ISIL is using the language barriers within its ranks to evolve jihad beyond Arabic

A man in a 2014 ISIL video who spoke with an apparently North American accent.
A man in a 2014 ISIL video who spoke with an apparently North American accent.
Image: Reuters/FBI
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ISIL, a.k.a. the Islamic State, has received a lot of attention for its multilingual propaganda and deft use of social media to terrify and recruit. Until now, however, no one has pulled together a detailed portrait of how ISIL is using its polyglot nature to evolve violent jihad beyond Arabic. This is the first in a three-part series.

As everyone knows by now, ISIL has attracted new and seasoned jihadis from all over the world. But many of its 30,000 recruits (a typical estimate) don’t speak Arabic. So without a common language, how do they fight?

This question has become particularly interesting in light of a fairly recent change to ISIL’s fighting structure. The change was revealed, in passing, in “Confessions of an ISIS Spy,” a series of Daily Beast articles last November by Michael Weiss, based on his interviews with a supposed ex-ISIL intelligence officer named Abu Khaled.

Abu Khaled told Weiss that many of the ISIL battle groups, called katibas, were originally organized by language or ethnicity. But in mid to late 2015, ISIL began reorganizing fighters into mixed katibas, either combining muhajireen (foreign fighters) with ansar (local fighters) or mixing muhajireen from different places.

Because I write about language, languages, and the people who use them, this piqued my interest. To confirm it I contacted Amarnath Amarasingam, a Canadian sociologist who studies foreign ISIL fighters. He told me he had heard from his contacts that linguistically heterogeneous katibas were indeed being assembled on a trial basis.

It seems that the operational simplicity of having everyone in a katiba speak the same language also had a downside: It created an insularity among some fighters, who were perceived as running their own agenda. Abu Khaled, who also speaks French, told Weiss he had put together a proposal for a francophone katiba, but that it wasn’t approved. Previous problems were cited with an all-Libyan katiba that had proven more loyal to its own emir (leader) than to ISIL, and also with Russian-speaking katibas that had a tendency to go rogue. To avoid rifts and create a coherent army, ISIL now seemed to feel, it was better to get people to exchange cultures and languages.

But how, in that case, does ISIL turn a gaggle of immigrants with no common language into an effective fighting force?

An homage to Catalonia

Members of the Tom Mann Brigade, an English volunteer unit in the Spanish Civil War.
Members of the Tom Mann Brigade, an English volunteer unit in the Spanish Civil War.
Image: AP Photo

Although details from within ISIL are scarce, it is by no means the first group to have faced this challenge. Among modern militaries there’s the Israeli army, which must integrate soldiers from all over the world with low to no proficiency in Hebrew. There’s also the French Foreign Legion and NATO, where English is a nominal lingua franca. Armies of the past have also managed polyglot brigades, most notably the Austro-Hungarian army and the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War.

It’s the latter that give us perhaps the best historical parallel to ISIL’s language problem—and also the best account of how ISIL fighters might be solving it in the battlefield, because one of the idealistic foreigners who went to Spain to fight was the English writer George Orwell. In his widely-read memoir, Homage to Catalonia, he shows how shared ideological commitments can compensate for the lack of a shared language.

Orwell was one of two Englishmen in his unit in the anarchist militia after first arriving in Spain. At that point, he didn’t speak Spanish but had lived in France for his book Down and Out in Paris and London. The problem was that “nobody even among the officers spoke a word of French,” he wrote. “Things were not made easier for me by the fact that when my companions spoke to one another they generally spoke in Catalan. The only way I could get along was to carry everywhere a small dictionary which I whipped out of my pocket in moments of crisis.”

A Belgian officer named Georges Kopp, who became Orwell’s commander, illustrated how language abilities could be as important as leadership qualities. Before one battle, the Belgian gave instructions to his men, a mix of Spaniards and Englishmen, first in one language, then the other. Even his mutterings in the trenches he spoke in Spanish, then English. Later, in Barcelona, he calmed passions during a street fight in multiple languages, saying that “we had got to avoid bloodshed.”

Orwell often forgot his Spanish at crucial moments, such as the time his group overran a Fascist machine gun position to find all the enemy soldiers vanished. “I thought they would be lurking somewhere underground, and shouted in English (I could not think of any Spanish at the moment): ‘Come on out of it! Surrender!’”

