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The Call to Jihad: Charismatic Preachers and the Internet

Studies in Conflict and TerrorismJournal abstract

A range of psychological, social, and environmental factors render some individuals more susceptible to militant Islam than others. Research also suggests that there are certain “triggers,” which help to explain why it is that only some individuals exposed to the same societal structural influences turn to violence. This article seeks to contribute to future empirical research in this area by studying the significance of certain “charismatic” preachers in this process and examining the role the Internet plays in strengthening the charismatic bond. Difficulties in defining and measuring “charisma” may help in part to explain the paucity of research on this aspect of radicalization but since charismatic authority derives from the bond between preacher and follower, an examination of the activities, strategies, and techniques used to build relationships and win adherents to Salafi-jihadism may provide valuable insights for countering radicalization.

The activities of charismatic preachers promote “violent radicalization”11. A definition used by the Vox-Pol Network of Excellence that refers to those who employ physical violence against other individuals and groups to forward their political objectives.
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by encouraging their followers in the diaspora to engage in violent extremism, whether as foreign fighters in insurgencies abroad or in acts of home-grown terrorism. Despite the various explanatory models that confront counterterrorism authorities in their attempts to understand the phenomenon, the inspirational role of these charismatic preachers in promoting violent extremism warrants further analysis and understanding. By examining the basis for the authority and influence of certain charismatic preachers, particularly the late Anwar al-Awlaki,22. This article draws on information contained in an unpublished commissioned study by Angela Gendron and Martin Rudner on Anwar al-Awlaki.
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this article aims to prompt further empirical research into an aspect of radicalization that has been relatively neglected and that may offer opportunities for countering violent extremism.

The first section of the article provides a brief overview of existing research approaches to radicalization. The current wave of radical Salafi-jihadist activities is then set within a historical continuum of resurgent militant Islam as a prelude to an examination of “charisma” in this context and the prerequisite conditions for the exercise of charismatic power and authority in radicalization to violent extremism. The remainder of the article develops and describes that process and the charismatic preachers’ influence over susceptible individuals based on examples and evidence from recent investigations. In particular, it examines the role played by the Internet and considers whether and how the Internet has strengthened the “charismatic bond” between leaders and followers.