Egyptian Islamic Group Ideologist Dr. Najih Ibrahim Says Time Is Not Right for Islamists to Seize Power

Andrew McGregor

September 23, 2010

Dr. Najih Ibrahim, the principal theorist of Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI – Islamic Group), has outlined a new future for the GI, Egypt’s most notorious terrorist group in the 1990s and the domestic movement of many Egyptian extremists who went on to form the core leadership of al-Qaeda.

Najih IbrahimDr. Najih Ibrahim

A founding member of the movement, Najih Ibrahim, was released from prison in 2006 in a mass release of 1200 GI members from Egyptian jails. His release followed a 2003 decision by the movement to renounce political violence and the initiation of the “Revisions project”, led by imprisoned GI leader Sayed Imam Abdulaziz al-Sharif (a.k.a. Dr. Fadl), once a close associate of al-Qaeda’s Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Revisions project has now spread to other parts of the Arab world, as imprisoned Islamists re-examine their advocacy of political violence and terrorism. Najih Ibrahim discussed the implications of the recent death of Egyptian state security officer, Major General Ahmad Ra’fat al-Tayyib, the sponsor of the Revisions project. The GI ideologue insists that this event will have little impact on the Revisions, as General al-Tayyib’s individual approach to the project has now become state policy. The Revisions initiative is now “a deep-rooted ideology.”

Najih Ibrahim pointed to the recent release of the eldest son of former GI leader, Shaykh Omar Abd al-Rahman (imprisoned in the United States since 1996), as proof of the success of ongoing reconciliation efforts. Shaykh Omar’s son, Muhammad, spent seven years in prison after his arrest in Afghanistan as part of the exiled group of GI hardliners that dominated al-Qaeda’s leadership (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], September 5). Muhammad is married to the daughter of the late Shaykh Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, another Egyptian Islamist who acted as al-Qaeda’s commander in Afghanistan until his death by U.S. missile strike earlier this year (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 2).

Referring to the aborted Koran burning in Florida and American perceptions of Islam in general, Najih Ibrahim maintains that Americans should learn about Islam “from its sources, and not from the Zionist media or from the behavior of al-Qaeda… The fact is that Bin Laden is not Islam; Islam is greater than Bin Laden, greater than all the Islamist movements, and greater than the behavior of all Muslims.”

Instead of the direct pursuit of power, Najih Ibrahim advocates a policy of “participation, not replacement”:

The Islamist movement started with the concept of replacement, namely that the Islamists replace the regime. No, let us abandon this concept, and support the concept of participation and cooperation in what is good. Let us leave for the state the sovereignty issues, and we handle Islamic call, education, and the development of society, its progress, educating its ethics and preserving its identity… Whoever the ruler might be, we will not clash with him. We will cooperate with him in what is good. What we can change in a kind way, and by good word, we will change, and what we cannot will be beyond our ability.

Najih Ibrahim says the GI believes Islamists should abandon the idea of seizing power, as the goal is unrealistic. “If they achieve power, they will be forced to relinquish it by the regional and international powers,” Ibrahim said. He warns Islamists that they will be put under siege and subjected to negative portrayals in the media and economic blockades that will make payment of government salaries or alleviation of poverty impossible. Najih Ibrahim even considers participation in the People’s Assembly elections undesirable, saying the funds used for election campaigns could be better used to support the 4,000 orphaned children of deceased GI members and the 12 GI members still under sentence of death in Egyptian prisons. He holds little hope for change at the executive level, saying presidential elections will be “only a formality” that will lead to the re-election of President Hosni Mubarak or his son, Jamal Mubarak. “It will not be anyone other than one of these two,” Ibrahim believes. Najih Ibrahim warns of the danger posed to the Islamist movement by secularists who are eager to push the Islamists into confrontation with the ruling power. After doing so, the secularists then turn “into the followers and entourage of the ruler; they climb over our skulls and wounds, they take control of media, culture and everything and leave us to go to prisons and detention camps as usual.”

This article first appeared in the September 23, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


Saudi Shaykh Salman al-Awdah Warns Terrorism Will Follow Military Strike on Iran

Andrew McGregor

August 12 2010

In an interview with the pan-Arab Quds Press news agency, Shaykh Salman bin Fahd al-Awdah warned that a wave of terrorism will follow any military attacks on Iran while also calling on Tehran to end attempts to expand its influence in the Sunni world (Quds Press, August 2).

al-AwdahShaykh Salman bin Fahd al-Awdah

Shaykh al-Awdah is one of the most popular religious scholars in Saudi Arabia. After making his mark through the once-popular use of cassette tapes to distribute sermons, al-Awdah has since moved on to more modern methods of communication as the director of the Islam Today website. He also makes frequent appearances on television and in the commentary sections of Arabic language newspapers.

Born in Qaseem Province from a Najdi family, Shaykh al-Awdah was one in a new generation of “political preachers” that emerged after the 1990-1991 Gulf War and the establishment of American bases in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Awdah became associated with the religious opposition to the Saudi regime and suffered a five-year prison term as a result of his challenges to official fatwa-s permitting the regime to invite American troops to the Kingdom and his criticism of the expensive but ineffective Saudi military. Bin Laden was a supporter of al-Awdah in the 1990s and has quoted al-Awdah’s work in various communications. However, after his release al-Awdah devoted himself to a Ph.D. study of the Sunnah and transformed himself into a paragon of clerical respectability. He is now considered to be under the protection of the regime.

Al-Awdah rejects the “stereotype” that ties the da’wah (“call,” i.e. to God) of the 18th century reformer Shaykh Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab to terrorism. The shaykh’s followers are best known as Wahhabists, though Salafists in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere do not use this term themselves. According to al-Awdah, al-Wahhab’s insistence on Koranic authenticity in life and worship provided stability in a region where disunity and tribal fighting were previously common. “When the events of September took place in the United States [i.e. 9/11], people started saying that these acts were the product of the da’wah of Shaykh Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab. The truth is that this da’wah is totally innocent of these acts…,” stated al-Awdah.

The preacher goes on to note that “misinterpretations happen, even in Islam.” In an apparent reference to those militants who insist jihad is an individual obligation for Muslims, al-Awdah says, “Some people rely on the Koran to say that Islam wants to send the whole world to the battlefield. Those people have a twisted understanding of those acts [of terrorism]. The countries of the Islamic world in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Somalia and others are victims of these acts.” He insists 99% of Muslims are “removed from extremism and violence.” The militant remainder should be engaged in an Islamic discourse based on religious texts, but one that also considers the reasons behind the creation of a climate of terrorism, such as foreign aggression against Muslim countries.

The Saudi preacher warns that any escalation of military activity targeting Iran will result in the expansion of terrorism in the region. He notes that Israel possesses hundreds of nuclear warheads, adding that “nuclear weapons could be possessed by correct methods and through international supervision. I think that the dialogue with Iran has not yet reached a dead end.” At the same time, however, al-Awdah calls on Tehran to stop “Shi’i penetration of the Sunni world:”

I fear Shi’i Iran. All those who are loyal to Iran should tell it that its expansionist approach will hurt it. Iran has the right to live peacefully and to obtain the latest technologies. However, it does not have to have the desire for expansion, as is the case in Africa and the so-called Shi’i penetration of the Sunni world. This does not serve the Iranian people.

Turning to Gaza, al-Awdah says the ongoing siege is an “international scandal.” The preacher is a member of the International Union for Muslim Scholars (led by Egyptian Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi), which sent a ship to Gaza as part of the “freedom convoys.” Al-Awdah insists that all factions of the political spectrum in Palestine, including groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, should be part of the effort to find a resolution for Palestine. The shaykh stated that “it is difficult to deal with the Palestinian people while ignoring the forces of the resistance.”

