Jihadi terrorists use humor to reinforce identity - study

Academics examined 82 jihadi magazines published in English and found that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in particular use mockery and parody.

 Members of Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad movement at a gathering for Islamic Jihad commander Khaled Mansour, who was killed on the first day of "Operation Breaking Dawn", in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on August 8, 2022 (photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
Members of Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad movement at a gathering for Islamic Jihad commander Khaled Mansour, who was killed on the first day of "Operation Breaking Dawn", in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on August 8, 2022
(photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)

A newly published study shows how Islamic terrorist propaganda magazines use humor.

Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Tahrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) use situational comedy, while humor in Islamic State (ISIS) magazines is dehumanizing and mocking. Research shows that humor plays a significant role in the formation of collective identity and “creates a sense of internal cohesion based on shared experiences,” the researchers said.

Academics examined 82 jihadi magazines published in English and found that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in particular use mockery and parody to galvanize the curious by placing emphasis on an “us-versus-them” mentality. This usually includes aggressive imagery of people or countries as animals.

The surname of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was turned into “Rottenyahu” by Al-Qaeda, likely a take-off on the Rottweiler dog breed. The terrorist groups also repeatedly used the term “dog” to describe former US president George Bush, “donkey” to describe Americans and vermin to describe American troops. ISIS labelled US President Joe Biden as “the Senile Crusader.” Former US president Barak Obama is referred to by ISIS as “Robo-Obama.”

TTP is more likely than ISIS, the Taliban or Al-Qaeda to resort to ironic and sarcastic humor. Al Qaeda, the researchers found, is less likely than any group to use sarcastic humor, but uses it to ridicule enemies.

 People with Taliban's flags gather to welcome a man (not pictured) who was released from prison in Afghanistan, upon his arrival at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman, Pakistan August 16, 2021.  (credit: REUTERS/SAEED ALI ACHAKZAI) People with Taliban's flags gather to welcome a man (not pictured) who was released from prison in Afghanistan, upon his arrival at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman, Pakistan August 16, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/SAEED ALI ACHAKZAI)

Published under the title “Humor in jihadi rhetoric: A comparative analysis of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, TTP, and the Taliban” in the journal Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, the research was conducted by Dr. Weeda Mehran from the University of Exeter and her master’s degree students Megan Byrne, Ella Gibbs-Pearce, Archie Macfarlane, Jacob Minihane and Amy Ranger.

Humor as holy war

“Propaganda is used to encourage jihad [holy war], but it serves a much bigger purpose – and humor is a key part,” noted Mehran. “We found the use of three different types of humor – de-humanizing, sarcastic and situational. ISIS was more likely to use dehumanizing humor – portraying rivals as robots or animals and mocking them. This sets them apart from other groups who are more likely to use sarcasm and irony.

“Situational humor is used strategically to enrich narratives of past events and develop a religious rationale for conducting jihad, as well as motivating individuals to carry out their own operations. This humor emphasizes the comradery and brotherhood of carrying out ‘istishhadi’ [martyrdom, suicide] missions and depicts perilous and dangerous operations & efforts as peaceful, even joyful,” she said.

Front cover of Charlie Hebdo depicts a man lighting joints from a Jewish menorah with the headline ''Should antisemitism be decriminalized?'' (credit: CHARLIE HEBDO)Front cover of Charlie Hebdo depicts a man lighting joints from a Jewish menorah with the headline ''Should antisemitism be decriminalized?'' (credit: CHARLIE HEBDO)

“Jihadi media strategy uses situational humor to create solidarity – these are in-jokes often only understood by those who understand the jihadi ideology and political outlook, so it helps create a shared identity. Shared humor creates an environment that fosters internal cohesion and creates social bonding.”

 More than just military strategy

A TERRORIST’S MILITANCY is not just about operations, objectives and strategic thinking, they wrote. “Militancy is about rituals, costumes and dress codes… music, film and storytelling. It is about sports, jokes and food… Looking inside any radical group, we can observe a range of daily social practices that have no obvious strategic purpose. Jihadis use poetry, speak about dreams, weep openly and value personal humility, artistic sensitivity and displays of emotion. More recently, research has picked up on this topic and has explored various softer aspects of jihadi militancy.”

