Salafists, Mercenaries and Body Snatchers: The War for Libya’s South

Andrew McGregor

April 6, 2018

Renewed fighting in southern Libya around the Kufra and Sabha oases demonstrates the difficulty of reaching anything more substantial than temporary and fragile political agreements in the region. The parties to the seemingly intractable conflict in the south include a range of legitimate and semi-legitimate actors – forces allied to Libya’s rival governments, self-appointed police and border security services – and illegitimate actors, such as foreign mercenaries, bandits, jihadists and traffickers.

Tubu Tribesmen in Sabha, southern Libya (Libyan Express)

The fact that membership of these groups often overlaps leads to heated clashes over turf and privileges that endanger the civilian population while inhibiting sorely-needed development initiatives. On March 13, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) warned that the build-up of armed forces in the south “risks further escalation” of the ongoing violence. [1] Tensions are so high at present that even the body of the 19th century head of the Sanusi order has been pulled into the struggle for the resource-rich deserts of southern Libya.

The Madkhali Infiltration

The Saudi-backed Madkhalist religious sect is the most prominent player in the Kufra and Sabha violence. A basic tenet of Madkhalism is respect for legitimate authority, the wali-al-amr.  This Salafist movement was first introduced to Libya by Mu’ammar Qaddafi to counter Libya’s more revolutionary Salafist groups. Madkhalist militias in Libya typically seek to control local policing duties, providing them a degree of immunity while enforcing Salafist interpretations of Shari’a that have little in common with traditional Libyan Islamic practice.

Rabi bin Hadi al-Madkhali

Although Saudi sect leader Rabi bin Hadi al-Madkhali issued a surprising declaration of support in 2016 for General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in its fight against “the Muslim Brotherhood” (ie the Tripoli-based government), Libya’s Madkhalis do not appear to have a preferred allegiance in the rivalry between Tripoli’s Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) and Haftar’s military coalition (, September 21, 2016). Indeed, they appear to be covering their bases by supporting both rivals without coming into direct conflict with either.

The Madkhalis in Tripoli are represented by the Rada Special Deterence Force, led by Abd al-Rauf al-Kara. Nominally loyal to the PC/GNA but operating largely independently of government control, they act as a self-appointed police force complete with private jails reputed to be dens of torture (, January 15).

Meanwhile the growing Madkhali armed presence in Benghazi appears to be meeting resistance. The January 25 twin car-bombing that killed 41 people in Benghazi, including LNA commander Ahmad al-Fitouri, appears to have targeted the Baya’at al-Radwan mosque frequented by Madkhalist militia members (Libya Herald, January 23). The Madkhalists also dominate the 604th Infantry Battalion in Misrata (Libya Tribune, November 4, 2017).

Body-Snatching at Kufra Oasis

A combination of fresh water and nearly impassable desert depressions on three sides makes southeast Libya’s remote Kufra Oasis an inevitable stop for cross desert convoys or caravans. Some 1,500 km from the Libyan coast, Kufra is now a major stop for the flow of illegal migrants that Kufra mayor Muftah Khalil says is overwhelming local security services (Libya Observer, March 5). Since the 2011 Libyan Revolution, Kufra has several times erupted in tribal violence, usually pitting the Zuwaya Arabs against indigenous black semi-nomadic Tubu tribesmen, whose homeland stretches across southern Libya, northern Chad, northwestern Sudan and northeastern Niger. There is long-standing friction between the two communities – the Zuwaya were only able to take possession of Kufra in 1840 by driving out the Tubu.

Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi

Things have been heating up in the Kufra region in recent months, as Sudanese mercenaries clash with LNA forces and Subul al-Salam, a local Madkahlist militia affiliated with the LNA.  In the last days of 2017, Subul al-Salam attacked al-Taj (“The Crown”), a height overlooking the Kufra Oasis, destroying the funerary shrine of Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi, who built a proto-Islamic state in the Sahara and Sahel from 1859 until his death in 1902, and stealing his body.

The emptied tomb of Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi (Libya Observer)

A former representative for Kufra, al-Tawati al-Ayda, insisted that the vehicles used in the attack bore the insignia of the LNA. He also suggested the attack was inspired by the arrival in Kufra of Tripoli Madkhalist preacher Majdi Hafala (Libya Observer, January 2).

The Sanusi are a conservative Sufi religious order that grew into a powerful political and military organization in the 19th and early 20th centuries, resisting invasion by the French and later the Italians. Founded in Mecca by Muhammad al-Mahdi’s Algerian father in 1837, the order’s rapid growth after moving to Libya in 1843 attracted the attention of the Ottoman rulers of Libya and the movement moved south, out of Ottoman control, to the oasis of Jaghbub in 1856.

The conservative asceticism at the core of the movement had wide appeal in the desert communities and tribes. This was especially true in the southern oasis of Kufra, to which al-Mahdi moved the Sanusi headquarters in 1895. Using the trade routes that ran through Kufra, al-Mahdi introduced the commerce-friendly Sanusi brand of Islam to the Saharan and sub-Saharan interior of Africa. The Zuwaya Arabs of Kufra became adherents to the Sanusi tariqa, or path, and defenders of the Sanusi family. Today, the Zuwaya form the core of the Subul al-Salam militia responsible for the assault on al-Taj.

While they enjoyed more influence in Cyrenaïca than Tripolitania, the Sanusis eventually formed Libya’s post-Second World War pro-Western monarchy between 1951 and 1969.  There is some support in Cyrenaïca for the restoration of the exiled royals as a means of bringing rival government factions together. The current heir to the Libyan throne is Muhammad al-Sanusi, who has not pursued a claim to a revived Sanusi constitutional monarchy, but equally has done nothing to discourage discussions about it within Libya.

After overthrowing the Sanusi monarchy in 1969, Qaddafi began a campaign to malign the Sanusis as the embodiment of the inequities of the old regime and a challenge to the peculiar blend of socialism and Islam he propagated in his Green Book. Attitudes shaped by Qaddafist propaganda against the Sanusis still color the way the order is regarded by many modern Libyans.

The desecration at al-Taj was quickly denounced by the Presidency Council in Tripoli. The Dar al-Ifta (Fatwa House) run by Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani blamed the imported Madkhalilst trend: “Madkhalists are being sent to Libya by Saudi Arabia in order to destabilize the country and abort the revolution. These are all loyalists of Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled army in eastern Libya” (Libyan Express, January 2). Dar al-Ifta also used the incident to launch a broader attack on Libya’s Madkhalists, which it accused of detaining, torturing and murdering Islamic scholars and clerics who failed to fall into line with the Salafists sect (Libya Observer, January 2). The Madkhalis in turn accuse al-Ghariani of association with the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, and hence a follower of the late revolutionary Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb (executed in Egypt in 1966), the Madkhalis’ ideological arch-enemy.

Surprisingly, this is not the first time al-Mahdi’s corpse has gone missing – it was disinterred by unknown individuals in 2012 and reburied in a nearby cemetery, before relatives recovered it and returned it to the shrine at al-Taj (Libya Observer, December 30, 2017).

Operation Desert Rage

Chadian and Sudanese rebels driven from their homelands have turned mercenary in Libya to secure funding and build their arsenals. [2] Grand Mufti al-Ghariani has accused Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of funding the recruitment of African mercenaries to occupy southern Libya on behalf of Haftar’s LNA (Libya Observer, March 13). In practice, the rebels have found employment from both the LNA and the PC/GNA government in Tripoli.

