The twisted book club: how terrorist groups like ISIS use reading lists to teach their ideology

Extremists encourage their followers to read original religious texts by proxy so they can selectively adapt them to suit their purposes, writes Hassan Hassan

FILE - This file image made from video posted on a militant website July 5, 2014, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq during his first public appearance. The Islamic State group released on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017 a purported audio recording from top leader al-Baghdadi.
 (Militant video via AP, File)
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One of the advantages that extremists have over traditional clerical establishments is that they have a different way of reasoning. While today’s extremists tend to use simple and direct reasoning to formulate their religious edicts, traditionalists have to navigate more complex norms and ideas established over centuries.

An extremist typically applies what he views as a clear text to a given situation to reach a conclusion. A ruler who applies manmade laws would be labelled an apostate because, to them, there is a text that says whoever rules through anything other than God’s laws is an apostate.

For a learned cleric, the reasoning is simply absurd, because it overlooks the original meaning of the cited verse in its context as well as the consensus over centuries. For those with no such training, "out of context", literal and simplistic readings can still be found to be persuasive.

This disconnect between the methodologies of scholars trained in Islamic jurisprudence and extremists who appropriate religious texts to advance their views presents a dilemma. Because an extremist uses a selective and simplistic logic, a traditionalist tends to treat the logic with the disdain of a seasoned scholar. They might produce a general opinion about the “deviated” views but rarely deal with the subject head-on.

This attitude has enabled extremists to continue to produce manuals and books, which established clerics do not bother to read, much less critique. The methodology that extremists use in these works is different from that used by clerics trained in centuries-old institutions. But an extremist’s way of reaching conclusions can still appeal to specific demographics, which is why established clerics’ tendency to merely dismiss extremist views leaves a vacuum and plays into the hands of extremists.


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With the passage of time, an extremist religious edict that is left uncriticised could become an accepted view. Suicide bombing is one example. Fatwas produced nearly two decades ago to justify suicide attacks in specific contexts are now much harder to roll back than if they were addressed at the time. Today, the old fatwas are being used as a basis to produce new opinions about whether suicide tactics could be used against certain targets in certain Muslim communities.

One such example is a 579-page document written by a veteran extremist known as Abu Abdullah Al Muhajir. The document, helpfully and for the first time, has been thoroughly examined by analysts at the Quilliam Foundation, a British counter-extremism organisation – an effort that should be replicated by mainstream clerics.

The document, titled the Jurisprudence of Blood, addresses questions that extremists deal with in battlefields and in daily life. In 2016, I identified the author and the book, also known as Questions About the Jurisprudence of Jihad, as one of the top works that influence groups such as ISIS. The book was also one of two "favourite books" by the founder of ISIS, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. Along with other writings, this document justifies gory violence and indiscriminate killing employed by extremists.

The book is an example of how modern-day terrorists find it necessary to draft their own works to justify and teach their ideology and practices instead of merely relying on existing books of jurisprudence. The reason is that they have a different approach and are highly selective in the way they examine Islamic teachings.

This fact can be discerned easily by examining "reading lists" recommended by extremists, whether ISIS or Al Qaeda before it. Even when titles in these lists include established works, terrorist fighters typically recommend the reading of the original texts not directly but by proxy and recommend an Islamist cleric's interpretation of the original book.

The document highlighted by the Quilliam Foundation’s analysts has become a basic and foundational text for extremists. Failure to refute it when it first came out means that few will now listen to any arguments attacking the book because its influence has already become too pervasive to track and undo. Radicalised movements have gone beyond it after internalising it.

Take another author known as Sayyid Imam Al Sharif, who wrote a similarly large document titled Comprehensive Guide for Seeking Noble Knowledge. The book is among the most-read by extremists, if not the top read.

Even though the author retracted some of his views from his prison cell in the wake of the 2011 uprising in Egypt, ISIS continued to cite his writings while recognising his “relapse”. The book was identified by a senior Al Qaeda leader in Syria as still the most influential work for recruitment inside prisons.

That extremists continue to use books whose authors abandoned some of their views demonstrates the difficulty of putting the genie back in the bottle once out. Even if the author is no longer regarded as an authority, his work can still be influential on its own because the ideas were not discredited. Extremists sometimes pick specific works of an author whom they consider to be a deviant.

Extremism is still evolving and new groups emerge, based on new realities and circumstances that they face. But collectively, their experience and ideas could slowly build a school of jurisprudence that could stand on its own and turn into fully fledged movements. With time, the failure to seriously understand how they communicate their views and proactively respond to them will create a cumulative extremist culture hardened to criticism from the mainstream.

Hassan Hassan is co-author of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Washington DC