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December 19, 2022 11:30 am

Victim Jihad: The Strategy Behind the Jailed Terrorists’ Complaints

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avatar by Abigail R. Esman


European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on June 17, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Yves Herman

Saleh Abdeslam is angry.

They weren’t nice to him during his first trial in Brussels, in 2018, when he was found guilty of “attempted murder in a terrorist context.” Muslims, he said then, “are judged, treated in the worst of ways. They are judged mercilessly.”

They weren’t nice to him at his 2021 trial in Paris either, where he stood accused of taking part in the 2015 attacks that killed 130 people and injured more than 400. The defendants were being “treated like dogs,” he quipped to the judge, as survivors of the attack sat in the courtroom listening. Nonetheless, the court handed him a life sentence, the harshest penalty under French law.

But justice was not yet done. Last June, Abdeslam was transferred back to Brussels to stand trial yet again for his involvement in the 2016 bombings at the city’s Zaventem airport and a metro station in Maalbeek, which killed 32 people and injured 340. When the trial commenced in September, however, Abdeslam and his co-defendants again had complaints: the secure, bullet-proof glass cubicles in which they were kept seated were “like animal cages.” Abdeslam refused to take the stand, forcing the courts to postpone the trial and create a new security system at a cost of several million euros.

That trial restarted on Dec. 5, only to face yet another series of grudges from Abdeslam and his friends. Conditions in the prisons are too harsh, they griped. And they were being “forced” to listen to “Satanic music” while being transferred from the prison to the trial. Mohamed Abrini, another accused member of the Brussels terrorist group, went further, declaring that for seven years, he’d been “the victim of revenge.”

Being the “victim” is nothing new among terrorists, who often use victim status to legitimize their violence against perceived oppressors, noted Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) in a recent e-mail. But for Islamists, says Toronto-based counter-terrorism specialist Mubin Shaikh, there’s actually a handbook for it — written by Al-Qaeda.

Known as the “Manchester Document” after it was discovered in Manchester, England, in 2000, the Al-Qaeda handbook — officially titled “Declaration of Jihad Against the Country’s Tyrants, Military Series” — includes a carefully-crafted set of instructions for militants who are taken prisoner. “Lesson 18” dictates the very measures Abdeslam and his cohorts have taken:


  1. At the beginning of the trial, once more the brothers must insist on proving that torture was inflicted on them by State Security [investigators] before the judge.
  2. Complain [to the court] of mistreatment while in prison.

“They all do this,” explained Shaikh in a recent interview. “This is the claim they make. So did [Canada’s] Toronto 18, for instance. But they didn’t all just organically arrive at the same conclusion. It’s a script.”

How they use that script is also part of the weaponizing of victimhood, he said. “You’re not going to say you’re the perpetrator. So you have to flip the script. You have to become the victim.”

Among the Belgian terror suspects’ complaints of victimization: being strip-searched before being transported to court; being blindfolded and forced to wear headphones (hence the “Satanic music”) en route; and being monitored in their prison cells.

But such procedures are commonplace, said Shaikh.

“Being strip-searched before going to court is humiliating for anyone,” he concedes, “but especially those who have a thing about being exposed, as Islamists do, between their navel and their knees. So they see it as deliberate humiliation, and it’s something they will seize on to show that they are victims of the state.” But such searches are a necessary security measure to make sure there’s nothing taped to their bodies. “They do it to everyone, not just Islamist detainees. A gang member is likely going to be strip-searched, too.”

The blindfolds and headphones serve a similar purpose. “If suspects are being transferred in a vehicle,” Shaikh said, “and there are several officers, you don’t want the detainee to be able to see them or hear them while they’re having conversations — to protect the officers from being identified.”

Yet for terror suspects, the protests also serve a purpose: not merely to garner sympathy from their fans, but to inflame them. Victimhood becomes, in effect, a leverage to violence. As Anne Speckhard of ICSVE points out, “Nearly all terrorist groups, from militant jihadists to domestic violent extremists to environmental and abortion clinic terrorists, claim a sense of victimhood in their ideology and use that to justify their terrorist attacks as a type of defense. In the case of militant jihadists, it’s called defensive jihad, and the claim is we need to defend Islam, Muslims, and Islamic lands from Western attacks, degradation, etc.”

This viewpoint is what motivated the demonstration and violence that followed the publication of the Prophet Mohammed cartoons, she notes. “Terrorist recruiters recruit and ideologically indoctrinate vulnerable persons by … deliberately [playing] upon a sense of victimhood, and to convince followers that a defensive violent action is not only necessary, but honorable.”

And that, she adds, “leads directly to terroristic violence.”

Which means Salah Abdeslam and his companions aren’t simply angry. They are potentially as dangerous as they have ever been.

Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) Senior Fellow Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Her new book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism, was published by Potomac Books in October 2020. Follow her at @abigailesman. A version of this article was originally published by IPT.

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