Today's Islamist terrorists are broadly influenced by an ideology that is labeled "salafi jihadism" by European terrorism experts. What is this ideology, where does it originate from, and what is its ultimate aim?
Xavier Raufer is an
authority on militant Islam:
"Some of them believe that the world would be better if things were run
like the prophet ran them in the two holy cities of Medina and Mecca in the 6th
century of the Christan era."
Revolutionary Ideology - Salafi Jihadism
Dr. Marc Sageman, author of Understanding Terror Networks and a former CIA case officer in Afghanistan during the 1980s, says that the global salafi jihad preaches salafiyyah (from salaf, the Arabic word for "ancient one" and referring to the companions of the Prophet Mohammed), which calls for the restoration of authentic Islam, invariably using the strategy of violent jihad.
Sageman says that the salafi jihad
is a worldwide religious revivalist movement with
the goal of re-establishing past Muslim glory in
a great Islamist state stretching from Morocco
to the Philippines, eliminating present national
boundaries. Al-Qaeda, he notes, is the vanguard
of this movement, which includes many other terrorist
groups that collaborate in their operations and
share a large support base.
In sum, salafism is an orthodox interpretation of Islam harkening back to the days of Mohammad. "The word salafi means the past, the previous generations, if you will," says Dr. Mamoun Fandy, an Egyptian-born terrorism expert at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.
"So Salafis are those people who believe in the teachings of Islam, based on the dictates of the previous generation. And by the previous generations, they mean the generations of the followers of the Prophet who came after him, in the 8th century. So that's the literal translation of it, that those who subscribe to the notion of Salafism are those who are unhappy with the interpretation of Islam today and they want to go to the origins of Islam and what was intended to be in the time of the Prophet and his companions."
Fandy and others note that most salafists are neither violent nor support terrorism. It is a minority among their ranks who've embraced violence as a means of winning their way, the so-called "revolutionary" salafists, of whom al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are made up. Thus, waging holy war against non-believers is justifiable. Fandy says the salafist jihadist have much in common with the European fascist movements of the 1920s, '30s and '40s.
The Great Caliphates
At its peak the
Muslim empire from Spain across North
Africa to the Middle East, India and
In the West, it is not widely understood the significance of the great Muslim Caliphates that once stretched across much of the known world. After Mohammad founded Islam in the 7th century in what is today Saudi Arabia, a Caliphate began to take root.
At its peak, in the 1200s, it
stretched from Spain and Morocco, across North Africa,
the Middle East, down the West coast of Africa, to
India and the Philippines. Ruled by a Caliph, and
using sharia law as its guide, this great Islamic
empire was the center of medical science, literature,
the scientific process, and intellectual discourse
at a time when Europe was wallowing in the Dark Ages.
But beginning with the Crusades in the 11th century, Christian Europe began making inroads into the Caliphate, eventually driving the Muslim Moors from Spain (or Andalusia as it was called) and, over time, conquering the Arab world. The final remnants of the last Caliphate disappeared in 1918.
For salafists, the desire to re-establish
the Great Caliphate is what compels them: they
see the national boundaries as being unnatural,
having been imposed by European colonial powers,
and the governments that rule them as being corrupt
and subservient to the West. The assassination
of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by salafist jihadists
in 1981 was part of the strategy of getting rid
of the "near enemy"- the regimes
that are beholden to the West and refuse to establish
The Muslim Brotherhood
Salafist jihadism was revived during the 20th century by the Muslim Brotherhood, a key organization in understanding today's terrorist milieu. As Fandy and others have remarked, all Islamist terrorist groups have their roots in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Brotherhood
sought the revival of a Muslim state and the Caliphate
and ridding Arab lands of non-believers, Christians
and Jews. At times, the Muslim Brotherhood has
both been close to the Egyptian government and
at other times it has been banned. The organization
has proven to be extraordinarily powerful, spreading
chapters across the Middle East, and has been described
as a "state within the state". One could
say that the Brotherhood has passed through five
stages in its development.
- 1928-1939: The Brotherhood is a youth organization, which aims at moral and social reform in Egypt through education, information and propaganda.
