Accueil arrow Foreign analyzes arrow Arabic and islamic studies contribution to security and counterterrorism policy


Dr Marcin Styszynski









Dr Marcin Styszynski
Assistant Professor,
Faculty of Arabic and Islamic Studies,

Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan(Poland).





Arabic and Islamic Studies are usually focused on traditional scientific fields such as literature, linguistics, classic Arabic, history or culture and Islam. Orientalists usually avoid analysis of ongoing political events in the Arab world and they prefer less known, rare or "secure" topics. The gap was filled by political and social studies which often consider the Arab world as a part of global, theoretical problem that requires similar methodological mechanism and analysis. In fact, the split in research affected studies on religious, social, cultural or linguistic features regarding the current situation in the Arab-Muslim world. Besides, those questions play a crucial role in effective understanding of many problems in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa, especially in the context of current threats regarding military conflicts, migration crisis, radicalization of Western societies, jihadism, terrorism or sectarian and economic problems.

In this regard, contribution of Arabic and Islamic Studies to security and counterterrorism policy should pay more attention. The following points present some recommendations and future engagement of orientalists in that field. 

1. Impact of Arabic sources

Arabic sources play an important role in research and analysis of information and updates regarding political, economic and social problems in the Middle East and North Africa and their impact on Western countries.

Updates, information and reports concerning security, counterterrorism and risks in the Arab-Muslim world are often published in Arabic and then they are elaborated in Western sources. Moreover, Western medias, including their Arabic editions are concentrated on general headlines and information without further studies on topics. The following examples demonstrates that impact.

Information about the group Jund al-Khilafa (Soldiers of the Caliphate) that captured a French citizen Hervé Gourdel in north-east area of Algeria, in September 2015, appeared at the beginning only in local Arabic edition of an-Nahar or al-Khabar newspapers issued in April 2015. After a brutal execution of the hostage posted in the Internet, the event was widely discussed in Western medias. Unfortunately, Western headlines and reports became a side-effect of the incident and they popularized accidentally the new jihadist group that declared its allegiance to the Islamic State. However, prevention procedures and reactions were ignored at beginning because first information about Jund al-Khilafa was published in last pages of the local Arabic newspapers and it did not attract wider attention of the audience and specialists.  

The research and analysis of Arabic sources are also important in the context of current military conflicts such as Syrian crisis that have affected Russian and Western military engagements in the region. Multilanguage medias, including Arabic sources have presented in recent times reports and headlines that are often chaotic, exaggerated and unconfirmed.

For instance, recent reports issued by Russia Today (RT) or CNN often refer to successful airstrikes and hits against jihadist bases in Syria and Iraq. On the other hand, Islamists groups publish opposite information in social medias, highlighting failures of Western coalitions and stable position of rebel groups.

The Ukraine crisis is another example of the complex information analysis. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited Sochi in August 2014, just a couple of months after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Bilateral talks between Egyptian and Russian leaders concerned reinforcement of economic relations and various agreements regarding exchange of agricultural products, especially in the context of economic sanctions against Russia. The visit was widely discussed in Egyptian medias but it was missed in Western sources that focused on propaganda aspects of Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and president Putin's policy against Ukraine.

In this regard, it is important to select appropriate features and verified information appearing in different sources and to present credible descriptions and updates. Arabic sources shall be considered as additional background that enable to balance various sources and information chaos. 

2. The role of cultural, social and religious environment

Cultural, religious or social backgrounds are often omitted in Western studies although they affect political scene in the Middle East and Africa.

For example, Arabic references include debates and deep discussions regarding sectarian and religious conflicts between Shia and Sunni communities, which affect current situation in Iraq, Syria or the Gulf countries. However, the sectarian crisis is often ignored by Western sources that focus on political, logistic or military and economic aspects. Similar situation concerns counterterrorism studies that reflect political, social or historical studies without further reflections on cultural and traditional environments in the region.

For instance, tribal or clannish conditions in countries like Yemen, Iraq, Libya or Mali influence the current situation and they increase military conflicts and terrorist risks caused by cooperation between radical Islamists and tribes, as well as economic and ideological interests of each group.

The theological factor plays an important role as well. Jihadist groups usually appeal to the Quran in order to justify and glorify terrorist activities. Radical Islamist organizations often apply the fragment of the 60th fragment of the sura al-Anfal: "And prepare against them what force you can and horses tied at the frontier, to frighten thereby the enemy of Allah and your enemy''. The fragment becomes a strong motivation for the audience that appreciates respectable sources like the Quran well rooted in the Islamic culture and the Arab history. Moreover, the appeal to the Quranic verses strengthens and justifies political and ideological objectives of extremist groups.