This article first appeared in the August 12, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Prominent Egyptian Preacher Dissects al-Qaeda Strategy

Andrew McGregor

July 29, 2010

In a recent interview Egyptian television preacher Dr. Umar Abd al-Kafy criticized the strategy and theological underpinnings of al-Qaeda’s ideology. The interview was carried by Dubai’s al-Arabiya TV on July 16.


Dr. Umar Abd al-Kafy

Al-Kafy suggests there are three ways of approaching the concept of jihad in the Islamic world:

  • The first group says jihad must be declared on anyone who does not say there is no God but Allah. “This group does not base its ruling on the Koran or Prophetic Traditions, but on fervent emotions that do not know Islam at all.”
  • The second group says there is no jihad based on fighting. There is only the jihad (“struggle”) against one’s own desires and evil impulses (the so-called “Greater Jihad”).
  • The third group takes a centrist position, saying jihad is imperative if Muslim lands are occupied and holy places desecrated.

Jihad can only be declared by a recognized Wali al-Amr (Muslim ruler or guardian); “Islam does not leave matters to anyone to decide.” Al-Kafy maintains that killing civilians and terrorizing the innocent cannot be considered jihad. The enemy cannot be defeated until one ceases committing injustices through a “jihad of the soul.”

Referring to Koranic scripture, the preacher rejected Bin Laden’s fatwa demanding all Americans in Muslim lands be killed. Al-Kafy stated, “Islam ordered us to protect [the disbelievers] as long as they are not fighting against us, not seizing our land and not violating our sanctities. How can I fight them if they are peaceful?”

Al-Kafy criticized the jihadis’ view of the concept of hakimiyah (ruling according to the revelations of Allah), saying it is incorrect to interpret this as a call for theocratic government; “Islam does not say the ruler must be a man of religion, but the ruler must be the most noble and best behaving among people.” Such rulers can be chosen either through a shura (consultative) system or through democratic means. This places the Egyptian preacher squarely at odds with the Salafi-Jihadists, who reject democracy entirely. Existing rulers cannot be branded as apostates (according to the Salafi-Jihadist embrace of takfir) unless they fail to perform their religious duties or deny the existence of God. Instead of branding wayward rulers as apostates or infidels, Muslim scholars should instead offer prayers and advice.

Al-Kafy bemoans the gradual loss of centrist policies and attitudes in the Islamic world under the pressure of extremism. There is a danger of radicals being given free reign despite having poor knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence; “The opinion over which there are differences will not become a rule.”

The preacher was most damning of al-Qaeda in his discussion of the movement’s use of Hukm al-Tataruss (The Law on Using Human Shields) to justify the slaughter of innocent Muslims. Al-Tataruss is based on an obscure medieval ruling that permitted the killing of Muslims if enemies of Islam were in their midst. Al-Qaeda has revived the ruling to justify the death of innocent Muslims in suicide attacks and bombings to bypass the well-known injunction against killing fellow Muslims and thus avoid charges of apostasy. Al Qaeda’s Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri is a noted proponent of the concept, which he has examined in his books Healing the Hearts of Believers and The Treatise Exonerating the Nation of the Pen and the Sword from the Blemish of Weakness and Fatigue (also known as The Exoneration). The latter was a 2008 response to the criticism of al-Zawahiri’s reliance on al-Tataruss, contained in the Revisions of the imprisoned ex-leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (a.k.a. Dr. Fadl), formerly a close colleague and associate of al-Zawahiri. According to al-Kafy, “There is a difference between someone who throws himself in the middle of the enemy that occupied his land and the one who blows himself up among peaceful and secure people, thinking that this is martyrdom. This is not stated in the Koran or said by the Prophet.”

This article first appeared in the July 29, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Will al-Qaeda Survive the Loss of its Leadership?

Andrew McGregor

June 24, 2010

With rumors emerging once again of the death of Osama bin Laden, it seems like an appropriate time to examine the future of al-Qaeda in the event of the elimination of Bin Laden and his Egyptian second-in-command, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Both Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have been rumored to be dead before, but with the American drone campaign continuing to take out high level al-Qaeda personnel on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier, there is every possibility that we might soon wake up to a world without Bin Laden or his Egyptian deputy and be faced with the question of just what that means for global security.

al-Qaeda LeadershipOsama bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, November 2001

How Important is Bin Laden Anyway?

Bin Laden is not a religious scholar; he is not a military planner; he is not even a politician. He will, however, always be the man who brought down the twin towers and struck the Pentagon itself. Beside that, he is a Saudi. This is an important consideration in a movement that has always lacked qualified or inspiring religious scholars in its leadership – at least having a Saudi from the Land of the Two Holy Places (Mecca and Medina) at the top of the al-Qaeda totem pole gives some veneer of respectability to the organization. In the event of his demise, the calculating and ruthless al-Zawahiri appears to be an uninspiring choice for leader, despite his importance in day to day operations. Beyond al-Zawahiri there is little evidence of a plan of succession, and as notable figures in the movement continue to be reaped by the American drone campaign the number of well-known possibilities continues to shrink.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda still has nothing resembling a coherent political program other than promises of some ill-defined Caliphate. In this sense they have been far outstripped by Islamist movements like Egypt’s Muslim Brothers, who have passed through violent radicalism into grass-roots political development based on thoroughly planned communications, education and recruitment programs (see The Brotherhood has so efficiently monopolized Islamist politics in Egypt that al-Qaeda has made few inroads into the Arab world’s largest nation since al-Zawahiri and several of his colleagues fled Egypt for Afghanistan in 1998. Sudan, a country where the local Muslim Brothers share power with the military, is similarly free of al-Qaeda activity since the departure of Bin Laden in the mid-1990s. Hizb ut-Tahrir, strong in Asia and the UK, is another international Islamist movement that will probably outlast al-Qaeda as a political force. Much of HuT’s success in Central and South Asia has been gained through pamphleteering rather than terrorism. Large-scale and well-funded conservative missionary movements like the Tablighi Jamaat, though not specifically political in nature, will continue to create conditions abroad that will foster the growth of political Islam. While Bin Laden’s bombs and audiotapes dominate the headlines, more thoughtful organizations are steadily advancing the Islamist project without him, and in some cases, despite him.

Break with the Taliban

For some years now, the Taliban have been practically synonymous with al-Qaeda – indeed, some media operations find it difficult (or possess an unwillingness) to distinguish between the two. The reality, however, is that the Taliban is a well developed ethnic-political-religious movement that ruled a nation (however crudely) when al-Qaeda was little more than a group of fugitives seeking refuge at their gate.

There is little question today that the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is more important to it than its relationship with al-Qaeda, which cannot offer anything comparable in terms of intelligence and political and financial support. Taliban strategists have already realized that continued association with al-Qaeda complicates the possibility of a negotiated settlement with Kabul that would receive international approval, a necessary first step in returning to power. Considering what the Taliban has so far invested in its defense of al-Qaeda leaders and its own Pashtunwali code, it is difficult for the movement to renounce al-Qaeda altogether. The Taliban leadership has, however, begun distancing itself from al-Qaeda (Afghan Islamic Press, April 21, 2009). Many Taliban leaders have long resented the loss of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan due to the arrogance of Bin Laden and his Arab entourage. The elimination of Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri would certainly create conditions for the Taliban to cut itself loose from the rest of al-Qaeda, which represents little more than a political weight to the movement.

Otherwise, the Taliban will continue to pursue a dual strategy of making the foreign occupation forces as uncomfortable as possible while demonstrating to the Karzai government that it cannot rule a post-occupation Afghanistan without bringing the Taliban into the government. Across the border, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) may make respectful noises about Bin Laden and his exiled comrades, but in reality the movement already looks to their fellow Pashtun tribesmen, Mullah Omar and the leadership of the “Islamic Emirate (of Afghanistan),” for guidance, mediation and inspiration.

How Much Operational Control Does al-Qaeda Central Exercise?

