Ideology Unifies the Base
The envisioned end state that both al Qaeda and ISIS pursue is not uniquely theirs. A broader faction in the Muslim-majority world seeks to spread the practice of a “true” interpretation of Islam while establishing polities under shari’a governance.4 This faction is Salafi. Salafis are orthodox Sunni Muslims who believe the Muslim community, the umma, has strayed from true Islam,5 which they define as the Islam practiced in the time of the companions of the Prophet and his early followers.6 Specifically, Salafis hold that Muslims must return to the fundamentals of Islam contained entirely within the Qur’an and the hadith (sayings and actions of the Prophet) in order for the umma to be as strong as it was in the Golden Age.7 Those Salafis committed to the use of armed force to achieve these aims, including the senior leaders of ISIS and al Qaeda, are Salafi-jihadis.8 Salafis are not America’s enemies, nor are do they threaten us so long as they do not support Salafi-jihadis.
Salafism is a small part of Sunni Islam, and Salafijihadism is a small part of Salafism. Like all major contemporary religions, the practice and observance of the religion varies greatly among Sunni Muslims, as does the application of these values to political order and governance. Sunni Islam ranges from the secular atheist application, such as the Turkish constitution as applied by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to a secular religious application, such as that enshrined in the Egyptian constitution. There are political Islamists, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and violent Islamists, such as Hamas in Gaza. The Salafi spectrum ranges from those who abstain from politics and violence, known as quietists,9 to those such as the Egyptian al Nour party who pursue political power to effect change, known as political Salafis, to those who justify violence for such purposes, the Salafi-jihadis. Even Salafi-jihadis disagree among themselves over when, where, and against whom violent acts are justified to achieve their aims. The spectrum of beliefs and practical applications is wide and complicated—but not beyond comprehension.
All Salafi-jihadis are committed to the use of armed force to achieve their aims: to create a true Muslim state by imposing their interpretation of shari’a. Salafi-jihadis argue that it is an obligation for Muslims today to purify Islam, which was polluted over the centuries by innovations (bid’a) and that the method of purification will necessarily include violent jihad. No Muslim ruler presides over a true Islamic society today according to this view. Those rulers who claim authority have falsely appropriated it from Allah, are propagating heresy, and are promoting apostasy. Therefore, removing the ruler is a religious obligation in order to rebuild a just and true Islamic society. Some ideologues extend this obligation to craft the justification for jihad against the West as the supporter of these rulers.
The concept of an obligation, fard, is critical in Islam. Obligatory acts belong to one of the five categories of behaviors governed in Islam: fard (obligatory), mustahabb (encouraged), mubah (neutral), makruh (discouraged), and haram (forbidden). Obligatory acts are further broken down into those that are obligatory for every individual, fard ‘ayn‚ and those that are obligatory for the umma, fard al kifaya, in which it is obligatory that some members of the umma complete the act.
Islam defines five basic acts as fard ‘ayn for all Muslims.10 Conducting violent jihad is not among them; it is fard al kifaya—obligatory only on the community and even then only in certain circumstances. Salafi-jihadi ideology holds that the conditions today are such that violent jihad is a fard ‘ayn for all Muslims. Mainstream, orthodox Sunni leaders disagree. Failing to conduct violent jihad is therefore a grave sin for Salafi-jihadis, but not for the overwhelming majority of Sunni Muslims.
Salafi-jihadis believe that the only way to revive true Islam is to guide their actions in rigid allegory to the initial struggle to spread Islam during the age of the Prophet and the Rightly Guided Caliphs.11 They divide the Prophet’s life into at least three phases: Mecca I, Medina, and Mecca II.12 Mecca I is a time of tolerance to gather strength. The focus is on developing new adherents and organizational capacity as a covert group while not under direct attack by the state. The Medina phase occurs when the group must defend itself. The group establishes itself in a sanctuary from which to conduct attacks to weaken the state and in which the group can begin to develop institutions and expand its military capacities. Mecca II sees the launch of an offensive to destroy and replace the state. Finally, Salafi-jihadis look for subsequent guidance to the years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed when the Rightly Guided Caliphs expanded Muslims lands.
