Salafist Shaykh Hussein bin Mahmud on the Libyan Uprising

Andrew McGregor

April 7 2011

A Salafist view of the Libyan revolt has been offered in two interviews with a noted militant ideologist and contributor to prominent jihadi forums who uses the pseudonym of Shaykh Hussein bin Mahmud (Dar al-Murabiteen Publications, February 22; February 25).

Shaykh Hussein describes the Libyan insurrection against Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi’s regime as a jihad, saying its aim is to “oust this idiot in order to spare the blood of Muslims and save their dignity.” The shaykh claims that jihad in Libya is now an obligatory duty (fard ‘ayn) for every capable person in Libya as well as Muslims in the neighboring countries of Egypt, Algeria, Chad, Sudan and Niger.

Salafist Libya 2
As well as moving on Sirte and Tarablus (Tripoli), the shaykh urges the rebels to move on the southern desert city of Sabha, a Qaddafi stronghold and a strategic point connecting coastal Libya with the African interior. To succeed in Libya, Shaykh Hussein suggests the rebels take control of all government institutions and media outlets, capture and sentence to death Qaddafi’s sons, form a transitional committee from tribal leaders, scholars and military officers and avoid trusting the West or the rulers of other Arab countries. As for Qaddafi, “I wish they slaughter him in the largest ground of Tripoli publicly in front of the cameras.”

Salafist LibyaYusuf al-Qaradawi

Asked about a fatwa issued by Qatar-based Muslim Brother and TV preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi that permitted Libyans to kill Qaddafi, Shaykh Hussein mocked the influential cleric’s ruling: “I heard the statement of Qaradawi. A few years back, he used to visit [Qaddafi] and smile in his face and now he is giving the fatwa to kill him! He visits many Arab rulers and sits with them and praises them! And we say to him: What if the people of all the [Arab] nations go out against the rulers, will you give fatwa to kill them?”

The shaykh notes that the reputations of Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi have been destroyed in recent months, revealing their true nature as apostates, infidels and blood-spillers. Shaykh Hussein, however, sees the inspiration of Osama bin Laden behind the revolts in the Arab world: “Wasn’t Shaykh Osama saying all this for almost three decades and he was thrown out as a Kharijite [i.e. a heretic] and a takfiri and hypocrite? What is the difference? He incited the people to go out and the people have gone out! What is the difference?” The shaykh maintains that only violent resistance can complete the revolution: “The youth did not die for Hosni to go and his party to stay…”

Shaykh Hussein points out that Libya’s unconventional government structure (the Jamahiriya) has created a problem for the West in trying to identify an appropriate candidate to rule Libya “according to their desires.” Whereas in Egypt and Tunisia the ruler was removed and the government stabilized, there is no government in Libya outside of Qaddafi. In Egypt and Tunisia, this process has resulted in rule now being back in the hands of the former government.

In his second message, Shaykh Hussein elaborated on the theme of Jewish/Israeli support for Qaddafi’s regime, specifically identifying the Israeli security firm Global CST as the contractor responsible for supplying mercenaries to the regime. Now it has become clear that the mercenaries “are working for the Jewish government, so these people should be killed and tortured the severest of tortures in accordance with the sayings of Allah Almighty.”

Shaykh Hussein refers here to unverified reports carried in the Iranian and Arab press that Israeli security firm Global CST received approval from the head of Israeli intelligence and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to provide Qaddafi with 50,000 African mercenaries. The reports allege the Libyan side of the contract was handled by Abdullah al-Sanusi, Libya’s intelligence chief and brother-in-law of Qaddafi (Press TV, March 2). Global CST, or Global Group, was founded in 2005 by Major General Israel Ziv and carries out “security and commercial large-scale projects” in South America, Africa and Eastern Europe, according to its website. No evidence has been provided to support the allegations.

Since the rebellion in Libya began, Qaddafi has asserted al-Qaeda was behind the violent unrest, a claim Shaykh Hussein says is designed to force the rebels to denounce Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, thus ending their hope for Islamic rule in Libya. The al-Qaeda ideologist condemned a double standard that discourages al-Qaeda fighters from entering the fray in Libya: “It is permitted for [Qaddafi] to bring his disbelieving Africans to kill Muslims, and it is prohibited for the Muslims to come with the mujahideen to help them!”