Sudanese fighters of Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) killed six members of the LNA’s 106 and 501 Brigades engaged in border security near Jaghbub Oasis on January 15. A seventh LNA soldier was abducted. The area was the site of an earlier clash in October 2016 between JEM and Kufra’s Subul al-Salam militia in which 13 JEM fighters were killed (Libya Herald, October 20, 2016).

Sudanese Forces at Jabal ‘Uwaynat (Libya Observer)

The LNA responded to the death of the border guards with “Operation Desert Rage,” which opened with January 20 airstrikes against what the LNA alleged were Sudanese and Chadian rebels near Rabyana Oasis, 150 km west of Kufra. Possibly involving Egyptian aircraft, the strikes caused “heavy losses” to a 15-vehicle convoy of “terrorists” (TchadConvergence, January 22). The Sudanese and Chadians had been prospecting for gold in the newly discovered deposits near Jabal ‘Uwaynat, the remote meeting point of Egypt, Libya and Sudan (Egypt Today, January 23). The commander of the LNA’s Kufra military zone, al-Mabruk al-Ghazwi, said patrols had been sent in every direction to prevent JEM fighters from escaping (Libya Observer, January 20).

Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) spokesman Brigadier Ahmad al-Shami confirmed the presence of Darfuri rebels working as mercenaries in Libya last summer, noting their greatest concentrations were at the oases of Kufra and Rabyana as well as the city of Zintan in Libya’s northwest (Libya Observer, July 20, 2017).

The ‘Invasion’ of Sabha

The Tubu, Awlad Sulayman Arabs and African mercenaries are also engaged in a new round of post-revolutionary fighting in Sabha, capital of Libya’s southwestern Fezzan region.

Following the 2011 revolution, the Awlad Sulayman took advantage of shifts in the local tribal power structure to take over Sabha’s security services and regional trafficking activities. This brought the Arab group into conflict with the Tubu and Tuareg, who traditionally controlled the cross-border smuggling routes. The result was open warfare in Sabha in 2012 and 2014. One of the leading Awlad Sulayman commanders at the time was Ahmad al-Utaybi, now commander of the Awlad Sulayman-dominated 6th Infantry Brigade.

In mid-February, Haftar announced his decision to join the 6th Brigade with the LNA, but al-Utaybi quickly declared his Brigade’s loyalty was to the defense ministry of the GNA government in Tripoli. Following al-Utaybi’s refusal to commit his forces to the LNA, Haftar announced his replacement as commander of the 6th Infantry Brigade with Brigadier Khalifa Abdul Hafiz Khalifa on February 25, though Khalifa has been unable to assume command (Al-Sharq al-Aswat, February 27). At the same time, the 6th Brigade came under heavy attack from alleged Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries working for Haftar. According to al-Utaybi: “The militias who attacked our locations wanted to take control of it and then seize the entire southern region because the fall of the Brigade means the fall of the security of the south” (Libya Observer, February 24).

Al-Utaybi claims that the fighting is not tribal-based, but is rather a clash between the 6th Brigade and groups loyal to Haftar, consisting largely of Tubu mercenaries from Chad, Niger and Sudan (Libyan Express, March 1; Libya Observer, March 2). [3] There are also claims that the conflict has much to do with the collapse of the Italian agreement with the southern tribes providing them with funding and development in return for suppression of migrant flows through Libya to Europe (, February 27).

Damage to Sabha Castle from shelling (Libya Observer)

The 6th Brigade was forced to withdraw into Sabha’s Italian colonial-era fortress. The historic building has been heavily damaged in this round of fighting, with the Libyan Antiquities Authority protesting that: “Those who do not wish us well are seeking to obliterate Libyan history and civilization” (Libya Observer, March 5). The fighting consists largely of artillery attacks on the fortress and ethnic neighborhoods, as well as sniping, assassinations and drive-by killings.

Sabha’s mayor, Hamid al-Khayali, insists that well-armed Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries flying the flags of “African countries” were taking advantage of the region’s insecurity: “This is an occupation of Libyan land. This is on the shoulders of all Libyans. The south is half-occupied and some Sabha areas are occupied by foreign forces from Sudan, Chad and other countries; why is the Libyan army silent about this?” (Libya Observer, February 25; Libyan Express, February 27).

The long-standing Arab suspicion of the Tubu was reflected in a Presidency Council statement in late February praising the 6th Brigade’s defense of Sabha against “mercenaries” intent on changing the south’s demographic structure from Arab-dominant to Tubu-dominant (Libya Observer, February 27).

Roadblock to Political Resolution

The abduction of Muhammad al-Mahdi’s body was, like earlier Salafist demolitions of Sufi shrines in coastal Libya, both a demonstration of Madkhali determination to reform Libya’s religious landscape and a provocation designed to reveal what real resistance, if any, exists to prevent further Madkhalist encroachments on Libyan society.

For now the Madkhalists are in ascendance and have made important, even unique, inroads in assuming control of various security services across the country, regardless of which political factions are locally dominant. Reliable salaries, superior weapons and a degree of legal immunity ensure a steady supply of recruits to the Madkhali militias.

However, the Madkhali rejection of democracy, and their indulgence in extra-judicial law enforcement and theological disputes with nearly every other form of Islamic observance, ensures their growing strength will inhibit any attempt to arrive at a democracy-based political solution in Libya.


[1] “UNSMIL statement on the ongoing violence in Sabha,” March 13, 2018,

[2] The Chadian groups include the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT), the Conseil du commandement militaire pour le salut de la République (CCMSR) and the Rassemblement des forces pour le changement (RFC). The Sudanese groups are all from Darfur, and include the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Sudan Liberation Movement – Unity (SLM-Unity) and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army – Minni Minnawi (SLM/A-MM). The latter two attempted to return to Darfur in 2017 but were badly defeated by units of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

[3] Libyan Arabs commonly describe the Libyan Tubu as “foreigners” and “illegal immigrants” despite their historic presence in the region.

This article first appeared in the April 6, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.


Senegal’s Military Expedition to Yemen: Muslim Solidarity or Rent-an-Army?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Tips and Trends: The African Security Report

July 30, 2015

With Yemen’s Shiite Houthi movement now in control of most of Yemen, a Saudi-led military coalition continues to carry out air attacks on Houthi fighters and installations. Despite the participation of a number of national air forces, the total impact has not been enough to shake Houthi resolve.

Senegal MapThough there is an apparent need to deploy ground forces to restore the administration of president-in-exile Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, most members of the coalition are reluctant to deploy ground forces in any significant number, being well aware of the difficulty of maintaining foreign forces in Yemen’s mountainous and ambush-friendly terrain. It was thus intriguing when Senegal’s foreign minister Mankeur Ndiaye announced on May 4 that the West African nation was sending 2,100 ground troops to Saudi Arabia in response to a request from the Saudi government. Surprisingly, the deployment marks the second time Senegalese troops will have served in Saudi Arabia; 500 Senegalese soldiers were deployed in Saudi Arabia during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The mission was marred by a deadly plane crash in March 1991 in which 92 soldiers died.