The ideology of Salafi-jihadism has a strong foundation in Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic theology—to a certain point.13 Text drawn from the Qur’an and the hadith support some of the ideological arguments for Salafi-jihadism, giving it an apparent legitimacy, although Salafi-jihadism has never gained more than a minority of followers. Like forms of orthodoxy calling for violence in other religions, it is a marginalized interpretation of the faith. A version of this ideology—Kharijitism, which led to the assassination of the Fourth Caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib—has been branded as a heresy.14
Origins of Salafi-Jihadism. The Salafi-jihadi strain did not arise immediately within Islam. Conditions largely drove its development. Killing another Muslim is forbidden in Islam except in certain cases. The question of who is a Muslim, and therefore whether it was possible to take up arms against others who called themselves Muslims, sparked the beginnings of the theological line of argument that led to the Salafi-jihadi ideology. Salafi-jihadi ideology carries forward concepts of who can rightly claim to be a Muslim that were first developed when Muslim powers fought one another to the current day, when nonstate actors seek to contest states claiming to be Muslim.
Scholars (and Salafi-jihadis) can trace elements of Salafi-jihadism back to the writings of the 13th century scholar Ahmad ibn Taymiyya.15 Ibn Taymiyya issued a fatwa, religious ruling, that broke from Islamic tradi- tion and authorized the use of force in battle against a group claiming to be Muslim. Twentieth-century Islamists advanced arguments that became a foundational core of Salafi-jihadi ideology. These include Mohammed Rashid Rida, who called for the restoration of the Caliphate;16 Abul A’la Maududi, who described much of Muslim society’s history as un-Islamic or in the state of jahiliyya17 (ignorance of Allah’s guidance) and called for adherence to shari’a; Hassan al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Sayyid Qutb, who wove together tenets from ibn Taymiyya, Rashid Rida, Maududi, and Has- san al Banna in Milestones18 to lay out a plan to return Islam to its roots. Qutb called for a vanguard19 to lead Muslims in the effort to revive Islam.
The early ideologues focused on how to unite and expand the umma, rejecting Muslim states as un-Islamic and too proximate to Western ideals. Maududi was the first 20th-century scholar to base his theory on the original founding of Islam.20 He argued against modernization and Western concepts and reasserted the Islamic concept of the sovereignty of Allah, asserting that nothing was outside of Allah’s law. Maududi argued that Islam’s purpose was to establish Allah’s sovereignty on earth through man— the Caliph—acting by virtue of Allah’s delegation of sovereignty to him and bound by shari’a.21 He was less revolutionary than Sayyid Qutb and others, however, and advocated for a political party, his vanguard, to pursue society’s “Islamization from above” and the return of the Caliphate.
Qutb claimed that the umma had been nonexistent for centuries because Muslims had ceased practicing correctly and worshiped false deities in the form of their secular rulers. He dedicated a chapter22 of Milestones to the creation of the umma, which starts with the creed, the shahada or declaration of faith (“There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.”). Qutb’s understanding of the shahada was revolutionary, for he argued that to declare the faith was also to reject any form of human government. He believed that the umma must begin with the creed and separate itself from society, although winning over this society remains key. He writes in his introduction to Milestones: “Islam cannot fulfill its role except by taking concrete form in a society.” Both Qutb and Maududi sought first to build the umma, by which they meant a new community of righteous Muslims, and then to engage with society writ large to reconvert it to Islam. Qutb’s understanding, and to a lesser degree Maududi’s understanding, of Islam diverged significantly from the understanding of Islam during their own lives and even that of Muslims for many centuries prior.
Qutb’s argument for undertaking violent jihad focused on transforming the societies in which his new umma was forming. He claimed that the new umma’s experiences would follow the Prophet Mohammed’s, predicting that the Muslim states and societies would reject the new community and act against it:
Since [Islam] comes into conflict with the jahiliyya [ignorance of the Word of Allah] which prevails over ideas and beliefs, and which has a practical system of life and a political and material authority behind it, the Islamic movement had to produce parallel resources to confront this jahiliyya. This move- ment uses the methods of preaching and persuasion for reforming ideas and beliefs; and it uses physical power and jihad for abolishing the organizations and authorities of the jahili system.23
Like the Prophet and his followers, the new umma must proselytize, defend itself, and eventually eliminate its opposition. Qutb, unlike later Salafi-jihadi theorists, saw jihad as beginning first against those directly oppressing the umma, then against the Muslim state, and finally against the non-Muslim world.
