Dissertation Abstracts

Jihadi Violence: A Study of al-Qaeda's Media

Author: Armborst, Andreas , a.armborst@mpicc.de
Department: Sociology
University: University of Freiburg (Albert-Ludwigs-University) , Germany
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Hans-Jörg Albrecht
Year of completion: 2012
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: political violence , religion , terrorism , jihadism
Areas of Research: Religion , Social Classes and Social Movements , Social Movements, Collective Action and Social Change


The study investigates the ideological origins of religiously inspired violence by analyzing al-Qaeda’s media. Militant ideologies are a transmitter of political violence. The efficiency of militant ideologies to instigate violence depends on its potential to provide individuals and groups a persuasive rationale about why it is necessary, beneficial and justified to engage in violent activism. In regard to this potential, the ideology of al-Qaeda (jihadism) is the most successful contemporary militant ideology. It has mobilized supporters and followers throughout the world. Today, most military conflicts are, at least partially, inspired by jihadi ideology.

Yet, many speculations revolve around the political goals of Islamists and jihadists. What is it that al-Qaeda think it can achieve through political violence? This book provides clear answers to this and other important questions. Based on the systematic content analysis of claims of responsibilities and video messages of al-Qaeda leaders, it opens intriguing insights into the world view and mindset of the jihadi movement. Thereby it enables the reader to gain a clearer picture of the political-religious program of Islamism and to better distinguish between its radical and moderate political claims. This knowledge is important because political Islam and jihadi violence not only is an increasingly important topic in domestic politics, but also became, through the Arab Spring, a tangible factor in foreign affairs. In al-Qaeda’s ideology theological and political arguments are blended into a coherent media strategy. Political claims and grievances are convincingly backed up by quasi-journalistic evidence, whereas theological arguments are complemented by legal references to the Quran and Sunna. In addition, the jihadi leaders provide doctrines and strategies describing how the use of force can defend Islam against its perceived three existential threats – the global conflict, Arab despotism and secular governance. Theological and strategic considerations converge in al-Qaeda’s rationale for violence.

In order to compare the intellectual origins of jihadism as expressed in 31 video statements with its actual implementation on the ground in military conflicts, the author has analyzed 196 claims of responsibility issued by jihadi insurgents during the Iraq War (2003-2009). To this end, content analysis software is used. The results of this analysis are 95 different narratives, themes, topics, and issues in AQ’s media, which represent, in a nutshell, the complex thematic structure of jihadi ideology. Through relational content analysis, it is possible to obtain more generic information about the rationale of jihadi violence. It reveals which topics are quantitatively and qualitatively interrelated, and thereby identifies manifest and latent patterns in the content that usually cannot be identified by just reading the material without the aid of content analysis software.

In short, the results show how both, religious fanaticism and political calculus are inseparably linked in the ideology of the jihadi movement. Besides its coercive quality (e.g. resisting foreign occupation by military means) al-Qaeda assumes political violence and terrorism to be beneficial and necessary for theological reasons. For instance al-Qaeda claims theological supremacy over competing Islamist groups (such as Hamas) based on the allegations of “defeatism”, that is when other groups refrain for purely political-strategic considerations from the religious obligation of jihad.