Despite the government’s claim that the jamdars (Wolof – “brave men,” the popular local term for Senegalese troops) will be protecting the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah, it is expected that the Senegalese will join the coalition attempting to secure the Kingdom’s southern border with the Houthi-held regions of northern Yemen. A spokesman for Senegal’s leading opposition party, the Parti démocratique sénégalais (PDS), declared that government suggestions that the deployment was intended to protect the holy cities “were baseless because the geo-strategic role of the Middle East is more complex than the protection of Islamic religious sites” (Xinhua, May 11, 2015).

Social media in Senegal has questioned the deployment and some observers have noted the recent Saudi commitment to provide much of the funding for a broad government development scheme known as Programme Senegal Emergent 2035 (BBC, May 5, 2015). With an estimated cost of over $16 billion, the initiative remained badly underfunded until the Saudis stepped in. Senegalese president Macky Sall is relying on the programme’s success to return him to office. Senegal is a traditional recipient of Saudi aid, which funds many important development projects, but has never signed a defense agreement with Saudi Arabia. France continues to have a military presence in Dakar, but in line with a 2010 defense agreement between France and Senegal, this deployment has been scaled back from 1,200 troops to 300 (RFI, April 18, 2012).[1]

Senegal is not the only African state to join the Saudi-led coalition – Sudan, Egypt and Morocco have also contributed troops – but Senegal is the lone member that is not part of the Arab League. Sudan, a major recipient of Saudi aid and investment, has contributed four Sukhoi SU-24M “Fencer” attack aircraft that have reportedly flown missions against Houthi forces in Yemen (DefenceNews, April 1, 2015).  Other members of the coalition include Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In a surprise decision, the parliament of Pakistan, a Saudi ally, voted against contributing forces to the coalition. Lacking a UN mandate, the Saudi-led coalition remains open to criticism that its intervention in Yemen lacks a legal basis.

NowgassGeneral Mamadou Sow “Nowgass” – Chief of the General Staff of Senegal

While President Sall insists the deployment is intended to “deal with the threat to the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic holy sites to which the kingdom is home” (a fairly obvious effort to enlist the support of Senegal’s powerful Sufi brotherhoods), opposition figures have pointed out that neither the Kingdom nor its holy cities are under threat (The Star [Johannesburg], May 22, 2015). The administration does not appear willing to dissent on this issue; a May protest planned by Bou Jambar Dem (No to Sending Soldiers), a coalition opposed to the deployment, was banned by authorities.

Further government attempts to suggest the deployment will be fighting “terrorism” did not quiet opposition criticism; Yemen’s Houthis are an armed social/political/religious movement rather than a terrorist group like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or the Islamic State movement, neither of which are targets of the coalition despite having a strong presence in Yemen.

Since independence, Senegal has joined military interventions in Zaire (1978), Gambia (1981) and Guinea-Bissau (1998). Senegal’s military has also made significant contributions to peacekeeping missions in Côte d-Ivoire, Darfur, Rwanda and the Central African Republic. Both the United States and France provide equipment and training to the Senegalese military, which has gained a reputation for professionalism reinforced by its traditional reluctance to insert itself into the nation’s political sphere.

A report from the Saudi Press Agency on May 10 claimed that Malaysia had sent military forces to join the Saudi coalition, adding that the Saudi Ministry of Defense was planning to merge the Malaysian and Senegalese forces (al-Arabiya, May 10, 2015). However, Malaysia’s defense minister quickly corrected this report, noting that Malaysia was only sending humanitarian assistance and the personnel and equipment (including two Royal Malaysian Air Force C-130 “Hercules” transport aircraft) necessary to evacuate Malaysians working or studying in the Kingdom (The Star [Kuala Lumpur], May 11, 2015; The Diplomat, May 12, 2015).

Islam in Senegal

While Senegal is over 90% Muslim, its typical form of religious practice differs significantly from the Salafist Islam of Saudi Arabia. Both nations are majority Sunni, but Senegalese Islam is still largely based on membership in Sufi brotherhoods, a form of Islam generally despised by the Salafists, who claim Sufism incorporates pre-Islamic traditions, involves intermediaries in the relationship between God and man (usually in the form of deceased or living Sufi shaykhs whose spiritual power is hereditary) and encourages pilgrimage to shrines other than Mecca and Madinah, thus rendering Sufism a type of Islamic heresy in the eyes of the Salafists.

Senegal Great MosqueGreat Mosque in Touba, Senegal

Senegal’s Sufi brotherhoods include the well-known and internationally-based Tijaniya and Qadiriya brotherhoods, as well as two smaller local brotherhoods, the Muridiya (a.k.a. Mourides) and the Layenes. Both the latter orders originated in the 19th century. The Mourides are common to both Senegal and Gambia and promote pilgrimage to the Senegalese city of Toumba rather than Mecca. The Layene Brotherhood is a particularly unorthodox movement native to Senegal. The Layene’s founder and his successor claimed to be reincarnations of the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ respectively and the group consequently mixes elements of both Islam and Christianity in its rituals.

The Jama’atou Ibadou Rahman (Jama’at Ibad al-Rahman) movement is a Saudi-supported Islamic reformist movement founded in 1979 by Shaykh Touré in which piety is expressed through the veil, Arab-style clothing and close observance of orthodox Islamic ritual. The Ibadou are extremely critical of Sufism and the marabout[2] system in Senegal and of Shi’ism in general, but do not espouse violence in their opposition. On a more general level, the term “Ibadou” is used by Senegalese Sufis “to refer to any veiled woman or bearded man.”[3]

Al-Falah is a Saudi-influenced “apolitical” Salafist movement whose Senegal branch was established in 1967.[4] Salafism and related forms of reformist Islam have a wide following in Senegal’s universities. At lower educational levels, there is a parallel system of government-run French-language, Western-style schools and Arabic-language Koranic schools that have little if any government regulation.[5]

Most notable among Senegal’s small Muslim extremist community is Imam Mamour Fall, leader of the Parti Islamique Sénégalais and a bitter opponent of Senegal’s Sufi brotherhoods. Deported from Italy in 2003 after an 11 year residency following his public support for al-Qaeda and attacks on Italian military personnel, Fall continued to advance extremist views once back in Senegal, claiming to have fought in the Bosnian War and to have been a companion of Osama bin Laden during the latter’s stay in Sudan in the 1990s. The Imam described Bin Laden as “a great man, a great strategist, a great Muslim, and that is what interests us and not the fact that he is accused of killing people” (Reuters, December 8, 2003). The Salafist/reformist view of Senegalese Sufism was summed up by Imam Mamour Fall: “Senegal is the capital of polytheism after India. If Hindus worship cows, Senegalese love the corpses of their marabouts… Here, 99% of people live on magic; they love magicians and they waste all their money to buy ‘talismans’.”[6]


Any foreign military deployment runs the risk of violent retribution, but in this sense Senegal is relatively fortunate in its choice of an enemy – the Houthi movement does not exist outside of Yemen and its host Zaydi Shiite community has displayed little ability or even interest in mounting attacks outside of Yemen. There is a small community of Lebanese Shiite traders in Senegal and an even smaller number of native Senegalese Shiites, none of whom are likely to have any connections with the Houthi movement, whose Zaydi “Fiver” Shi’ism has more in common with the Shafi’i form of Sunni Islam practiced in Yemen than with the “Twelver” Shi’ism of Iran and Lebanon (the “fiver” and “twelver” distinctions refer to the number of imams each movement believes succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as spiritual and political leaders of the Islamic community). However, Senegal might become a target for Sunni extremists due to its alliance with the Saudi government, which is reviled in turn as an ally and partner of the West by groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Such groups might recall Senegal’s participation in the French-led military coalition that expelled foreign jihadists from northern Mali in 2013, an earlier deployment that had far from universal approval within Senegal. Unpopular military deployments in other parts of the Islamic world could have the unwanted result of encouraging domestic extremism, particularly amongst alienated urban youth.