Salafi-Jihadism in Practice. The jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan was a critical turning point because it transformed the ideology into a global movement. The Afghan-Soviet war was the first conflict in the modern era that drew in Muslim recruits of all nationalities. Notably, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict never had such an effect on Muslims worldwide in part because the Palestinian resistance was secular and because travel to join the fight was difficult.24 The thinking of the Salafi-jihadi ideologues advanced during the Afghan war from focusing nearly exclusively on the societies and states in which they lived to focusing on the broader Muslim community. The mujahideen’s success in Afghanistan proved that victory was possible and also that it was possible to cause an Islamic emirate to be established in order to lay the foundation for the future Caliphate.
The Salafi-jihadi thought leaders active during the Soviet-Afghan war further developed Sayyid Qutb’s concepts. Abdullah Azzam, a religious cleric turned global recruiter, fathered modern Salafi-jihadi thought as he led the Afghan-Arab jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.25 Azzam was a Palestinian and shifted the target of jihad from an internal enemy (the ruler or the state) to an external enemy (the aggressor).26 He viewed Israel as an aggressor against the Palestinian people and argued that the Soviet Union played the same role in Afghanistan.27 Whereas Sayyid Qutb argued that Dar al Islam28 (the domain where Islam rules) had not existed for centuries,29 Azzam conceived of Dar al Islam as the land where Islam was accepted (in however flawed a manner) and sought first to defend those lands from unbelievers.30 He wrote from the battlefield and called all Muslims— even those who had strayed—to fight, arguing that because Afghans could not win the war themselves, it was fard ‘ayn, an individual obligation, for all to come to their defense. Azzam redefined the jihad from Qutb’s revolutionary fight against the state from within to a fight to drive non-Muslim invaders from Muslim lands.31 The shift from Islamism’s identification of an internal, Muslim problem to an external, apostate enemy transformed the Salafi-jihadi ideology into a truly global movement.
Abdullah Azzam developed his own theory of a vanguard force toward the end of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.32 The mujahideen fighting and training in Afghanistan hailed from across the Mus- lim world and were indoctrinated in Salafi-jihadi ide- ology in the trenches. Azzam envisioned their leaders as members of a vanguard force, redefined from the vanguard Sayyid Qutb describes.33 Azzam sought to build a “solid base” that would be a military force to reconquer Muslim lands. He likened the formation of this force to the first generation of Muslims trained under the Prophet Mohammed. Azzam and Osama bin Laden founded al Qaeda34 (literally, “the base”) after the war ended to continue the movement.35
Al Qaeda’s establishment as a formal organization dedicated to jihad to make Islam victorious across the world was transformational for the Salafi-jihadi movement. It linked global objectives with those of local organizations with national objectives (overthrowing the ruler and state).36 Yet how to prioritize the fight remained in contention. Azzam’s writings indicate that he viewed the next priority for the movement to be other Muslim lands that were under attack by an aggressor—Palestine remain- ing high on his list. Ayman al Zawahiri, an Egyptian leader who had tethered himself to Osama bin Laden in the mid-1980s to gain resources for his group in Egypt,37 pushed for al Qaeda to support groups seeking to topple the regimes.38 Zawahiri had bin Laden’s ear after Azzam’s 1989 assassination,39 and he took al Qaeda in that direction initially. Azzam’s thinking— the defense of Muslim lands—did not disappear, however, and came to be central to al Qaeda’s message, especially after 9/11.
Abdullah Azzam’s ideas continue to reverberate within Salafi-jihadi discourse, and his writings remain a source of inspiration for individuals worldwide. Azzam’s approach to building a global network by connecting various individuals and groups continued after his assassination in 1989. Azzam established branches of his “Service Bureau,” the organization dedicated to recruiting and training foreigners to fight in Afghanistan, in places such as the United States. This effort created a significant global footprint and produced a group of hardened activists whose beliefs transcended national divisions. Osama bin Laden was but one of many future leaders in this group. Bin Laden rose to prominence within the Salafi-jihadi movement because he inherited Azzam’s transna- tional networks, not just because he had the money to fund al Qaeda’s operations.
