Religiosity and Secularism: A Text-as-Data Approach to Recover Jihadist Groups' Rhetorical Strategies

Luwei Ying (Washington University in St. Louis)

*Award for Best Graduate Student Poster - Applications*

Abstract: Radical Islamists as the major force of the current "wave" of terrorism pursue impact, not only attacks. Scholars, however, for decades have almost exclusively focused on violent attacks in quantitative literature, but much less on the perpetrators' ideological pursuit. I begin to fill this gap by studying Jihadist groups' ideological promotion in the form of propaganda and examining how their words relate to their violent actions. Specifically, I inspect "religiosity" and "secularism" in the groups' messaging and theorize that they favor religiosity when facing setbacks and shift toward secularism as their power increases. This is because small groups prioritize their core members who advocate radical fundamentalism, while their larger counterparts need broader support from the secular world. Empirically, I collected an original database of 129 magazines in 12 different languages from 32 Jihadist groups from 1984 to 2019. I use a semi-supervised machine learning algorithm for bipolar latent traits adapted from King, Lam and Roberts (2017) to detect keywords in a multilingual context and place each document on a "religiosity - secularism" spectrum. Tying this measure to the violence data, I show that the proportion of religious rhetoric is negatively associated with several indicators of group strength -- a pattern holds both across groups and over time. To examine the mechanism, I leverage more than 18 million Twitter posts from ISIS-related accounts in 2015. Evidence further demonstrates that religious rhetoric is more appealing among core members, while secular tweets are more circulated among peripheral members and outsiders. Drawing evidence from these analyses, an urgent policy need emerges to shift military efforts from uniquely eliminating exiting extremists to stronger battles against recruiting fighters, particularly through Jihadist media.

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