Introduction: A Regional Survey
So much has changed in one year. Aleppo, now the last Syrian city under rebel control, is at risk of falling to the Syrian Army and its allied fighting forces–above all, Russian war planes bombing with devastating effect those parts of Aleppo still under rebel control. Unless the U.S. and perhaps some NATO allies, France or perhaps the U.K., intervene in some drastic way that cannot but involve a direct clash with the Russian Air Force, or unless that very threat of war, however limited between Americans and Russians, forces both powers to enforce a ceasefire, Aleppo is doomed to fall. Perhaps its fall will be the price for Russia and America to sit down despite the combative verbal exchanges by both as the bombing of Aleppo intensified, and work out a political solution for Syria that takes into consideration a role for the greatly strengthened Bashar al-Assad.
This time last year this annual Regional Survey was reporting that the Assad regime in Syria was tottering. Indeed, one year ago the rebels were gaining on all fronts, Aleppo was firmly in rebel hands, and the Syrian Army was abandoning large portions of the Sunni heartland to defensively concentrate its forces in the centre of Damascus, and in Latakia. Russian war planes had just arrived in Syria but everyone assumed they were in Syria on a defensive mission to save the Assad regime from collapse.
The issue at that moment was who would take Damascus and the concern was that it most likely would be–after some serious in-fighting within rebel ranks –either Jabat al-Nusra or, more likely DA’ISH. This past September, the Kremlin’s spokesman justified the year-old Russian intervention by reminding the world that it had saved Damascus from just such a fate.
The Russian intervention wasn’t limited to an expansive air war against the rebels that destroyed 209 oil production and transfer facilities generating millions of dollars a day of revenue in sales for DA’ISH via Turkey; it also helped Syrian government forces retake 400 villages, towns, and cities and regain control of 10,000 sq km (3,800 sq miles) of territory.
What tends to be ignored is that the Russian intervention at the request of the government of Syria–included re-training and re-arming the Syrian Army as well as the engagement as advisers of a limited number of Russian special forces and artillery units–is no doubt as legitimate, however bloody, as a number of American military interventions during the Cold War at the invitation of government forces threatened by Communist rebellions or invasions. What is so shocking is that Russia which had seemed to acquiesce in its new status of a minor power following the collapse of the Soviet Union and then NATO advancing to its very borders no longer does so.
Our minds are so conditioned by the defeat of Communism and the transformation of Russia (which today, at least on an official basis is probably the most religious country in Europe with Putin bringing flowers to the shrines of Russian Orthodox Saints and being conspicuously present at the opening ceremonies of the large new Central Mosque in Moscow) that whenever Russia acts as the global nuclear power that it is, global media and particularly American media, is shocked.
Meanwhile DA’ISH has also been rolled back in Iraq, as much by the Kurds backed by American warplanes and Shi’a militias as by the Iraqi Army which has been retrained and re-armed by American advisers after its disastrous collapse in northern Iraq in the face of DA’ISH’s sweep back into Iraq in 2014.
Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and symbol of DA’ISH victories in 2014, is slowly being surrounded by Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces and Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi predicts the final push to take the city to begin by the end of October. But what few people are talking about is the humanitarian crisis that can be expected on the eve of its fall. As many as a million people are expected to flee the city when the Iraqi government backed by American war planes and special forces begins to retake the city. Aid workers in northern Iraq have told The New Yorker’s particularly perceptive reporter Dexter Filkins that “they do not have anywhere near the resources, money, or manpower to deal with the expected human tide…Ultimately much of Mosul is likely to be destroyed” (The New Yorker, September 23, 2016).
Dexter, reporting from the Debaga refugee camp outside of Erbil notes that this camp is one of many spread across Iraqi Kurdistan, where a million and a half refugees from other parts of Iraq and from Syria are already gathered in tents, schools, and mosques. The camp is designed to accommodate twenty-eight thousand people and now has nearly forty thousand with further desperate families fleeing the fighting turning up every day. The camp is a picture of squalor with families sleeping on the ground and children playing in an open sewer thirty feet wide. The stench is overpowering.
According to Dexter, Iraqi officials, including Abadi, have brushed off concerns about refugees and civilian deaths, and have given blithe assurances that everything will be fine. That those fleeing Mosul will be overwhelmingly Sunni in religious identity may have something to do with Abadi’s indifference. But the director of the International Rescue Committee in Erbil says “it’s a nightmare, a disaster heading our way”.
Muslim–and Christian–holy places continued to be destroyed in areas controlled by DA’ISH. In Aleppo, once a great Syrian centre of Sufism, 90 percent of all Sufi shrines and centres have been destroyed. This process of desecration and destruction staged by various groups of Salafis, dates back to the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011 and occurred in a number of Arab and other Muslim countries. They have been noted in our section on ‘Destruction of Religious and Ancient Sites’ (pp 241 jQuery112405794345689592697_1526807380744)
Over the past few years there have been many direct victims of Takfiri-Jihadi terrorism, mostly in the Muslim world but also in Europe and America as described in detail later in this Introduction, but there have also been indirect victims–I am referring to those European Muslims and in particular those American Muslims who have been intimidated and at times their mosques attacked as Islamophobia and hate crimes have increased over the past two years.
According to the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism at the San Bernardino campus of California State University, hate crimes against American Muslims were up by 78 percent over the course of 2015 the highest level since the reaction to the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks in 2001. Curiously hate crimes against all other all other minority groups in America–including blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and homosexuals of one form or another have declined, which might suggest that innate racism or prejudice in America is on the decline.
So it is obvious that those hate crimes and the Islamophobic speech that fosters hate crimes are a response to attacks staged by DA’ISH or lone wolf terrorists who publically declared their allegiance to DA’ISH in the West. That response has been stimulated by the ravings of Donald Trump in both his primary and presidential campaigns. “We’re seeing these stereotypes and derogative statements become part of the political discourse,” says Brian Levin, director of the California State University centre.
And while Muslims have been among the many victims (particularly the attack in Nice, France, where perhaps a third of the victims were Muslims) the overwhelming majority of the victims in the West are clearly non-Muslims. All Americans and Europeans–a category that is overwhelmingly non-Muslim are the obvious targets of these attacks and Takfiri-Jihadi justification for such attacks date back to Usama bin Laden’s infamous two-decade old fatwa calling upon Muslims to kill Christians and Jews in the West whenever and wherever possible.
