ISIL demands many things of its top commanders, but good Arabic isn’t always one of them

Omar al-Shishani, ISIL’s “minister of war,” may not even have been able to give orders in Arabic.
Omar al-Shishani, ISIL’s “minister of war,” may not even have been able to give orders in Arabic.
Image: AP Photo
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The Islamic State, a.k.a. ISIL, 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 last in a three-part series.

You might expect proficiency in Arabic to be a prerequisite for fighters to rise in the ISIL ranks. And not just any Arabic. The various regional forms of vernacular Arabic, hard enough to master in themselves, are simple compared to the classical, “high” Arabic of the Koran, and some radical Muslims insist on speaking this high form even for everyday purposes. Journalist Graeme Wood, who has studied and reported in several Arabic dialects, recalls spending time with Salafi Muslims who insisted that he speak in Koranic forms.

“At one point I was talking to Salafis who were trying to convert me,” he says, “and I was talking to them in Egyptian street Arabic, and they basically rapped my knuckles, because they insisted that I use classical words in my daily speech.” He adds: “I can definitely say that Salafis have a very strong presumption that speaking high Arabic is part of being a good Muslim.”

But for ISIL, that presumption seems to have been turned on its head. And that linguistic agnosticism seems to have enabled it, like any good multinational corporation, to draw from and cultivate a much broader pool of talent than its rivals.

The Russian presence in ISIL

It’s true that Arabic is the organization’s official language. In 2014, ISIL leader Abu Abdullah al-Masri wrote “Islamic State caliphate on the prophetic methodology,” which was translated into English by scholar Aymenn al-Tamimi and published by The Guardian in 2015.

That manifesto prescribes, among other things, the role of Arabic in the Islamic State: “…[T]he interest in the Arabic language and its use in daily life for the individual is an important matter in the Islamic State as is distancing from vulgar expressions that were put forward in society in a well-considered plan to guarantee the forgetting of the Islamic identity for society,” al-Masri wrote. The muhajireen (immigrants) should cultivate the “Arabic character” and “lay aside the foreign identity that bears in its hidden nature hostility to Islam, its culture and roots.”

But not all of ISIL’s prominent fighters have spoken Arabic, have spoken it well, or can even use classical Arabic. Take the Chechen fighter Tarkhan Batirashvili.

Born in Georgia to a Christian father and a Muslim mother, he spoke Chechen and heavily-accented Russian. After joining the Georgian military in 2006 and fighting against the Russian Army in 2008, he was radicalized while in prison on weapons charges and took the nom de guerre Omar al-Shishani, or “Omar the Chechen.” When he first arrived in Syria in 2012, al-Shishani established Jaish al-Muhajireen, “The Army of Immigrants,” a group of foreign fighters that contained as many as 700 Europeans.

The entry for al-Shishani’s brigade at explained how it worked linguistically: “Orders are often given in Arabic, which are then translated into…Chechen, Tajik, Turkish, French, Saudi dialects, and Urdu.” It’s not clear if al-Shishani’s Arabic was good enough for giving orders. “[He] was fluent in Russian, obviously, but he was not good at Arabic or even at verses of the Koran or saying prayers,” says Gina Ligon, a leadership scholar at the University of Nebraska who studies the internal workings of violent extremist organizations.

In 2013, al-Shishani joined ISIL. In 2014, a video circulated of him bumbling Koranic verses in order to welcome foreign fighters who had pledged fealty to the group. Ligon says this video was used by the US State Department in its counter-propaganda, as an attempt to undermine al-Shishani’s authority by showing his poor Arabic skills.

But like thousands of other Russian-speaking fighters in Syria, al-Shishani had qualities that made up for his language deficits. “I suspect that when it comes to language or any other skill, how a person is treated depends a lot on what that person brings to the table,” says Larry Kuznar, an anthropologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, who studies the rhetoric of violent extremist organizations. “[ISIL] promotes those who demonstrate competence and demonstrate skills, so people with value in some manner are promoted and retained, and people who don’t have anything to offer are let go.”

By the time of his death in July, 2016 in Iraq, al-Shishani had become extremely prominent in ISIL. For several years he served as a senior military commander and as a member of the Shura council, one of ISIL’s two governing bodies. He was often called the ISIL “minister of war” in online articles. It’s possible that the order last year to start creating linguistically heterogeneous fighting groups, or katibas (see part 1 of this series) came from him, because he’d dealt with the linguistic practicalities before.

Al-Shishani was not the only ISIL leader with less-than-native Arabic. Interviewed in Der Spiegel, US General Mike Flynn, most recently the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said he believes that ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has “a couple of subordinates who are responsible for military operations, logistical, financial, etc.; they represent a combination of Egyptians, Saudis, Chechens, or Dagestanis, Americans and Europeans.”