Later in the same attack, he called out to four soldiers, one Spaniard and three Germans, who had run the wrong way, toward the Fascist position. “I ran after them, trying to think of the Spanish for ‘retire’; finally I shouted, ‘Atrás! Atrás!’, which perhaps conveyed the right meaning,” Orwell wrote. Fortunately the Spaniard understood what Orwell was shouting (“Back! Back!”) and brought them all back, though how he did so isn’t clear, because the Germans didn’t speak “a word of English, French, or Spanish,” Orwell recalled. Getting them to help build a sandbag barricade involved “difficulty and much gesticulation.”

In fact, many meanings were conveyed through gestures. Early on, a young Spaniard urged Orwell to shoot at Fascists, “motioning with his rifle…grinning as eagerly as a dog that expects a pebble to be thrown.”

Homage to Catalonia is a crucial account of life in a polyglot army, with hints as to how ISIL’s mixed-language katibas might function. It shows both how soldiers pick up the language around them (Orwell’s Spanish improved to the point that he could deliver a complicated plea on behalf of Georges Kopp to a patient Spaniard) and how those who speak more than one language gain authority. We know that ISIL has depended on informal translators inside each katiba in much the same way. Abu Khaled told Weiss that because he speaks French and English as well as Russian, he was often translating for different fighters.

Orwell’s book also reinforces that in battle, not speaking the same language isn’t necessarily catastrophic. In fact, the stress and chaos of the fighting blurs the importance of speaking any language natively. It even blurs the necessity of using a definable, discrete language. Instead, what emerges is a hybrid “battle pidgin,” akin to what some linguists call “translanguaging” or “code-meshing.” This is a fluid form of language performance in which people don’t use a single identifiable language but communicate with everything they know: fragments, words, and gestures.

Battle pidgin is a frequent occurrence, says Tom Haines, a recently retired US Defense Intelligence Agency executive, who specialized in language and culture training for military and intelligence forces and worked in Bosnia as a Russian-language liaison officer. Where many languages are present, even if there’s a lingua franca like English, he said, people can get by with surprisingly little linguistic sophistication. If you’re a commander, you make sure everyone understands the plan, even if it takes the simplest of words and pictures in the sand.

“At the end of the day, there’s a lot of elegance and simplicity to fighting,” Haines says. “It’s understood that the further you go down the chain of command, the simpler the intent is communicated. You don’t need to understand the strategic objectives to blow up a school bus. At that level, it’s easy: go there, kill everybody, end of discussion.”

Cosmopolitan ISIL

The internationalization of jihad didn’t start with ISIL, of course. Al-Qaeda too had a large number of non-Arabic-speaking fighters. And that posed a problem for Western intelligence analysts, as I reported in 2004 for MIT Technology Review.

In the wake of the al-Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, US intelligence agencies had set up the National Virtual Translation Center to speed up crucial translation and intelligence gathering. One obstacle to real-time surveillance was that some Al-Qaeda operatives weren’t native speakers of Arabic. They spoke with thick accents, odd word choices, and bad grammar. They also did a lot of code-meshing, moving back and forth between Arabic and their native languages, often Dari or Pashto. This made life difficult for the average American signal intelligence analyst, who’d been trained in Modern Standard Arabic—the formal, stiff language of political speeches and television newsreels—not in jihadi pidgin.

But ISIL appears to have taken this linguistic fluidity and weaponized it. It’s more open to translanguaging than al-Qaeda ever had to be, partly because so many recruits to ISIL, both fighters and others, came without Arabic.

These polyglot forces are the product of ISIL’s success at publicizing itself multilingually. “Jihadi groups have been producing propaganda in multiple languages since at least the 1980s,” points out Thomas Hegghammer, senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. In the 1980s, Afghan mujahideen produced magazines in Arabic, Turkish, English, French, Dutch, German, Danish, and Russian. Algerian jihadi groups produced newsletters in English, French, and Arabic, and al-Qaeda produced propaganda in German, Russian, Urdu, and Indonesian.

But where al-Qaeda was parochial and provincial, ISIL depicts itself as a global movement, and as such it’s stepped even further away from a pure reliance on Arabic. In the next instalment, we’ll look at how it has embraced multilingualism not only on the battlefield, but in the society under the rule of its “caliphate.”

Read part 2: ISIL isn’t merely tolerant of people who speak languages besides Arabic; it needs them