategies to be developed. In Refsdal’s movie, this is exactly what the sad jihadist appears to be doing – for himself.

As Refsdal continues to follow him through consecutive shootings, it becomes clear that the marriage and the newfound family within which the young man now sees himself has shaken his commitment to blow himself up. In his conflicted monologues, he speaks about the future he envisions with a wife and kids (he talks about raising good Muslim children) and how he has a responsibility now to them (in the plural, although his children are yet unborn). Crucially, he talks about how choosing to end his life by triggering a bomb has gone from being easy to something unforgiveable because his life now is tied to his wife and their future children.

Learning from Voluntary Exits

Although feeling tormented may not actually bring the sad jihadist out of al-Qaida (indeed he considers going into normal combat rather than suicide missions), the scene exemplifies something researchers have come to understand from studying cases of violent extremists who voluntarily leave such groups. Anja Dalgaard-Nielsen, for example, notes in a review of research on exit promotion that many of these terrorists reacted to the internal contradictions, dilemmas and tensions of what they were part of. These experiences could make them leave the group, for example in cases where the bloody consequences became real, the personal and practical costs seemed too high, leadership failed or groups unraveled, or when something changed their perception of the enemy. In Dugma, the jihadist’s marriage and newfound loyalty to his wife and family raised the personal costs of his suicide mission to a troubling size. Many countries are now trying to find out how they may disengage members of extremist groups by developing “exit interventions” that can cause a similar opening for rupture.

Making the Break

But even if many of the situations a terrorist encounters may cause doubt and discomfort, what motivations do they have for exiting the group and leaving the cause? Setting religious ideology aside, let’s consider our jihadist through the perspective of what Michael Kimmel thinks motivates many extremists to join in the first place: the chance to reclaim a masculine role that may offer purpose, power and pride. As it appears through this perspective, marriage has not simply given the jihadist a new emotional connection and someone to “live for”, but also a new way of being a man which he finds meaningful and which he invests his loyalties in. Perhaps he has found an alternative to martyrdom by suicide as a masculine project.

Interestingly, though, he hasn't abandoned his reliance on religion to infuse his project with meaning and purpose. Instead, he appears to find an ideal for this new masculinity within a hadith he recounts during the scene, which describes Allah as the shepherd of society, and men as the shepherds of their families. Dalgaard-Nielsen also notes that although general notions of justice may call for extremists to revise their ideology and repent, it may not be the only or even the most solid path to their exit – especially if we want to bring it about by intervention. She recounts research on social psychology suggesting that because humans strive for consistency and resist change, an easier approach may be to intervene in a way that changes how the extremist feels or behaves, rather than challenging their attitudes through the power of rhetoric and arguments. Because of the human drive towards consistency in how we see ourselves, the extremist may then change and moderate his attitudes to reduce the dissonance of the behavioral or emotional change.

Now that marriage has changed his feelings about suicide missions, our sad jihadist talks about how he sees himself as being a good Muslim if he can raise Muslim children instead of by blowing himself up. This suggests that Dalgaard-Nielsen may be right, but for all the political attention that is currently focused on countering violent extremism and also on facilitating exit, there is still little research that is able to document the success rates of various approaches. In any case, Refsdal’s valuable documentation of what motivates and moves al-Qaida’s terrorists serves as a reminder to look to the human needs and reactions when such programs and their evaluations are constructed.

PS: For those who wish to see Dugma on the big screen, Arabiske Filmdager (Arab Film Days) are hosting two screenings in Oslo this weekend as well as a conversation with the director on Sunday April 17.