Book Review: Jihad and Death-The Global Appeal of the Islamic State by Olivier Roy

I first read this book in the summer of 2017. I was quite impressed with it then but I was busy with other things at the time and I never got around to writing up a review. Almost two years later, Olivier Roy‘s work holds up and I’d like to draw people’s attention to it.

At a slim 100 pages, Roy’s English work is very readable and is not too heavy on theory. Its slim profile should not be taken to mean it does not contain some good analysis and new ideas, for it most certainly does. Rather than covering the group in its worldwide dimensions, Roy’s work is a sociology of Francophone jihadis, based on some 100 individuals known to have carried out terrorism or to have traveled to engage in international jihad. Roy limits his dataset to jihadis from France and Belgium, and it is here in his wheelhouse that his work is at is best. When Roy strays from this base, the work goes down in quality.

If one thesis sums up Roy’s sociological argument, it is his exploration of “the Islamization of radicalism” instead of the “radicalization of Islam” (p.6). Put another way, as Roy does on p.8, violent radicalization is not the product of religious radicalization.  Inverting the description here fundamentally changes the place of Islam in his analysis. We’re not talking about or trying to understand a shift in religious belief, at least for these Francophone jihadis. Roy finds they have lived lives full of sin, drinking, gambling, and engaging in petty crime. Their embrace of Islam happens most often after a stint in prison or right before they act on their desire to be involved in jihad. Roy calls most of these jihadis “born-agains.”  Similarly, there is a relatively high percentage of converts, more so in France than in Belgium (p.20).

Roy finds “generational revolt” and “youth culture” to be keys in understanding why these young jihadis radicalize.  He finds that a core social group, either brothers or friends from school, or maybe from prison most often forms the center of those who radicalize together. There is, at least according to Roy, an over-representation of sets of siblings (brothers) among these jihadis, something not characteristic of other “radicalisms” alongside which Roy places these Francophone jihadis. When their age is taken into account, Roy ties this to his broader argument about “youth culture” being a key part of understanding this phenomenon of radicalization.

In the first two chapters, Roy is really running on all cylinders. His description of the European environments should be wrestled with by policymakers and fellow scholars alike. Among his notable claims and observations:

  • Terrorism is not a result of unsuccessful integration into society (p.34)
  • Radicalization precedes recruitment (p.38)
  • Britain and Denmark stand out from the others as there is a network of extremist mosques in those countries seemingly acting as hotbeds of radicalization (p.31)
  • Throughout Europe, “Maghrebans” (Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans) are over-represented in jihadi ranks while Turks are underrepresented (p.21)
  • The first and third generations in the diaspora are underrepresented, while the second generation is over-represented (p.20).
  • Working class suburbs are over-represented because of the concentrations of second generation youth (p.33)
  • Almost no jihadis return to their parents’ countries of origin to wage jihad, a point Roy uses to argue their present is far more important to their radicalization than anger/ resentment over colonialism (p.46).
  • There are no documented cases where jihadis were politically active in Palestine solidarity or anti-Islamophobia campaigns before joining Daesh. (p.67) Indeed, Roy argues they are not protesting against Islamophobia because they also believe that Islam and the West are incompatible.

Readers can see where Roy’s argument is going, questioning much of our received wisdom about why jihadis do what they do. There is a political argument of sorts that Roy is at pains to rebut. It roughly goes that young men in the diaspora radicalize in response to repression, failed integration, and the crimes of colonialism committed against their countries of origin. Politically, one can agree that all those phenomena are horrible and need to be addressed with reparations and still accept Roy’s argument that Francophone jihadis are not pushed by these issues to radicalize. By this logic, as Roy points out, the parts of the world that have experienced some of the worst such violence (Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan) would be at least proportionally if not over-represented among the ranks of European jihadis joining Daesh. This is not the case. Roy hammers this point home on p.67:

“Those who view radicalization, whether religious or political, as a consequence of colonialism or racism do not realize that the divide does not lie between “those of Muslim origin” and “ethnic French.” The  divergence is about opinions and not origins.”

Roy instead places the lion’s share of the blame with French laicite (secularism coming from the French revolution), as that which best explains the over-representation of Francophone jihadis in Daesh. Laicite “decultures” the religious sphere the most, without filling the void. An over-simplified jihadi fundamentalism can find space in this void, appealing to youth in search of a cause.  Roy skates on increasingly thin ice when he discusses the transition of Leftist figures to Islamism, strangely arguing that “the Islamo-Leftist synthesis produced Hezbollah” without developing the argument. The party’s origin is certainly an interesting  topic but it can hardly be captured in such an argument. Certainly, any attempt to address this question would have to address Hezbollah as a Shi’i party, as Shi’ism is arguably farm more compatible with Leftist ideas than Sunni Islam is. Yet Roy does not address the fact that he’s been writing exclusively about Sunni jihadis and throws in a point about a Shi’i political party.