Salafis emphasize the elimination of shirk (idolatry‚ or here‚ the attribution of divine authority to a man or group of men) and affirmation of tawhid (Allah’s unity).
The term “true Islam” or “true Islamic society” as used in this paper should be understood as the Salafi-jihadi interpretation of Islam. The use of the term does not imply that the Islam in practice today is impure or deviant from the religion.
The term “Salafi” comes from the Arabic phrase al salaf al saliheen (pious predecessors)‚ referring to the first three generations of Muslims including the companions of the Prophet.
Marc Sageman‚ Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press‚ 2004)
The concept of “jihad” is complex in Islam. The term in Arabic means “striving in the way of Allah” and does not necessarily connote violence. Here, “jihad” is used for violent acts in the name of Allah. Salafi-jihadi is used to classify those individuals who are Salafi and believe that conducting violent jihad is a religious obligation. For a more complete exposition of jihad today‚ see Mary Habeck, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadi Ideology and the War on Terror (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press‚ 2006).
For more on quietist Salafism‚ see Jacob Olidort‚ “The Politics of ‘Quietist’ Salafism‚” Brookings Institution‚ February 2015.
These are (1) the declaration of the shahada (la ilaha illa-illahu muhammadun rasulu-llah, “There is no god but Allah (and) Mohammed is the messenger of Allah”); (2) salat (prayer); (3) zakat (charity); (4) sawm (fasting); and (5) hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca)
The Rightly Guided Caliphs‚ also known as the Rashidun‚ are the four immediate successors to the Prophet Mohammed: Abu Bakr‚ Umar‚ Uthman‚ and Ali‚ under whom the Muslim territory expanded beyond the Arabian Peninsula to include what is now Iran‚ Iraq‚ Syria‚ Jordan, Egypt‚ and parts of Turkey and Libya.
Some have identified additional subphases between Mecca I‚ Medina‚ and Mecca II. Mary Habeck‚ for example‚ assesses that the al Qaeda envisions seven strategic phase lines.
See Habeck‚ Knowing the Enemy‚ chap. 2
Including by modern-day Salafi-jihadis‚ ironically‚ who hotly contest the notion that their views have anything to do with those of the Kharijites. The branding of Salafi-jihadi ideology as heretical is not a consensus within Islam. ISIS’s ideology‚ which has strong takfiri influence (the labeling of other Muslims as apostates)‚ has led more Muslims to brand it as a heresy than to label al Qaeda as such. The Kharijites can be characterized as a group that held extremist positions on who is and is not a Muslim—rejecting Ali as Caliph because he submitted the decision of his rule to human arbitration (and judgment belongs to Allah alone) and also claiming that professed Muslims who sinned were not Muslims unless they repented. They separated from other Muslims, believing it was forbidden to live among those who did not share their views. See Tamara Sonn and Adam Farrar‚ “Kharijites‚ ” Oxford Bibliographies‚ Oxford University Press‚ December 14‚ 2009; and Hassan Mneimneh, “Takfirism‚ ” American Enterprise Institute‚ Critical Threats Project‚ October 1‚ 2009.
Ibn Taymiyya’s arguments were heavily influenced by his experience under the Mongols, particularly the third Mongol invasion of Syria in 1303. He argued that the Mongols were not Muslims despite claiming to be so because they ruled by manmade laws rather than shari’a. Such an argument was controversial then and now because it transferred from Allah to man the judgment of who is a Muslim. It permitted ibn Taymiyya to then argue for an individual obligation on all Muslims to conduct violent jihad against the invad- ing Mongols. Ibn Taymiyya was the first to authorize lethal force in battle against a group claiming to be Muslim. Al Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadi groups cite ibn Taymiyya’s arguments in their own edicts.