However, the examples from the Quran also show a sort of manipulation, which regards negligence of important features and meanings related to Islam. Jihadists ignores for instance the 61st fragment from the same sura Al-Anfal : "And if they incline to peace then incline to it and trust in Allah''. The fragment opposes to that idea of military actions and underlines the question of peace and cooperation among people.

Studies on Arabic versions of Tafsir (exegesis of the Quran), as well as cooperation with Muslim scholars and engagement in the religious debate with radical Islamists, can be relevant in this field. In fact, theological factor enabled to reduce terrorist risks and to reform extremist ideas of radicalised Muslims in countries like Algeria, Saudi Arabia or Yemen. 

3. Symbolic context of terrorist attacks.

Brutality of terrorist attacks often contains additional symbolic meanings, which refer to cultural, religious and traditional beliefs in the Arab-Muslim world.

The images of the September 11 attacks, the 2004 Madrid train bombings or the 7 July 2005 London bombings are used in jihadist propaganda that highlights destructions and flames symbolizing the fire of hell as a punishment for sins. The jihadists are trying to create a realistic vision of hell, which is a punishment for destructive policies of the West called "a new crusade against Islam''. The vision of the Hell contains different meanings from the Qur'an that distinguishes the blazing fire called Jahim, the flaming fire called Ladtha, strong fire that burns called Sa'ir, intense fire called Saqar, or fire that crushes called Hatama.

Besides, the idea of the crusades is often confronted with the symbol of the cross. For example, London sites, in which four terrorists detonated their bombs in 2005, create a symbol of the cross. On the map of London, the image is distorted because the fourth terrorist was scared and did not go to the intended location in the southern metro line. He detonated his bomb in the bus, while his three comrades followed direct routes and committed their acts in the north, west and east of the British capital. Similar connotations reflect four attacks during the September 11 tragedy or four detonations in trains in Madrid in 2004.

Another symbol is associated with the orange uniforms of hostages held by extremist groups. The symbol was used for the first time during the brutal execution of the American Nick Berg, who was beheaded in 2004 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The uniform symbolizes the response to persecutions of jihadist prisoners of Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo. Recently, similar symbols have been attributed to executions of ISIS's hostages who wear orange uniforms, too.

The implementation of symbolic messages has become very popular in ISIS's propaganda, especially in the context of recent executions of hostages. After the execution of 21 Egyptian Copts killed on a beach in Libya, in February 2015, ISIS stated that the act was a revenge on the death of Osama bin Laden who was buried at sea without respect for Muslim burial. The picture of blood dripping on sands of the Libyan range aimed at symbolizing the parallel between the two events.

In this regard, studies on cultural and theological features enable to understand motivations of jihadists and once they may identify and prevent risks and future terrorist threats in particular countries. 

4. Impact of jihadist propaganda and linguistic features

Arabic and Islamic studies shall play an important role in analysis of propaganda techniques applied by radical Islamist groups. It should be pointed out that various forms of agitation affect emotions and sentiments of the audience and attract public opinions in order to support or to join extremist groups.

Jihadist propaganda techniques are based on two channels of communication: traditional, liturgical speeches addressed to the local audience as well as modern forms of communication such as Internet forums or sophisticated journals that affect Western audience attracted by emotional photos, graphics and slogans. 

Traditional propaganda

Traditional propaganda techniques applied by Islamist groups is based on classic Arabic rhetoric (called balagha) and the concept of sermon called khutba.

Khutba is one of the oldest narrative and oratory forms in the Arab and Muslim world. It is presented in mosques during Friday's prayer or on special occasions of feasts and holidays. Basic narration and stylistic features reflect two parts of the speech. The first one regards short prayers, religious invocations and citations of Quranic verses. The first part is always followed by the expression: wa ba´d (and then ; afterwards), which indicates separation between passages in the speech. The second part is delivered after a short break and it is the main fragment of the sermon. It usually concerns religious, moral and social questions based on the Quran and hadiths (stories, statements and report attributed to the Prophet Mohammad). The speech is concluded by other religious citations.

Moreover, the central fragment of the sermon also reflect implementation of rhetorical devices regarding different forms of narration and compositions, appropriate words and sentences as well as comparisons, metaphors, repetition or antithesis.

It should be pointed out that religious discourse is often politicized and exploited by Islamist groups, including jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. They often use the structure of khutba or balagha and present political messages in the second part of the speech.

Application of liturgical sermons and Arabic rhetoric devices are evident in the case of ISIS's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who delivered a symbolic sermon in the main mosque in Mosul, Iraq during the Ramadan 2014. The discourse presented by Al-Baghdadi respects all conventions and etiquettes regarding non-verbal and narration concepts of khutba. Al-Baghdadi wears sacral clothes and stands up at the first step of speech and then sits down during other parts of the discourse. He also avoids loud voices, chaotic gestures or reactions and he uses sometimes index fingers to precise or underlines some questions.