In Chapter Four, Roy covers ISIS in the Levant and Iraq and appears farthest from his strengths to this reviewer. The section comes off quite average, largely echoing other writers as Roy has few if any insights to add here. At the end of the chapter, he returns to what he does much better, and his discussion of the place of imams in French society and French Muslim communities is once again nuanced and interesting.

To this reviewer, one noticeable missing piece is a development of the overwhelming masculinity of the jihadis in question. Roy covers it briefly, all too briefly, and then moves on (p.51). It should really be the third central piece alongside youth culture and generational revolt; instead, he subsumes it under a fascination with violence. Moreover, much of Roy’s work finds parallels with other “radicalisms” but he barely touches the question of parallels to the far right. Instead, most of his other examples of radicalism are leftists, which is interesting in its novelty but under-developed (to be generous). Instead, I argue there are very strong parallels between jihadis and neo-nazis, evidenced in prison radicalization and toxic masculinity being central facets of both. Roy mentions prison radicalization but says that another author has already covered it extensively. This is unfortunate, for it seems a strong facet of what he’s describing. Arguably Chapter Four should have fallen under this category of “things someone else has written about extensively that I won’t touch.”

The volume as a whole is easily engaged with by non-experts, a testament to Roy’s solid writing. Anyone convinced that Islam is the problem or even at the center of the problem should read Jihad and Death to imbibe Roy’s insights and important argument. With the rising wave of right populism and nationalist extremism targeting European Muslims in their communities, rebutting the oversimplified ideas that these people won’t integrate and they are fundamentally radical is of the utmost importance. If Roy is correct, the Islamization of radicalism stems from generational revolt and youth culture and is thus not “religious radicalization,” pointing to a political/social solution to address that which has placed them in such different milieux than their parents. As I argued above, toxic masculinity and prison radicalization are both part of this picture as well, and must be addressed in any CVE policy. In this vein, we need comparable studies of the different countries producing large jihadi populations to systematically think about how their reasons for radicalization do or do not parallel Francophone jihadis and what that means for Daesh’s overall composition.

If it were up to me, I would rename the book to better represent what the strengths of the work. Jihad and Death can stay, but it should be followed by A Sociology of Francophone Jihadis instead of The Global Appeal of the Islamic State as Roy does not cover Russia, Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, etc etc. Even with the other issues critiqued here, the work is well-worth reading, especially for non-experts who want to know more than what the news is telling them.

Daesh floods YouTube with violent videos

For some time, Twitter and YouTube, among others, have fought to keep the organization’s content off their platforms. A week ago I would have told you that it seemed that Daesh had been effectively banned from YouTube and one couldn’t find their propaganda there. Yet just this week, that has apparently been upended.

A recent change in tactics has Daesh temporarily on the (digital) offensive, as they managed to upload so many of their videos to YouTube that the site couldn’t take them all down quickly enough. This latest wave of uploaded videos followed the attack in Westminster, London last week when an attacker managed to kill several and injure dozens. Khalid Masood’s story has led to many debating whether he acted alone or was guided by Daesh, as well as questioning how and when he was radicalized (here, here and here).

Whatever the answers to those questions about Masood’s radicalization are, it is interesting to see Daesh launch this new kind of attack with their media. For at least the last six months, the availability of the group’s videos and propaganda has been in steep decline, with many platforms and websites having adapted to ban the group’s content. Twitter has seen a marked decline in the number of ISIS accounts due to its efforts to shut them down.

Telegram has apparently become the encrypted messenger of choice, but it too took steps to delete large “channels” on its service to hinder Daesh spreading its message. Since that was 18 months ago, and the group still successfully uses Telegram, we can see that platform’s efforts have not been successful.

From the US government’s perspective, it has sought to create counter-messages to Daesh’s slick propaganda with weak results, to put it nicely. I’ve linked to an interesting account of the US State Department’s attempts in this regard below:

What’s Behind the Recent Wave of Attacks by Daesh?

With the latest attacks in Baghdad, the most recent bombing spree by Daesh/ISIS reached a level few others have. Bombings and attacks tore through Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, with several more in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia as well that aren’t clearly the work of Daesh yet. This dubious record, bringing multiple mass-casualty terror attacks in a string, has shocked the world and placed many on edge. If the attacks Qatif and Medina prove indeed to be the work of ISIS, I can only say it will be a turning point. Juan Cole already wrote a great piece on why Daesh would want to target Saudi Arabia, so readers should check that out.


