A conversation with Haras Rafiq, CEO Quilliam Foundation, London

How do radical Islamist organizations operate and recruit? How do they deal with competitors and what are their tools and strategies to win customers and keep their «employees» committed to the cause? What if we compared radical Islamist organizations to corporations? Can corporations actually learn from them? On behalf of OrganisationsEntwicklung, our editor Oliver Haas, and Imke Kottmann, spoke to the British Expert on Extremism, Haras Rafiq, about these questions and got disillusioning insights into radical organizations, their recruitment strategies and their «sense of purpose».

ZOE: Would you describe Islamist organizations as purpose driven organisations?

Rafiq: Yes, certainly. When I got into this area of work purely by accident about 11 years ago and prior to that, as I said, I was on the board of some large blue chip organizations. So I am very familiar with the ethics and drivers of business and commercial organizations. And one of the things I realized in my research and the work that we do is that Islamist organizations are very professional, very focused on purpose driven objectives, very focused on the «vital few». Most organizations will have strategically between 4–5 goals and underneath that how they will actually achieve them. Similarly Islamist organiza- tions for a long time now have taken this the style of working to a next level. I refer to ISIS as a 21st century jihadist organization, because they work like corporates and (other) Islamist organizations work in the same way: so they will have their ‘vital few’, they are focused on expansion. Like companies focus on increasing market share, they focus on expansion.

ZOE: Could you give us an example?

Rafiq: For example Hizb-ut-Tahrir (editor’s note: Hizb-ut- Tahrir is an international, pan-Islamic political organization aiming at the re-establishment of the Islamic Caliphate) have a three-stage strategy. The first stage is building capacity within Muslim community, the second stage is building capacity with authorities, the third stage is, once they set up the Islamic Sta- te, to spread it around the world. Similarly, ISIS and other Isla- mist organizations, instead of increasing market share, they are all about establishing a state and before that increasing the capacity and building their influence in the market share amongst their constituents, who happen to be Muslims. So they have these very focused, purposes, visions or strategic goals. Non-Muslims or states other communities, etc. could be classified as the competition We monitored their (ISIS) marketing, their propaganda for one month. We measured that on ave- rage they produce 38 unique pieces of propaganda every day. The other interesting thing was, we say a lot about how barbaric they are. Less than 5% of the propaganda they produce is barbaric. The other 95% is all focused on intelligently trying to win «customers» away from the competition.

ZOE: In business corporates try to outdo each other through money for value of brand names. How do Islamist organizations compete with each other?

Rafiq: They focus on things like «concepts of mercy» or «con- cepts of state-building». It’s all about taking
customers away from the competition and eliminate the competition. Then they have a whole range of measures to achieve financial sustainability. And initially what they did was, they used a combination of the reserves that they had pillaged from Iraq, trai- ning, retaining and empowering the best people to maximize the return that they get on the time and investment from them. So, they don’t send the most intelligent people or the most skilled people to go and carry out suicide attacks. They want the most intelligent and skilled people to be doing other things within the organization. If you look at the top layers of Islamist organizations, you will find Osama Bin Laden was a very suc- cessful business man and engineer. You will find that the cur- rent leader of Al-Quaida, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was a very suc- cessful surgeon. And if you look at senior member of Islamist groups in the UK, you will see that they are professionals: they are dentists, they are doctors, they are engineers. And these are the kind of people that the organizations train and retain, so that they can get the best out of them. So, to come back to your question: yes, Islamist organizations are deeply-purpose-driven. Purpose-driven is, I guess, a recent concept, but the theory has been around for a long time and they have been opera- ting in this manner for a long time. The response to it from civil society and governments has not been of a similar, focused, business-like manner.

ZOE: Don’t you think that we are overestimating ISIS in terms of their strategic capacity? Don’t we attribute a certain strate- gic thinking to these types of organizations that they actually do not have?

Rafiq: Let me provide you with insights into how and by whom strategy is carried out in such organizations: If we look at the people who are directing the strategy, who are the people that are really in control, mainly the «Khalif». He is the leader, but below him, there is what we call the ‘Shura’, the council, and then they have people who direct strategy and advice strategy.