Other researchers have studied the role of narrated stories in jihadi propaganda, highlighting how these serve to provide information, motivate followers and offer advice for conducting jihad and hijra (migration).

The study says that the regularity of dehumanizing humor in ISIS’s magazines reflects their overall aggressive and uncompromising stance on outsiders and opponents.

 “When a jihadi militant who is about to go on an ‘istishhadi mission’ – suicide mission – is shown laughing and playing football with village children in a Taliban video, or militants are described to be laughing, smiling and joking in Al-Qaeda magazines, the question remains: what is the strategic purpose of depicting laughter, humor, jokes and smiling militants in jihadi rhetoric?” it asks. “After all, jihad is a serious business, and the pages of magazines and minutes of videos are finite. Why spend time showing smiling militants or writing about their jokes?”

The researchers added that, “as a means of popular communication, humor has the potential to enhance common-sense views on political issues. Political criticism is often encoded in humorous terms, softening the serious subject matter with playfulness and wit.”

THE SUBVERSIVE role of humor has also been practiced by political extremists. For example, an analysis of websites supportive of the Ku Klux Klan found that their extensive racism was de-emphasized by disclaimers that online discourse and humor were sequestered from real racism. More recently, far-right groups have turned to memes as vehicles of humor, enabling a repackaging of their ideologies into more accessible and acceptable formats, the Exeter researchers wrote.

“At times, humor is expected to take the place of physical retaliation. As such, derogatory humor and ridicule are a ‘critical part’ of a delegitimization strategy in which people ‘are categorized into negatively valued social groups that are not afforded protection or rights otherwise considered normative, for the purposes of justifying maltreatment,’” they wrote, quoting a 2016 study by G. Hodson and C. Macinnis titled “Derogating humor as a delegitimization strategy in intergroup contexts.”

“Such disparaging inter-group humor works in tandem with processes such as dehumanization and system justification, with its specific function to label social groups as acceptable targets for devaluation. In this way, more mundane forms of disparaging humor can ‘play a key role in delegitimizing out-groups, trivializing their rights, concerns and right to protection.’”

WHILE IT is evidently unacceptable for Muslims to mock Islamic figures, humorous content coming from enemies, particularly Western nations and their citizens, is presented as among the gravest of offenses, they wrote.

In January 2015, two French Muslim terrorists and brothers forced their way into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Armed with rifles and other weapons, they killed 12 people and injured 11 others. The gunmen identified themselves as belonging to the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which took responsibility for the attack.

Palestinian Salafists protest against satirical French weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, outside the French Cultural Centre in Gaza (credit: REUTERS)Palestinian Salafists protest against satirical French weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, outside the French Cultural Centre in Gaza (credit: REUTERS)

The study brings an example of jihadi justification of that deadly attack against free speech, from a military analysis of the attack in the 14th issue of Inspire, the English, online magazine published by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP): 

“‘I do not see what happened at Charlie Hebdo as a tragedy. Rather, the tragedy is that people think it is OK to demean the sacred and belittle that which is more beloved to we [sic] Muslims than [our] own souls.’”

All these Islamic groups “employ dehumanizing humor in varying degrees,” the study says. “By applying dehumanization techniques to a person or group, targets of the dehumanizing humor will no longer be seen to have hopes, feelings and concerns in the way a sentient human has. Instead, they will be considered subhuman entities. Research shows that dehumanizing humor deployed by extremist groups indicates mindlessness or an insentience within the targeted opposition.”

They concluded that while their research sheds light on a less-studied aspect of jihadi rhetoric – jihadi humor – the findings are limited to the analysis of written text and English magazines only. “To provide a more comprehensive picture of the functionality of humor in jihadi rhetoric, future research ought to focus on non-English textual material.”