Regional commands appear to have replaced a centralized command structure in al-Qaeda. In practice, however, this is more like issuing charters than opening chapters. The most important of these are regional commands like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The financial strength of Bin Laden is largely overrated – there has been little evidence of core al-Qaeda’s ability to fund anyone for some years now. This may be through difficulties in transferring funds under new financial regulations or because Bin Laden has largely exhausted his funds, or some measure of both factors. Militant funding is now done through internal networks and is no longer directed from the center.

There appears to be little operational cooperation or coordination between the regional commands. To some degree, the possibility of infiltration by intelligence or security agencies precludes cooperation with individuals not personally known to al-Qaeda operatives. Combined with expanding communications surveillance, this makes coordination or central direction extremely difficult. Al-Zawahiri’s criticism of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s brutal pursuit of sectarian violence as leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq demonstrates a lack of effective central control of one of the movement’s largest commands.

Perhaps predictably, AQAP has proven the most receptive to tactical advice from al-Qaeda central, but otherwise the movement is very much under the command of experienced local jihad leaders like Nasir al-Wuhayshi (a.k.a. Abu Basir) (al-Jazeera, May 16). Of the three major al-Qaeda commands, AQAP may be the most likely to make a continued go of it on its own while still adhering to the basic al-Qaeda ideology should the core leadership collapse.

In North Africa, however, AQIM, appears to be steadily sliding into criminality rather than political/religious insurgency – the lure of kidnapping ransoms and the financial rewards of drug trafficking seem to be turning AQIM into the North African version of the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf movement, a criminal organization which uses the rhetoric of Islamism to justify its otherwise indefensible behavior. Infiltration, suspicion and rivalry all sap AQIM’s effectiveness as a jihad movement.

Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement has made numerous declarations of loyalty to Bin Laden but has yet to be granted distinction as the Somali arm of al-Qaeda, indicating that al-Qaeda, in the minds of the leadership, remains primarily an Arab movement (Reuters, February 1; Kuwait Times, February 2). Non-Arab Muslims remain useful to al-Qaeda, but will never be granted their own franchise. Nevertheless, non-Arab radical Islamist movements such as Kashmir’s Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have demonstrated through the 2008 Mumbai assault that al-Qaeda direction, planning or funding is not necessary to carry out well-organized mass casualty terrorist attacks. The elimination of al-Qaeda’s core leadership will result in the inevitable localization of the “global jihad”; or in jihadist terms, a refocus on the “Near Enemy” over the “Far Enemy.”

Religious Limitations of al-Qaeda

The radical Salafism espoused by al-Qaeda has benefited enormously from Saudi Arabia’s continuing use of its oil wealth to promulgate Saudi-style Wahhabism throughout the Islamic world. Nevertheless, there is resistance from other well-established forms of Islam to the austere measures of the Salafists. Al-Qaeda opposition to Sufism, Shi’ism and virtually every form of Islam except their own vision of Salafi-Jihadism will always limit the growth of the movement. With Saudi money and the active missionary work of religiously conservative groups such as the Tablighi Jamaat, Salafism will continue to grow, but the question is whether al-Qaeda will continue to grow in parallel with it.

Though there has always been an attraction in Salafist Islam to takfir (the practice of declaring Muslims apostate and hence eligible for execution), for al-Qaeda the practice of takfir has almost become a new pillar of Islam. In the hands of scholars like the 14th century’s Ibn Taymiyya, takfir was a means of preserving the Islamic community from the nominally Muslim Mongol hordes. In al-Qaeda’s unskillful hands, takfir has caused dissension throughout the Islamic community and caused the deaths of thousands of Muslims. Al-Qaeda would have difficulty finding responsible Islamic scholars who would support the idea that deciding which Muslims are or are not apostate should be placed in the hands of gunmen.

Sectarianism of the type practiced by al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Qaeda’s would-be franchise in Somalia has resulted in backlashes that threaten their very existence. AQI’s preoccupation with establishing Sunni dominance over Iraq’s Shi’a majority only strengthened Shi’a military and political capabilities and prevented the establishment of a national resistance capable of ending the occupation. Even anti-occupation Sunni insurgents in Iraq were easily recruited into the militias of the anti-al-Qaeda “Awakening Councils” in Iraq after experiencing al-Qaeda’s tactics first-hand. AQI never recovered from these developments and it now seems apparent that Iraq’s political future will not lay with the establishment of al-Qaeda’s “Islamic State of Iraq.”

In Somalia, al-Shabaab diverted its energy from pursuing its assault on Mogadishu to open a new campaign against Sufism, even though most Somalis are associated with one of the traditional Somali Sufi orders. Sufi shrines and tombs of notable Sufis were smashed with hammers and their contents strewn through the desert (, March 24). Unsurprisingly, this did not result in a military or religious triumph for al-Shabaab; to the contrary, this campaign inspired the development of a new and powerful Sufi militia (al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a) that has propped up the tottering Transitional Federal Government by offering determined resistance to al-Shabaab’s efforts at expansion.

Both AQI and al-Shabaab took their cues from the sectarian, takfiri rhetoric of core al-Qaeda. In the first case it resulted in a nearly insurmountable setback; in the second it placed a formidable roadblock to further success. If there is central planning at work here, it is clearly not reality-based.


Al-Qaeda central command will inevitably move from northwest Pakistan if the current leadership is eliminated. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri’s presence there is enforced. While inaccessibility has advantages for a fugitive, it has little to recommend it to the self-styled leader of a global jihad.

The survival of Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri to this point seems rather remarkable, particularly if this has been achieved without the intervention of some external agency or facilitator. Will their successors be as fortunate, or will their own deaths follow in quick succession? More likely, we will be looking at the end of “al-Qaeda Central”, already a largely symbolic institution.

Jihad is not a new concept; what is new is al-Qaeda’s attempt to impose a cookie-cutter Salafist interpretation of jihad that focuses on terrorism rather than military resistance. The very nature of this phenomenon precludes its success, something that has become apparent to many disenchanted jihadis, some of whom have issued “Revisions” questioning the legitimacy of al-Qaeda’s relentless pursuit of violence as a religious and political measure. While some of these individuals have renounced violence, others will continue jihad under their own terms and without spiritual or strategic direction from “core al-Qaeda.” Sooner or later, the future of the global jihad will be in their hands.

This article first appeared in the June 24, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Shaykh Abu Al-Harith Describes Salafist Opposition to Hamas and Israel

Andrew McGregor

April 29, 2010

As Hamas struggles with the transition from militant group to government in Gaza, the movement has lost much of the initiative in its confrontation with Israel to a number of Salafi-Jihadi groups that promise uncompromising resistance to Hamas and Israel alike. In a recent interview with a Palestinian news agency, Shaykh Abu al-Harith, a commander of Jund Ansar Allah (Army of the Supporters of God) described the current state of the Salafist opposition, which he claims now has 11,000 active supporters distributed between four main groups: Jund al-Islam, Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, Jund Ansar Allah and Jund Allah (Ma’an News Agency, April 18).

Jund Ansar AllahJund Ansar Allah Fighters

Abu al-Harith insists none of the Salafist groups in Gaza have real ties with al-Qaeda, but all are highly influenced by al-Qaeda ideology, the success of the 9/11 attacks and various high-profile suicide operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Shaykh described the main ideological influences of the Salafi-Jihadi groups in Gaza, citing the works of Shaykh Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328) and Shaykh Ibn al-Qayyim (1292-1350), both of whom provided the foundation for the takfiri approach adopted by most Salafist radicals. In the modern era, al-Harith cites Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Jordanian ideologue of jihad who was once a spiritual mentor to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. In keeping with the basis of the takfiri philosophy, al-Harith describes the individuals in the Fatah leadership in the West Bank as “apostates.”