Renting state troops in Hessian fashion may not be necessary in the future if oil exploration work in Senegal turns out as expected. Scottish oil firm Cairn Energy is embarking on a major drilling operation it believes could result in the discovery of more than a billion barrels after promising results from initial offshore drilling (The Scotsman [Edinburgh], May 12, 2015).[7]


[1]  For Senegal’s role in France’s Operation Barkhane, see Andrew McGregor, “Operation Barkhane: France’s New Military Approach to Counter-Terrorism in Africa,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, July 24, 2015,

[2] Arabic marbut or marubit; used in practice to denote an Islamic scholar of the Maghreb and Sahel regions, usually with personal followings that rely on the marabout for religious instruction, advice and the dispensation of supernatural powers through the production of amulets and talismans, a common practice in Africa, but one that is decidedly unorthodox.

[3] Cleo Cantone: Making and Remaking Mosques in Senegal, Leiden, 2012, p. 261.

[4] See

[5]  “Overview of Religious Radicalism and the Terrorist Threat in Senegal,” ECOWAS Peace and Security Report 3, May 2013, p. 5,

[6] Shaykh ‘Abdul Qadir Fadlallah Mamour (Imam Mamour Fall): “Ya Asafa,” February 26, 2009,

[7] See

Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi Urges Merger of Salafism and Sufism

Andrew McGregor

January 27, 2013

Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim Brotherhood ideologue and one of the most influential men in modern Sunni Islam, has long resisted the Salafist trend of condemning Sufi Muslims as heretics and even apostates. Though he has been offered the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood several times, al-Qaradawi has always declined, saying he would prefer to be a guide for the nation in general, rather than be the leader of a specific group. The Shaykh has pursued this goal through a highly successful media strategy, involving a satellite television show and a popular website, IslamOnline. Nevertheless, he is held in suspicion by the West and is banned from travelling to the UK and the United States. The Shaykh recently offered his views on several issues, including the Sufi-Salafist split in Sunni Islam, in an interview carried by a pan-Arab daily (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 23, 2010).

QaradawiYusuf al-Qaradawi (Right)

Al-Qaradawi naturally objects to Egypt’s official ban on political participation by the Brotherhood, asking if it is really possible that religious people are banned from practicing politics and participating in the development of the country: “There is no doubt that this is a crime, because religion is the essence of life, and the religious individual has the right to participate in building the country through his personal opinion, be it political, economic, educational, or health opinion… If the groups are banned from working publicly, they will start to work underground. The Islamist groups might be forced to work secretly. This is an unhealthy situation, because whoever works in the open can be held to account for his actions, and you can criticize him, but how can you hold to account whoever works in secret?”

Though the interview took place shortly before the uprising in Tunisia, al-Qaradawi noted that many of the governments in the Arab and Islamic world do not have any popular support and derive their authority solely from rigged elections disguised as democracy: “They are governments that are hated by their peoples, and they govern their countries by brute force and martial and emergency laws rather than governing through the consensus of the people.”

With regard to a growing perception in the Sunni world that Shi’a Islam is intent on expanding its numbers and territory in the Middle East, al-Qaradawi warned that Shiites are trained for preaching their creed and have access to large funds to promote Shi’ism as well as having the support of a major nation — Iran— behind them.

In his defense of Sufism, al-Qaradawi brought up the names of two medieval theologians who are regarded as providing many of the intellectual underpinnings of Salafist Islam: Shaykh Ibn Taymiyah (12633-1328) and his disciple, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim (1292-1350). According to al-Qaradawi, the two were “among the greatest Sufis,” but rejected what was inappropriate in Sufism: “Personally, I call for ‘making Sufi into Salafi’ and ‘making Salafi into Sufi.’ The Sufi takes from the discipline of Salafi in not following the fabricated Hadith, polytheist rites, and tomb-side rites, and we want the Salafi to take from the Sufi tenderness, spirituality, and piousness. From this mixture we get the required Muslim.”

Hassan al-BannaMuslim Brotherhood Founder Hassan al-Banna

In his search for reconciliation between the two trends of Sunni Islam, al-Qaradawi also called upon the thought of Muslim Brotherhood founder Shaykh Hassan al-Banna (1906-1947), saying al-Banna conceived the Brotherhood as an inclusive grouping of Sunni Muslims: “It is a Salafi movement as it calls for returning to the Koran and Sunna, it is a Sufi tendency as it calls for purifying the hearts and returning to God, it is a Sunni way that is based on honoring the Prophet’s companions and on the work of the Sunni school of thinking.”

Al-Qaradawi suggested that, contrary to public perceptions, Salafism is in fact a constantly evolving trend in Islam that now encompasses several schools of thinking, including those that are close to “centrism” and the ideology of the Muslim Brothers. After long denouncing the Brothers for participation in politics, the Salafists have now taken to politics in a major way. Exposure of the modern Salafists to developments in the wider world through travel after years of isolation and access to theological literature previously unavailable has also led to changes in Salafist jurisprudence.

Al-Qaradawi said the violent Salafi-Jihadi groups do not share the same agenda as the Muslim Brothers, who have told them: “We have tried such things, but they have not been helpful, and we have not gained anything out of them other than detention, suffering and victimization.” He noted that many of these groups, especially those in Egypt, have now reconsidered their strategies, issuing books of “Revisions” outlining their mistakes. Nevertheless, “All Islamist movements are entitled to try for themselves, and start from zero until they reach the conclusions of the preceding groups.”

This article first appeared in the January 28, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Sufi Militia Joins Somali Government Forces while Ras Kamboni Militia Distances Itself

Andrew McGregor

December 14, 2012

Somalia’s new national government continues to make slow but steady progress in bringing the southern and central parts of the embattled nation under unified rule. An important step was taken on December 1 when the Sufi Ahlu Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a militia officially joined federal government forces.

Ahlu sunnah wal JamaaFighters of the Ahlu wa’l-Sunna

The Ahlu Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a (ASJ) militia, approximately 1,000 to 2,000 strong, has its basis in a Sufi umbrella group formed in 1991 to defend traditional Somali Sufi Islam. The movement took to arms in 2008 when the Salafist al-Shabaab movement began to demolish Sufi shrines and the tombs of Sufi masters in the interests of banning the “un-Islamic” practice of “worshipping the dead” (see Terrorism Monitor, April 2, 2010) Two years later the ASJ aligned itself with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TNG), though differences between the movement and then-TFG president Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad prevented al-Shabaab from obtaining the level of representation in government it felt was its due. The movement found more willing patrons in the Ethiopian military, which has provided it with arms, money and training as well as working alongside it in military operations against al-Shabaab in central Somalia.