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photo courtesy of Hayder al-Shakeri.

Here’s some of the basics we know that have received a lot of attention on social media:

• Many have pointed out this intense wave of attacks takes place during Ramadan, calling into question just how holy those carrying out the attacks really see the month to be.

• These attacks didn’t just happen during Ramadan- they come during a period where ISIS is losing territory and has been largely forced out of Fallujah in western Iraq for the first time since they seized control of it in January 2014.

• A sad pattern has emerged whereby victims in places like the USA, Belgium, and France receive far more attention and solidarity than those in Turkey, Bangladesh or Baghdad. It must be paired with the truth many in the USA and Europe don’t want to acknowledge- that the vast majority of victims of terror are Muslims.

• In Iraq, Baghdad residents pelted the PM Haider Abadi’s car and motorcade in anger over their perception that he was failing to secure the city.

• In Turkey, we know the Turkish state has at least indirectly fueled these attacks through its passive policies towards ISIS over the last two years. It moved on from the attacks in shockingly quick fashion, bypassing calls for a thorough investigation.

• In Dhaka, details emerge about the attackers that are not what most expected: the attackers were elite young men who came from wealthy families and had attended elite schools.

Through these points, we can now go beyond merely repeating them and dig into the details underlying them. The spate of attacks in Ramadan seems to me a continuation of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s tactics- where anything goes. Zarqawi had no issues about targeting Shiites and Sunnis who refused to take part in jihad rather than focusing solely on attacking the USA and the West more broadly. He was more extreme than Bin Laden or Zawahiri and stopped listening to them. Both OBL and Zawahiri told Zarqawi that his tactics were out of control and causing more harm than good, but he continued, and his influence sadly lives on (If you’re curious to read more about this I’d suggest this by Fawaz Gerges, I’ve been reading it lately and I’m thoroughly impressed). These attacks are the beginning of death throes of Daesh as an organization that controls territory. With each loss where Daesh is forced to flee, it needs to show strength somewhere else. I’ve written in this blog about the beginnings of transitional justice in areas Daesh was forced to leave. Now, these attacks likely have been in the planning stages for some time, so their confluence may not have been planned exactly as it is happening.

Iraq and Turkey both showcase an element of these attacks that has received a lot of academic attention and has also been the source of countless conspiracy theories. It has received comparably little attention from popular media more broadly, but states are sadly complicit in much of what happens with ISIS in various parts of the world. The Iraqi state, for example, has proven painfully inept, corrupt, and unwilling to put the interest of Iraqi citizens first. This isn’t lost on those who threw rocks at their PM’s motorcade. Huge protests targeted corruption in Baghdad last summer when residents had to deal with heat waves while there were major, and inexcusable power cuts. Barely six weeks ago massive protests happened again, targeting the Green Zone in Baghdad. Despite those large, non-sectarian protests, the problems remain largely unsolved.

Turkey on the other hand has spiraled downward over the last several years. This is predominantly because the AKP and President (formerly PM) Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been consolidating their power, pushing Turkey closer to autocracy every step in the process. The war next door in Syria also played a large role in these ongoing issues in Turkey. To solidify his rule, Erdogan reignited a long-dormant war between the state and the PKK, a militant Kurdish organization, and in the process has done next to nothing to stop Daesh-neither those entering Turkey to travel to join Daesh in Syria nor their supply of arms. Other highly contested reports had the Turkish intelligence services sending weapons to ISIS. In an example of how Turkey is becoming more authoritarian, the journalists who exposed this were put on trial. Yet it’s not just Turkey that has questionable relationships to jihadists; Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Qatar and the CIA have all been tied to funding Sunni jihadists in the region, as have private donors in Saudi and Kuwait.

The empathy deficit in regards to the victims of terrorism has become clearer and clearer in the last couple of months. It is not new, however. It is the latest manifestation of global trends that have consistently placed no value on the lives of those who live in the Global South, their lives merely statistics to all too many. Even with powerful voices trying to draw attention to the victims in different places like Ivory Coast, Bangladesh, Kenya, Somalia and others, their deaths still evoke comparably little reaction in the Global North. It’s important to emphasize that this sentiment is part of what drives radicalization- it’s not just a superficial thing. It’s tied to deep feelings of being dominated, humiliated, and having no value given to one’s life. The way the USA, Israel, and most recently, Assad, Russia, Turkey and Daesh can all kill large numbers of Muslim civilians with seemingly no major repercussions all strike a raw nerve with Muslims around the world. The abuses of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib both added to this feeling that those who speak of human rights clearly don’t think of Muslims when they push those platitudes. Perhaps no other place has experienced this glaring contradiction in western values and actions more than Iraq.