Though Gaza Salafist groups began carrying out limited operations in 2001, it was Hamas’s decision to enter the political process in 2006 that sparked a sudden growth in recruitment and development of the armed Salafist movements in Gaza. Nevertheless, al-Harith admits that the Salafist groups are not nearly as strong as Hamas and have suffered greatly in confrontations with that movement, such as the Hamas assault on the Ibn Taymiyah mosque in August 2009 that resulted in the death of Jund Ansar Allah leader Abdel-Latif Moussa after he prematurely declared an Islamic Emirate in Gaza (Ma’an, August 16, 2009).  Security services in Gaza continue to track and arrest Salafist operatives. “We are under round-the-clock surveillance. Our activities are fraught with risks.”

Where Hamas had once inspired its young followers with a commitment to jihad and resistance against Israel, its attempt to form a government did not resonate with many young fighters, who suddenly became available to the Salafist groups. Al-Harith notes that many of these had already obtained military training from the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades (the armed wing of Hamas), al-Nasir Salah al-Din Brigades and the Harakat al-Jihad al-Islam fi Filastin (Palestinian Islamic Jihad). Recruitment is done carefully, with extensive background checks followed by thorough training in Islam, security techniques and military tactics.

Perhaps because of the pressure put on the Salafist movements by Hamas, the Jund Ansar Allah spokesman appears to have moderated his earlier views on Hamas (as expressed in 2008). “The Muslim Brotherhood [i.e. Hamas] does not appreciate the approach of the pious ancestors [the Salaf], which means it should be eradicated” (, September 17, 2008). Al-Harith now insists the Salafist movements are not trying to destroy Hamas, but are instead seeking a religious dialogue with Hamas that would bring about the full implementation of Shari’a in Gaza. “We are not interested in opening an internal front against anyone. Our aim is to kill the Jews and apply the Shari’a.”

Controversial Gathering of Islamic Scholars Refutes al-Qaeda’s Ideological Cornerstone

Andrew McGregor

April 9, 2010

Al-Qaeda and related Islamist militant groups have long relied on the works of a 14th century Syrian-born Islamic scholar for the ideological underpinnings of their radical approach to religion and politics. Shaykh Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiya (1263-1328) was the author of the seminal “Mardin Fatwa,” frequently cited by militants as justification for political violence. A conference of Islamic scholars was held on March 27-28 at Turkey’s Mardin Artuklu University to re-examine Ibn Taymiya’s controversial ruling. The conference was guided by a panel of 15 scholars from across the Islamic world and aired live (in part) by al-Jazeera TV. Mardin is an historical crossroads of trade and empires; though part of Turkey, most of its citizens are Arabs, Kurds, Syriac Christians and Yezidis.

MardinThe Mardin Conference

Ibn Taymiya was born into turbulent times, with his native Mamluk state of Syria and Egypt under constant threat of attack or invasion by nominally Muslim Mongol armies. The shaykh solved the tricky problem of Muslims fighting Muslims (forbidden by the Koran) by ruling that the Mongols occupying Mardin were not fully-practicing Muslims, thus legitimizing the mobilization of the state’s full resources in a jihad against the invaders. Though intended for very specific circumstances, the Mardin fatwa has survived as a means of legitimizing jihad against rulers who are judged to be insufficiently Islamic in governance and beliefs.

The Mardin fatwa and related works of Ibn Taymiya and his disciples became pillars in the works of 20th century radical Islamists such as Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam and Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, who relied on Ibn Taymiya for justification of their opposition to secular “apostate” regimes and leaders in the Muslim world. The authority of the 14th century shaykh has been cited repeatedly in the statements and manifestos of numerous Salafist militants, most notably Osama bin Laden.

Some of the participating scholars argued that the traditional Islamic division of the world into Dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War) was outdated and did not anticipate the development of international law and human rights. The new Mardin declaration stated clearly, “Anyone who seeks support from [the Mardin] fatwa for killing Muslims or non-Muslims has erred in his interpretation and has misapplied the revealed texts” (Today’s Zaman, April 2;

Dr. Ahmet Ozel of the Islamic Studies Center of Istanbul noted, “In the medieval age, all states were constantly at war with each other, and there was no system of international law. That is why medieval Islamic jurists saw non-Muslim countries as the Abode of War… Today, Muslims are not only secure and free in European countries; they can even be elected to parliaments” (Hurriyet, March 28; March 30).

The scholars also examined the problem of “textualism” (a rigid adherence to texts regardless of changing contexts). Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric observed, “Most ulema [Islamic scholars] have a problem. They know the classical texts very well, but they don’t know the contemporary world that much” (Hurriyet, March 28).

Among the conference’s important decisions:

•    Muslim individuals or groups do not have the right to decide on their own to declare or conduct jihad.

•    The emergence of civil states that guard religious, ethnic and national rights means the rigid divisions between “Abode of Islam” and “Abode of War” are no longer valid.

•    The Mardin fatwa and similar texts had been misused not only as a result of changing contexts, but they had been interpreted incorrectly.

Organizers of the conference emphasized that the closing declaration was not itself a fatwa, though much of the Islamic press continued to refer to it as such.

The conference was sponsored by two Muslim NGOs: the Global Center for Renewal and Guidance (GCRG) and Canopus Consulting. The GCRG describes itself as an “independent educational charity.” Its president is Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, a well-known Mauritanian scholar of Islam who teaches at King Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia. The GCRG vice-president is Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (a.k.a. Mark Hanson), an American convert to Islam who runs the Zaytuna Institute for Islamic studies in California. An internet search did not reveal any prior activities of an NGO using the name Canopus Consulting, though the name is used by an apparently unrelated software firm. The conference received financial support from the Turkish and British governments, though Turkey’s own Religious Affairs Directorate refused to participate (Hurriyet, March 28).

Opposition to the conference came from several directions. The top religious authority in Turkey, Directorate of Religious Affairs President Ali Bardakoglu, rejected the entire exercise, saying, “It’s incredibly meaningless for a group of people to gather after centuries have passed to try and invalidate a religious view given centuries ago” (Today’s Zaman, April 2). Reaction also came from an Iraqi militant group, Jaysh al-Fatihin (Conquering Army), which denied that circumstances had changed since the Mardin fatwa. “All of us know that the incidents most similar to our [present] situation were those that happened in the time of Imam Ibn Taymiya…” (Media Commission of Jaysh al-Fatihin, April 1).

Elements of Turkey’s Islamic press derided the conference as an example of U.S. efforts to undermine the Islamic world and create a new form of Islam compatible with U.S. interests (Vakit, March 30; April 1). A well-known Turkish scholar, Hayrettin Karaman, insisted that opposition to an existing fatwa could only be expressed by a new fatwa on the same subject, allowing Muslims to decide which scholar’s opinion they trust more (Yeni Safak, April 1). Many Turkish scholars declined to attend out of fear that the conference was organized by the British government. “They’re worried that the conclusion of the conference will be that jihad is no longer valid in our day and age and that this will rule out resistance even under situations of oppression such as that in Palestine today” (Sunday Zaman, April 4). In India, however, the results of the conference were welcomed by a number of prominent Muslim leaders (Times of India, April 2).

This article first appeared in the April 9, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Gaza Salafists Demand Submission of Hamas “Apostates”

Andrew McGregor

March 4, 2010

In a recent interview, a commander of the Masadat al-Mujahideen, a Gaza-based Salafist militant group, described his movement’s confrontation with Hamas, demanding that the Islamist movement “repent” its apostasy and stop fighting the Salafists “on behalf of the Jews” (Shabakat al-Tahadi al-Islamiya, February 16). Beset by internal dissension over prisoner swap negotiations with Israel, an international embargo, the cutting off of its tunnel smuggling system by Egyptian forces, and the assassination of a leading Hamas commander in Dubai, Hamas now faces an ongoing and often violent struggle with Salafist militants who reject Hamas leadership.

