TSG IntelBrief: Beyond Bombs, Bullets, and Blades: The Killer Narrative
December 11, 2014

Beyond Bombs, Bullets, and Blades: The Killer Narrative

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• With its recent statement that it opposed the beheading videos of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has followed in the footsteps of its parent organization al-Qaeda (AQ) by criticizing the imagery of violence by fellow extremists while still embracing its use against the innocent

• It was current AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri who in 2005 wrote a letter to the then head of the precursor to the Islamic State, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, asking him to stop the media spectacle of beheadings, not because it was cruel but because “we can kill the captives with a bullet” and avoid unnecessary outrage

• By critiquing the over-the-top barbarism of beheading videos, AQ and now AQAP seek to appear as the moderate extremists, hoping their bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings will appear relatively reasonable as they seek to build favor among local populations

• What AQ doesn’t understand is that the Islamic State uses violence differently because it is ensconced in a completely different set of circumstances: the Islamic State, which holds large territory and populations, believes it needs to terrorize in order to hold onto power; AQ, because it holds no territory and are fugitives in need of support, needs to be far more selective

• Yet the narrative of relentless violence is identical, in that both groups (and many others) exhort followers to continuous and never-ending violence against those whom they oppose (which in both cases is the modern world). 

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When Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), publicly criticized the Islamic State for its widely distributed videos showing the beheading of prisoners (some Western and many more Iraqi and Syrian), his comment that the videos were un-Islamic received widespread notice. But his additional comments show that his condemnation was, in part, a rejection of the spectacle and not the violence, saying “[the] Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him and upon his family, has ordered us to be kind in everything, even in killing, and it is not part of kindness to film beheadings and slayings and publish them in public, where sons and daughters of those killed can see.”

After popular outrage exploded in December 2013 against AQAP-perpetrated beheadings, the group has tried to limit the outrage by claiming that “beheadings are limited” and that it would “prevent them being repeated.” All the while, the group is shooting and bombing Yemeni soldiers and civilians, as well as kidnapping foreigners for ransom; it killed two hostages just last week in a failed U.S. rescue mission. By avoiding more beheadings, AQAP violent extremists can argue they are being kind, even while they are also killing.

AQAP’s statement follows in the footsteps of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who in July 2005 wrote the head of the group that would eventually become the Islamic State, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In the letter, Zawahiri politely tries to persuade Zarqawi to avoid killing every Shi’a he finds, asking if it was possible to only kill Shi’a leaders and not “ordinary Shi’a.” He went on to ask for an end to the gruesome beheading videos that had become the hallmark of Zarqawi’s group, but doesn’t ask for a stop to killing hostages, noting that he could instead “kill the captives with a bullet.”

As with AQAP, AQ was less interested in stopping the killing (though Zawahiri did worry Zarqawi was making too many enemies, a critique he probably retains for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, current head of the Islamic State). His group was and remains more interested in keeping the violence in the shadows, preferring not to show death but rather to talk about death of their many enemies in audio and video-taped messages.

Neither AQAP nor AQ—nor the Islamic State for that matter—wants to change the narrative of killing that drives them and other extremist groups; AQAP and AQ just want a less alienating display. Both groups—but particularly AQ—don’t truly control meaningful-sized areas and economies, meaning they live as barely-tolerated guests among the tribes and populations that they don’t control. The “kindness in killing” might be a ideological preference but it is also a reflection of their relative lack of concrete power. If they had the control that the Islamic State currently holds in parts of Iraq and Syria, these groups would probably act in similar fashion, since it would be impossible to restrain members who, after all, have embraced killing. Be it bomb, bullet, or blade, it is the extremist narrative that is the real killer.

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