The New New Jihadist Thing
Meeting the ISIS Challenge
The Myth of the Caliphate
The Political History of an Idea
Collateral Damage in Iraq
The Rise of ISIS and the Fall of al Qaeda
State of Confusion
ISIS' Strategy and How to Counter It
The Women of ISIS
Understanding and Combating Female Extremism
Syria's Democracy Jihad
Why ISIS Fighters Support the Vote
How ISIS Makes Bank
ISIS Sends a Message
What Gestures Say About Today’s Middle East
Syria and the Violence in Iraq
Why Turkish Citizens are Joining ISIS
Turkey's Kurdish Buffer
Why Erdogan Is Ready to Work With the Kurds
ISIS Enters Egypt
How Washington Must Respond
ISIS' Next Prize
Will Libya Join the Terrorist Group's Caliphate?
Crime and Punishment in Jordan
The Killing of Moath al-Kasasbeh and the Future of the War Against ISIS
This is What Détente Looks Like
The United States and Iran Join Forces Against ISIS
ISIS Goes to Asia
Extremism in the Middle East Isn't Only Spreading West
Measuring the Threat from Returning Jihadists
Don't Hype the Threat of Returning Jihadists
ISIS' Gruesome Gamble
Why the Group Wants a Confrontation with the United States
ISIS' Worst Nightmare
Why the Group Is Not Trying to Provoke a U.S. Attack
Staying Out of Syria
Why the United States Shouldn't Enter the Civil War—But Why It Might Anyway
The Hollow Coalition
Washington's Timid European Allies
Hammer and Anvil
How to Defeat ISIS
ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group
Why Counterterrorism Won’t Stop the Latest Jihadist Threat
ISIS on the Run
The Terrorist Group Struggles to Hold On
Ready for War With ISIS?
Foreign Affairs' Brain Trust Weighs In
A masked man brandishes a severed head in one hand. In the other, he raises an index finger, a commonly understood symbol for the number one.
His name is Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, a failed London rapper turned jihadist, a British militant fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State. British authorities suspect him of murdering American journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley. In August, Bary posted a gruesome picture -- from a different killing -- on his Twitter account for the world to see.
The curious thing was not the head Bary held in his left hand -- however ghoulish the trophy -- but the gesture he made with his right. For followers of ISIS, a single raised index finger has become a sign of their cause, and it is increasingly common in photographs of militants. Some have even gone so far as to call the symbol “the jihadi equivalent of a gang sign.”
The Middle East and its upheavals are no strangers to gestures. Over the past year, a variety of groups, ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the Kurds in Iraq, have used at least four distinct hand signals. These symbols communicate complex political messages that Western observers have largely ignored. That lapse is certainly understandable: next to a severed head, the number one is easy to overlook.
Yet gestures -- in particular ISIS’ index finger -- should demand far more attention. They are an important means by which regional groups communicate their core messages to viewers down the street and observers thousands of miles away in Europe and the United States. To understand the ideologies such groups aim to export, one needs to understand the symbols they use.
Gestures are as old as politics itself. They became especially important, however, with the advent of mass media in the twentieth century. Consider what is perhaps the best-known example: Adolf Hitler’s
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