Restoring the Caliphate in Yemen: A Profile of Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani

Andrew McGregor

March 31, 2011

After decades of loyalty to Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s best known and most controversial Islamic scholar has called for the regime’s downfall and the creation of an Islamic Caliphate in the southern Arabian Peninsula. The defection of the influential Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, whose name appears on the designated terrorist lists of the United States and the UN, is a major blow to the President’s attempts to rally support for his three-decade-old regime.

ZindaniShaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani,

Early Career

Shaykh al-Zindani was born in a small village near the southern city of Ibb, somewhere between 1938 and 1942 (the date has never been clarified).  He grew up in Ibb and Aden before leaving Yemen to pursue studies in pharmacology. Al-Zindani studied sciences at Cairo’s Ain Shams University before turning to Islamic studies. After returning to Yemen in 1966 he worked in religious activities in Saudi Arabia, returning to Yemen in 1970 to begin organizing the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood based on his experience of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood while a student in Egypt. After meeting Osama bin Laden in Saudi Arabia, al-Zindani also became involved in recruiting and transporting Saudi and Yemeni recruits to join the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

Following the 1990 unification of Yemen, al-Zindani became a leading member of al-Tajammu al-Yemeni li’l-Islah (Yemeni Congregation for Reform, commonly known as al-Islah). As led by Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar (d. 2007), chief of the Hashid tribal confederation, al-Islah came to combine tribal groups along with former GPC members, local Salafists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood in a single political party with a broad commitment to Islamizing Yemen, but without getting into the kind of details that might divide the alliance. Al-Zindani served as president of the party’s Central Shura Council from 1995 to 2007, when he took a seat on the party’s Supreme Board.

Iman: An Islamic University

Al-Zindani founded Iman University in 1995 to implement his ideas on Islamic education. The Sana’a-based University opened its doors to foreign students (including American jihadis John Walker Lindh and Anwar al-Awlaki) and grew in popularity due to its free tuition, accommodation and food, but there are reports the institution is becoming a drain on Islah Party resources. [1]

An Islah Party member who graduated from Iman University said the institution was nothing more than “a large school of Quranic memorization” that does not even offer courses in Islamic philosophy and Arabic literature. According to the former student, all those attending the university are closely observed while having only limited access to censored internet and television facilities. By the time of graduation, students leave the campus believing “all women are corrupt and men are dissolute” (Yemen Observer, May 5, 2010).

A number of reputed graduates of al-Iman University are reported to have taken part in political violence in Yemen, including Ali Ahmad al-Jarallah, the 2002 assassin of Jarallah Omar, the deputy secretary general of the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP). Al-Zindani denied that the assassin had any connection to al-Iman, though the lawyer for Jarallah Omar’s family sought to have the case reopened to question several new suspects, including al-Zindani (Yemen Observer, October 16, 2004; AP, July 3, 2004). 

Al-Zindani and the Global Jihad

The United States made al-Zindani a designated “global terrorist” in February, 2004, accusing the shaykh of acting as a spiritual leader for al-Qaeda and fundraising for the organization through his Charitable Society for Social Welfare (CSSW). [2] Anwar al-Awlaki served as vice-president of the CSSW from 1996 to 1999. The shaykh was also placed under sanctions by the UN Security Council. [3] Al-Zindani responded by demanding that the government of Yemen raise his terrorist designation at the UN Security Council (Yemen held one of the rotating seats on the council at the time) while denouncing his U.S. designation: “The government [of Yemen] has already demanded that the United States administration bring its evidence against me… Their case against me is as strong as it was against Iraq when they accused it of developing weapons of mass destruction” (Yemen Observer, October 16, 2004). As President Saleh defended al-Zindani and did his best to ignore the sanctions against the shaykh, al-Zindani made a temporary but strategic retreat from the global arena to increase his focus on domestic politics.

The shaykh suggested his terrorist designation was the result of accusations from the ruling GPC (though not Saleh) and his own opposition to American foreign policy: “Is it not my right to object? Americans stand in front of the White House with banners protesting the government policy of the White House and it is their right. I am a citizen of whom these policies directly affect me, my nation and religion. Am I not allowed to say what is wrong? Where are human rights? We criticize the American policy that is 100% biased towards Zionism” (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 23, 2004).

