Simon Cottee

Academic and Author

Why Do We Want to Watch Gory Jihadist Propaganda Videos?

What does prolonged exposure to jihadist online propaganda do to us?
One popular answer, especially among politicians, is that it radicalizes our thoughts and transforms us into terrorists.
A more nuanced answer, put forward by terrorism scholars, is that while sustained exposure to extremist online material is not in itself a sufficient cause of radicalization, it can reinforce existing assumptions and beliefs that are already tending toward the extreme.

The myth of the ISIS Patsy

When ISIS announced the formation of the so-called caliphate in June 2014, the group’s contingent of foreign recruits could barely contain their excitement, rushing to social media to celebrate the passing of this historic moment. And in the frenzied and bloody months which followed many of them defended and glorified ISIS’s most heinous actions and practices, including sexual enslavement and staged mass beheadings, in brazen tweet after tweet.

The Myth of the ISIS Female Suicide Bomber

In the historical pantheon of societal folk devils, few figures are as rivetingly transgressive as the ISIS female suicide bomber. Burqaed and belted-up to the nines, she is the ultimate Other, transgressing not only civilizational prohibitions against murder and suicide, but also deeply ingrained assumptions about what it means to be a woman in patriarchal societies where women are accorded lesser status.

Can ex-militants, and their redemption stories, stop anyone from joining Islamic State?

It seems like common sense — enlist disillusioned extremists as credible voices against terrorism and put them to work persuading others to rethink their flirtation with political violence.
Richard Barrett, a former counter-terrorism chief in Britain, told the Guardian: “Many of the people who have been most successful in undermining the terrorist narrative are themselves ex-extremists.” And in a recent report summarizing the stories of 58 Islamic State defectors, scholar Peter Neumann concluded that their narratives “can be important in helping to prevent young people from being radicalized and recruited.”

The Islamic State’s Shock-and-Bore Terrorism

“It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty”, wrote the novelist Martin Amis. “That was the defining moment.” He was referring to United Airlines Flight 175: the second plane that smashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. “That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanised with malice, and wholly alien,” Amis ruminated, adding:. “For those thousands in the south tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.”

The death of the caliphate: Why ISIS’s huge territorial setbacks in Syria and Iraq are so devastating to the terrorist group

Now that Mosul, the seat of the so-called "caliphate" in Iraq, has fallen, ISIS has a problem: It is a self-avowedly Islamic State without a state. And although the group retains its hold on Raqqa in Syria, where it's currently encircled by U.S.-backed Syrian forces, it's likely that it will relinquish that former stronghold too by the end of the year.

Muslims don’t need special praise for doing good. It’s patronizing

Not all Muslims are terrorists. Indeed, most Muslims are good and decent. These two propositions are so monumentally obvious and incontestable that you’d think they barely need enunciating, let alone repeating. But you’d be wrong, because every time some band of jihadist losers goes on a suicide-murder rampage in a western city you can bet your house on encountering them in the news coverage that inevitably and feverishly follows.

Why Jihadists Want to Kill

On Saturday night, seven people were brutally murdered in a jihadist attack on London Bridge and Borough Market. Scores more were critically injured. It is the third terrorist attack in the UK in as many months. "Things need to change," said British Prime Minister Theresa May in a speech the morning after the carnage of the night before. May is right about that. But everything she said was a regurgitation of the same old script:

All that we’ll never know about Manchester bomber Salman Ramadan Abedi

The most natural questions to ask about the Manchester terrorist attack are also the most intractable: Who was the perpetrator, and what caused him to carry it out? His name, revealed on Tuesday, is known to us: Salman Ramadan Abedi. He was a British-born 22-year-old of Libyan descent from Manchester, and he was on the radar of the British security services. He attended Salford University but dropped out in the second year of a business and management degree. More details are certain to emerge over the coming days and weeks.

Terrorists Are Not Snowflakes

Something profound and seismic is happening in the way Western societies understand terrorism, and jihadi radicalization in particular. Until now, the terms of the debate were set by two master narratives about terrorists, usefully categorized in an Atlantic article published just over 30 years ago by the Irish intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien as the “hysterical stereotype” and the “sentimental stereotype.” The former saw terrorism as a form of pathology perpetrated by “‘disgruntled abnormal[s]’ given to ‘mindless violence,’” whereas the latter characterized it as a form of political resistance mounted by “misguided idealist[s] … driven to violence by political or social injustice or both.”

No, the Travel Ban Isn’t Being Used as ISIS Propaganda

What does ISIS think of President Donald Trump and the travel ban? The consensus among liberals, prominent terrorism experts and even some conservatives is that the jihadists are enthused, in a gleeful, hand-rubbing sort of way, by his presidency and that they warmly welcome the “self-inflicted wound” of the executive order on refugees as a “propaganda victory.” The reason for this, the argument goes, is that both Trump and the ban play directly into the hands of ISIS and its narrative that “America is at war with Islam” and that the terrorist group will make symbolic capital from it.

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