Under the new Somali government of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud joint operations with Somali government troops have increased. In order to further cooperation with the government, the ASJ will now open an office in the capital, Mogadishu (Raxanreeb, December 1, 2012). ASJ members now hope to receive the same benefits as members of the national army though the exact method of integration has yet to be announced.

Shaykh Mahmud Hasan Farah was re-elected as the chairman of the movement’s executive committee in November (Bar-Kulan Radio [Nairobi], November 21, 2012). Shaykh Mahmud insists that the movement rejects all forms of “clan-ism and tribalism,” but must play some role in the new state: “We are telling the new government that Ahlu Sunnah has no culture of opposing governments and we welcome it, but a government, in which we don’t have someone to represent us cannot purport to represent us. We must have a representative in the government” (Radio Kulmiye [Mogadishu], November 18, 2012). The chairman’s words were echoed by senior ASJ official Shaykh Ali Shaykh Ibrahim: “We ask the government, as Ahlu Sunnah wal Jama’a, to give special consideration to its relationship with Ahlu Sunnah wal Jama’a because Ahlu Sunnah has not taken up arms to fight the government but to defend Islam, after our clerics were killed, our saints tombs desecrated, and our mosques destroyed” (Radio Kulmiye, November 16, 2012).

However, it appears that the ASJ is no less fractious than the rest of Somalia, with a number of the militia’s leaders in central Somalia resisting the appointment of Shaykh Mahmud as chairman and the new leadership council in Mogadishu on the grounds that they had not been consulted while their own leadership candidates were not considered (Dayniile Online, November 19, 2012).

The movement recently vowed to launch new operations in central Somalia to “remove al-Shabaab remnants from the country” (Gaalkacyo Radio, November 17, 2012; November 24, 2012). Somali intelligence officials believe al-Shabaab has been receiving arms shipments from Libya and Yemen as it organizes a return to guerrilla warfare in rural areas after having been expelled from most of the urban areas it only recently controlled (, November 5, 2012). Though al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri declared jihad in Somalia obligatory on “every Muslim who is capable,” there is growing evidence that many of the foreign fighters in Somalia have left for more promising battlefields in Yemen (AFP, November 6, 2012).

Somalia’s Internal Affairs and National Security Minister Abdikarin Husayn Guled has said that the new government is also trying to integrate the southern Ras Kamboni militia into government forces, but at the moment the rift between Ras Kamboni and Mogadishu is growing rather than narrowing (Shabelle Media Network, November 29, 2012).

Ras Kamboni organized demonstrations in Kismayo against the new federal government in November that claimed the president was preventing the economic development of the Juba by preventing the export of the charcoal stockpile and called for Mogadishu to leave the creation of a new administration in the Juba region to the eight-nation Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) (, November 9, 2012).

At the center of the dispute was the disposition of some four million bags of charcoal that was stockpiled in Kismayo before al-Shabaab had an opportunity to export it. The charcoal was worth an estimated $25 million to $40 million in Middle Eastern markets (Africa Review [Nairobi], November 4, 2012).  Much of the Somali charcoal trade is dominated by businessmen with close ties to al-Shabaab and the trade was a major source of financing for the Islamist militants before they lost Kismayo in September (see Terrorism Monitor, November 18, 2010). The rapid and ongoing deforestation of southern Somalia by the charcoal industry has been described as an “ecocide” and threatens the long-term viability of the entire region.

Charcoal exports have long been illegal in Somalia and a further international ban on the Somali trade was imposed by the UN Security Council in February, these measures and an order to temporarily close the port of Kismayo from President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud have all failed at preventing Ras Kamboni and local businessmen from exporting much of the stockpile under the supervision of Kenyan troops belonging to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).  Nairobi and IGAD both support the continuation of the charcoal trade, the most lucrative industry in southern Somalia.

Ras Kamboni fighters shot up much of Kismayo on November 21 in the alleged “pursuit” of an unknown attacker who hurled a grenade at the home of Ahmed Madobe (, November 21, 2012). Only days later a powerful bomb went off outside a district administration office where Ras Kamboni officials were having a meeting (Mareeg Online, November 25). The Ras Kamboni militia was recently identified by Somali MP Abdullahi Hussein Ali as the source of the ongoing robberies and general insecurity that is plaguing Kismayo (Mareeg Online, November 13, 2012). The militia did little to enhance its reputation in Kismayo when it rounded up over 400 residents in an operation designed to catch a few militants by dragging a large net. The operation was defended by Ras Kamboni spokesman Abdinasir Seeraar: “I think there are some [detainees] who have connections with al-Shabaab and some innocents, but how can we know unless we make some arrests and conduct investigations;  that’s when we can know who is the Shabaab member and who is not” (BBC Somali Service, November 2, 2012).

Ras Kamboni had previously ruled Kismayo jointly with al-Shabaab after the city was taken by the Islamists in 2006. The movement joined the now defunct Hizb al-Islam movement in 2009, but the following year it underwent a split, with one faction formally joining al-Shabaab (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, February 4, 2010). While still an Islamist movement, Ras Kamboni now fights Shabaab extremists under Kenyan patronage. Nairobi views Ras Kamboni as a pliant local partner in its efforts to establish a Nairobi-supported buffer administration named “Jubaland” in southern Somalia under the nominal rule of Mogadishu.  The plan has the backing of ethnic-Somali politicians in Kenya who have cross-border clan connections. ASJ has inserted itself into the debate, insisting any effort to form a new administration in the Juba region without consulting them would ultimately fail (Radio Risala, November 19, 2012).

There are also persistent rumors that influential Islamist and former Hizb al-Islam leader Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys is seeking to abandon al-Shabaab and join the government forces but is being held under close watch by al-Shabaab to prevent his escape (, November 23, 2012). Shaykh Aweys merged his movement with al-Shabaab in December 2010.

This article originally appeared in the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor

North African Salafists Turn on Sufi Shrines in Mali

Andrew McGregor

May 18, 2012

The Salafist war on the physical legacy of Sufi Islam has opened a new front in the northern Malian city of Timbuktu, home to a number of ancient mosques and the famous tombs of 333 Islamic “saints.”

Tomb of Sidi Mahmud Ben Amar, Timbuktu

The May 5 attack on the tomb of Sidi Mahmud Ben Amar (1463-1548) confirmed the fears of many in Mali that the Salafist Ansar al-Din occupiers of Timbuktu would turn their energies towards the destruction of the city’s religious heritage. The attackers prevented worshippers from approaching the tomb before tearing off its doors, breaking windows and setting flammable portions on fire. One man who attempted to stop the destruction was bound and forced into a car (al-Jazeera, May 7). The men were reported to have told shocked onlookers: “What you are doing is haram! [forbidden]. Ask God directly [for intervention] rather than the dead.” Before leaving they promised to destroy other tombs in the city (Reuters, May 5). An Ansar al-Din spokesman described the leader of the attack as a “new member” of the group (a Mauritanian according to some sources) and suggested that his actions would be investigated (al-Jazeera, May 7).