Al-Zindani opposes Yemen’s cooperation with the United States in the “War on Terrorism,” warning Yemenis of the possibility of foreign military occupation and “the return of colonialism”: “The day parliament allows the occupation of Yemen, the people will rise up against it and bring it down” (BBC, January 11). The position adopted by al-Zindani and other leading clerics in Yemen has been mocked by al-Qaeda deputy leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who said it was pointless to wait for a foreign invasion to declare jihad when the Yemen government was already cooperating with the U.S. military: “What more are they waiting for to call for jihad? … Are they waiting for the U.S. soldiers to appear on the streets of Sana’a in their tanks?”

Recently, al-Zindani has tried to distance himself from al-Qaeda, saying he has no knowledge of their activities in Yemen. He has similarly said he has no influence over the American jihadi preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who has made his ancestral home of Yemen a base for pro-al-Qaeda propaganda activities: “I was never a direct teacher for Anwar al-Awlaki” (BBC, January 11, 2010).

As the head of a committee of Islamic scholars, al-Zindani condemned the terrorism of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in a November 2010 meeting with President Saleh. Al-Zindani’s committee called on Yemen’s Islamic scholars to focus on non-violence and to urge Yemen’s Muslims to seek moderation rather than extremism (Yemen Observer, November 4, 2010).

Regardless of al-Zindani’s personal sympathies, there is little evidence that he is in any way connected to the ongoing operations or activities of al-Qaeda, though of course this might have something to do with the absence of investigations in Yemen into his ties to the terrorist group.

Medical Forays

Besides his religious and political prominence in Yemen, al-Zindani has built a reputation based on his advocacy of al-I’jiz al-ilmi fi al-Quran wa’l-Sunnah, “the scientific wonders of the Quran and Sunnah.” Part of the Islamic revival, this intellectual trend involves finding proof of prior knowledge of modern scientific discoveries in the words of the Quran and Sunnah. With funding from the Saudi government’s Muslim World League, al-Zindani founded the Commission on Scientific Signs in the Quran and Sunnah in 1984, serving as the group’s secretary-general until 1995.

In December 2006, al-Zindani announced he had developed “Eajaz-3,” an herbal cure for HIV/AIDS that had no side effects while eliminating the disease in men, women and even fetuses (Yemen Observer, December 19, 2006). However, the head of the Clinical Immunology Services at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University refuted al-Zindani’s claims after inspecting provided blood samples, even going so far as to say if he was the Minister of Health, he would throw al-Zindani in jail (Yemen Observer, November 19, 2009; Yemen Times, April 4, 2008) Nonetheless, al-Zindani went on to claim that he and his medical team of researchers from all over the Arab world had also discovered treatments for Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and Diabetes (Saba, April 12, 2008).

The Regime’s Man

Al-Zindani enjoyed great influence in Yemen when his Islah Party became the junior partner in a coalition led by the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) in 1990. The shaykh even became a personal adviser to President Saleh in this period. This situation lasted until the alliance broke up in 1997 when Saleh’s GPC refused to introduce democratic reforms. [4] Though al-Islah was nominally part of the opposition from this point, al-Ahmar and al-Zindani continued to maintain close connections to President Saleh.

When southern Yemen attempted to re-establish its independence in 1994, al-Zindani was able to use his contacts with Yemeni veterans of the Afghan jihad to raise a force of experienced fighters ready to combat a socialist southern Yemen on behalf of President Saleh and the regime in Sana’a.

Taking advantage of a growing number of vigilante incidents involving individuals enforcing Islamic law in several cities, al-Zindani created the Authority for Protecting Virtue and Fighting Vice (the Virtue Councils) in 2009 with the endorsement of President Saleh (Yemen Times, July 17, 2008).  The councils were designed to identify infractions of Islamic law and report them to Yemeni police for enforcement.

Al-Zindani placed himself at the center of the “Prophet Muhammad cartoons” controversy in Yemen by collecting funds to pursue lawsuits against newspapers and editors who republished the cartoons originally carried by Copenhagen’s Jyllands-Posten. However, the shaykh ran into solid opposition from Yemen’s journalists and was embarrassed by revelations that the cartoons had been copied and distributed at Iman University (NewsYemen, March 3, 2006).