Ibn al-TaymiyaRepresentation of Shaykh Ibn Taymiya

Describing his movement as a “Salafist Jihadi group,” Shaykh Abu Ubaydah al-Ansari outlined the motivation of Masadat al-Mujahideen. “We gathered and agreed to support our religion and liberate our lands and sanctuaries, not out of patriotism, but as a compulsory Islamic duty. Whenever one expanse of the lands of Muslims is occupied, Muslims must liberate it, under Islam.” Typical of Salafi-Jihadi groups, Shaykh Abu Ubaydah goes on to cite the influence of Shaykh Ibn Taymiya (1263-1328), whose fatwa declaring nominally Muslim Mongol invaders “apostates” because their use of “man-made laws” rather than Shari’a gave the Mameluke rulers of Egypt and Syria the necessary religious justification to fight invaders who claimed to be fellow Muslims. In this context, Abu Ubaydah quotes Ibn Taymiya, “There is no more necessary duty – after faith – than pushing back the attacking enemy who corrupts the religion and the world, under any condition. Yet, if the enemy wants to attack Muslims, repulsing him is the duty of everybody, whether they volunteered or not.” Though Ibn Taymiya’s works remain controversial in Islamic theological studies, Salafists tend to imbue him with an authority just short of the Qur’an and the Hadiths in legitimacy. Ibn Taymiya’s influence is seen in Abu Ubaydah’s declaration. “He who applies manmade law and human legislation, whether he is a Palestinian or something else, becomes an infidel, and whoever resorts to it for judgment also becomes infidel and fighting him becomes permissible.”

Though Hamas has made significant moves in making Shari’a the law of Gaza, these efforts fall short of Salafist expectations. Abu Ubaydah refers to “imitations of Shari’a,” and asks, “What can we say about one who applies Shari’a as legislated by himself? There is no doubt that this person is an infidel, as agreed by all scholars, no matter how big his turban is, nor how small his garment.”

The Palestinian Salafists are also displeased with Hamas’ failure to prosecute a jihad against Israel and what they perceive as a decline in anti-Israel militancy on the movement’s part since it formed the Gaza government. “Formerly, they were fighting the Jews, but currently they fight those who fight and confront the Jews [i.e. the Salafists]… If they want to repent, stop their unilateral battle against us, and leave us alone, we will welcome their desire in order to devote ourselves to fighting the Jews. However, if they insist on fighting us on behalf of the Jews and to keep their positions, the conflict will not be settled… We believe that it is not permissible to reconcile with them for they have become apostates.”

This article first appeared in the March 4, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Whose Islam? Factionalization in the Somali Islamist Movement

Andrew McGregor

 A speech delivered at the conference – “The Changing Strategic Gravity of al-Qaeda,” National Press Club, Washington D.C., December 9, 2009

There are many forces at work in Somalia today that are intentionally or unintentionally tearing the country apart. Already afflicted by the scourges of clanism, tribalism, and separatism, Somalia is now being divided by the one factor that has always united it in the past – religion.

President Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmed (Reuters)

With some exceptions, such as the Muslim Brothers, political Islam in Somalia is social activist rather than intellectual in nature. None of the militant Islamist movements in Somalia have produced any comprehensive statement of ideals and methods, least of all al-Shabaab, whose internal and external political program appears to consist largely of issuing threats against their opponents and neighbors. President Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad appears to be one of the most thoughtful of Somalia’s Islamists, yet he has been strikingly unsuccessful in presenting a political program capable of capturing the imagination of Somalis. His implementation of Islamic law in Somalia means little so long as the TFG [Transitional Federal Government] controls only a few neighborhoods in Mogadishu.

In Somalia, the application of Islamic law in all legal matters is a major innovation. Until recently Somalis followed a customary law known as “Heer,” administered by elders rather than the government. Shari’a was reserved for family and inheritance cases. The imposition of Shari’a thus represents an extension of central authority into an essentially stateless society. The hasty implementation of Shari’a, however, has been done without the establishment of any consensus regarding the school of Islamic jurisprudence to be followed, among many other unsettled issues. Islamic law in south Somalia remains in the hands of the gunmen of the various armed opposition groups, who apply their own interpretation of Shari’a on an improvised basis.

Al-Shabaab’s Islam is of the Takfiri variety – in other words it seeks out all those who disagree with its crude variety of Salafism and condemns them as infidels. Needless to say, this is very polarizing and creates more enemies than friends, particularly in a country in which Salafism is a recent and unfamiliar intruder. This inflexibility in matters of religion is the main reason al-Shabaab has not yet taken Mogadishu and expelled the Transitional Federal Government. Instead of taking the capital last year, al-Shabaab chose to carry out a series of needless and unprofitable provocations against the vast Sufi religious community in Somalia, sparking the creation of a formidable Sufi militia dedicated not so much to the preservation of the TFG, as to the eradication of al-Shabaab. The Sufi militias are the militant expression of those Somalis who reject the introduction of the unfamiliar and untraditional Salafism promoted by al-Shabaab’s leaders.

Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys (Biyokulule)

The Takfiri approach of declaring a Muslim an apostate is based on a 13th century fatwa by Shaykh Ibn Taymiya, which declared an approaching but nominally Muslim Mongol horde as insincere in their allegiance to Islam, giving the Mamluk regime of Egypt and Syria the license they needed to combat fellow Muslims.  Al-Shabaab uses the apostate designation liberally, compelling Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of rival Islamist movement Hizb al-Islam, to condemn the “careless” and “detrimental” use of the term after al-Shabaab began applying it to Hizb al-Islam leaders. According to one such leader in the Juba region [Shaykh Abdinasir Serar], “al-Shabaab are after us because they regard us as infidels and they believe that anyone who opposes their policy has deserted the religion.”

In Sufi-dominated Islamic societies it is customary for the graves or tombs of noted Sufi shaykhs to become shrines and even places of pilgrimage for members of the Sufi orders. Salafists condemn this practice as un-Islamic and a violation of monotheism. In Somalia, al-Shabaab has engaged in the destruction of tombs belonging to venerated Sufi “saints.” In early December, 2008, al-Shabaab destroyed the tombs of several Sufi shaykhs in Kismayo, claiming Somali Sufis were worshipping the dead rather than God.

Again this year, just as al-Shabaab seemed ready to expel the TFG, it turned against its ally, the Hizb al-Islam Islamist militia, breaking its power-sharing agreement in the port of Kismayo. When the larger Hizb al-Islam movement objected, al-Shabaab began diverting resources to a new conflict with their former partners. A large al-Shabaab offensive in South Somalia in recent weeks has driven many Hizb al-Islam fighters out of the Juba valley across the border into the ethnic-Somali region of northeast Kenya. At the same time, the Sufis have mounted their own offensive against al-Shabaab in the adjacent Gedo region.

What separates al-Shabaab from the other movements in Somalia is the relentlessness of its attacks; Shabaab assassins are everywhere, tossing grenades into meetings of its rivals, gunning down politicians or driving bomb-laden vehicles into various security headquarters with devastating results. Two attempts have been made on the president this fall alone. Even mosques have become the target of bombs and grenades, a disturbing trend that follows patterns already seen in Iraq, Pakistan and Sudan. This ruthless tactical approach, which takes little heed of the lives of innocents, is beginning to resemble the worst excesses of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq – an explosion of almost senseless brutality inflicted on fellow Muslims.

In mid-November, Hizb al-Islam officials met with senior religious scholars in Mogadishu to examine ways of having the scholars play a more active role in resolving the conflict. The meeting was something of a breakthrough, since Hizb al-Islam is only one of a number of Islamist factions, including al-Shabaab, that have routinely ignored the fatwa-s of the religious scholars calling for an end to the fighting in Somalia. Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys, has given the TFG a list of demands to be met if Hizb al-Islam is to join a coalition government, an action sure to incite his partners in al-Shabaab, who refuse to have anything to do with the government in Mogadishu. Unfortunately for the shaykh, his power base is melting away as his followers turn their weapons over to al-Shabaab or flee to Kenya.