The people who have the control are former Baathist Generals and also you have a combination of Chechenia rebels who have been fighting for a long time as well. The former Baathist Generals are experts in strategy, both from a military perspective and generally from other strategic goals as well and they basically have taken the expertise, that some of them may have acquired abroad. These are people who understand the importance of driving strategic goals.

I generally believe that we are living in a time right now, where we talk about ISIS- inspired extremism and Al-Quaida- inspired extremism. ISIS and Al Quaida did not inspire extremism. Extremism, or in this case Islamism, inspired them. And in ten years’ time, there will be a different acronym. ISIS as a proto-state is almost a failed project. They have lost 40% of their land. I believe that we are months away from the coalition reclaiming Mosul, which means ISIS will be hit even more.

ISIS wants to lash out on what they call the «far enemy», which is us in the West. And it is very beneficial for them from a strategic perspective. ISIS has told us of what they want to do in the West: they want to create binary positions where you are either with them or against them. As a community non-Muslims start to fear that Muslims take away the nuance debate and as a result Muslims will have no choice but to join Islamist organizations. So ISIS wants to and needs to do that. That’s part of the global jihadist insurgency. That’s the time we are living in. So as part of their strategic goal as they consolidate is to expand its tentacles around the world. This is a world-wide project that just happened to start in Iraq and Syria.

Every single Islamist organization has three goals: the first one is to set up the utopian Islamist state and impose one ver- sion of Sharia, the second goal is to knock off Israel from the map, and the third one is to expand that particular utopian Islamist state around the world. So strategically, even though they may be losing the battle on the ground, they are thinking long-term and think about how they can create anti-Muslim hatred, suspicion, fear, etc. in Western countries.

ZOE: Organizations and companies spend loads of money on developing vision and mission statements. There is a permanent attempt to make sure people are «corporate». How do Islamist organizations make sure that people who have joined stay «on track»? How do leaders rebuild and reinforce their vi- sions and strategic goals that you just elaborated?

Rafiq: Every Middle Eastern Islamist organization stemmed from Syed Qutub’s messaging. The Muslim Brotherhood came up with a vision: Believers are but brothers. Islam is the solution. Allah is the objective. The Qu’ran (Koran) is the constitution. The Prophet is our leader. Jihad is our way. Death for the sake of Allah is our wish. Everything comes from that (vision). Different Islamist organizations will adopt a slightly different wording, but that is the Islamist way. This is the official motto of the Muslim Brotherhood. So, if we take that as a starting point, you have first of all recruitment. If we look at non-ISIS Islamist organizations they have continued training, they have continued messaging, they have gatherings, now it’s obviously social media in conjunction with gatherings, and some groups, such as for example Hizb-ut-Tahrir, you cannot become an official member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, unless you have undergone a two-years training under a guide. So you can see here, there is a continuous mechanism of getting the messages out to make sure people say the right things, and within that they get media training, training on how to speak to other people and politicians. It is a comprehensive training package which is renewed all the time. So this is non-ISIS organizations. And they have docu- mentation, networks, training is done in mosques (rarely these days), it’s done in houses, it’s done online, it’s done electronically, they have e-courses, they’ll do it at football matches, where they invite kids to come and play football – a whole range of different tactics. Civil society and social activity is what they use.

In a nutshell there are three parts to organizational deve- lopment in Islamist organization: first is to build the capacity and getting people to buy into what they say, then there is the creation of organizations and entities that claim to either re- present Islam and Muslims or provide a service within com- munities. And the third is how they are funded.

ZOE: Does that count for all Islamist organizations?

Rafiq: ISIS has done something unique and what they have done is that they created the first step of the Islamist project: and that is the so called Islamic State. So they need to build and expand from a social society and infrastructure perspective which is why they wanted doctors, engineers, IT-experts, marketing experts, professionals. All of these people to come to the land. Women, children, etc. But what they also do is that: we managed to get the curriculum that they use to provide the training for all of its foreign recruits and for the indigenous people who are not from the same way of thinking that they are. This book is 600 pages long. We just translated it into English (from Arabic). To give you a flavor of the book: there is a chapter on how if you are hungry and you are fighting the Jihad and the person next to you not the same kind of Muslim as you or even not even a Muslim, how you can kill that person and eat them to survive. So cannibalism is a chapter. Another chapter on how to harvest organs for the cause. They also have a bureaucracy within the state. One half of it is responsible for running the state and the other half is responsible for ensuring that the messaging, the vision, the statement, the people are within their control and are living it on a day to day basis.

