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BIPR | The Jihadi Battle for Hearts and Minds: A View from the Ground
The Jihadi Battle for Hearts and Minds: A View from the Ground

January 27, 2022 - 18:30

Elisabeth Kendall, Pembroke College, Oxford University, UK

Event Recap

Professor Elisabeth Kendall discusses the relationship between terrorist organizations and the societies in which they operate. Kendall specifically references her own research in Yemen, particularly the interactions of the Al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorist organizations among the populations within the state. She first poses an overarching question: how are these terrorist organizations able to consolidate popular support? In response, she subsequently argues that these organizations are able to gain their support not necessarily from radicalization or other methods but from grass-roots level social involvement.

Kendall began the discussion with an overview of her own fieldwork in Yemen as she attempted to address this question. She specifically discusses her travel to East Yemen to conduct surveys among populations on the reception of Al-Qaeda control over the territory. Her findings show that very few individuals actually supported the type of religious government that organizations such as Al-Qaeda impose. Indeed, Kendall argues that Al-Qaeda achieved support from what she refers to as "passive toleration." Though the population in Yemen may not have been receptive to religious rule, Al-Qaeda provided enough social benefits to make their governance acceptable.

She then explores the ways in which terrorist organizations provide this form of social support. In the context of East Yemen, where she conducted her research, Al-Qaeda provided a variety of social functions. For example, she notes infrastructure development; providing salaries to educators, doctors, and other professions; and generally addressing local concerns. Furthermore, Al-Qaeda specifically re-adjusted their brand in Yemen to appear less as a militant group and more as a proto-government. These measures even included hosting community events, conducting youth outreach campaigns at schools, and publishing poetry in organization magazines. In particular, Kendall contrasts Al-Qaeda's grass-roots approach Yemen to that of the Islamic State. For example, ISIS produced high-quality propaganda that highlighted the violent and militant nature of the organization. She contrasts this with the more grassroots nature of Al-Qaeda's propaganda and social outreach programs. She argues that the difference in local support between the two organizations can be largely traced to the failure of ISIS in grassroots involvement and the success of Al-Qaeda in that endeavor.

Kendall concludes the discussion with a number of lessons to be learned. First, she argues that an analysis of Al-Qaeda's grassroots involvement indicates that they had perhaps more to do with the Islamic State's demise in Yemen than the United States and Europe did. Second, she shows that grassroots efforts are a key to gaining popular support and legitimacy for terrorist organizations seeking power. This is critical for Al-Qaeda's own rule over Yemen territory as well efforts to combat these organizations. Finally, Kendall suggests that education is a critical element of swaying popular support through ideology, socialization, and providing more positive economic outcomes throughout a population.

The Jihadi Battle for Hearts and Minds: A View from the Ground
The Middle East 10 Years after the Uprisings Series

hosted by Professor Raffaella A. Del Sarto

Elisabeth Kendall
Pembroke College, Oxford University, UK

The event will be held only virtually. Please register for the online webinar using the link below

Elisabeth Kendall is Senior Research Fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford University.

Her current work examines how militant jihadist movements exploit and feed off traditional local Arab culture(s). Kendall spends significant time in the field, particularly in Yemen, and is the author or editor of several books, including Reclaiming Islamic Tradition (2016, with Ahmad Khan), Twenty-First Century Jihad (2015, with Ewan Stein), and Literature, Journalism and the Avant-Garde: Intersection in Egypt (2006, paperback 2010). She also originated and edits the "Modern Middle Eastern Vocabularies" series, which includes the titles Security Arabic, Intelligence Arabic, and Media Arabic (Kendall is author of the last two titles).

Kendall has been invited to present her research at numerous universities around the world as well as in various government, military, and security establishments in Europe, America, the Middle East, and Africa.

Previously, she held tenured lectureships or fellowships at the Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, and Harvard. Before returning to Oxford in 2010, she served as Director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World, a UK government-sponsored initiative, aimed at building Arabic language-based research expertise focused on jihad and martyrdom. For the last five years, she has acted as international advisor (pro-bono) to a cross-tribal body in eastern Yemen that promotes social and political cohesion as a counterweight to AQAP & ISIS expansion.

Kendall features regularly in the international media, including BBC TV, Al Jazeera, CNN, TRT, France 24, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Times, The Guardian, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 3, NPR, Russia Today, ABC, Reuters, and the BBC World Service, as well as various national broadcasters around Europe.
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