While al-Shabaab has received the verbal support of the core al-Qaeda leadership, including Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi, there are others in the Salafi-Jihadi movement who have cautioned al-Shabaab about their divisive approach.

After Hizb al-Islam and al-Shabaab came to blows over custody of two French intelligence agents snatched from their hotel in Mogadishu earlier this year, jihadi websites carried a long posting from so-called “Honest Scholars of Islam” advising the mujahideen to avoid disagreements and internal divisions. In their words; “Nothing is more harmful to jihad than division and conflict… You should know that uniting your ranks, words, and groups is more effective against the enemies of God almighty than dozens of operations… Beware of being lured into side battles that will exhaust you, weaken your power, disperse your efforts, and distract you.” The focus should remain on preparing for victory and empowerment. The scholars ask the Somali mujahideen to look to the future; if division and conflict occur now over the ruins of Mogadishu, “Imagine what will happen if you start fighting over money, leadership and power…?”

Shaykh Hamid al-Ali

Kuwait’s Shaykh Hamid al-Ali, one of the leading voices of Salafist ideology, says that the mujahideen must make greater efforts to win the Somali people over to their side. They must inform the people of their aims, and assure them that they are merely the continuation of the Islamic Courts Union, that ruled briefly in 2006, with, as Hamid al-Ali says, “reason, wisdom and righteousness.” Addressing al-Shabaab’s tendency to resolve all disputes by force, al-Ali reminds them that; “Power is used when it is needed and wise political action also has its place.”

Hamid al-Ali insists the transitional government of Shaykh Sharif is only an “Islamic façade” for a regional American plan. The president has added Islamic figures to his government, but these scholars either do not know the truth about him or have deceived themselves into thinking they will find the solution to Somalia’s troubles within “the framework of the ‘Muslim-American’ plan,” as he calls it. He compares the African Union force protecting the president to the NATO forces that guard the palace of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. According to the Shaykh, the president’s implementation of Shari’a was only an attempt to buy time until AFRICOM can achieve its objectives in Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi

Jordanian Salafi-Jihadi ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the former mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, condemns Shaykh Sharif as an agent of the Antichrist [al-Masih al-Dajal] whose version of paradise is an “American hellfire of AIDS, moral deterioration, economic corruption, social ruin, and rejection of God`s laws.” The remarks followed the Somali President’s attack on the terrorist and takfiri tendencies of al-Shabaab. According to al-Maqdisi, the American campaign against terrorism is nothing less than “a war on Islam and jihad.” He rejects criticism of al-Shabaab’s unpopular implementation of severe hudud punishments for violation of Islamic law, citing a saying that applying one hudud sentence is better for the people than a week’s worth of rain. He goes on to describe the Saudi Wahhabi scholars who reject the “exaggeration and extremism” of al-Shabaab’s version of Islamic jurisprudence in favor of a faith of mercy and compassion as advocates of the Khawarjite ideology of deception and distortion. In al-Maqdisi’s view, Shaykh Sharif has irrevocably tainted himself through association with non-believers, calling on Muslims in Somalia and elsewhere to announce their support for al-Shabaab.

Earlier this year, Osama bin Laden issued an appeal to the people of Somalia to rise up and overthrow the government of Shaykh Sharif. There are other Islamists, however, who question these short-sighted calls for political violence. A leading member of Somalia’s Muslim Brotherhood [Dr. Kamal al-Hilbawi] said, “We want to know the form of government that bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri want in Somalia. They are neither satisfied with HAMAS, nor the Muslim Brotherhood organization, or the moderate leader, Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad.” Somalia’s Muslim Brothers have in turn been criticized on Salafist web forums. The Muslim Brothers opposed the Islamic Courts Union and all the active militant Islamist groups, favoring gradual and moderate Islamic reforms over political violence. One jihadi ideologue [Dr. Akram Hijazi] suggested the Brothers’ peaceful approach was designed to allow them to conserve their strength before sweeping in to seize power from other Islamist movements that have exhausted themselves fighting foreign interference.

The chairman of the Somali Sufi movement [Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Muhieddin] recently described al-Shabaab as “misguided people who have misunderstood the true values of Islam.” By contrast the Ahlu Sunna wa’l-Jamaa Sufi movement is defending a way of life threatened by, as he put it, “al-Shabaab’s madness.” For now the Sufi movement promises to lay down arms as soon as al-Shabaab is eliminated, but armed movements tend to take on a life of their own. The Sufi militants are looking for military support and training, but complain none has been forthcoming. Despite this, the Sufis have a formidable nationwide network and are determined to avenge al-Shabaab’s destruction of the tombs and shrines of their saints.

One of the most egregious examples of sectarian violence in Somalia came in August when five Pakistani preachers were killed and two wounded in an attack on a mosque in central Somalia [Galkayo]. The preachers were recently arrived members of the Tablighi Jamaat, an international conservative Islamic movement based in Pakistan. The growth of the socially conservative Tablighi Jamaat in Somalia has come largely at the expense of the local Sufi orders, but the Sufi Ahlu Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a denied being behind the murders, as did al-Shabaab. For the Tablighis, the incident was a bitter reminder of the Ethiopian slaughter of 11 Jama’at members at a Mogadishu mosque in 2008.

And what about the loyalties of the actual gunmen? Continuing defections from one group to another suggest that, in typical Somali fashion, clan identification, belonging to the political group in the ascendance and a steady income are more important factors than ideology. The TFG claims to have received a number of defecting senior al-Shabaab commanders in recent weeks, as a result of these officials having come to the conclusion that the TFG is indeed an Islamic government. President Sharif has acknowledged his government is doing everything possible to widen the rift between Hizb al-Islam and al-Shabaab, though the unintentional result of this policy may be a stronger al-Shabaab.

This sudden explosion in Islamic sectarianism in Somalia will almost certainly extend the ongoing conflict and will present a formidable roadblock to a negotiated settlement, virtually the only hope for resolution in a nation where no single force seems capable of assuming control.           

The Baghdadi Tapes: Supposedly Imprisoned Iraqi Islamist Claims He Still Leads Fight against U.S. Occupation

Andrew McGregor

July 17, 2009

Despite the arrest on April 23 of a man identified by Iraqi authorities as Abu Omar al-Husayni al-Baghdadi, the elusive leader of the “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI), audio messages keep emerging from an unseen individual who identifies himself as the authentic Abu Omar al-Husayni (or al-Qurayshi) al-Baghdadi. There are several theories regarding the identification of the mysterious commander of the ISI, an organization closely connected to al-Qaeda in Iraq since its establishment was announced on October 15, 2006.

abu omar al-baghdadiPurported Photo of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi

The latest audio message, over 43 minutes long, emerged earlier this month (Al-Furqan Media Production Establishment-al-Fajr Media Center, July 7). In the audiotape, al-Baghdadi denounces Iraq’s “rejectionist” (i.e. Shiite) government for its celebration of the June 30 American withdrawal from Iraq’s cities in a so-called “Sovereignty Day”: “Even if the occupying Americans have no presence except in a small span of land in the desert of Iraq, away from all forms of lives, every Muslim has to practice jihad against them until their expulsion.”

The ISI leader says little has changed with the withdrawal from urban areas. The Americans still “have the right to interfere in the military, security, and economic affairs; including the right to exterminate, shell, destroy, terrorize, and detain. They have the right to get in and out of the country without any kind of supervision or search. They have the right to loot and plunder the wealth of the country under the guise of exportation, importation, and duty-free [trade].”