Dhaka sadly shows a different facet of the Daesh phenomenon, one that shows us that Daesh appeals to many different people for many different reasons. I’ve already written about these questions of radicalization elsewhere. There seem to be several very different archetypes of men who join Daesh, not to speak of the reasons women join. First, there are people who seem to have no economic issues whatsoever. I think most of these people are pushed by phenomena like those described above- and it’s likely the culmination of many of these events rather than a reaction to any single one that eventually radicalizes them. Second, there are reports from both Syria and Iraq about the men who join to get a salary, not necessarily for ideological reasons. Given the larger collapse of the economy and state institutions, many struggle to get by and will join eventually. The third group seems to be those who had lives as criminals of various kinds. These people often, though not exclusively, find Islam in prison. It seems, and to be clear, I am venturing a guess here, that these people find repentance from the wrong ways of their past in conversion but also a means to continue them in what they now see as a righteous cause. It’s hard to otherwise explain both conversion and radicalization. I think this phenomenon, rather than people instrumentally claiming to be Muslims only as a front, explains their “un-Islamic” behavior. They’re new to the religion, they don’t have a lifetime of experience with Islamic holidays or practices, and thus might have no compunctions about carrying out attacks during Ramadan, or, it may turn out, carrying out an attack in Medina.

May the victims rest in peace and may their families and friends find solace.


Notes on Radicalization and Daesh

NOTES on RADICALIZATION and DAESH: Prisons, Revolutions, and Poverty


I want to draw out several short arguments here about radicalization in regards to Daesh. I reject the idea that poverty leads to radicalization, and I try to draw a parallel here with existing studies of revolution, where poverty likewise fails to explain their occurrence. I engage, for argument’s sake, the idea that poverty is actually leading to radicalization, and show that economic development cannot be seen as a solution, drawing briefly on the 20th century experiences of various countries with successful industrialization and economic development post WWII. My beginning, admittedly incomplete explanation of what lies behind radicalization points to institutions and the subjectivities formed as individuals interact with various institutions. I argue that mosques are rarely sites of radicalization, and far more often act to moderate individuals, while prisons are often sites of radicalization in very different countries around the world.

I) There’s a lot of evidence that many things besides poverty lead to radicalization. There are distinct patterns of who is more likely to become a jihadi, and they’re disproportionately middle class and educated. There’s also a large number of converts involved, something not explained by inequality. Most recently, the fact that a number of the Belgians involved in ISIS attacks on Paris were actually small time gangsters who owned a bar prior to joining ISIS got significant attention. We see too many factors here that cannot be explained by poverty. Also, many of the people who travel from far away, especially those leaving the developed Global North, are far from poor themselves. There are stories of people fighting for Daesh in Syria and Iraq for salaries they can’t get anywhere else, but I don’t see this necessarily as radicalization, but rather people doing whatever they must to feed their families.

II) Scholars have been debating the issue of poverty for some time in studies of revolutions, with no strong evidence to support the thesis. Instead, key leap here- I argue this is relevant for our consideration in regard to radicalization. Radicalization in this sense is an attempt to overthrow established structures- granted not through mass mobilization but rather through terrorist tactics. It’s explicitly done in the desire of a state exclusively run by Islamic Law. While that’s not the same as various revolutions and failed revolutions that took place over the last two centuries, it’s similar enough to take this point in mind. Evidence has never proven a thesis that poverty leads to revolution, or even attempts at it. It was nuanced to ‘relative deprivation’ by Ted Gurr; for him, ‘relative deprivation’ is the difference between what people have and what they think they deserve.’ This still is not considered a definitive explanation of why people mobilize for revolution, and scholarship continues.

III) Revolution has been extensively studied without reaching any overarching theory that can, scientifically, explain revolutions in different parts of the world at different times in history. I fully expect studies of radicalization to follow the same pattern. We know that jihadis joining Daesh come from dozens of different countries around the world. Why would the reasons be the same for a youth in Tunisia as they are for a person in Sweden? or Belgium? or the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt? This connection (or lack thereof) between studies of radicalization and studies of revolution is illuminating for several reasons. It breaks down the idea that we really don’t know that much about radicalization, and argues instead that we have large bodies of relevant knowledge developed about revolutions. It also breaks down exceptionalist arguments that what we’re studying is ultimately only about Islam. This is a facet of the argument I plan to expand on significantly moving forward.

