Terrorist Rhetoric, Group Identity, and Threat Framing: The Cases of ISIS and Abu Musa’ab Al-Zarqawi
: (Alternative Format Thesis)

  • Talip Alkhayer

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


An effective counter terrorism strategy must entail an improved understanding of the necessary conditions for Islamic terrorism’s mobilization efforts. This project focuses on the rhetorical mobilisation which terrorist leaders employ, as well as elements that contribute to said mobilisation’s success or failure.
In my efforts to analyse terrorist rhetoric, I asserted the value of group identity and threat framing as the building stone of that rhetoric’s mobilisation efforts. We employed two notable theories in social psychology, namely the Social Identity Theory and the Integrated Threat Theory. The application of these theories survived the test in three historical contexts and with three different methodologies.

An introductory chapter is first presented to lay the theoretical and historical grounds for the thesis: it illustrates the current state of the literature on terrorism, its roots, its rhetoric, and its relationship with Islam. In addition, it provides a brief historical context by summarising the history and persona of the project’s main character: Abu Musa’ab Al-Zarqawi. A description of the literature’s position when it comes to socio-psychological explications of how terrorism functions is then presented before concluding with a more detailed review of the two theories in implementation and highlighting the literature gaps.
The first article traces the historical origins of Zarqawi’s rhetoric back to the influential 13th century scholar Ibn Taymiyya. The latter was famous for his exclusionary rhetoric which has been extremely relevant for many violent extremist groups around the world: his creed revolved around the demonization of groups, such as Christians, Shias, and Alawites, by way of framing them as Out-groups which pose a Threat to Sunni Muslims. Discourse Historical Analysis disclosed how such demonization took a place within the context of foreign invasions and the supposed collaboration of those Out-groups with the Crusade and Mongol invaders. I highlight the historical-structural similarities between the days of Ibn Taymiyya’s and those of Zarqawi’s, as well as the critical role the former’s rhetoric had for the latter’s: Zarqawi adopted Ibn Taymiyya’s rhetoric and made numerous references to it as he portrayed Shias as a historical enemy whose Threat reflected a historical trend. Such portrayal was empowered by another foreign invasion, that of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, which ended with Shia Iraqis taking control of the government and aggravating the existing tensions; this made an optimal analogy for Zarqawi’s rhetoric against Shias.

The second article analysed Zarqawi’s statements following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 until his death in 2006, a time in which his mobilisation was most effective. I used NVivo to code the statements page by page in the search for references to the various Out-groups and the Threat thereof. The results showed, temporally, the prominent relevance of Out-grouping and Threat in the corpus and the dependence upon them in the rhetorical efforts to mobilise. The effects of the invasion were also shown to had been a significant element in that rhetoric as Zarqawi made clear connections between the Allied forces “far enemy” and the Shia community “near enemy”; the more power Shias were given within the Iraqi state, the more threatening they were portrayed. As Zarqawi’s rhetoric became increasingly anti-Shia, Iraq suffered from an increasing terrorism-related fatalities, the highest in the world at the time, and by a significant margin. By illustrating the extent to which Zarqawi weaponized existing societal fragmentation and grievances in Iraq, for his efforts to out-group and threat-frame, I also showed the critical and negative role that the invasion of Iraq, along with its subsequent policies, played in fueling sectarian violence.

The third article focuses on a time of declining ISIS mobilization starting from 2015. It used Learning Natural Language Processing to apply my theoretical framework over hundreds of issues of ISIS’ magazine “Al-Naba”. The model produced five topics that showed the significance of out-grouping and threat framing within the entire corpus. Furthermore, not only did it illustrate the relevance of these concepts for ISIS’ mobilization efforts, but it also constituted a promising prediction model of ISIS’ targeting decisions against the Out-groups under Study: by doing so, it has also shown that topics which associated Out-groups with Threat have the most predictive capabilities which, in turn, provided strong support for the findings of the other two articles.

In this PhD thesis I show the importance of the Social Identity and Integrated Threat Theories in explicating terrorist rhetoric in its efforts to achieve optimal mobilisation by appealing to its constituents’ group identity through the demonization of certain Out-groups and associating them with Threat. Such improved understanding of terrorist rhetoric, ultimately, aspires to provide a useful model for the purposes of combating terrorist mobilization efforts and protecting vulnerable communities from its violence.
Date of Award29 Mar 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorTimo Kivimaki (Supervisor) & Wali Aslam (Supervisor)

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