Al-Baghdadi has little use for Iraq’s leading Sunni politicians. While the newly elected speaker of parliament, Ayad al-Samarrai (a Sunni Arab and member of al-Tawafuq [Accord Party], the largest Sunni alliance in Iraq’s parliament) praised the U.S. pullback as proof the political process was the best option, the ISI leader insists al-Tawafuq has played “the ugliest role in the history of any agent group that betrays its religion and its country so far,” through its participation in drafting a secular constitution. Tawafuq leader Harith al-Obeidi was assassinated outside a west Baghdad mosque on June 12 in what the Interior Ministry believes was an al-Qaeda operation. The gunman was reported to have either been killed by the mosque’s security guards or to have blown himself up with a grenade (Times, June 12).

Al-Baghdadi goes on to describe Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi (former leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party and a potential presidential candidate) as a “criminal” responsible for forming and supporting the anti-al-Qaeda Awakening Councils. Al-Hashimi resigned as secretary-general of the Islamic Party in early June amidst speculation he had been named as an al-Qaeda collaborator during the interrogation of the individual who Iraqi authorities claim is the real Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 30).  Al-Hashimi describes the allegations as a “tempest in a teapot” and responds: “This is not the first time, and perhaps not the last, that the Iraqi Islamic Party is unfairly accused of links to Al-Qaeda. In this regard, I do not free from blame those who are lying to their people and promoting allegations, the falseness of which they are the first ones to know. I feel sorry for their political reputation, because lies will soon be revealed and because Iraqi citizens remember well al-Baghdadi’s statements and his threats to bring woe and affliction upon the members of the Iraqi Islamic Party” (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 4).

A number of other Iraqis have been arrested as a result of the “confessions” of the imprisoned man the state says is al-Baghdadi, including Abdul Jabbar Ibrahim, a leading Sunni politician, who now stands accused of terrorism.

Dissecting American Policy in Iraq

Al-Baghdadi argues the American withdrawal from the cities is meaningless as “the U.S. occupier has not come to Iraq to withdraw from it.” The Americans are motivated by economic interests and religious “fallacies,” including “defending the Jewish state [of Israel].”

Al-Baghdadi suggests the American pullback has less to do with strategic objectives than with the war being “the key and genuine reason” for the economic crisis in the United States. In addition, the costs of physical and psychological treatment for U.S. combat veterans and their families are steadily increasing. The departure of most of America’s allies from Iraq and the “devilish alliance [the Coalition]” has increased the economic costs of maintaining the occupation. The “doctrinal, military and ethical steadfastness” of the ISI has “astonished the occupation and made it lose its mind.” The result is the U.S. occupation forces have realized that “the Muslim giant will never die, even if it becomes sick.”

Pointing to the bankruptcy of General Motors and other major American companies, al-Baghdadi says the situation is reminiscent of that which preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ISI leader expects an American collapse “during the administration of the black of Washington” (i.e. President Barack Obama). Shortly after last year’s U.S. presidential election, al-Baghdadi called on the new president to turn to Islam; “I call on you to believe in the one and only God who has no partners. Then declare your Islam so that you may be safe in the worldly life and the afterlife… You have inherited a distorted religion which contains much more falsehood than truth. It was corrupted by [the Byzantine emperor] Constantine and his unjust assistants and followers, who were seeking glory in this mundane world” (al-Furqan, November 7, 2008). Al-Baghdadi went on to suggest an American return to its pre-war policy of isolationism would be rewarded by trade with an independent and Islamic Iraq:

America used to be impartial until World War II, during which it enjoyed security, safety, and development. Once this nation started to lose impartiality and interfere in the affairs of others, it began to lose everything for the sake of a gang of arms and oil dealers who led an entire nation like slaves to destructive wars as a fuel for their endless greed. Today, on behalf of my brothers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Chechnya, I propose to you what is good for you and for us; namely, to return to impartiality, withdraw your troops and go home, and not to interfere in the affairs of our countries directly or indirectly. We promise that we will not stop the trading of oil or other commodities with you, provided that justice is achieved, and provided the prices are not cheap (al-Furqan, November 7, 2008).

Apparently disappointed with the president’s failure to accept his invitation to “return” to Islam, al-Baghdadi has since described the president as “a hireling who apostatized from his religion [Islam]” (al-Furqan, May 30).

Addressing Iraqi Opposition to the Islamic State of Iraq

The ISI leader is critical of other mujahideen groups active in Iraq, mocking them as “phony names for groups visualized in the imagination of those who created them… These names, phony or real, were then blessed by the new leaders in a plan to overlook the Islamic State of Iraq under the pretext that it only represents 10 percent of jihad forces, and that it has no political program… according to their fabrications, [the ISI] is socially outcast as if it came from outer space.” Al-Baghdadi rebukes those who suggest the ISI has no political program; “Is lifting the banner of secularism in the name of democracy and the call for the return of the Ba’ath Party a political program while the Islamic State is not?… The time of patriotism, nationalism and Ba’athism has ended for good, along with its advocates, God willing. We believe that this is the time of the holders of the banner which says there is no god but God [i.e. the monotheist Salafists of the ISI]” (al-Furqan, July 7).

The statement accuses the Badr Corps, the Mahdi Army and the Da’wah Party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of forming a “rejectionist [i.e. Shiite] tripartite” ruling group in Baghdad that was “raised in the embrace” of Ayatollah Khomeini and has “unprecedented aggression and hate toward anything that is Sunni or Arab” (al-Baghdadi here ignores the fact virtually all Iraq’s Shiites are Arabs). He alleges the Iraqi Shiites (a majority in Iraq) are using all the “tricks and cunning methods the Persians are famous for throughout their history,” including the utilization of democracy as a means of establishing a Shiite state in Iraq. Al-Baghdadi accuses the “dogs of the Awakening Council” of collaborating in this project (al-Furqan, July 7).

The Zionist-Christian Conspiracy to Drive Islam from Jerusalem

In late May, al-Baghdadi released a statement regarding Christian-Jewish ties on the occasion of the Pope’s visit to the Middle East (al-Furqan, May 30). In a 40 minute audio recording entitled “Al-Aqsa [Jerusalem] Between the Deviation of the Christians and the Deception of the Jews,” al-Baghdadi notes the importance some Protestant Christians (particularly those in America) place on the literal interpretation of the first five books of the Old Testament (corresponding to the Jewish Torah) and the prophecies found therein. According to al-Baghdadi, the Jews found this approach “beneficial to their objectives, especially since this movement [i.e. Evangelical Protestantism] began to work strongly toward the idea of the return of the Jews to the holy land in Palestine.”

Although Catholicism has traditionally rejected Zionism as a literal interpretation of symbolic texts, al-Baghdadi suggests the Roman Catholic Church has lately been infiltrated by Zionists, thus explaining the timing of Pope Benedict’s trip to Israel at a time when that nation is ruled by a “fanatical right-wing government” and his outreach to the Jews while ignoring the suffering of the Muslim and Christian Palestinians.

Al-Baghdadi ties the timing of the trip to Benjamin Netanyahu’s determination to reconstruct the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and the apocalyptic thread of Zionist Christianity that believes the temple must be rebuilt before the second coming of Christ will occur. He compares the “end-times” beliefs of each of the three religions of the book:

• The Muslims await the return of Issa ibn Maryam (Jesus, the son of Mary) to “break the cross… and kill his enemies the Jews and his Christian worshippers.”
• The Christians await the return of Jesus to “kill the Muslims and all those who do not believe in his religion at the battle of Armageddon.”
• The Jews await the descendant of David [i.e. the Messiah] so he may “kill the Christians and the Muslims.”

Both Christians and Jews believe the establishment of the state of Israel and the return of the Jews to Palestine are the first step in ushering in the return of their Saviour, according to al-Baghdadi, who accuses the Jews of building a tunnel beneath the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque that leads to halls inside the Temple Mount where Jews can pray as “they wait to move to the top floors” when the Islamic holy sites have been destroyed, allowing the reconstruction of the Jewish temple.