Sidi Mahmud Ben Amar (1463-1548) was from a family of Godala Berbers from the Atlantic coast of Mauritania. He achieved fame as a qadi (Islamic judge) and his tomb in Mauritania became a major site of pilgrimage after his death. Sidi Mahmud was attributed with many miracles during his lifetime and his descendants were renowned as Islamic scholars, especially his nephew Ahmad Baba al-Doudani, whose tomb is one of the most important Islamic sites in Timbuktu. Sidi Mahmud’s tomb is classified as a UNESCO world heritage site, one of 16 such sites in Timbuktu. Mali’s military government responded to the unprecedented attack by issuing a statement on national television that condemned “in the strongest terms this unspeakable act in the name of Islam, a religion of tolerance and respect for human dignity” (Reuters, May 5).

A local official told the French press that the Salafists have promised to destroy other tombs as well as take possession of the collection of manuscripts accumulated during the city’s days as Africa’s most famous center of learning (AFP, May 6). Many of the estimated 100,000 invaluable mediaeval manuscripts kept in Timbuktu are reported to have been removed to private homes for safekeeping until the Salafist occupation of the city ends (Asia Times, May 9). Written both in Arabic and Fulani, the manuscripts cover aspects of science, the arts and theology.

Though many commentators refer to Sufi Islam as the “peaceful, moderate and mystical” face of Islam, it was in fact the Sufist trend that was the greatest proponent of armed jihad before the 20th century, particularly in the Sudanic belt of Africa. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, however, it is the Salafist trend that has become most closely identified with jihad through its resurrection of the thought of Shaykh Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328).

Shaykh ZuwayidRemains of the Shrine of Shaykh Zuwayid after its Destruction (Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)

The attack in Timbuktu is just part of a growing trend towards the Salafist destruction of Sufi shrines and monuments:

  • In the Sinai, the shrine of Shaykh Zuwayid in the town named for him was destroyed by a bomb in May, 2011 by Salafists opposed to the Sufi rituals carried out there (Ahram Online, May 14). [1] Shaykh Zuwayid came to Egypt with the army of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad who conquered Egypt for Islam in 640 C.E. and built the first mosque in Africa.
  • Elsewhere in Egypt, some 20 Sufi shrines have been attacked by Salafists since the January 25, 2011 revolution. The assaults on Egypt’s religious heritage have led Sufi leaders to threaten counter-attacks, raising the possibility of a sectarian conflict within Egypt (Egypt Independent, May 17; al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 30, 2011).
  • In the North African Spanish enclave of Ceuta, Salafists recently burned down a shrine containing images of Islamic saints from the region (El Pais, April 26).
  • In Somalia, the militant Salafist al-Shabaab movement has attacked Sufi shrines in Mogadishu and elsewhere, throwing the human remains of Islamic saints into the street while promising to continue “until we eradicate the culture of worshiping graves” (AFP, March 26, 2010). The campaign has spurred recruitment by al-Shabaab’s Sufi opponents in the Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama’a militia.
  • In Libya, the fall of Mu’ammar Qaddafi was followed by Salafist attacks on Sufi shrines in and around Tripoli that the Salafists claimed were being used for “black magic” (AP, October 13, 2011). Some of the attackers were reported to have come from Egypt for the purpose of destroying Sufi tombs.
  • Earlier this month the Nowshera district tomb of Pashtun poet and former leader of the Awami National Party Ajmal Khattak was destroyed by a bomb planted by Pakistani Salafists (Associated Press of Pakistan, May 11; Dawn [Karachi], May 9). Salafists have carried out a broad campaign of destruction of Sufi shrines in Pakistan, often killing scores of worshippers in the process.



This article first appeared in the May 18, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Salafist Attacks on Sufi Shrines in Libya May Indicate Prolonged Sectarian Violence

Andrew McGregor

October 20, 2011

A sudden series of attacks on Sufi shrines and tombs in and around the Libyan capital of Tripoli by heavily armed men in uniform has shocked the large Sufi community in Libya and may indicate the development of a pattern of sectarian attacks similar to those against Sufi groups in Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere. Supporters in Tripoli welcomed the attacks, claiming the Sufis were using the shrines to practice “black magic” (AP, October 13).

Exhumed Tomb of Sidi Abdul Rahman al-Masri, Tripoli

In Tripoli, the attackers broke into the shrines of Abdul Rahman al-Masri and Salim Abu Sa’if, exhuming and taking away their remains while burning relics and other items found at the shrines. Similar attacks were reported elsewhere in Tripoli and in the nearby town of Janzour. Some of the attackers boasted of having come from Egypt for the purpose of destroying Sufi shrines (AP, October 13). Tripoli’s revolutionary military council is currently headed by Benghazi Salafist militia leader Abd al-Hakim Belhadj.

Salafists in general oppose the construction of elaborate tombs for Muslim holy men or their visitation in the hope of securing their intercession through pilgrimage and prayer. The sentiment runs so strongly in the Salafist community that Saudi Wahhabis even once tried to destroy the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina.

In Somalia, heavily armed al-Shabaab fighters have used hammers and other tools to destroy Sufi shrines and graves while chanting “Allahu Akbar.” According to an al-Shabaab official, such operations would continue “until we eradicate the culture of worshiping graves” (AFP, March 26; see Terrorism Monitor Brief, April 2, 2010). Al-Shabaab’s anti-Sufi approach led to the foundation of Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama’a (ASJ), a Sufi-dominated militia devoted to the destruction of al-Shabaab’s Salafi-Jihadists.

In recent years the ever-mercurial Gaddafi backed away from his regime’s anti-Sufi policies (largely directed at the once-powerful Sanussi order) and began to encourage the wider adoption of Sufism by Libyan Muslims as a means of countering the growth of Islamism in centers like Benghazi. To this end Tripoli was the surprising host of the Second World Sufi Conference, held in the Libyan capital last February (Tripoli Post, February 15).

Transitional National Council head Mustafa Abdul Jalil denounced the attacks, describing them as “not on the side of the revolution,” while urging a noted religious leader in the rebel ranks, al-Sadiq al-Gheriani, to issue a fatwa condemning such attacks. Al-Gheriani has already said he opposes the construction of such shrines, but does not advocate their forcible removal while the successful rebel forces still lack a unified command (AP, October 13).

In neighboring Egypt there have been reports that Salafists intend to destroy a number of Sufi shrines and mosques, beginning with the mosque housing the tomb of al-Mursi Abu’l-Abbas and continuing with the destruction of 15 other Sufi mosques in Alexandria. Sufis in that city have supplied the Egyptian military with a list of 20 mosques that have already been attacked by Salafists. Street-fights have broken out elsewhere in Egypt as Salafists use the post-Revolution breakdown in law and order to attack Sufi shrines (al-Masry al-Youm, April 12). Sufis in Egypt are reported to be forming self-defense committees.

This article was first published in the October 20, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Somali Sufis Enter Government as al-Shabaab Continues Its War on the Dead

Andrew McGregor

April 2, 2010

Following an earlier campaign of grave desecrations and exhumations in southern Somalia, al-Shabaab militants have now turned their attention to the graves of respected Islamic scholars and Sufi leaders in Mogadishu. Heavily armed detachments of Shabaab fighters have been arriving at various cemeteries in Mogadishu to destroy shrines and graves with hammers and hoes while chanting “Allahu Akbar (God is great),” often in full sight of the local religious communities. The Shabaab official in charge of the destruction, Shaykh Sa’id Karatay, said the operations would continue “until we eradicate the culture of worshiping graves” (AFP, March 26). Salafists such as those found in the ranks of al-Shabaab oppose the practice of visiting the tombs of the revered leaders and founders of Somalia’s Sufi orders.