IV) Poorer_Nations_CMYK-max_221-4101b8724af09b00d65a0aacf9bcb6e5Even if we granted that poverty had a major role in radicalization, it points to an answer in the form of economic development. If one has studied economic development in any detail, it’s clear that our world has no set formulas to bring this about. There exists a small handful of countries that achieved this feat, in which they industrialized and joined the “developed world” post WWII. They did so under authoritarian rulers while blocking out foreign goods to protect their developing industries. They also crushed labor mobilizations at home. They’re sometimes called the “Asian Tigers,” a name I don’t like but that’s beside the point. Arguably Brasil under the military dictatorship and Chile under the dictator Pinochet achieved similar economic leaps. The approach these nations took broke all the rules that countries are forced to follow today by the IMF and World Bank, and arguably had its roots in the post WWII reconstruction of Japan- see Vijay Prashad’s ‘The Poorer Nations‘ for the book-length treatment of that. Since Prashad is very far left and some will find him biased, feel free to find Jeffry Frieden’s Global Capitalism instead, as it covers the issue as well, and Frieden is definitely a capitalist. It will become clear that any honest appraisal of the Asian Tigers must stare squarely at this very dark lesson they teach the world, that industrialization post-WWII has not happened under a democracy, and was not achieved through free market means, but rather with large amounts of government investment and protectionism to incubate their industries.

I think it’s fairly self-evident why such an approach of relying on secular autocrats to usher countries through industrialization is fraught with pitfalls. It’s  very possible that all the country gets is authoritarian rule without real economic development. That prescription sounds all too much like the autocratic leaders around the Arab World who are widely revered by jihadists as “tawagheet” or tyrants who oppress Islam. These men were also the targets of the Arab Uprisings in 2011, so I really don’t see this as a potential solution. Moreover, I’ve written at length elsewhere how this term taghut/tawagheet (pl.) is a central pillar of Daeshi discourse, used to characterize leaders like Hosni Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, and others. So relying on a secular autocrat, the likes of whom are the bane of Daeshi discourse and the targets of the Arab Uprisings can somehow bring economic development and ease radicalization? It makes zero sense.

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Sayyid Qutb, influential Jihadist thinker, imprisoned in Egypt in the 50s and 60s.

V) There is significant evidence that other factors, especially institutions are involved. If Islam is institutionalized through mosques and connected charities, radicalization happens just as often outside of these institutions, which often serve to stabilize and moderate interpretations of religion. Those who speak up in sermons or events with extremist views can be confronted, ridiculed, and potentially ostracized. There are, certainly, a small handful of mosques that do promote radical and violent interpretations, but they are a tiny minority of the total. The video below is a good example of the moderating forces I argue come from many mosques. The men with extremist views in the video find no refuge in or in front of mosques- they are confronted, shouted down, and ostracized.

Prisons, rather than mosques, are consistently sites of radicalization, showing that no simple solution lies in imprisoning jihadis to rehabilitate them.  In many Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria, prisons have become hotbeds for jihadis and many who entered with no connection to violent jihad, sometimes with no connection to Islam as a whole, come out radicalized. A central example is Sayyid Qutb, who is universally revered by jihadis. He spent the better part of two decades in prison in Egypt under Nasser’s rule. His writings from this time have come to inspire thousands of jihadis in later generations and are widely translated. Similarly, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a man central in the violent roots of ISIS in Iraq, connected with Abu Muhammad Al Maqdisi in Jordanian prison, radicalizing Zarqawi before his release. Maqdisi is still an influential jihadi scholar, though one very critical of ISIS. Camp Bucca, the prison run inside Iraq during the American occupation by the CPA, became the site for the coalescence of the first iterations of ISIS.  Similar issues with radicalization inside prisons have been documented in the USA and in France. We don’t know nearly enough about this, but it’s surprisingly consistent in that it happens in countries in very different parts of the world, as listed above.

VI) Thus, I have argued here that we cannot isolate poverty or inequality as a driver of radicalization. Instead, we need to focus on the roles that institutions play and how individuals negotiate their subjectivities in relation to these institutions. Right now I am thinking most in regard to mosques and prisons, but I am sure there are connections to be drawn to courts and to schools. Again, this is nothing unique to Islam. This argument breaks down barriers between what we’re focusing on here and other forms of subjectivity. I think these directions can help us grasp most of what happens in radicalization, but I don’t think it’s possible to figure out an overarching explanation that would apply to radicalization where ever it happened. In that sense, it’s like revolution- we can usually figure it out ex post facto, but the answer to why it happens then and not at other times remains elusive, and likely always will.

A lot of this is thought in progress so please share your comments.