According to the ISI leader, Christians and Jews “have disagreed on many things, even on the God that they worship, but they do not disagree on the sanctity of Jerusalem, the return of the Messiah to it, their animosity to Muslims, or the necessity of annihilating them and rebuilding the temple… They are working hard to demolish al-Aqsa.” Al-Baghdadi warns that Muslims are coming from Khorasan [Central Asia], the Maghreb, Somalia and Yemen to foil these plans. The Pope’s call for peaceful coexistence between “the occupiers and the oppressed” demonstrated “his support for the [Zionist] entity’s existence and its right to our desecrated lands.” Al-Baghdadi threatens retaliation against the traditional Christians sects of the Middle East. A series of bombings targeted Christian churches earlier this month (AFP, July 13; Reuters, July 14).

Who Is the Real Baghdadi?

U.S. forces in Iraq have long maintained that al-Baghdadi was a fictitious character played by an actor named Abu Abdullah al-Naima, but later claimed the role of ISI leader had been filled by a real person after the police chief in Haditha claimed in May 2008 that interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects revealed al-Baghdadi was actually a former Haditha native named Hamed Dawood Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi, who had been dismissed from the security services for extremism (Al-Arabiya, May 7, 2008; CBS, May 7, 2008). On May 27, Iraqi security forces reported the arrest of a man they identified as “al-Baghdadi’s brother,” Zaydan Abd Ahmad al-Majmai (al-Sumaria TV, May 27).

U.S. forces have never confirmed the arrest of al-Baghdadi, obviously sharing the same suspicions that cut across Iraqi society. Many members of Iraq’s parliament have expressed their doubts about the identity of the arrested suspect, noting that there have been numerous false reports in the past of al-Baghdadi’s arrest or death (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 30). Al-Baghdadi’s arrest was reported three times in one week alone in March 2007.

According to the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, voice analysts have confirmed the voice on the latest audiotapes is the same as the one that appeared on tapes for two years preceding the arrest of the man Iraqi authorities claim is al-Baghdadi (al-Hayat, May 28). Al-Hayat’s account included an interview with “a prominent Iraqi security source” who suggested authorities had arrested the wrong man: “Al-Baghdadi is a former Iraqi Army officer. He served as a mosque imam in the Al-Hashimiyat region in al-Anbar before he joined the al-Qaeda organization in December 2005… the person who is being held prisoner by the Iraqi Government is Ahmad al-Ahmadi, a former member of the local council in Bahraz.” Various jihadi web forums presented their own versions of the arrest, including suggestions the arrest had been fabricated to attract foreign investment to Iraq, or claims that al-Baghdadi had been detained in Syria and handed over to Iraqi security forces.

The individual claiming to be the true al-Baghdadi has rejected the arrest as a ruse designed to force him into the open; “The key purpose of their lie is to force me to appear, undisguised, in a video. This is a stupid trick that will not force me to do anything. I will appear to the whole world when I want to and when it benefits the mujahideen in the midst of the upcoming victory, God willing… the voice in my audiotapes belongs to me, not to a spokesperson who speaks on my behalf or others and without retouching or alterations (al-Furqan, May 30).

On May 18, Major General Qasim Atta displayed footage of the interrogation of the alleged ISI leader at a media conference. The individual shown stated; “I was born in 1969 and I’m from Diyala [province]. I joined al-Qaeda in 2005 and I formed the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006… I named myself Abu Omar al-Baghdadi because the name Abu Omar represents the Sunnis and al-Baghdadi [represents] the centre of Iraq…” The suspect then went on to describe the internal and external financing of al-Qaeda in Iraq and claimed responsibility for the February 2006 bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra that nearly sparked an all-out sectarian war between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites (AFP, May 18). According to General Atta, al-Baghdadi’s real name is Ahmad Abd Ahmad, a 40-year-old former military officer. The general was contradicted by Iraq’s National Security Minister, Sharwan al-Wa’ili, who claimed the detained suspect is a former associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi whose real name is Ma’ad Ibrahim Muhammad: “He is a former officer of the Republican Guard. Saddam Hussein pardoned him after he was sentenced to death on charges of belonging to Salafi groups. The U.S. and Iraqi forces arrested him several times, but did not discover his identity.”


As the controversy over al-Baghdadi’s alleged arrest continues, the latest audiotapes show a use of language, phrases and ideas based on a wide knowledge of history, political trends and intellectual concepts consistent with statements released before the arrest of the man Iraqi security forces claim is the real Baghdadi. This consistency and the content of the messages raise questions about the true identity of the ISI’s Amir. The audiotapes seem unlikely to be the work of a former low-level security officer or the imam of a local mosque. Baghdad has been unable so far to convince American security forces or even most Iraqis of the legitimacy of their claim to have arrested the real ISI commander. The recent surge in al-Qaeda bombings and assassinations suggests the group remains a dangerous security threat to a restructured Iraqi state, regardless of the real identity of the man giving confessions from an Iraqi prison.


This article first appeared in the July 17, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


President Obama’s Outreach to the Muslim World (I) – Afghan Taliban Attack Barack Obama’s “Arrogant” Cairo Speech

Andrew McGregor

June 12, 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama’s June 4 speech in Cairo was seen by many observers as an outreach to the Islamic world. Within that world, some welcomed his words, some wait to see if deeds of substance accompany those words, while others, such as the Afghan Taliban, described the President’s words as nothing more than “misleading slogans” that “failed to deliver a clear and true message to the Muslim world.” The speech failed to contain any “sign of practical change in the hostile policy of America towards Muslims” (Afghan Islamic Press, June 5).

Obama Egypt 2In a point-by-point deconstruction of the speech, the Afghan Taliban analyzed and condemned most of the material within the President’s address, which sought to lay a groundwork for repairing relations with the Islamic world:

• The Taliban described the president’s claims of tolerance and good-will as inconsistent with American actions, particularly those of its “occupation forces,” which are committing “mass murder” and imprisoning Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq in “the most hateful prisons of the world.” As a result of these “illegal” activities, “Obama’s baseless speech has no importance.”

• The statement objected to the President’s justification of the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a “legitimate struggle to secure U.S. interests… According to national and international laws, the occupation of independent countries and hostile war against their free nations cannot be called a legitimate war.”

• The Taliban accused the President of wanting to separate Muslims from “their real protectors,” the mujahideen.  The speech is described as an effort to divide the Muslim community. “Today, all vigilant Muslims are engaged in jihad in one way or the other. Therefore, the U.S. war against the mujahideen is considered a war against all Muslim nations and Islam.”

• Obama’s claim that America was not seeking a permanent military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan is contradicted by the ongoing construction of military bases and airports in both countries, as well as the President’s stated intention of sending additional military forces to Afghanistan. “This large number of airports and countless number of military bases are established at a time when they do not need even half of them, given the number of their forces and daily military flights. This shows that Americans are intending to permanently remain in and occupy the region.”

• The President’s contention that U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan if peace is achieved “is quite funny… The presence of Americans is the main cause of violence and the current problems in the region. Jihad and resistance against American forces will continue as long as they are present in Afghanistan.”

• The Taliban also objected to the President’s use of the Jewish Holocaust to demand that Muslims avoid the “deeply wrong” practices of “threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews.” The Taliban statement claims President Obama “described Israel as the most innocent and worthy nation of the world” while summarizing the 70-years of Palestinian suffering in “a few misleading words.” While the President did contend that “the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security,” the Taliban condemned Obama for failing to speak about the blockade of Gaza and Israeli efforts to deny the passage of medicines and basic food items to Gazan residents. The President also ignored the fact that “mass murders are committed [in Palestine] at every moment.”

In its summary of the President’s address, the Taliban statement remarked that President Obama did not come with conciliatory intentions, but with an “arrogant notion” to give orders to the Muslim world.


This article first appeared in the June 12, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor