Understanding the Radical Salafi Ideology of Extremist Groups
Radical Salafist Ideology, Strategic Messaging, and Extremist Doctrine represent three of the main pillars shaping extremist groups like Al-Qaida and the Islamic State. These three pillars are woven together to form the basis for target selection, attack planning, indoctrination and recruitment of Americans, and the violent anti-Western and anti-U.S. activities of extremist groups. It is important for law enforcement professionals, military and intelligence personnel, as well as, the public, to have an understanding of these three pillars. This increased knowledge and awareness will be critical factors to our country’s success in combatting extremist plans and attacks in the Homeland.
This article provides a foundational understanding of the origins and impact of one of the three main pillars that drive the Islamic State and Al-Qaida – radical Salafi ideology. One of our key weapons in the long war against extremism will be a precise understanding and clear identification of the enemy that we are facing. In terms of radical ideology, we are defining and identifying our enemy as “Salafi Jihadists,” who are a small subset of those who would identify themselves as Sunni Salafists. Salafism is a highly conservative form of Sunni Islam that takes it name from the “devout ancestors” (al-salaf) or “companions” of the Prophet Muhammad. Salafi Jihadism emerged in modern times and represents a highly radicalized and extremely violent version of Sunni Salafism.
The first point we need to understand is that the violent extremists represented by the Islamic State, Al-Qaida and other affiliated Salafi Jihadist extremist groups, have effectively “hijacked” Islam and dominated the agenda and headlines worldwide with regards to Muslim issues. They are less a representation of modern Islam than a form of cult or annexed sect that leverage violence and terror tactics in the pursuit of political power. Sound polling data, evidence from intelligence collection, and my own extensive observations while operating in the field support the notion that of the approximate 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet, less than 1 percent subscribe to this radical Salafi Jihadist ideology. However, this small minority has effectively and successfully imposed their radical ideology and viewpoint on much of the broader Islamic world.
One of the main tenets of the Salafi Jihadist ideology is the desire to reunite all Muslims worldwide (the “ummah”) into a new Islamic empire, called a Caliphate, all under a single ruler named the Caliph. Salafi Jihadists believe that Muslims and Islam have been repressed, discriminated against, and waged war upon by Christians, Europeans, imperialist forces, and the U.S. led “West” since 1258 a.d. when Mongol invaders sacked Baghdad and destroyed the Islamic Empire. Salafi Jihadists believe the only way to return to the former glory of the Islamic Empire is to return to what they would define as the ultra-conservative fundamentals of Sunni Islam. In effect, the Islamic State has already partially achieved one of their objectives – the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate ruled by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Islamic State has demanded that all Muslims worldwide submit to their rule and adhere to their Salafi Jihadist ideology. This represents another major tenet of the ideology – the very strict and rigid interpretation of Islam. Salafi Jihadists believe that all non-Muslims, whether they are Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, atheists, or a follower of any other religion, are apostates and subject to death. In addition, Salafi Jihadists believe that Shias, (the other major sect within Islam), and even other Sunni Muslims, who do not believe in the radical Salafi Jihadist ideology, are also apostates and should be subjected to death.
Another major current of the Salafi Jihadist ideology is the desire to violently purge all Western and U.S. influences and interests from the Middle East and broader Islamic world. In addition, Salafi Jihadists look down upon certain aspects of modern innovation and want to create a country that is ruled exclusively by their corrupted version of Islamic Sharia law, not Western or “modern” law codes and systems.
It is important to be able to recognize some of the major Islamic ideologues that have formulated, developed and promoted the Salafi Jihadist ideology. This knowledge will allow counter-terrorism personnel to better understand the ideology and be able to identify “markers” or pre-incident indicators of possible extremist linked behaviors from Americans on the path to indoctrination and radicalization. Most U.S. Homegrown Violent Extremists (HVE’s) have read materials, watched online video sermons, engaged in blog sites or chat rooms, and/or possessed books from some of the following Salafi Jihadist ideologues:
-Taqi Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah was an Islamic scholar from the 14th century, who is often cited as the first Islamic ideologue that helped formulate the Salafi Jihadist ideology.
-Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was an Islamic scholar from Saudi Arabia in the 18th century who picked up on some themes from ibn Taymiyyah’s earlier work and helped advance the Salafi Jihadist ideology.
-Syed Qutb was an Egyptian Islamic scholar who was executed by the Egyptian government in 1966 and was perhaps one of the most influential Islamic ideologues who defined the Salafi Jihadist ideology. Qutb’s book “Milestones” is cited by numerous modern-day Salafi Jihadists.
-Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman (the Blind Sheikh) was one of the first Salafi Jihadist ideologues that made an impact on the U.S. Abdel-Rahman gave guidance and inspiration to the Salafi Jihadist cell that bombed the World Trade Center in New York City in 1993.
-Jordanian Islamic scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi was the spiritual force behind the leader of Al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi. The Islamic State was born out of the remnants of Al-Qaida in Iraq.
-Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, also known as “Dr. Fadl” is a major ideologue in the Salafi Jihadist movement. He gave justification and sanctioned the use of weapons of mass destruction by Salafi Jihadists.
-Anjem Choudary, who was born in the United Kingdom, is currently serving a long prison term due to his decade-long support for Salafi Jihadist groups, most recently, the Islamic State. Choudary has influenced and inspired numerous Westerners who have converted to the Salafi Jihadist ideology.
-Musa Cerantonio is a lesser-known Salafi Jihadist ideologue who was born in Australia and has inspired and guided many Western foreign fighters to travel to Syria to fight for Salafi Jihadist groups there. Cerantonio was born into an Irish-Catholic family and converted to Islam at the age of 17.
-Ahmad Musa Jibril was born in Michigan and is a major American-based ideologue of the Salafi Jihadist viewpoint. Jibril is supportive of the Islamic State and has inspired and guided many Americans to join the group. Up to 60 percent of the foreign fighters inside Syria follow Jibril on Twitter.
-Anwar al Awlaki was perhaps the most influential American-born Salafi Jihadist ideologue to date. Awlaki had ties to some of the 9/11 hijackers in the U.S. and then was the main spiritual force behind Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula until his death from a U.S. drone strike in 2011 in Yemen. Awlaki’s personal charisma and magnetism endure however – his words, sermons, and online lectures have inspired a whole generation of American HVE’s and Salafi Jihadist attacks inside the Homeland including the Boston Marathon bombers, the San Bernardino shooters, the attack on U.S. military personnel in Chattanooga, Major Nidal Hassan’s shooting at Fort Hood, and the Orlando nightclub attack.
As with almost every other extremist, insurgent, guerrilla or rebel group throughout modern history, the Salafi Jihadist ideology practiced by Al-Qaida and the Islamic State is simply a means to an end. The ultimate goal is, has been, and always will be, political power and control. Undoubtedly, as with any extremist ideology leveraged for religious-political ends, there are “true believers” within Salafi Jihadist groups. However, there also exists a segment of Salafi Jihadists in both the Islamic State and Al-Qaida who manipulate the extremist ideology and narrative simply as a means to gain control over those around them and to win and hold onto political power.
In sum, the Salafi Jihadist ideology is one of the main pillars, along with Strategic Messaging and Extremist Doctrine, that drives and defines extremist groups like Al-Qaida and the Islamic State. It is critical that counter-terrorism professionals in law enforcement, the military, intelligence services, and in the private sector, all have an enhanced understanding of the Salafi Jihadist ideology and its key proponents. This deeper level of knowledge and awareness will lead to more effective counter-terrorism activities within the Homeland.