The Ottoman Empire was the last recognized Caliphate. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate on March 3, 1924, and expelled the last Caliph, Abdulmejid II, from Turkey. The Prophet Mohammed is reported to have prophesied the fall of the Caliphate and its eventual return after a dark period of violence. The call for the restoration of the Caliphate surged in the 20th century and was repeated by political Islamists and Salafis. See Vernie Liebel, “The Caliphate,” Middle Eastern Studies 45, no. 3 (May 2009): 373–91; and Encyclopedia Britannica Online, s.v. “Caliph,” accessed May 8, 2017.
Jahiliyya is the state of ignorance of divine guidance from Allah. Qutb argues in Milestones that today’s jahiliyya is a rebellion against Allah’s sovereignty in which man now claims the “right to create values, to legislate rules of collective behavior, and to choose any way of life.”
Sayyid Qutb, Milestones [Ma’alim fi al-Tariq] (Egypt: Kazi Publications, 1964).
Qutb authored Milestones for this vanguard, which he sees as Muslims who seek to revive Islam, and his introduction addresses the vanguard directly. He did not provide information on how to create the vanguard.
Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Anthony F. Roberts, trans., 2002: Belknapf Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. pp. 34-35.
Maududi was a prolific writer and had actively envisaged the structure of an Islamic state, which he described as a theo-democ- racy because of the Islamic emphasis on ijma’ (consensus). Liebel, “The Caliphate”; Abdul Rashid Moten, “Islamization of Knowledge in Theory and Practice: The Contribution of Sayyid Abul A’La Mawdudi,” Islamic Studies 43, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 247–72,; and Elisa Giunchi, “The Political Thought of Abul A’La Mawdudi,” Il Politico 59, no. 2 (April–June 1994): 347– 75.
Qutb, Milestones, chap. 4.
These are described as reasons to fight in Afghanistan in Abdullah Azzam, The Defense of Muslim Territories (1984). Translated excerpts in Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milelli, eds., Al Qaeda in Its Own Words (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
Key texts include Azzam’s The Defense of Muslim Territories Constitutes the First Individual Duty, Join the Caravan, and The Solid Base.
Thomas Hegghammer, “Abdallah Azzam, the Imam of Jihad,” in Kepel and Milelli, Al Qaeda in Its Own Words, 98–99.
Azzam, The Defense of Muslim Territories.
Ibn Taymiyya’s categorized the world into distinct territories based on internal conditions, which define a Muslim’s obligation.
According to Taymiyya, Dar al Islam is the domain where true Islam ruled, Dar al Kufr is where unbelievers ruled, and Dar al Harb is where unbelievers rule and are in active or potential conflict with Dar al Islam.
According to Qutb, Dar al Islam was “the place where the Islamic state is established and the shari’a is the authority and Allah’s limits are observed, and where all Muslims administer the affairs of the state with mutual consultation.” Qutb, Milestones, chap. 9.
Azzam, The Defense of Muslim Territories.
Certain non-Muslims, those of the Book (Christians and Jews), could remain only if they accepted Islam’s rule and paid the jizya, a per capita tax levied on dhimmi communities. See Kepel and Milelli, Al Qaeda in Its Own Words, 300, note 25. See also Thomas Hegg- hammer. “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad,” International Security 35, no. 3 (Winter 2010/11): 53–94.
See Abdullah Azzam, The Solid Base (1988). Translated excerpts in Kepel and Milelli, Al Qaeda in Its Own Words.
Qutb’s model followed a revolutionary plan in which a small vanguard force could overthrow a government and then establish an Islamic polity.
The name al Qaeda translates to “the base.” Azzam’s 1988 treatise, The Solid Base, effectively served as the mandate for the new organization.
Azzam and bin Laden differed on next steps for the jihad after Afghanistan. Azzam sought to first liberate Muslim lands under foreign occupation, such as his native Palestine, whereas bin Laden focused on the Arab regimes.
See al Qaeda’s constitutional charter for al Qaeda’s mission and goals, available through the Combating Terrorism Center’s Harmony database, “Al-Qaida’s Constitutional Charter.”
37. Stephane LaCroix, “Ayman al-Zawahiri, Veteran of Jihad,” in Kepel and Milelli, Al Qaeda in Its Own Words, 154–55.
To this day, it is not known who ordered Azzam’s assassination. One theory is that Zawahiri ordered the hit, but there are many other likely theories.