Somali Sufis 1Scattered Remains of Sufi Saints after disinterment by al-Shabaab (BBC)

Al-Shabaab’s pursuit of a self-destructive policy like grave desecration is yet another example of the movement’s short-sightedness and adherence to a rigid Salafist interpretation of religion that seems to continually distract the movement from its stated intention of establishing a Shari’a state in Somalia. It was al-Shabaab’s attacks on Sufi shrines and graves in southern Somalia in 2008 that led to the mobilization of a large Sufi militia devoted to the destruction of al-Shabaab. Known as Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama’a (ASJ), this militia has drawn on the nation’s large Sufi community to build a formidable fighting force that the beleaguered Transitional Federal Government has come to rely on for its own survival. The ASJ has leveraged this reliance into a formal entry into the TFG, negotiating a deal that calls for five ministries in the TFG, a number of diplomatic posts and deputy commanders in the army, police and intelligence departments (al-Sharq al-Aswat, February 24). The negotiations were hosted by the Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa.

Al-Shabaab began its campaign with the destruction of the tomb of Shaykh Muhyidin Eli on the northern outskirts of Mogadishu. Shabaab commander Shaykh Ali Muhammad Husayn (a.k.a. Abu Jamal, the Shabaab “governor” of Banaadir region) told reporters, “We have carried out a holy operation to destroy tombs used as worshipping symbols. We aim to get rid of the barbaric and non-Islamic culture in the country (AFP, March 23). Eyewitnesses said Shaykh Muhyidin’s remains were removed from the grave and stuffed into sacks (, March 24). Shaykh Sa’id’s forces then excavated a series of graves close to Mogadishu’s Bakara market, including the tombs of Ma’allin (“Teacher”) Biyamalow, his wife and his small child (Andalusnews, March 25). According to Shaykh Ali Muhammad Husayn, “Allah forgives sins but He does not forgive polytheism. Therefore, the mujahidin always stand to fight anything that goes against the Shari’a… If a man does good deeds, he will reap rewards. However, it is polytheism to worship him besides Allah just because he is a good man” (, March 24).

Reaction to the exhumations was swift. Elders of the Mudulood clan in Banaadir region have announced they will lead a rising against al-Shabaab to expel them from north Mogadishu (Jowhar, March 23). Shaykh Bashir Ahmad Salad, chairman of the Organization for Somali Religious Scholars, described the exhumations as un-Islamic and a “violation of the rights of a deceased person” (Dayniile, March 27). The ASJ has reported that its scholars in Nairobi are raising their supporters to travel to Mogadishu to fight al-Shabaab and are also recruiting forces in Mogadishu to take revenge on al-Shabaab (Shabelle Media Network, March 26).

Somali Sufis 2Armed Somali Sufis

Shaykh Sa’id Karatay has expanded al-Shabaab’s war on the dead, ordering his men to search out and destroy all graves from the colonial period, graves with crosses and graves with foreign names. Special targets are graves bearing Ugandan, Tanzanian and Kenyan names; the Shaykh describes these as the graves of the forefathers of the Ugandan dominated African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which is involved in heavy fighting against al-Shabaab. “These people had previously come to attack the country and the dates they died here are also marked on the graves. Clearly, this is not the first time that Africans have come to attack us. The forefathers of these African forces raining down mortars on us are buried here, right here” (Universal TV [Somali], March 23).

The latest round of desecrations is being used as a rallying point for the Sufi militia; according to ASJ spokesman Abdikadir Muhammad Somow, “Every believer, every Somali, anyone interested in the dignity of our country and that of Islam should now stand up to [al-Shabaab] and let this be the last of their transgressions. It should give us the will and determination to once and for all oust them out of our country” (Universal TV, March 23). General Muhammad Nur Galal has joined the ASJ as a military advisor in central Somalia as the movement prepares to drive al-Shabaab out of Galgadud and Hiraan provinces (, March 23). The Soviet-trained General Galal, a member of the influential Hawiye/Habr Gadir/Ayr clan, was one of the planners of Somalia’s 1977 invasion of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region.

ASJ leader Shaykh Umar Muhammad Farah believes al-Shabaab’s campaign is in retaliation for ASJ joining the TFG:

The excavation of the remains of prominent religious scholars that took part in spreading of Islam in the last centuries is quite disappointing. For them to treat fellow Muslims the way they did is abhorrent. We see this as a reaction to the recent agreement between Ahlu Sunna wa’l-Jama’a and the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia in Addis Ababa.

Many Somalis have observed the TFG’s silence on the tomb demolitions and its failure to send security forces to intervene (Dayniile, March 25).  It is known that President Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad dislikes the Sufi community and has not hesitated to insult it in the past even though his government would probably collapse without its support. The President and many of his supporters were once allied with the leaders of al-Shabaab and they share many views on the application of Islam in Somalia.

This article first appeared in the April 2, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Mauritania’s Imprisoned Islamists Debate Jihad with Religious Scholars on Public Television

Andrew McGregor
February 4, 2010

Buoyed by the successful transition of power after recent elections and the reconciliation of the government and opposition, Mauritania is now taking the unprecedented step of broadcasting a televised debate on the meaning and merits of jihad from inside a Nouakchott prison. On one side was a panel of officials and scholars, on the other was a divided group of some of Mauritania’s most dangerous convicts, including the leader of al-Qaeda in Mauritania, Khadim Ould Saman (al-Jazeera, January 19, 2010).

Mauritania - Khadim Ould SamanKhadim Ould Saman (center)

In the last few years, Mauritania has battled a low-level but often shockingly violent insurgency led by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (see Terrorism Monitor, August 20, 2009; July 30, 2009; February 23, 2005; Terrorism Focus, October 1, 2008; January 9, 2008).

The two-day event (January 18-19) was attended by 67 Salafist prisoners, most of whom still await trial. The panel of scholars was led by Shaykh Muhammad Hassan Ould Daou and the Minister of Islamic Affairs, Ahmed Ould Nini, who announced, “We are here today to discuss ways and means to get out of a crisis that threatens civil peace in a nation known for its spirit of tolerance, magnanimity and openness” (AFP, January 2, 2010). One member of the panel explained, “The objective is to encourage [the prisoners] to repent and to support a fatwa that condemns fundamentalism and religious violence – a fatwa which imams will later disseminate in mosques” (Jeune Afrique, January 29, 2010). One of the central questions examined in the dialogue was the legitimacy of attacks against Muslims and non-Muslims.

Ould Saman, who wore an “Al-Qaeda” T-shirt to one of the sessions, maintains that attacks on the Islamic Republic of Mauritania are a religious duty due to the government’s failure to uphold Shari’a. During the debate, Ould Saman insisted the scholars and clerics had no choice but to follow his example:

Indeed, we are right to face infidels everywhere in Muslim lands until they leave every part of Muslim countries and until we liberate them. We have the right to fight a handful of people who rule Muslim countries until we remove them by fighting them by the sword and until we enforce the rule of Shari’a. It is the right of Muslims to be ruled by the Shari’a… You [the clerics] have no knowledge and are wrong to describe us as ignorant and religious extremists (al-Jazeera, January 19, 2010; January 23, 2010).

