The videos that appear after suicide attacks are a crucial part of al-Qaeda’s jihad. But what do they actually tell us? After studying numerous martyrdom videos, Pieter Nanninga concluded that the outcome of the attacks is not what really counts for the jihadists. ‘The act itself is of huge symbolic value. It boosts confidence and restores the honour of Islam,’ says Nanninga. Pieter Nanninga will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 16 June 2014.
Pieter Nanninga tried to find out why suicide attacks play such an important role within the jihadist movement, and within al-Qaeda in particular. He did this by studying martyrdom videos broadcast by al-Qaeda’s media group, al-Sahab. They were all professionally made films about ‘martyrs’ and their attacks. Nanninga watched dozens of videos dating from the first decade of this century. The nature of the videos changed during this period, from simple farewell messages broadcast by Al Jazeera and aimed at a wide audience, to lengthy professional films, posted on the internet and aimed at sympathizers.
Martyrdom videos are an important medium within jihadism, says Nanninga. A video of this kind has several purposes: to praise the perpetrator, to defend the act and to encourage viewers to join the jihad. According to Nanninga, the videos are particularly interesting because they show why suicide attacks are so important to jihadists. He discovered that the outcome of the attack is less important than the symbolic value of the act itself. The strategic result is only of marginal importance, says Nanninga. Paradise plays a smaller role for the perpetrators than we often assume. ‘It’s about honour, sacrifice and solidarity. The jihadists use these attacks to show their dedication to the dignity of Islam, to demonstrate their willingness to make sacrifices on behalf of their fellow-believers in conflict areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq. The symbolic value is paramount to the perpetrators, and much more important than the consequences of the attack.’
Although Nanninga knows little about the ‘viewing figures’ for the videos, he is convinced of their far-reaching impact. ‘Many of the young people from the West who join the jihad have seen these videos. This is borne out by reports from intelligence services and documents written by the young followers themselves. My personal opinion is that watching the videos merely confirms the decision they have already made,’ continues Nanninga. ‘This is the real purpose of these videos. They are aimed at young people who are already interested. Young sympathizers who are on the point of joining the jihad or have already done so. It’s fairly obvious that the content of these videos is not aimed at the average Muslim.’
The young Dutch people who travel to Syria to join the jihad have also watched these videos. ‘They don’t just see Syria as the gate to Paradise, as many people think. The interviews and blogs indicate that they are largely motivated by a sense of honour and loyalty. The jihad in Syria is their opportunity to do something, to fight for their ideals and convictions. It is enormously empowering and fills them with pride. They are fulfilling their duty by standing up for fellow-believers and their religion, while to their mind, the rest of the world sits back and waits.’
Pieter Nanninga studied History and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen. He carried out his PhD research in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, and has been a lecturer for the Middle Eastern Studies programme in Groningen since 2011. His lectures focus on politics, culture and religion in the modern Middle East, while his research concentrates on the jihadist movement. His thesis is entitled: Jihadism and suicide attacks: al-Qaeda, al-Sahab and the meanings of martyrdom. Prof. J.N. Bremmer is his supervisor. Nanninga will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 16 June.
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