ZOE: If you had to point out one criteria that draws people to join extremist organisations, which would that be?

Rafiq: The president of the Quilliam Foundation that I work for was a former commander for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and he was responsible for teaching the concepts I just spoke to you about. There are three parts to the radicalization process: one is the lens in the middle, which is used to create a world view, a prison, an identity and in that we have charisma- tic recruiters, online and offline. They need to be looking for something or somebody needs to find them and get them into this middle section of the world view. On the left hand side there are the grievances: there are three types of grievances which can act as push and pull factors to this middle lens. The first classification of grievances are genuine grievances and these can be racism, this could be «can’t get a job», day to day grievances. Grievances everybody has. The next grievance is a partial grievance. Things like aspects of foreign policy, the final classification is perceived grievances. These are grievances that don’t really exist but in the mind.

Not everybody who has these grievances will be drawn into this lens if you like. The lens in the middle is designed to create seven behaviors/ways of thinking: the first one is to persuade people that there is an «otherization» taking place. That the people in the «middle» are one group and everybody else is from another group and that the two are different and separate. Second behavior is «collectivization» that everybody out- side this group is the same, Muslim or Non-Muslim. That’s why 99% of the people killed by Islamists are Muslims. The third one is the «oppression narrative». That everybody out- side of the group is oppressing them. Then you have the «collective guilt». That everybody who is outside the group, even if they are not directly responsible for the oppression they are complicit by the very fact that they are either not doing something about it or they are not part of the Islamist «gang» or maybe pay taxes. Then we have, where it starts to get a little bit nasty, the «supremacism narrative’» That everybody in the group is better than everybody else. A bit like the Arian race fascism. Then we have «self-defense» that people in the group have to retaliate for the regression and defend themselves. And then the idea of violence. That violence is the only way.

That is how people get attracted to the lens. And that lens, the seven key aspects is Islamism. Not all of it is violent until it gets to the last two stages. So in answer to your question why do people get attracted to it: the people in the middle, the charismatic recruiters are able to provide genuine or partial or perceived solutions to problems and help them build an identity and expand on it.

ZOE: Let’s imagine a corporate leader, who wants to draw the best people to his/her organization. What can a business leader learn from what you just told us?

Rafiq: Just as there are businesses that are not successful, there are successful ones. If we look at the methodology of trying to build corporate structure, corporate funding, corporate identity, corporate objectives, finding the best people, eliminating the opposition or the competition and then picking out the best people within the organization that become the ‘killer’ sales people, it does happen in some businesses or organizations. But just as it doesn’t happen in all of the businesses, it does not happen in all of the Islamist organizations either. There are Islamist organizations where those people are absorbed by other organizations, almost like in the business world. For example Boko Haram, Al Shabab, they are constantly being absorbed by Al Quaida and by ISIS because they have got to the point where they have reached the end of what they can do. So what happens? Al Quaida or ISIS come along and say «we’ll absorb your entity, we’ll absorb your organization» and sometimes money does exchange hands. ISIS was actually paying other Islamist organization leaders to join them. And the way you join a different Islamist organization is to give the oath of allegiance, a senior member does. That’s one, number two is that just as we have in the business world the best people, they do well in the organization and if they don’t receive either a better remuneration, people do move around. Similar- ly in Islamist organizations people move around as well. There are people who used to be with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, who then went on to Al Quaida, who then went on to Jabhat al Nusrah in Syria and then ended up with ISIS. Because ISIS is the big brand in town right now. And when that brand is broken down, they’ll move on somewhere else or set up their own.

ZOE: Would you describe Islamist organisations as self-organizing, agile networks or pyramids with a strong sense of hierarchy and a culture of command and control?

Rafiq: It is a pyramid structure. There is a «Khalif» or an «Amir» and the ones below him. That’s the difference between our world and them, they will not have a female as a leader, as the Khalif.

ZOE: That means you have to work yourself up over years to become one of the top leaders?