Ould Saman, however, appears to represent a minority view among the prisoners, 47 of whom signed a document calling for dialogue with Mauritanian religious scholars. The document praised the outreach work of the scholars, saying they have explained certain concepts “which they previously did not understand” (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, January 11, 2010). Still, about 20 irreconcilables continue to support Ould Saman’s hardline views, even with the possibility of an amnesty dangling before them. This group, which includes some of Mauritania’s best-known terrorists, is aware that AQIM has demanded their release in exchange for three Spanish hostages. Many of the Salafist detainees have complained of torture and mistreatment while in prison, though human rights groups report an improvement in this area under the new regime.

Ould Saman escaped from the same prison in 2006 and is alleged to have used his freedom to murder four French tourists in December 2007 and to organize an attack on the Israeli embassy (now closed) in February 2008. He was re-arrested in April, 2008 (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, April 30, 2008). After his arrest, Ould Saman was charged with using Mauritania as a base for “terrorist acts against a foreign country [Israel] and belonging to a terrorist organization” (AFP, August 26, 2009). The talks, which are being followed closely by the public, are supported by Mauritania’s newly legitimate Islamist party, Tawassoul.
This article first appeared in the February 4, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Algeria Turns to Sufism to Fight Salafi Extremism

Andrew McGregor

August 13, 2009

After decades of discouraging the practice of Sufi Islam, Algerian authorities are now turning to Sufism as an ideological weapon in their struggle against Salafi-style Islamist militancy. Roughly 1.5 million of Algeria’s 34 million citizens are active adherents of Sufism.

Sufism al-AlawiShaykh Ahmad al-Alawi

This turnaround in the official approach to Islam in Algeria was highly visible in a week-long Alawi Sufi festival held in Mostaganem in July (Mostaganem is 250 km west of Algiers, well distant from the strongholds of the Salafist militants in eastern Algeria). Organizers said the event was dedicated to “encouraging people to return to traditional Islam, the Islam of tolerance and open-mindedness” (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 28). One speaker noted that there are more than 170 verses in the Quran that describe the strategic value of tolerance and reconciliation for Muslims. Some 5,000 Alawi adherents from Europe, North Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Middle East assembled at the gathering, which enjoyed the personal sponsorship of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi (1869-1934), a native of Mostaganem, established his own order in 1914 as a branch of the Shadhiliyya tariqa (spiritual path). The Shaykh addressed the problem of reconciling modernity and Islam and was well known for his tolerant approach to Christianity. The Alawiyya order spread to France, the Levant and other parts of North Africa. The current leader of the Alawis is Shaykh Adlan Khalid Ben Tounis, a writer and lecturer on Islamic topics.

The Alawis are one of a number of Sufi orders in Algeria, all of which suffered official disapproval after independence as the government advocated a type of reform Islam closer to Salafism. The radicalization of Algerian Islam in the 1980s led to physical attacks on Sufi shrines and their guardians.

The official view of Sufism has undergone a radical change, however. The government has created a radio and television station to propagate Sufism in Algeria and Sufi leaders are also encouraged to play a greater role in social affairs. The once powerful Tijaniyya order was rehabilitated after the post-independence government tried to eliminate it for its “pro-colonial” position during French rule.

The schism between Salafists and Sufis is longstanding and is based on Salafist objections to pilgrimage to the tombs of saints and requests for their intercession with God. Salafis call such practices “innovation,” “polytheism” and “worship of the dead.” Sufis and Salafists are engaged in active fighting in Somalia following a number of incidents in which the Salafist al-Shabaab movement destroyed important Sufi shrines and tombs.

This article first appeared in the August 13, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Salafist War on Sufi Islam Spreads to Peshawar

Andrew McGregor

March 19, 2009

The bombing of a famous Peshawar shrine dedicated to a local Sufi saint is the latest episode of what appears to be an effort to define a new ethnic and religious identity in the northwest frontier region of Pakistan. The March 5 attack on the mausoleum of Rahman Baba, the most famous poet of the Pashto language and a major figure in the Pashtun cultural heritage, caused severe damage after explosives were lodged against the shrine’s pillars (The Nation [Islamabad], March 10). The bombing occurred the same day as a rocket attack on the shrine of Bahadur Baba in the Nowshera District of the NWFP, 40 km north of Peshawar (Daily Times [Lahore], March 10). Militants had warned the custodians of both shrines against the Sufi tradition of praying to the dead saints, a practice viewed as heresy by the Salafists, whose Saudi-influenced concept of monotheism excludes any intercession with God by revered Islamic figures, including the Prophet Muhammad.

Rahman BabaBombing Damage to the Mausoleum of Rahman Baba

The attack on the Rahman Baba mausoleum is believed to be the work of the Lashkar-i-Islam, a Salafist militant group responsible for previous attacks on Sufi shrines, including the March 4, 2008, rocket attack on the 400-year-old Abu Saeed Baba shrine in the Khyber Agency that killed ten people. Rahman Baba was an 18th century poet whose work espoused the virtues of love and tolerance. His shrine has been a center for devotional Sufi music and singing by the Pashtun communities of Afghanistan and Pakistan since his death. Ten years ago, the Arab and Pashtun students of a new Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrassa down the road from the shrine began taking it upon themselves to prohibit traditional Sufi activities at the shrine as “un-Islamic.” Frequent assaults on visitors to the shrine have caused a significant drop in visits.

The leader of the nearby Haqqania madrassa outlined his objections to Sufi attendance at the Rahman Baba shrine: “We don’t like tomb worship. We do not pray to dead men, even the saints. We believe there is no power but God. I invite people who come here to return to the true path of the Qur’an. Do not pray to a corpse: Rahman Baba is dead. Go to the mosque, not to a grave” (Pakistan Observer, March 8). The local Salafists appear to have been particularly enraged by the tradition of female Sufis singing at the shrine and attempted to impose a ban on all visits by women (The Hindu, March 9).

There have been other attacks on Muslim shrines in the Peshawar area in the last two years, including the December 2007 bombing of the shrine of Abdul Shakur Malang Baba and the attempted destruction of the shrine of Ashaab Baba just outside Peshawar in 2008 (Daily Times, March 10). Sufi shrines attended by both Sunnis and Shiites have in the past been special targets of those seeking to promote sectarian strife in Pakistan. A bombing at the shrine of Pir Rakhel Shah in March 2005 killed at least 50 people on pilgrimage; two months later a suicide bombing at the Bari Imam shrine outside Islamabad killed 25 and wounded over 200 (Himalayan Times, March 20, 2005; AFP, May 29, 2005). The Salafist campaign of tomb destruction has brought the Taliban and other Salafi Islamist groups into conflict with the descendants of Sufi saints who wield considerable political power in Pakistan (The Nation, March 10).

Large protests followed the most recent attacks, which had cross-border repercussions in Afghanistan and India. President Asif Ali Zardari has announced the federal government will assume responsibility for rebuilding the shrine of Rahman Baba, while the Kakakhel tribe has said it will undertake the reconstruction of the Bahadur Baba shrine (The News [Islamabad], March 7; March 10). The practice of destroying the tombs of Sufi saints has also been adopted by the radical Islamist al-Shabaab movement in Somalia, costing them considerable support in that traditionally Sufi nation.


This article first appeared in the March 19, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor