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Agency in extremist narratives, part 2
The last issue of the newsletter broke in-groups and out-groups into subdivisions, with an initial look at whether each of these subsets is a potential target of ideologically mandated hostile action and how each one is perceived to possess or lack agency.
This week, we’ll look at the group omitted from the chart above: the extremist in-group. The process by which an extremist in-group arrives at its ideological elements is very complicated, and its outputs include recommendations for hostile actions that can range from shunning or verbal abuse all the way up the scale to genocide. Extremist in-groups can and do claim agency over everything from the details and costs of the action, its target and its timing.
Extremist ideologies can include individual mandates and collective mandates, or as jihadists would phrase it, fard al-ayn and fard al-kifayah, respectively. This distinction was important to ideologues such as Abdullah Azzam, who sought to reconceptualize Muslim communal defense as an individual obligation, which could be filled by joining his fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.However, the nature of extremist advice is usually much broader than this, typically containing five major elements:
Specificity of target
Specificity of action
Cost of action
Each of these components is understood as a scale running from low intensity to high intensity, and the scale as a whole reflects a dynamic in which the extremist organization or movement transfers agency from adherents to itself. As discussed last week, the ideological system of meaning characterizes the extremist movement as having high merit and high agency, which is required to solve the crisis presented by the out-group. In its aspirationally ideal form, agency means that adherents will undertake whatever action the movement recommends, no matter how high the cost. Movements that record high levels in obligatoriness, cost and imminence are typically the most problematic in their behavior—the “most extreme extremists.” Specificity of target and action are more nuanced in terms of how they situate the movement.
Obligatoriness: An ideological movement that prescribes action by adherents can couch that action in various ways. At the low end of the spectrum, the movement can make recommendations to adherents. The strength of this recommendation can escalate to stronger recommendations and eventually to a mandate, in which the action is characterized as entirely obligatory for the adherent. This escalation is typically framed through the consequences of inaction. A consequence of “or else our in-group will never get ahead” would be an example of an extremely low level of obligatoriness, while “or else you will burn in hell” lies at the high end. Ideologies are typically concerned with influencing or mobilizing individuals, even if their ultimate goal is collective.
Specificity of target: We usually think of extremist groups as primarily specifying hostile action against the ideology’s targeted out-groups, and that is often but not always the case. Some extremist groups, particularly accelerationists, will urge hostile action against an indiscriminately chosen target set—i.e., virtually anyone. Other extremist groups have multiple lines of effort. For instance, pro-slavery ideologues in the antebellum United States specified a obligation to enslave its primary out-group (Black people), but they also undertook opposition, and eventually a shooting war, against members of their ineligible in-group (pro-abolition forces). Other groups, such as al Qaeda and ISIS, may at times specify a wide variety of targets in the hopes that one will stick.Specificity of target does not necessarily correlate to how problematic an extremist movement is, but highly specific targeting (of a person or institution, for instance) can create special challenges and may intensify adherents.
Specificity of action: Similar to the above, specificity of action covers a wide range of recommendations. Generally speaking, it benefits extremist movements to be associated with a specific kind of action, making it easier to attribute that action to the group. While some extremist movements focus heavily on one particular action, such as enslavement or genocide, others embrace a range of signature hostile actions, including but not limited to beheading, suicide bombings and automobile attacks. On the low end of the spectrum, an extremist or proto-extremist movement may speak generally about a need for action without specify any specific action. Movements may leave actions implicit, rather than explicit, in order to avoid consequences such as arrest or deplatforming.
Cost of recommended action: Cost of action is usually a good indicator of how problematic or extreme we consider an ideology to be. If an ideology successfully encourages adherents to undertake high-cost actions, we consider it very extreme or even fanatical. The highest costs include one’s own life and the lives of in-group bystanders, such as September 11, or al Qaeda’s East African embassy bombings of 1998. Other high-cost actions include anything with a high risk of death or incarceration, for instance, the Order’s commission of bank robberies to fund white supremacy in the 1980s. An extremist movement’s perceived agency is almost always enhanced when people undertake any kind of high-cost action in its name, unless the action directly contradicts the movement’s guidance.
Imminence: Extremist ideologies are generally most problematic when their recommendations include a near-term time frame. For instance, an extremist movement that advocates prepping to fight in a far-off Armageddon may be less problematic than a movement that claims the apocalypse has begun. Movements are typically most problematic when they argue “the time is now,” which is one reason why ISIS was able to mobilize such a large number of people in such a short time, relative to al Qaeda, whose actions were taken on behalf of a far-future restoration of the caliphate. Many fringe extremist movements operate on an expectation that the time is soon, and that an event in the near term could trigger action. For QAnon adherents, that event might be a prominent figure announcing “the storm has come.” For various armed American groups, the threat of a draconian ban on gun ownership lurks on the horizon as the trigger for violent resistance, as depicted in the opening pages of The Turner Diaries and its many imitators.The looming event is a more sustainable theme for fringe extremists, as it keeps adherents highly engaged without forcing them into high-cost actions that would threaten the movement's existence.
Extremism is complex, and most of these parameters do not correlate directly with how problematic a movement may become. But all of them serve as markers for how much agency the extremist group possesses, or at least what they think they deserve. An extremist ideology that contains a non-negotiable obligation to take an immediate, highly specific, high-cost action against a highly specific target is attempting to exercise absolute agency over its adherents.
Extremist groups don’t necessarily need to possess this level of authoritarian control over every aspect of adherents’ lives, but agency is a critical part of the value proposition within the extremist system of meaning. The extremist in-group can solve the crisis stipulated in the system of meaning because it possesses more agency than the eligible in-group. Members of the eligible in-group who feel helpless are encouraged to resolve that lack of agency by joining the extremist in-group.
An authoritarian or totalitarian level of agency is not necessarily inherent to the definition of extremism, but movements may make a show of exercising such high agency for the same reason a peacock displays its tail. An ostentatious display of agency was one reason ISIS enjoyed such a large and prolonged boom in recruitment.
This edition of the newsletter has covered how ideological extremists seek to manipulate the perception of agency. In a forthcoming issue, we’ll look at actual agency. When an extremist group has a significant amount of control in the real world, how does that affect its targeting choices? I will argue that understanding the combination of ideological agency and actual agency is vital to understanding what kinds of action an extremist movement might take.
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Ingram, Haroro J. “Jihadist ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Appeals: Propaganda Wars for the Moral High Ground.” March 14, 2019, ICCT The Hague. https://icct.nl/publication/jihadist-responsibility-to-protect-appeals-propaganda-wars-for-the-moral-high-ground/
Conway, M., Parker, J., & Looney, S. (2017). Online jihadi instructional content: the role of magazines. In Terrorists' Use of the Internet (pp. 182-193). IOS Press. https://www.voxpol.eu/download/chapter/Conway-Parker-and-Looney_FINAL.pdf
Berger, J.M., ‘The Turner Legacy: The Storied Origins and Enduring Impact of White Nationalism’s Deadly Bible’, The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT) Evolutions in Counter-Terrorism, Vol. 1 (November 2020 ): 19-54. https://icct.nl/app/uploads/2020/11/Special-Edition-1-3.pdf