Zindani Joins the Opposition

As leader of the Yemeni Religious Scholars Society, al-Zindani played an important role in coordinating the scholars with the political opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), in an effort to form a government of national unity that would make changes to the constitution, release political prisoners and bring an end to the cycle of protests across Yemen (NewsYemen, February 28).

Only a week after describing anti-government demonstrations as “illegal,” al-Zindani marked his break with the Saleh regime by appearing before a crowd of tens of thousands of demonstrators in Sana’a, surrounded by a private security team of men armed with AK-47 assault rifles. The shaykh told those assembled that the president could only be removed by the “force of the people” before a new Islamic state could be formed to replace the current government (Day Press [Damascus], March 2). Al-Zindani’s call for a khilafah rashidah (righteous Calphate) was met with an enthusiastic response from the assembly. [5]

Apparently rattled by the continuing demonstrations and the defection of al-Zindani and other former prominent members of the regime, President Saleh declared his government was the victim of a plot created in Tel Aviv under American supervision (Day Press [Damascus], March 2). When word of Saleh’s remarks reached Washington he was compelled to quickly issue an apology.

In a lengthy interview with a local daily, American ambassador Gerald Feierstein said the United States would like to see “free and fair” elections in Yemen, but not if a party like Hamas won. More specifically, Feierstein warned against the election of al-Zindani: “Abdul Majid al-Zindani, as you know, is on the terrorism list both of the United States and the United Nations, so we would have a problem if he were elected President, absolutely… Zindani is on the terrorism list and therefore we would have a problem with him taking any kind of position in the government (Yemen Observer, March 14).

Following al-Zindani’s break with Saleh, the government began a media campaign against the cleric, suddenly reminding one and all that U.S. Ambassador Feierstein had stated al-Zindani was still considered a wanted terrorist by the United States and the UN (Yemen Times, March 13).

By mid-March, al-Zindani was reported to have left Sana’a for his home village of Arhab, just north of the capital, where he could count on the support of several hundred armed militants to defend him from government retribution (, March 14).


Traditionally protected by the president, Saleh has always appeared at the periphery of religious/political violence rather than at its center. Iman University operates with minimal supervision and the shaykh has always enjoyed wide access to all forms of media in Yemen, making him a popular figure in many parts of Yemen. Sanctions have never been applied to al-Zindani within Yemen and the very idea that he might be the subject of an investigation has seemed absurd until now. In reality, al-Zindani has made a bold decision to throw off the cloak of immunity offered by President Saleh, one that has served the shaykh well for many years. Al-Zindani’s choice might be regarded as an insider’s calculated assessment of President Saleh’s chances of political survival. However, if the shaykh is serious about establishing a Caliphate in Yemen, it may also be the beginning of a play for power.


  1. Al-Zindani later denied Lindh attended Iman University – see al-Arabiya, August 4, 2004.
  4. For the Islah Party, see Amr Hamzawy, Between Government and Opposition: The Case of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, Carnegie Papers 18, Washington D.C., 2009,
  5. See the video at:

This article first appeared in the March 31, 2011 issue of the Militant Leadership Monitor.

Afghan Taliban Issue Guidelines for Establishment of Islamic Emirate

Andrew McGregor

February 3, 2011

One of the major weaknesses of most militant Islamist groups is their almost complete lack of a political program or consideration of how an Islamic State should be run beyond a general commitment to Shari’a and the creation of an Islamic caliphate. Details as to how this caliphate is to be administered or who is to be its leader are rarely considered by militants. The last Caliph, Abdul Mejid II, was deposed by Turkish secularist Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk” in 1924. A notable exception to this trend is Afghanistan’s Taliban movement, which actually has experience running a country, as it did in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The Afghan model as pursued by the Taliban is more realistic in seeking an Emirate (a regional command) rather than a Caliphate (the latter encompassing the entire Islamic world).

Last CaliphThe Last Caliph – Abdul Mejid II

Nevertheless, the Emirate is “based upon the principles of the Islamic Caliphate… in dividing the country into provinces, appointing pious and righteous governors, guiding workers to piety and justice, encouraging the establishment of a religious and worldly policy, tending to the needs of the people, instructing them in matters of religion and encouraging them to make the utmost effort in promoting virtue and preventing vice.”

Discussion of the Taliban’s administrative plans for Afghanistan has been stirred by a detailed outline of these plans in the movement’s Voice of Jihad website (January 27). The outline, written by Ikram Miyundi, was previously published in the movement’s al-Somood Magazine (Issue 55, December 25, 2010).

For guidance, the Islamic Emirate must draw on the Koran, the Sunnah (sayings and habits) of the Prophet Muhammad, the Sunnah of the Khulafa ur-Rashidun (The Caliphs of Righteousness, i.e. the first four caliphs after Muhammad), the sayings of the Companions (of the Prophet), as well as various fatwas (religious-based legal decisions) issued by respected scholars of Islam.

Administratively, the Emirate divides Afghanistan into 34 provinces, which are in turn divided into directorates and villages:

• The village is run by a leader appointed by the Emirate who is responsible for civilian and military affairs. In this he is assisted by a group of ten to 50 mujahideen.

• The directorate is administered by a governor “of known piety” who is assisted by a deputy familiar with the region. Under them are committees dealing with dispute resolution, education, development and local military affairs.

• Provincial administration is handled by a provincial governor, “a man of religion and morality who fears no one but Allah,” and a deputy. The governor directs the province’s military, civilian, financial and legal affairs and is responsible for the implementation of Shari’a laws and statutes. The governor is appointed and dismissed by the Supreme Commander after consultation with the High Shura Council.

Just below the High Shura Councils are the “Main Committees,” which in effect replace the existing ministries of the Afghan government. These include:

• The Military Committee – Overseeing the mujahideen and replacing the Ministry of Defense.

• Preaching and Guidance Committee – Senior scholars issuing fatwas and advice on matters of Islamic jurisprudence.

• Culture and Information Committee – Responsible for broadcasting statements of the Amir al-Mu’minin and other government directors. This committee is also responsible for news dissemination and refuting claims of enemies of the Emirate on internet websites.

• Political Committee – Replaces the Foreign Ministry.

• Education Committee – Responsible for spreading “Islamic and contemporary learning.”

• Financial Committee – Responsible for all financial affairs and resources.

• Committee for Prisoners and Orphans – Works for the release of mujahideen prisoners and provides resources for the upbringing of their children and the children of martyrs.

• Health Committee – Responsible for treating wounded and sick mujahideen.

• Committee for Foreign Establishments – This committee directs the operations of foreign relief and aid agencies and makes sure they do not do anything contrary to Islamic theology and beliefs.

Directing the committees is the High Shura Council, appointed by the Amir al-Mu’minin and responsible for drafting laws and regulations in accordance with Islamic principles.

At the peak of the administration is the Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful): “The leader is the axis around which matters pivot. He employs the community to achieve his goals and directs people to goodness and happiness. He warns them against evil and danger according to his lights.” The Amir must be male, of sound mind and emotion, and possess the qualities of knowledge, vision, strength, courage and wisdom. He must have excellent organizational skills as well as other qualities mentioned in the existing books of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and ‘aqidah (Islamic theology).

This title, first used by the second Caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab, has been used in various capacities by both the Sunni and Shiite communities. It became widely used by the leaders of the Sahelian sultanates in Africa (such as Darfur) and continues to be used by the Sultan of Morocco. Mullah Omar has used the title since founding the Taliban in 1994.

This article first appeared in the February 3, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Defeating the “Forces of Paganism”: Former Military Intelligence Chief Hamid Gul Blends Pakistani Nationalism and Islamic Revolution

Andrew McGregor

January 28, 2011

The retired former chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, is one of the most controversial political figures in Pakistan. Despite his once extremely close ties with the American Central Intelligence Agency during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Gul has since become one of Pakistan’s harshest critics of American foreign policy in South and Central Asia. Speaking at a recent Sufi ceremony in the northeastern Punjab town of Gujranwala, Gul, who was director of the ISI from 1987 to 1989, suggested that conflicts in Afghanistan have historically been a catalyst for massive change in South Asia and that “this change is knocking at our door… The forces of paganism have faced the worst defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq, but these forces are reluctant to accept their defeat. By 2012, these forces will be totally exhausted.” In Pakistan, however, Gul says what is needed is not a bloodbath, but rather a “soft Islamic revolution” (Nawa-i-Waqt, Rawalpindi, January 17).