Rafiq: Absolutely you do or you have to be headhunted from another place. Islamism is nothing but communism and fascism imported into the Middle East and instead of doing it for the state, people do it for God. That’s what Islamism is. It filled a vacuum in the Middle East. And so going back to the way how these organizations operate and are structured, they net- work, they operate with MoUs. There are Islamist organizations in the UK, who have MoUs with Islamists organizations in the U.S.. This is not new. And what they will do is use the network of organizations and individuals to go out and recruit. They understand they are not going recruit everybody, but they want as many people as they can get as customers. But in terms of employees they want the best of the best.
Let’s take an example from the corporate world, e.g. Apple: Apple invests in people. They invest time; they invest money and a whole range of things. Islamist organizations do the same thing. But not having the money that ISIS has its more about time.

The Muslim Brotherhood has money. They were backed by Saudi Arabia for many years. So they have money. They invest money and time. But smaller groups, like Hizb-ut-Tahrir, its more about time rather than money. The difference (between Apple) is once you join ISIS, you can’t leave. You are not allowed to leave because you are seen as a traitor. And the penalty of ISIS (when leaving) is death.

ZOE: Do people receive some sort of salary when they sign on to an Islamist organization?

Rafiq: ISIS staff does. People in ISIS do.

ZOE: Salary can be subject to negotiations?

Rafiq: It depends. It depends again on which organization it is. Some organizations say, «No, that’s it. That’s all we can afford. We just want to give you the basics so you can live, so you can survive.» But then there are other Islamist organizations, which are designed to make money. People can negotiate and people get bonuses as well.
ZOE: Is money actually an incentive for people to join or does purpose count more?

Rafiq: I think for some people who have not bought into the Islamist project 100%, money can be a motivator to go and work for them. But once you bought into the Islamist project and you are really fully supportive then you are also buying into the fact that the only money you really need is to survive for the cause.

ZOE: Imagine a leader of an Islamist organization and a cor- porate leader sitting together and the corporate leader asking, «What can I do to better run my business?» What would be an Islamist leader’s response?

Rafiq: I remember doing trainings in 2005 or 2006. I used to get a flip chart and cover one half of it up. In one side I used to put eight to nine different grievances: end world poverty, fix the ozone layer, make sure everybody gets an education of some sort, stuff like that. And I would give a marker out to the small group and say «go and mark the ones that you consider important to you». And most of them, all of them, would have lots of ticks next to them. And then I would unveil the other side of the flip chart and by that I would unveil the 13 grievances Osa- ma Bin Laden had in his global jihad and eight or nine of them would be there. The eight or nine that were on the left hand side would be there. He (Osama Bin Laden) said he wanted to end world poverty, he said he wanted to bring justice to the world. So there are a lot of things that they would resonate as Corporate Social Responsibility. So that’s one thing to first of all consider. The second thing to consider is once you get to the leadership of an Islamist organization, there will still be a lot of CSR objectives that a lot of CEOs would have in other organizations. «Let’s end world poverty. Let’s do it together.» The difference is «how» they do it. And the other difference would be that underpinning all of their objectives from a CSR perspective is their interpretation of how God wants them to do it and what God will allow them to do and what God won’t. And their ethics, their understanding of what God wants them to do.

You could have a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood sitting with Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft, and they will sit down and they will have a conversation initially which will be a lot of nodding with the heads. (refers to social projects of Muslim brotherhood). So going back to your question, there can be a lot of similarities, but where it differs is how you get there and what are the consequences and penalties of not doing it. One thing a corporate leader might learn though is: In the corporate world we have a lot of business managers, but we don’t have a lot of business leaders. There is a distinct difference bet- ween being a managing director who is a manager or mana- ging director or CEO who is a leader. Islamist organizations on the whole, they lead. And I think what more business leaders can learn is to become leaders as opposed to managers.

ZOE: And by leading I suppose you mean creating a world that people want to belong to?

Rafiq: Absolutely. Creating culture, a society. Creating the environment. Creating people who will buy into the mission and vision and what they want to and then follow them. People who are managing and managers, they will get out of people the minimum of what people want to and have to do. A leader will get that extra 10, 20, 30%. I think more organizations need to focus on this. It’s not a new concept. I still believe that there are not enough people who have created this culture, this environment, this family, this identity. And if you feel you are part of a family, if you feel part of an identity, if you feel that you have invested in a particular corporate goal, then you are more likely to stay and you are more likely to be successful and you are more likely to give that extra 20%.

Credit for this interview goes to OrganisationsEntwicklung, a German development organisation. To access the original interview, please click here.