Last year a Daily Beast article suggested that al-Shishani’s older brother, Tamaz Batirashvili, was the real ISIL Chechen mastermind. Still, says Ligon, “You could say both of these gentlemen show how [ISIL] is overcoming [its] barriers to collaboration linguistically and making their expertise and credibility more about their fighting prowess than their similarities.”

How non-native speakers behave

There’s one final insight we can glean from studying how ISIL uses language, though it’s a more speculative one. Some recent research in psychology and behavioral economics suggests that as ISIL’s foreign fighters get better at Arabic, that could make them not only more cohesive as a group, but also more effective as individuals.

In a 2012 study, a team at the University of Chicago headed by psychologist Boaz Keyzar asked college students to answer hypothetical questions about curing diseases with risky medicines, or to gamble with both real and imaginary money. Across six experiments with native and non-native speakers of Korean, French, English, Spanish, and Japanese, they found that people operating in a foreign language make decisions based on systematic rules more frequently than when they’re speaking in their native tongue.

Put another way, in their native language, people take more and riskier bets.

Why? The researchers surmised that the cognitive load of speaking another language leaves fewer mental resources for decision-making. That makes people default to more deliberate, rule-based actions. By contrast, in their native language, people are better able to think on their feet, bringing to bear psychological biases or seemingly “irrational” cultural preferences more readily.

Similarly, people using a foreign language make more utilitarian decisions than ideological ones, as another project headed by Keyzar showed. In the hypothetical scenario, these people were more willing to push a heavy man in front of a train to stop it if it would save five other lives.

This language effect was strong enough to overcome cultural norms. East Asians are known to avoid utilitarian choices in such experiments, but in a foreign language, even they were willing to choose to sacrifice one person to save the rest.

Not only that, but the research showed, people’s utilitarianism varies with their proficiency in a language. If you speak it badly, you will be more willing to take the decision to kill one person to save five. As you gain fluency, it becomes harder.

Of course, one has to be cautious in generalizing from experiments on college students to jihadist militants. But one could surmise that fighters who don’t speak good Arabic might, in an Arabic-speaking environment, operate more pragmatically and rationally than native speakers, following orders and sticking to pre-approved plans.

By contrast, fighters operating in their native tongue in language-specific katibas will take more risks. That might make them more effective fighters; it might also make them less obedient to the ISIL leadership. (Russian-speaking katibas were indeed notorious for their independence, the Daily Beast reported.)

So one could also surmise that as fighters’ Arabic gets better, they’ll also become more like their default selves, making decisions based on their gut and personal initiative. This could make them better fighters.

In at least one important way, then, ISIL supporters resemble many other people in the world: They speak more than one language, and speak them to varying degrees of proficiency, which change over time. Thinking of them as types of language users—multilinguals, code-meshers, and imperfect language-learners—rather than merely in terms of which languages they speak, makes them more knowable, and potentially more vulnerable. (Speculatively, imagine bombarding them with erroneous messages about how languages are learned, to disrupt their learning of Arabic.)

Embracing Babel

In this series I’ve argued that often overlooked details about the language policies of ISIL, the language experiences of foreign fighters, and the linguistic biographies of the ISIL leadership can tell us a lot about how ISIL operates, and even have implications for how we should confront it—and whatever jihadist movement comes next.

For one thing, ISIL deliberately makes room for foreign languages, making it unusual in the history of violent jihad. It prizes the talents and skills of individuals who can barely speak its official language – something that can’t be said for many modern industrialized nations. It also accepts language barriers as a sign of belonging, using religious affiliation to buffer the effects any practical problems.

By evolving violent jihad beyond Arabic, ISIL is also redefining what we mean by “the language of the enemy.” During the wars of the 20th century, the language of the enemy (for the US) was easily identified: It was German, Japanese, Russian, Korean, Vietnamese. Because relatively few people in the West spoke those languages, a significant part of the military response was to create, from scratch, cadres of speakers of those languages to serve as diplomats, liaisons, and spies.

In the 21st-century wars against non-state actors, not only does the enemy speak multiple languages, but often uses languages we’d call ours. Not only does this make the military response more challenging, it makes the potential threats harder to identify. ISIL, I’ve argued, has not only accepted linguistic diversity, but weaponized it, turning what could have been the chaos of Babel into a strategic advantage.

The new linguistic reality was exemplified in a detail from the November attacks in Paris, noted in a French police report and reported by the New York Times. During the seige on the Bataclan Theatre, one of the attackers turned to another and said “I haven’t gotten any news yet,” in what was described as “fluent French.” Then they switched back to speaking Arabic.

Read part 1 and part 2 of this series.