Gul 1Hamid Gul and Taliban Friends

General Gul is certainly one of the most talkative former intelligence directors in the world, constantly seeking the spotlight through provocative remarks presented in a seemingly endless series of television and print interviews. While the United States has regularly claimed Gul is a supporter of al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, Gul counters that his activities are strictly based on morality, Pakistani sovereignty and the struggle of Muslims to free themselves from foreign occupation and manipulation:

The Americans sent my name to the UN Security Council to put me on a sanctions list and declare me an international terrorist. But they failed because the Chinese knew the truth well and blocked that move. Basically, the Americans have nothing against me. I saw the charges and I replied to them in the English-language press in Pakistan. I said if they have anything against me to bring it forward, put me on trial. Tell me what wrong I have done. I have been taking moral stands. The Americans talk of freedom of speech, but apparently my speech hurts them because it counters their excesses… I do not support terror at all, but jihad is our right when a nation is oppressed. According to the United Nations Charter, national resistance for liberation is a right. We call this a jihad (al-Jazeera, February 17, 2010).

Pakistan’s Relations with the United States

In his capacity as Director General of Military Intelligence (DGMI) under General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and later ISI director under Benazir Bhutto, Gul worked closely with American intelligence agencies in coordinating and supplying the Afghan mujahideen’s struggle against Soviet occupation. This relationship began to suffer when Gul observed that American funding and interest in Afghanistan declined rapidly after the expulsion of the Soviets in 1989.  Sanctions related to Pakistan’s secret nuclear program further inflamed Gul, who tried to rally Muslim opposition to the U.S. led “War on Terrorism.” According to Gul: “The Muslim world must stand united to confront the U.S. in its so-called war against terror which is in reality a war against Muslims. Let us destroy America wherever its troops are trapped” (Daily Times [Lahore], August 30, 2003).

Gul continues to view the United States as the adversary of the Islamic world, telling a Rawalpindi daily that America will never be Pakistan’s friend – in fact, it is an even greater enemy than India (Nawa-i-Waqt [Rawalpindi], January 17). The former ISI chief claims U.S. military contractors (read Blackwater/XE) and CIA-directed drone attacks are actively working to destabilize Pakistan from within.

The former ISI chief continues to maintain the 9/11 attacks were part of an American plot to seize the resource-rich Muslim states, a plot that later instigated the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) siege in 2007 as a means of bringing the Muslim mujahideen and the Pakistan Army into confrontation (South Asian News Agency, January 19). He cites as proof of American intentions the fact that U.S. forces did not quickly withdraw from Afghanistan after dispersing al-Qaeda elements in late 2001 and claims the Obama administration is now working to replace U.S. government troops with American mercenaries as a means of deflecting negative public opinion: “This is a very dangerous trend if we are to believe that mercenaries can win wars and carry forward the political objectives of the country. This means that whoever has more money can employ more mercenaries, win wars, win territories, etc.” (al-Jazeera, February 18, 2010).

Gul was consistent in his response to recent news of the death of his long-time associate and former ISI Colonel (retd) Sultan Amir Tarar (a.k.a. Colonel Imam) while in the hands of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Colonel Imam was kidnapped in March 2010 while on a mysterious mission to North Waziristan along with two other men, one of whom was murdered last year. Though the Taliban’s demands for the release of prisoners in government prisons were never met, the group is claiming Colonel Imam died of heart failure. Gul insists that his former colleague did not suffer from heart problems, but was instead killed by Indian intelligence and agents of private military contractor Blackwater/XE under a U.S. contract (Express Tribune [Karachi], January 23; The News [Islamabad], January 27).

Wikileaks Controversy

General Gul’s name appears in 92,000 of the U.S. diplomatic cables leaked to Wikileaks, most often in connection to his alleged ties with the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda operatives. While the cables represent only raw, unanalyzed intelligence reports, the sheer volume of those mentioning Gul in connection with militant groups is nevertheless alarming. Included in the documents are reports of Gul obtaining arms and munitions for the Taliban, orchestrating the abduction of United Nations personnel in Afghanistan and bragging about his role in ordering suicide bombings, all of which remain unverified.

Gul’s response to the allegations contained in the cables was emphatic: “These documents are nonsense. They are ironic, wrong and stupid. I deny every single word in them… It is all rubbish.” For once, Gul did not blame the United States, saying the allegations were more likely the work of Afghan and Indian intelligence services (Der Spiegel, July 26, 2010).

Despite his alleged connections to Afghanistan’s Taliban, Gul sees a different motivation behind the activities of Pakistan’s own Taliban: “The Pakistani Taliban are being sponsored by the Indian intelligence and the Mossad, by the way, to carry out their attacks in Pakistan. Mossad is very active in Pakistan and they are providing all the guidance and technical support to the Indian intelligence. So, Pakistan has to have its back covered – no country can fight on two fronts.”  These remarks run contrary to the belief of Western governments that Pakistan’s ISI has close ties to the Pakistani Taliban.

Gul 2General Ahmed Shuga Pasha

Dueling Court Cases

This month a Brooklyn-based U.S. court summoned current ISI Director Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, his predecessor, Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj (current Adjutant-General of the Pakistan Army), and two other Pakistan Army officers in connection with a suit brought by two Israeli-Americans who lost relatives in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

The summons threatens to be another major blow to American-Pakistani relations, with the Islamabad government promising to resist all attempts to make serving officers of its military appear before an American court. Just in case the government’s will falters, Islamist political parties have been issuing threats of insurrection if the government fails to resist. According to Jamaat-ud-Dawah official Professor Hafiz Abdur Rehman Makki: “The Americans are the most foolish people in the world. They think that Pakistan is like an article in a cupboard and they will order it the way they like. It is due to our rulers only” (Nawa-i-Waqt, January 19). Many of the Islamists view the court case as a conspiracy engineered by Indian and Israeli intelligence agencies.

The case seems ready made for one of Gul’s appeals to Pakistani nationalism. The former ISI chief told an American periodical, “The United States [doesn’t] care about any international law or the sovereignty and dignity of any country. [The] United States of America is the violator of all the international rules and laws.” Gul further claimed the court might give a biased verdict that would slander Pakistan in the eyes of the international community (New American, January 24).

The case appears to have already had repercussions after the name of the CIA’s Islamabad station chief was leaked to a Pakistani journalist who has filed a murder case against CIA station chief Jonathan Banks, with other notices being served on CIA director Leon Panetta and U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates in relation to the death of journalist Karim Khan’s brother and son in a December 2009 drone attack in North Waziristan. Gul suggests the ISI may have leaked Banks’ name as revenge for the summons issued on its director, General Shuja Pasha, in the Brooklyn Mumbai trial (Newsweek Pakistan, January 10).

The Benazir Bhutto Assassination

Though Gul was frequently named as a suspect in Bhutto’s assassination, he was largely cleared of involvement by the Pakistan government in April 2010. It was Bhutto who replaced Gul as ISI director in 1987. The rift between Bhutto and Gul reached a critical point when Bhutto named Gul as one of four prominent Pakistanis she claimed were behind the October 18, 2007, bombing of her motorcade in Karachi, which killed 139 people and left hundreds injured.

Gul has frequently claimed Washington was behind Bhutto’s murder, but more recently has set his sights on former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf as a main suspect, saying Musharraf was responsible for Bhutto’s death and should be subject to investigation and questioning (The Nation [Islamabad], December 27, 2010; The News [Islamabad], January 5; Times of India, December 27, 2010).


It is difficult to assess Gul’s importance in the ongoing struggle for Pakistan’s future. There seems little doubt that Gul maintains extensive contacts within the shadowy and dangerous world of covert operations in South Asia. However, the seriousness of the Western allegations leveled at the former ISI chief seem incompatible with his accessibility to the press, leading some to dismiss his importance. Nevertheless, General Gul presents an attractive mix of Islamic revolution and Pakistani nationalism that finds a ready audience inside Pakistan. His claims that allegations of ties to terrorism are an American/Israeli/Indian conspiracy to deny him his role as a “credible critic” of Western intervention in the region likewise reverberate favorably with the Pakistani public. Gul’s importance stands primarily in the extent to which he represents a pro-Islamist, anti-American trend in Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies, organizations which will ultimately have far more to do with the future direction of Pakistan than Taliban gunmen.

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