Apart from personal skills, the orator follows strict narration and stylistic devices of khutba and balagha. He starts his speech with religious invocations and citations and after a short break, he refers to main subjects. Al-Baghdadi preserves liturgical style of the sermon and reigns from political slogans and statements. For example, he focuses on Ramadan ceremonies and spiritual values of the holy month, which absolves from all sins and rehabilitates human souls.

Apart from al-Baghdadi's speech, the general concept of jihadist rhetoric regards two opposite images. The first message concerns criticism, accusations and damnations of different political enemies like Western governments and military forces as well as local authorities and officials. The second image reflects glorification of extremist ideas and terrorist activities as well as encouragement of militants to join radical groups.

The negative image is reinforced by appropriate argumentation regarding humiliation of Muslim communities in particular countries and traumatic descriptions of Western military operations and devastations among civilians in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia or Chechnya. The arguments affect feelings and reactions of Muslim societies who condole with victims of military interventions in the Arab-Muslim world.

The negative opinions about Western countries are also intensified by distinctive and controversial news frustrating or shocking the public opinion. Jihadist groups benefit from current events, which humiliate or insult traditions, beliefs and costumes of Muslim communities around the world. The authors of the statements have been mentioning for many years tortures of prisoners in Guantanamo and Abou Ghraib, caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad or a ban of Islamic veil in Europe.

The appeal to different arguments is usually followed by final conclusions showing a new kind of crusades against Islam, which encourage to military and terrorist response.Besides, appropriate arguments glorify militants responsible for the famous terrorist plots like the 9/11 attacks and Madrid or London terrorist attacks.

In recent times, jihadist propaganda has included slogans and photos illustrating implementation of Sharia regulations, harvest campaign and distribution of food and water in controlled regions. The positive image is a response to chaos, bombings and killings in countries affected by military operations. 

Modern forms of jihadist propaganda

Jihadist propaganda became more sophisticated and it is very different between the years 2001 and 2011, when Al-Qaeda organization celebrated triumphs after the September 11th attacks. Jihadist media campaign focused on manifestos presented by leaders such as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri or Musab al-Zarqawi who delivered their messages and sermons in official websites or TV channels like Al-Jazeera. After each terrorist attack insurgents and followers have waited an official statement of Al-Qaeda leaders and they have respected all ideas, slogans and objectives of the message.

Traditional forms of jihadist propaganda has affected new forms of communication such as Internet forums, social medias or sophisticated journals like Dabiq, which became an important communication and motivational platform for Islamist extremists around the world.

In spite of sophisticated media productions and concentration on short messages, suggestive graphics and tabloid pictures, the new forms of communication between jihadists respect the general concept of jihadist propaganda mentioned above. All militants can express their opinions and deliver multilingual manifestos or graphics and films but the idea of the two opposite images highlighted in traditional propaganda remain an imperative. 

It is evident in the case of particular names and definitions attributed to Western enemies, interior authorities and military forces. Traditional jihadist manifestos are focused on historical and religious symbols and they contain the words like salibiyyun (crusaders), sihyuniyyun (Zionists) and taghut (a devil, a Satan), munafiqun (hypocrites) or murtaddun (apostates).

The words refer to historical and political conflicts, which are placed in modern contexts. Jihadist leaders try to keep alive national and social disproportions as well as religious dissentions between societies in the world. They adapt words containing negative connotations related to a sin, a devil, immorality and hostility as well as critical impressions resulting from crusaders war and Zionism. Recently, similar words have been applied in jihadist websites or Twitter profiles and journals, including Western editions of propaganda materials that include transliteration or Latinization of Arabic words.

English or French translations of propaganda materials usually avoid specific Arabic meanings applied in manifestos of radical Islamist groups. Translations are usually simplified and they include equivalents attributed to Western understandings. In fact, English or French versions often omit theological or archaic sense of words, which are attributed to modern social and political contexts.

For instance, the Arabic word: fasad widely used in Islamist propaganda is usually translated as "corruption'' although its first, theological meaning determines "moral decay''. Furthermore, the translation of the word taghut reflects the meaning of the Satan. However, additional meanings also include the sense of realistic features of the Devil who rules the word and implement immoral and infidel values. Taghut signifies in that way. There are many other examples that have become in recent times sorts of symbols or persuasive meanings for militants.






The four points regarding contributions of Arabic and Islamic studies can be relevant for counterterrorism policy and Western policies, which have been facing ongoing conflicts in the Arab-Muslim world. Contribution of Arabic and Islamic studies can identify potential risks, jihadist threats and regional crisis. Moreover, they enable to distinguish objectives, approaches of various Islamist groups that compete for their domination in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

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