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

January 27, 2022

Speaker: Elisabeth Kendall, Senior Research Fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford University.Moderator: Sanam Vakil, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe.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.