- 1939-1948: Thanks to the political void of its time, the Brotherhood was gradually politicized in the 1930's. In 1939 it was formed as a political group, and during the 1940's, especially after the end of World War II in 1945, many members became involved in actions, some of terrorist characters inside Egypt.
- 1948-1954: Cooperating with the revolutionaries.
- 1954-1984: Outlawed and in opposition to the government of Egypt.
- 1984-to present: Accepted as a religious group, but under heavy control by the government.
A yearbook photo of Qutb. The frivolity of American campus life seem to persaude him that western debauchery was at the root of many of the world's problems.
Often described as the Marx or Lenin of the modern-day Salafi jihadi movement, Qutb was born in Egypt in 1906. Initially he was a socialist who studied literature before becoming an Islamist.
In the late 1940s he spent two years in Colorado
as a student. When he returned to Egypt in the
early '50s - a country that was going through
a nationalist upheaval - he joined the Muslim
Brotherhood. He soon emerged as the principal theoretician
of Islamism in the Arab world.
After Gamal Abdel Nasser came to
power in 1952 in a coup, with the support of the
Muslim Brotherhood, the new Egyptian president
moved against Qutb. After the Brotherhood were
accused of trying to assassinate Nasser, the Egyptian
leader jailed Qutb in 1954. Qutb would remain in
jail for years, with brief respites, before being
executed in 1966 after refusing to leave Egypt.
While in prison, Qutb wrote a series
of books which formed the basis of today's rationale
for salafi jihadism. Tracing the history of Islam,
and its ideological clash with Christianity and
Judaism, Qutb argued that only through embracing
Islam could people become re-connected with nature
and spiritualism. He saw Muslim theocracies as
being the solution to the corruption that was flourishing
in the Arab world. He had a course of action to
be followed - a revolutionary program that justified
Abu Abdullah, a muslim
leader from north London:
"Allah says in the Quran, fight them as they fight you, lay in wait for them and smite them at their necks...Allah gives us this right."
Takfir wal-Hijra, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaeda
As Fandy has said, all Islamist terrorist organizations originate from the Muslim Brotherhood, each one more radical than its predecessors. In the 1970's, a new group sprung from the Muslim Brotherhood called Takfir wal-Hijra, a movement that championed an extreme form of jihadism, whereby even killing other Muslims was justified if they are not true believers. In recent years, massacres of Muslims in countries like the Sudan by Takfir followers have become commonplace.
Takfir embraces an ideology that
allowed its followers to leave their homeland,
take on the lifestyle and language of the country
they adopt, with the purpose of returning to their
country of origin as conquerors to establish Muslim
theocracies. Takfir is a blueprint for the methodology
of modern-day Islamist terrorists. The organization
was crushed in Egypt in the late 1970s, but remains
a potent ideological force, spreading into Europe
Now Takfir followers are the most feared in European communities, where their presence is growing. After the Madrid bombing March 11th, 2004 it has been suggested the terrorists who carried it out were Takfir followers.
Reya Seyam has been
linked to international terrorism, including
the Bali bombing:
"We believe that Caliphate should be restored and we believe that Rome shall
The Salafi Jihad Movement Today
After Takfir was crushed in Egypt as an organization,
it was supplanted by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad
(EIJ), led by the charismatic Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Eventually, the EIJ merged with al-Qaeda, which
was formed in the late 1980s, after al-Zawahiri
became mentor and right-hand man to Osama Bin
Today, al-Qaeda is the most current
manifestation of the salafi jihad movement. Fuelled
by the writings of Qutb and the methodology of
Takfir, it has targeted the so-called "far
enemy"- the U.S. and the West - as its
prime enemy. Al-Qaeda's goal is to see the return
of the Great Caliphate - a fascistic theocracy
ruled by Sharia law.
Al-Qaeda believes acts of terrorism will rally the
Arab masses to its cause. Al-Zawahiri believed that
in order to undermine the near enemy- corrupt Arab
governments - it was necessary to target the
West. Hence the attack on 9/11 and in Madrid .