To ignore this factor, as some writers do and attribute it instead to some innately Western racism, reflects an unhelpful ideological blindness to the horrendous effects of Takfiri-Jihadi terrorism in the West.
However, the brunt of Islamist extremism has been felt most in the Muslim world and the fact that Takfiri-Jihadis have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims is not particularly well known among non-Muslims in the West.
DA’ISH has launched several murderous attacks against Turkey, particularly against Kurdish Turks whom have provided support for those Syrian Kurds living close to the Turkish border who have successfully driven DA’ISH fighters from a number of Syrian border villages. More than 200 Turks have been killed in these suicide bomber attacks and nearly 600 wounded. DA’ISH has also targeted Turkey because the government in Ankara has seriously curtailed DA’ISH’s previous ability to secure supplies in Turkey, and use Turkey as a route for foreign volunteers to make their way into DA’ISH controlled territory in Syria. Turkish war planes have also attacked DA’ISH’s forces operating in Syria as part of the international coalition.
Turkey has also suffered the trauma this past July of a faction of the Turkish Armed Forces attempting a coup against President Recep Erdogan (see bio on page 52) and his government. During the very brief and very inept attempted coup over 300 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured. Mass arrests followed with at least 6,000 people detained including at least 2,839 soldiers and 2,745 judges. Some 15,000 educational staff were suspended and the licenses of 21,000 teachers working at private institutions were revoked. Over 100,000 people have been purged from various sectors. Erdogan accused his one time ally Fethullah Gulen (see bio page 99) of organizing the coup and has demanded that the United States extradite Gulen back to Turkey. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein (see bio on page 104) raised concerns at the scale of the crackdown, but he had no sympathy with the plotters of the attempted coup who sought to topple Erdogan’s democratically elected government.
Donald Trump’s successful campaign for the Republican nomination has been the most recent and major factor in the polarization of American politics; intra-party as well as inter-party polarization. One particularly relevant aspect of that polarization is found in how the respective Democratic and Republican party platforms voted at the nominating conventions that both parties held in the summer.
In past elections the official Republican and Democratic positions on Israel and the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were largely identical, thereby ensuring that perhaps the most emotional of all issues in foreign affairs would not become a partisan issue in the United States.
That changed this past summer. The Republican platform which Trump and others have described as the ‘most pro-Israel of all Time’ diverges from the Democratic from its counterpart sharply. The Democratic platform simply stated its opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement; the Republicans described BDS as “one of several alternative forms of warfare” being waged against Israel, and went on to reject “the false notion that Israel is an occupier.” Along with other differences the Republican platform contains no reference to the establishment of a Palestinian state while the Democratic platform urges that “Palestinians should be free to govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity.”
As one prominent pro-Israeli American activist sees it, the Republican platform backs Israeli “territorial rights in the West Bank and even goes beyond stating the obvious that Judea and Samaria are properly Jewish territories.” One member of the committee that drafted the platform, South Carolina State Representative Alan Clemmons in a speech to the committee declared that “the false notion that the Jewish state is an occupier is an anti-Semitic attack on Israel’s legitimacy.” The Republican platform is more aggressive in its language than the Israeli government.
The final irony is that this extreme platform position is probably not so much aimed at a few million Jewish Americans, the majority of whom support the two-state solution and the Democratic Party, but at the estimated 20 or so million predominantly Evangelical ‘Christian Zionists’ who for their own convoluted theological reasons support the most extreme elements in Israel and reportedly contribute more money to Israel than the American Jews.
Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah is ranked as the ninth most influential Muslim in the world with “his influence derived from his scholarship, piety and preaching.” This past year Sheikh bin Bayyah, sponsored by Morocco’s King Muammed VI, led some 250 renowned Muslim leaders in a three-day summit in Marrakesh entitled ‘The Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities.’ With Takfiri-Jihadis killing the followers of other religions in the name of Islam and some Salafi sheikhs stirring up Muslim villagers in the Upper Egyptian countryside to attack their Christian neighbours and burn down their churches, Sheikh bin Bayyah considered it imperative that the leading Muslim ulema meet and denounce that violence as well as affirm the full rights of religious minorities in the Muslim world. Rights, which according to Bin Bayyah and the other ulema, that go back to the original Charter of Medina drawn up by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
This was not the first time Sheikh bin Bayyah had convened a meeting of the ulema to deal with this issue, but the Marrakesh Declaration is the most explicit and detailed affirmation of minority rights to be published in the contemporary Muslim world.
Some in the Muslim world have wondered why so much more attention was paid in Western media to DA’ISH’s attacks in Paris and Brussels compared to the attacks in Turkey as well as several other Muslim countries. The most obvious reason is that Western media, like any media, will always be more sensitive to disturbing events in their own countries or region than elsewhere.
But it is also significant that as American and European war planes have contributed to DA’ISH loss of territory, DA’ISH will strike out at Western targets in retaliation and also to remind the world and particularly its followers, that despite an increasing number of set-backs in Syria and Iraq, it is still very much alive and active. As it continues to lose territory and fighters, these attacks will probably accelerate, and for the time being it will retain the mantle as the most successful Takfiri-Jihadi organization in a succession of terrorist movements that stretch back nearly five decades.
This past September was the 15th anniversary of the 9/1l Al-Qaeda hijacked airliner attacks that levelled New York’s World Trade Center and smashed into the Pentagon in Washington killing nearly 3,000 people (approximately 2,100 American civilians, and almost 400 civilians from over 90 other countries). It changed the world in many ways.
It altered global perception of the danger of Takfiri-Jihadi terrorism. This was not Al-Qaeda’s first attack against America: That entry in the history of contemporary Islamist terrorism goes to Al-Qaeda’s suicide bombing of two American embassies in Africa in 1998. That operation managed to kill more Muslims than any other national or religious category and in the years that followed–in particular the most recent years of DA’ISH and Al-Qaeda operations in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Mali, and Afghanistan–it has consistently been the rule.
Nor was 9/11 the first Takfiri-Jihadi operation in America. The first bombing of the World Trade Center (WTC) occurred on 26 February 1993 when a van loaded up with 660 kilos (1,336 pounds) of high explosives was detonated in the underground public parking area of the WTC’s North Tower. The tremendous blast was supposed to topple the North Tower into the South Tower, bringing both down in an attempt to kill more than 10,000 people. That did not happen. All of the parking area was totally destroyed as were two other underground levels, but the building held and since only six people were killed (more than a thousand were injured) the relatively small number of deaths tended to lessen in public consciousness what should have been grave national concern.
The mastermind of the operation–Kuwaiti-born, with a Pakistani father and a Palestinian mother, Ramzi Yousef–had trained at one of the Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. But he was one of many Arab and Asian Muslims who received terrorist training at an Al-Qaeda camp without joining Al-Qaeda. His colleagues recall him as relatively indifferent to Islamic practice but equally passionately pro-Palestinian and anti-American. Ramzi claimed the operation in the name of ‘The Liberation Army’ in a communiquÃ© sent to New York City newspapers and then fled New York for Pakistan only a few hours after the blast. Ramzi was subsequently arrested in Pakistan and brought back to America where extensive investigations indicated there was no direct connection between Usama bin Ladin and this attack. But in the murky world of Takfiri-Jihadis there are cross-over associations, or even–as we will see when considering the origins of DA’ISH, direct lines of descent between what are generally considered and appear to be separate organizations.
A pause to consider terminology. DA’ISH the Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State, so one does not have to keep typing ‘so-called’ nor honour a movement committed to mass murder with a title that implies some sort of legitimacy. As for using ‘Takfiri-Jihadi’ instead of Salafi-Jihadi even though the latter is a more recognizable and theologically comprehensive word–Takfir is the practice of labelling a Muslim who does not follow one’s particular understanding of Islam as an apostate (for any number of reasons) and therefore worthy of death. Denounced as a doctrine by orthodox or traditional ulema, it has been used by terrorists to brand as apostate an individual, or head of state, or his government, or an entire people, or the entire Muslim world save for those who accept the Takfiri’s understanding of Islam, which is invariably an extreme Salafi understanding– generally an extremely harsh rather than merciful and compassionate interpretation of Islam, the Quran, the Prophet’s sayings and doings which are for Muslims a living commentary upon the Quran. Like the radicalism of the 17th Century British militant Puritan and Regicide Oliver Cromwell, the Salafi tend to be deeply suspicious of beauty, the spiritual path of the Sufis, the reality of Sainthood, and the baraka (spiritual grace) that surrounds them, be they alive or dead.
To the degree that Salafi sheikhs preach obedience to the Muslim ruler and do not takfir their fellow Muslims they remain a trend, however harsh, within a broad traditional or Orthodox Islam. Not every Salafi is a Takfiri by any means, but nearly all Takfiris are Salafis. One prominent Takfiri who was probably not a Salafi in any strict sense was Sayyid Qutb the Egyptian literary and social critic and the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading spokesman in the politically turbulent early 1950s. Qutb adopted the concept from the Indian-Pakistani Islamist Maulana Maududi and popularized the word and the concept in Islamist circles, though it already existed as a working concept but not as a word in a ferocious 18th and early 19th century Arabian Salafi movement. Maududi had applied the term to Indian Muslims who attended and perhaps participated in Hindu festivals. Sayyid Qutb applied it to his torturers–to Nasser and his ruling circle, the State Security officers during Nasser’s rule, and presumably any Muslim who actively opposed Qutb’s vanguard–a term borrowed from Marxism–which would overthrow existing regimes and impose an Islamic state.
But back to the first attack on the World Trade Center: The operation was modestly financed by Ramzi’s uncle Muhammed Sheikh Muhammed, then an independent Takfiri-Jihadi. He would go on to refine an idea of Ramzi’s, that would in its final form turn hijacked planes into deadly weapons in their own right capable of taking out buildings like the World Trade Center. And Muhammed Sheikh–who took this concept to Usama bin Laden–would play a major role in the conception and planning of Al-Qaeda’s attack nine years later.
However Ramzi’s key contact in America was the blind Jihadi sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, who preached at two mosques–one in Brooklyn, New York and one in New Jersey where his Arab-American followers were concentrated. Sheikh Umar introduced Ramzi to those of his followers singled out to become Ramzi’s co-conspirators. Sheikh Omar–a graduate of Al-Azhar but considered by the Azhari faculty as a bizarre and unorthodox figure–had served as the religious guide of the Gamaat Al-Islamiya which had initially been a purely political and cultural–even mainstream Muslim student organization that rose in its earliest form at Cairo University to combat the Marxist-Left Nasserist tendency among students. They were supported by Egypt’s then new President Anwar Sadat following the death of Gamal Abdul Nasser. Sadat was opposed by the Left Nasserist tendency that had assumed that one of its own would inevitably inherit the leadership after Nasser, even though Sadat was Nasser’s Vice-President.
After the 1973 War the Gamaat radicalized, which is when Sheikh Omar, as an Islamist, and an admirer of Sayyid Qutb–the Lenin of radical Islamism–rose in the leadership. In Cairo the post-1973 Muslim Brotherhood dominated the Gamaat in those earliest years, but outside of Cairo and particularly in the more radical Upper Egyptian universities, individuals secretly affiliated with the underground Al-Jihad group often assumed leadership. By 1980 Sheikh Omar had become the leader of the Gamaat and briefly led the group into an alliance with Al-Jihad, one of whose leaders was Ayman Al-Zawahiri, now the leader of Al-Qaeda.
Although the alliance did not last, Sheikh Omar did provide Al-Jihad with a fatwa that would justify the assassination of Anwar Sadat which they carried out on 6 October 1981. Both Zawahiri and Sheikh Omar were arrested after the assassination and both got off quite lightly. The assassination was not carried out by Zawahiri’s own Al-Jihad cell and he claimed that he did not even know of the plan to assassinate Sadat until a few hours before the attack. He kept his cell away from participating in any operation in what was supposed to be an armed Islamist uprising immediately following the assassination. As for Sheikh Omar he argued in court that his fatwa–which stated that a heretical leader of a Muslim country could be killed–did not mention Sadat by name or allude to him.
Although Sheikh Omar was on a State Department terrorist list, he managed to secure a visa to America sometime after his release from prison and ended up at the Brooklyn and New Jersey mosques where he openly preached a Takfiri-Jihadi understanding of Islam. When tried in America after the first World Trade Center attack carried out by his followers, he was identified as the mastermind of a new plan to attack the United Nation’s headquarters in New York, as well as other landmarks in the city and the tunnels that link the city’s different boroughs together.
It is significant that early on Usama bin Laden called upon the US government to release Sheikh Omar. Years later, reflecting the hardening of attitude Zawahiri, who had become Bin Laden’s deputy and later the leader of Al-Qaeda, would call upon Egyptians to kidnap Americans and ransom them off in exchange for the release of Sheikh Omar. And not to imply that Egypt’s former President and now prisoner Muhammed Morsi, a high ranking figure in the Muslim Brotherhood is a Takfiri-Jihadi, nevertheless it is also significant that Morsi upon assuming the Presidency also called upon America to release ‘the Blind Sheikh’ in what one scholar suggested was intended as a gesture to his right flank–more militant members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as his Salafi allies. Whatever, Sheikh Omar is considered by many Jihadis and scholars as ‘the spiritual guide of 9/11’.
Zawahiri had already served on two occasions as a short-term volunteer doctor for the Pakistani Red Crescent treating the Mujahidin wounded, during two visits to Pakistan following the Soviet invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan. At the same time, Bin Laden was fund-raising in Saudi Arabia for the Mujahidin and shuttling back and forth on weekends from Jeddah to Peshawar, the Pakistani city close to Afghanistan, and where young Arabs arriving in Peshawar to join the Jihad against the Communist regime in Afghanistan supported by Soviet troops would be hosted by Bin Laden. It was in either city that Zawahiri met Bin Laden and would eventually lead what remained of Al-Jihad into Al-Qaeda.
The spiritual hardening and radicalization of these men–Zawahiri, Bin Laden, and Sheikh Omar–and their respective organizations, whose paths would cross is a complex story; not to mention how Bin Laden shifted his vision of Al-Qaeda as a mobile army of Jihad confronting enemy forces like the Soviet soldiers (whom he barely fought) to a relatively small tight knit group of terrorists out to kill non-combatant Christians and Jews in the West. It is brilliantly reported on in Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
It is also significant that while Bin Laden, operating comfortably in Taliban dominated Afghanistan in the immediate pre 9/11 period, did not establish a state but instead went through the motions of swearing allegiance to the Taliban leader Mullah Umar. Al-Qaeda nevertheless had an obvious territorial presence resembling a state within a state and thus were closest at that moment to DA’ISH and its territorial conquests, had the highest rate of volunteers flocking to its banner as is proving to be the case with DA’ISH–though as its Syrian and Iraqi territory shrinks, the number of foreign volunteers flocking to its banner has been declining.
To the above list of leading Takfiri or Salafi-Jihadi luminaries we must now add the name of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi.
He was in spirit the founder of DA’ISH, and set what is now perceived of as DA’ISH’S style of video-taped beheadings, attacks upon the Iraqi Shi’a and their mosques, gangland mass executions of Shi’a prisoners of war, the advocacy of an extreme Salafism, and the dispatch of terrorists from Syria and Iraq with deadly results in Amman, Casablanca, and Istanbul–just as DA’ISH has done in Paris, Brussels, and Istanbul–while leading a brutal, well-armed, uniformed fighting force on the ground in Iraq. He is the mutually uncomfortable short-lived link between Al-Qaeda and what would emerge as DA’ISH (more about Zarqawi later).
From the perspective of Al-Qaeda the most significant result of 9/11, which followed upon their rapid defeat as an elite fighting-force for the Taliban by American and allied anti-Taliban Afghan forces invading Afghanistan, was the decision by US President George W. Bush to go on and invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime. However irrelevant to tracking down Bin Laden and whatever then remained of Al-Qaeda, the invasion was strongly advocated by the very pro-Israeli as well as influential neo-conservative circles around George Bush’s Vice President, his Secretary of Defense and neo-conservative publications in Washington and New York. Not just to invade Iraq, but to do so and then to occupy Iraq with something like half the number of troops with which the US armed forces (along with allied Arab armed forces) had driven Saddam’s army out of Kuwait in 1991. And then to dissolve the Iraqi Army, whose humiliated Sunni ranks became the first foot soldiers and more noticeably the officers for the Iraqi Sunni Resistance. ‘Sunni’ because the dominant Iraqi political forces which replaced the Baath were increasingly sectarian Shi’a in nature bent on revenge upon the Arab Sunnis for what they considered to be many decades of Arab Sunni domination.
There were no Jihadis in Iraq prior to the American invasion. Zarqawi briefly maintained a small, irrelevant camp in the Kurdish controlled mountains of northern Iraq–but this was ungoverned guerrilla turf which was nevertheless part of US protected Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991 and thus untouchable by Saddam. But after the American invasion, Takfiri-Jihadis flooded into Iraq from neighbouring states.
They were welcomed as dedicated and, in some cases, seasoned fighters by the Sunni tribes in revolt against the American occupation and the new regime in Baghdad. This was particularly the case with Zarqawi, who like many of the European Muslim youths to be recruited by DA’ISH a decade later, was a marginalized figure before flourishing first as a mujahid in Afghanistan where he acquired his particularly brutal version of Salafism.
A Jordanian high school drop-out, gang member, heavy drinker, bootlegger, and petty criminal–then after a brief turn in prison–Zarqawi became a reborn Muslim, but not yet the extreme Salafi that he soon would be. Leaving for Afghanistan to fight the Afghan Communist government abandoned by the Soviet Union, he met–among the many foreign Islamists who had also come to fight alongside the Afghan mujahidin (many of whom, like most other Afghans, were by no means Salafi)–a fellow Jordanian, the militant Salafi preacher and writer, Sheikh Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi, who became his mentor.
Returning to Jordan with Maqdisi, they formed an underground group and began to acquire arms with the intent of overthrowing the Hashemite Monarchy and establishing a Salafi Islamist state. Discovered by the authorities Zarqawi, Maqdisi, and a number of their followers were arrested, tried, and sent to prison. There Zarqawi emerged as a popular leader with Maqdisi as his religious adviser, recruiting Islamist and other prisoners into his group known then as Jund Al-Shems. He reportedly considered those prisoners outside his group as kuffar–heretics or unbelievers. Articles written largely by Maqdisi but also by Zarqawi were smuggled out of the prison and put online for the world-wide attention of Salafi readers (For considerably more and fascinating details: ‘The Short Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’ by Mary Anne Weaver in the July/August 2006 issue of The Atlantic and available online).
In 1999 Zarqawi, Maqdisi and other members of his group were released in a general amnesty. Within months he had revived his group Jund Al-Shams and was plotting to bomb the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman on New Year’s Eve. The plot was discovered but Zarqawi had fled to Pakistan before he could be arrested. From there he crossed back into Afghanistan. By now he was just prominent enough in Takfiri-Jihadi circles to have come to the attention of Osama bin Laden and he met with him and other Al-Qaeda officials.
According to eye-witness accounts, they did not particularly get along. But after protracted discussion within the Al-Qaeda leadership, Bin Laden agreed to provide Zarqawi with $5,000 to start a training camp of his own in Herat, Afghanistan near the border with Iran. After setting up the camp with only a few dozen followers, it swelled to nearly 3,000 within months, including the families of many of Zarqawi’s fighters. Most of Zarqawi’s lieutenants by this time were Syrians who had fought in Afghanistan, and most of these men were members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. For that reason the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s exiled leadership, which at the time was largely based in Europe, played an extremely important role in recruiting for the Herat camp, according to Mary Anne Weaver’s impressive sources.
A number of times Bin Laden called upon Zarqawi to take an oath of allegiance–to make bayat–to Bin Laden, but he always refused. But in October 2001 when the US began its invasion of Afghanistan with air attacks Zarqawi and his fighters joined up with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In December following the collapse of the Taliban and accompanied by a few hundred of his fighters, Zarqawi crossed over from Herat into Iran, basing himself in part in Iran while also setting up his camp in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. During this time he also travelled to Syria and to a Palestinian refugee camp in the south of Lebanon, where he recruited more fighters. He also expanded his network in the Sunni triangle of Iraq. The Iranians, at the time, reportedly saw they would be in a struggle with the Americans for control of Iraq after the Americans deposed Saddam. And for that phase and only that phase Zarqawi would be useful.
Three months after US forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, Zarqawi and his fighters moved into the Sunni Triangle. He was by now well known, indeed to the whole world, for when US Secretary of State Colin Power sought UN support at the Security Council shortly before the invasion, he declared that Zarqawi was the link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. This was but one of the many faulty pieces of ‘intelligence’ presented to the world by the Bush administration, but while inaccurate, it boosted Zarqawi’s prestige.
Within weeks after returning to Iraq, Zarqawi launched his infamous attacks–first a car-bomb attack upon the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, and less than two weeks later the monstrous attack on UN headquarters in Iraq, killing 22 people, including the UN secretary general’s Special Iraqi Envoy Aergo Viera de Mella. By now Zarqawi had renamed his group Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad–Monotheistic Unity and Jihad–with its trademark black banner, which more than a decade later was flown more conspicuously than ever by DA’ISH. Indeed it is the repeated image of truck loads of DA’ISH fighters waving black banners and chanting Takfiri-Jihadi hymns that have had such a powerful impact upon the foreign youth watching this basic scene repeated with slight variations in DA’ISH propaganda videos broadcast via the Internet.
In August Zarqawi staged a car bombing just outside of Shi’a Islam’s most holy shrine in Najaf, killing more than 100 people, including the popular Iraqi Ayatollah Muhammed Baqr al-Hakim. By March 2004, he was bombing Shi’a shrines in Karbala and Baghdad, killing nearly 200, and car bomb attacks in the holy cities in Najaf and Karbala in December 2004. There were also suicide and more conventional bombings of civilians in Shi’a neighbourhoods, often at shrines and neighbourhood mosques and open markets, which continue to this day.
But it was in May 2004 that that Zarqawi taped the first theatrical beheading of an American civilian, Nicholas Berg, wearing the now familiar orange jump suit with five men dressed in black with their faces covered, standing behind the kneeling hostage. One of them steps forward and with a long knife cuts off Berg’s head. This was the first in a series of taped beheadings of hostages. A decade later, this same scene of an American civilian in an orange jump suit with his masked killer dressed in black with face covered would become a DA’ISH video spectacular. As for his targeting of the Shi’a and their shrines, Zarqawi was not just implementing his hatred for Shi’a Muslims, whom he considered apostates, he was also trying to provoke a Shi’a- Sunni Iraqi civil war, which would lead to an increase of Sunni recruits.
For all of his activities in Iraq, Zarqawi had never abandoned his hope of overthrowing the Jordanian monarchy. In 2002, while briefly operating in Syria, he sent a gunman to Amman to kill the American diplomat Lawrence Foley. In 2004, Jordanian intelligence disrupted a Zarqawi plot to blow up the headquarters of the Jordanian intelligence services with a truck that was to be loaded with a massive amount of explosives capable of killing hundreds if not thousands of people.
Finally in October 2004, after months of negotiations, Zarqawi swore his allegiance to Osama bin Laden. His organization again changed its name. In a shortened version it was now known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Zarqawi declared that he was now to be known as the Amir of Al-Qaeda in the land of Mesopotamia. Neither Bin Laden nor Zarqawi had changed their respectively negative first impressions, but Bin Laden needed a formal Al-Qaeda presence in Iraq, and Zarqawi as Al-Qaeda’s Amir in Iraq would strengthen his support among Iraqi Sunnis.
Less than a year later, Zarqawi exercised the operational independence he had negotiated with Al-Qaeda by sending suicide bombers to Amman to take out three hotels. The most grizzly attack was at the Radisson SAS Hotel, where there was an almost bizarre demonstration of the AQI’s perverse interpretation of Islam. Two members of AQI, a single man and a single woman, were married in Iraq before travelling to Amman because, according to Shari’a, a man and a woman who are not directly related to each other may not travel together–and indeed their assignment was to travel together to Amman and blow themselves up at a large wedding party composed almost entirely of Jordanian and Palestinian non-combatant civilians which included many women and children.
Zarqawi’s tribe, the Al-Khalayleh took out half page ads in Jordan’s three main newspapers, declared their homage to King Abdallah and to Jordan, and denounced Zarqawi and all of his actions. ‘We sever links with him until doomsday’.
A similar drama would be played out ten years later when DA’ISH burnt to death a captured Jordanian pilot, and when none other than the Salafi-Jihadi sheikh and former mentor and comrade of Zarqawi, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi denounced DA’’ISH quoting the Prophet that ‘No one punishes with fire save the Lord of the fire’. Maqdisi had already broken with Zarqawi at the time of the suicide bombings at the three hotels in Amman.
A little more than six months later, Zarqawi was killed when a US Air Force jet dropped two 230 kilo (500 pounds) bombs on an isolated safe house in Iraq.
Meanwhile the man the world now knows as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Zarqawi’s eventual successor as commander first of AQI and then of DA’ISH but who reverted to his birth-name when he introduced himself in Mosul’s Central mosque as the Caliph Ibrahim, the false living deputy of the Prophet and head of the supposedly revived Islamic State (the very vision of a ‘state’ absent from Arabia and most of the rest of the world at the time of the Prophet–the 7th century.
Al-Baghdadi, the False Khalifa would be hailed–after his dramatic appearance in the central mosque of Mosul–by his murderous and rapist followers–as the ‘Commander of the Faithful’, until then an honourable title borne by the kings of Morocco and by that 19th century epitome of the true and chivalrous Mujahid, the Algerian Abdul Qadir Al-Jazeeri, Sheikh of both his tribe and the Qadari tariqa. Abdul Qadir never committed or ordered an atrocity during his many years of fighting the often vicious French invaders and indeed demonstrated great kindness to his French Prisoners of War. (See: Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el Kader – A Story of True Jihad by John W. Kiser)
Born in Samara, Baghdadi’s family reflected that curious mixture of religious and socio-political currents that could characterize Iraqi life until the post-Saddam Hussein period of sectarian politics introduced by the American administrators effectively ruling Iraq, leading to ethnic cleansing on both sides–of Sunnis in Shi’a majority areas and of Shi’a in predominantly Sunni neighbourhoods throughout Baghdad and other cities. Baghdadi’s father was not just active in the religious life of his community, teaching at the local mosque, but was reportedly a Salifi–as were several other family members. The family claimed descent from the Prophet but the family tree that proclaimed this Sharifian status included well-known Shi’a ancestors in Samarra from a much earlier time. (The biographical data for Baghdadi is sketchy–most of what we know has been compiled for the Brookings Institution by William McCants, a fellow at Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy.)
Some members of this religious family joined the ruling Baath Arab Socialist Party which might seem peculiar given the party’s militant secularism which Saddam Hussein shared and cultivated. Two of Baghdadi’s uncles served in Saddam’s security forces and one of his brothers became an officer in the Iraqi Army. But following the long war with Iran and the confrontation in 1990-91 with America over the invasion and occupation of Kuwait, Saddam suddenly cultivated a religious image, adding ‘Allahu Akbar’ to the Iraqi flag while posters of him in a turban at prayer soon circulated not only in Iraq but across the Muslim world. Though even well before this switch to Islamic imagery, it was pro forma that anyone holding or seeking a government job joined the Baath party.
Baghdadi had left Samarra to attend the University of Baghdad, but because of his poor high school grades he failed to qualify for the law school, so he took up Qur’anic studies there instead. He went on in 1996 to do graduate work at the recently established Saddam University for Islamic Studies–an academic monument so-to-speak to Saddam’s new image as defender of Islam. It is significant that his dissertations for both the MA and the PhD were in Qur’anic Recitation, which besides being a skill he reportedly excelled in, also enabled him to avoid theological studies, where his extreme Salafi views would have put him into open conflict with more mainstream perspectives. Yet as the holder of a PhD in Islamic studies, he would acquire a misleading public authority for theology.
Baghdadi lived with his growing family in a poor neighbourhood of Baghdad near the Haji Zaydan mosque where he could pursue his two passions–playing football for the Mosque’s team and teaching the recitation of Qur’an to the neighbourhood children as well as making the call to prayer from the mosque.
He also began to develop an increasingly radical political sensibility. A paternal uncle who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood recruited Baghdadi to join. There he rapidly drifted into a radical faction among the many Salafis in the Iraqi Brotherhood who referred to themselves as Salafi-Jihadis.
In the chaos that followed the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and the bitterness among Sunnis who considered themselves victims–as many indeed were of a vast vindictive de-Baathication program approved by the US government but implemented by the new Shi’a rulers of Iraq–Baghdadi organized his own Salafi-Jihadi military unit that fought against US troops and their Iraqi allies.
In February 2004 he was arrested in Fallujah while visiting a friend who was on an American wanted list of insurgents. Baghdadi, keeping as ever a low profile, was not on that list. So he was taken simply as a ‘civilian detainee’ not as a Jihadi. During the ten months he remained in custody at the detention centre known as Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, where he avoided giving the Americans any indication of his militant status, Baghdadi devoted himself to leading prayer, giving the khutba on Friday, conducting religious classes for fellow-prisoners, and playing football, where he was a star. He became a mediator between rival groups of prisoners and between the prisoners as a whole and the camp authorities, acquiring still more status.
Many of the several thousand Sunni inmates at Camp Bucca had served in Saddam’s military or in his intelligence services. Baghdadi cultivated them As McCants notes, “If they weren’t jihadists when they arrived, many of them were by the time they left. Radical jihadist manifestos circulated freely under the eyes of the watchful but clueless Americans. Bucca was a factory. The prisoners dubbed the camp ‘The Academy’ and during his ten months in residence, Baghdadi was one of its faculty members.”
A few months before Baghdadi’s release, Zarqawi had–with the blessing of Bin Laden–renamed his insurgent group Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Baghdadi made contact and was welcomed into AQI as a rare (among Salafi-Jihadis) academically trained religious scholar and was assigned as a jihadi equivalent of a commissar to ensure that AQI online propaganda conformed with the extreme Takfir-Jihadi theology that AQI professed.
Zarqawi intended to announce his plans to establish a so-called Islamic State which Bin Laden considered premature. Zarqawi’s immediate successor, the Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri went ahead with the plan, dissolving AQI and declaring that the former AQI militants were now fighters for DA’ISH. Al-Masri put an Iraqi, Abu Umar into the position of a figurehead Emir or leader of DA’ISH. The new leaders privately pledged their individual loyalty to Bin Laden, but officially they declared that DA’ISH was an independent movement.
Meanwhile Baghdadi was rising through the ranks. Because of his scholarly credentials he was put in charge of the group’s religious affairs, but since at that time DA’ISH didn’t control any territory Baghdadi, continued in his role as a religious commissar, but now was also making sure that DA’ISH fighters implemented the extreme Salafi policies that Zarqawi had initiated, including the execution of whoever opposed their program as apostates. By now Baghdadi had also finished his dissertation and acquired his PhD which increased his prestige within the leadership, and along with the post of supervisor of the Shari’a Committee, made him the head enforcer of DA’ISH’s twisted, brutal version of Shari’a law. Al-Masri also named Baghdadi to the 11-member Consultative Council, the highest body governing DA’ISH.
Then in April 2010 a US-Iraqi force learned where the two top DA’ISH leaders were hiding and Al-Masri and Abu Umar blew themselves up rather than surrender.
The head of DA’ISH’s military Council, Hajji Bakr ignored Bin-Laden’s instructions to send him a list of possible candidates for the leadership. As a former officer in Saddam’s Army, Bakr knew it was not viable for him to assume the leadership. But he probably assumed, correctly as it were, that Baghdadi would be less loyal to Bin-Laden and his deputies who constantly complained from Zarqawi’s time onwards about first AQI’s and then DAI’SH’s particularly brutal ways, especially towards the Shi’a. Bakr convinced the majority of the Consultative Council to vote for Baghdadi as the new emir, and proceeded to discredit or assassinate whatever opposition there was within the leading cadres of DA’ISH.
As American forces killed or captured Zarqawi’s previous field commanders, their replacements were often former prisoners from Camp Bucca cultivated by Baghdadi and, like Bakr, also former officers in Saddam’s military or intelligence service. As McCants and others have observed, such men would prove to be most useful in training the typical DA’ISH recruits into disciplined and capable fighters as well administering what would soon become a new emerging totalitarian state.
Baghdadi and Bakr decided that to revive the fortunes of DA’ISH and secure protection from US-Iraqi raids, like the one that had led to the death of the initial successors, they would have to seize territory and declare the Caliphate. As McCants notes by 2011–the year of the Arab Spring–the growing unrest in Syria provided them with their greatest opportunity. Initially the Syrian rebellion against the Assad regime was non-violent, but one of Baghdadi’s Syrian operatives was sent back to Syria to organize a secret branch of DA’ISH to introduce violence into the uprising and set such chaos into motion that DA’ISH would be able, as a disciplined fighting force, to start seizing land. This DA’ISH started to do, soon acquiring extensive territory in eastern Syria. The Syrian branch was named Jabat al-Nusra. which not only would in a short time split from DA’ISH but most recently changed its name–to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
To prevent confusion I will refer to Jabhat al-Nusra now known as Jabhat Fatah simply as Jabhat since they are one and the same organization. Jabhat means ‘Front’ and of course there are other rebel groups whose names begin with Jabhat, but since we are not directly concerned with them, my convenient use of the name Jabhat will not be confusing.
The split from DA’ISH and more recently the change of name go back to a tactical adjustment. In part on Jabhat’s own initiative and in part from guidance it was receiving from Al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had replaced Bin Laden after he was killed by the US Navy Seals in May 2013, and who believed it was wiser for Jabhat to secure popular support in Syria before establishing a territorial state, by cooperating with the many other armed rebel groups fighting to oust Assad–be they secular Muslim brigades, many led by Sunni defectors from the Syrian Army, to a variety of Islamist groups that were in some cases affiliated or led by members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, but in all cases were not Salafi-Jihadis as in the DA’ISH and Jabhat sense. There are literally hundreds of these brigades, some numbering as few as fifty to one hundred fighters.
Baghdadi disagreed with Zawahiri to whom he had already pledged a private oath of allegiance. He believed as McCants so aptly put it that “there was already an Islamic State; it just needed to be made real by territorial conquest in Syria. The Jabhat’s increasing cooperation with the other Sunni rebels was thwarting that plan”.
Baghdadi ordered his subordinates in Jabhat to comply with his strategy. They refused. Baghdadi responded by announcing that Jabhat was part of DA’ISH and renamed DA’ISH as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The Jabhat leader responded by renouncing Baghdadi’s authority and publically pledging his own direct allegiance to Zawahiri who accepted this oath and ordered Baghdadi to concern himself only with Iraq which Baghdadi refused.
So DA’ISH started to seize large parts of eastern Syria, pushing out the other rebel groups including Jabhat. Zawahiri countered by expelling DA’ISH from Al-Qaeda which he did in February 2014. In the subsequent in-fighting with Jabhat, DA’ISH not only had the upper hand but it recruited many of Jabhat’s foreign fighters because, according to McCants, those fighters were more interested in establishing a territorially defined Islamic State than trying to topple Assad’s regime.
With little or no attention to a thousand years of traditional Islamic jurisprudence which fleshed out the various mitigating circumstances that limited the severity of the well-publicized Shari’a punishments–by Salafi-Jihadists and many other Islamists on one-hand as well as their opposite numbers–those of the Islamophobia industry in the West. If brutality characterizes one side of this weird convergence of opinion, conscious stupidity characterizes the other.
Early in 2014, DA’ISH forces which had lined up alongside the Sunni tribes in Iraq revived the fight against the Shi’a dominated government ruling Iraq. Baghdadi sent his fighters to join up with the tribesmen and Baathist secularists and, by early 2014, were making steady gains in western Iraq. The American trained and lavishly equipped new Iraqi Army riddled by corrupt, incompetent high ranking officers chosen for their Shi’a sectarian loyalty rather than military skill collapsed as the DA’ISH offensive gathered momentum. Wherever policemen and soldiers resisted, DA’ISH rounded them up and taped their deaths in brutal mass executions. Those video tapes which made their way onto YouTube or Salafi-Jihadi websites terrified many Iraqi Army soldiers and security forces.
Units disintegrated and fled, and DA’ISH harvested a rich supply of American equipment including tanks, armoured cars, troop carriers, rocket launchers, artillery, and huge amounts of small arms and ammunition, not to mention control of some of Iraq’s oil fields, as it had done in eastern Syria, providing until fairly recently extraordinary wealth. In June 2014, DA’ISH, launched a lightening attack on Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and captured it with great ease as the demoralized and terrified (by the videos) soldiers fled before the far inferior numbers of DA’ISH fighters who stormed the city.
As for Jabhat, it had harvested a much smaller amount of American arms provided to different rebel groups of very small numbers, who were trained, equipped, and sent into Syria. These rebel groups were quickly ambushed by Jabhat forces, who relieved them of their arms–and even accepted some defectors into their own ranks. So the US got out of recruiting, equipping, and training its own rebel units and instead has shifted to supplying favoured, existing rebel units already in the field.
The problem is that, whether the rebels have been fighting Assad’s Army and the Lebanese Hizballah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighting alongside the Syrian Army, the best fighters in this loose and shifting rebel alliance has been the Jabhat. But the US ranks Jabhat with DA’ISH as terrorists, which they certainly were in their earliest appearance as DA’ISH’s initial operation in Syria.
The US started talking with Russia about a cease fire between the Syrian Army and rebel forces in 2016. Russia’s bold and dramatic intervention on the side of Assad’s largely exhausted forces in 2015 shifted the balance in the fighting. Where rebel forces including the Jabhat had been steadily gaining ground as the Syrian Army abandoned much of the Sunni countryside in order to bolster and secure their stronghold in central Damascus as well as Latakia, with its high proportion of Alawites–the nominal Shi’a community that Bashar al-Assad and his long ruling late father Hafez al-Assad, are part of along with many of the senior officers in the Syrian Army and intelligence services.
But the cease fire excluded the Jabhat as well as DA’ISH. This was unsettling a number of the rebel brigades who were undertaking campaigns against both Assad’s forces and DA’ISH. Jabhat units were valued as allies by many of the rebel units because of Jabhat forces superior fighting skills.
In the hope of changing that situation and to strengthen their non Salafi-Jihadi rebel allies arguing their case, the Jabhat officially broke with Al-Qaeda and symbolized that break by abandoning its original name Jabhat al-Nusra for its new name as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. So the one remaining significant force of fighters that were part of the Al-Qaeda franchise in the Syrian-Iraqi battle fronts abandoned Al-Qaeda, which is now at its weakest situation since its post 9/11 revival in Iraq and Syria.
Over the past year and beginning with the counter-offenses in 2015, DA’ISH has lost approximately half the territory it had acquired in Iraq and Syria. As its territory has begun to shrink, DA’ISH has unleashed deadly terrorist attacks in Western Europe and Turkey. The most dramatic and highly publicized attacks occurred in Paris and its northern suburb of St. Denis outside of the stadium in St. Denis during a football match followed by suicide bombings and shootings in Parisian cafes, restaurants, and at a concert hall during the performance of a metal rock band appropriately named Eagles of Death. The other most dramatic attack staged by DA’ISH in Europe occurred in Brussels on 12 March 2016. Two coordinated two suicide bombings at the Brussels airport and another at Maalbeek metro station killed 32 people and wounded more than 300.
But the equally if not more troubling phenomena was that of ‘Lone Wolf’ attacks where individuals, some with vague connections to DA’ISH, and in other cases claiming allegiance to DA’ISH without any known association or contact with them. The motives of the ‘Lone Wolves’ are difficult to determine. There is always a personal issue; a deep discontent, a soul consuming anger, or a record of mental illness involved. By their very nature they are untrackable since they usually have no association at all with any terrorist network.
However, DA’ISH has called upon any unknown sympathizers in Europe and America to initiate such attacks. One of the most bloody of such attacks was staged by Omar Mateen, who killed 45 people and injured more than 230 people in an attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida in June 2016. During the attack Mateen declared his allegiance to DA’ISH although he had no known contact. He was killed by Orlando police. An earlier attack in December 2015 occurred in San Bernardino, California when 14 people were killed and 22 injured in a terrorist attack at a Christmas party by a married couple who were later killed by police, but not before the wife declared via the internet that they supported DA’ISH.
In the French resort of Nice a Tunisian resident in the city used a massive refrigerator truck to run down and kill 83 people and injure another 307 walking along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice when he ploughed through the crowds celebrating Bastille Day.
The rise of western ultra-right wing political parties and organizations are feeding off the tragedies in a Schadenfreude frenzy. Indeed, even mainstream politics finds traction in capitalizing on the fear of Islam, as in the United States with Donald Trump, representing the Republican Party, calling for Nazi-esque laws by which all Muslims in the country would need to register in a government database. Trump supporters would like to go further with deportations and immigration bans of Muslims. Sadly, these ideas echo across the Atlantic throughout Europe, who are overwhelmed with a refugee crisis–largely from Muslim countries–on a scale that has never been seen in history. Although there are a number of social, economic, and political problems stemming from a variety of causes, right-wing politicians across the continent use anti-Muslim rhetoric to push agendas and rally support for their policies. Many of these are counter to the democratic basis of Europe’s constitutions. Recent elections throughout Europe have all shown gains to right-wing parties–notably Austria’s Freedom Party gaining over a third of the vote–and all have used Muslim migration and Islamophobia as rallying points.
As mentioned before, the true brunt of Islamic extremism has been felt in Muslim countries. In the same month as the Paris attacks, DA’ISH detonated two suicide bombs in the Beirut suburb Bourj el-Barajneh, killing forty-three people. In the same month in Egypt, DA’ISH attacked a hotel in the coastal city of Al-Arish. Two militants gained access to the hotel, killing seven people with gunfire and a suicide bomb. Two judges supervising Egypt’s parliamentary elections were among the dead. Also that month in Tunis, a DA’ISH suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying Tunisian presidential guards in Tunis, killing twelve people. In September 2016, DA’ISH was responsible for a double suicide car bombing at a popular shopping mall in downtown Baghdad, killing forty people and injuring sixty people.
In Africa, DA’ISH has taken on the form of Boko Haram since its leader Abubakar Shekau (see bio on page 176) formally pledged allegiance in March 2015. Although supposedly defeated, they claimed responsibility for a double female suicide bombing which killed twenty-two people praying in the Molai-Umarari mosque on the outskirts of Maiduguri, the birthplace of the armed wing of Boko Haram. One of the women disguised herself as a man to gain access, detonating her bomb during prayers. The second detonated her bomb outside as people fled the mosque.
Most of the extremists’ attacks in Africa were carried out by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In Mali in November 2015, they attacked the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, taking over 170 hostages. Malian commandos raided the hotel, freeing the hostages. Twenty hostages were killed in the incident. In Burkina Faso in January 2016, AQIM attacked the Cappuccino restaurant and the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou. The extremists took 176 hostages. After a government led counter-attack, thirty people died, including former Swiss MPs Jean-NoÃ«l Rey and Georgie Lamon, and fifty-six people were injured. Three attackers were killed in the gunfight. A fourth attacker was killed after fleeing to the nearby YIBI Hotel. And in Ivory Coast in March 2016, AQIM attacked the Ã‰toile du Sud beach resort in Grand-Bassam, killing eighteen people and injuring thirty-three people. The extremists were killed by police forces after reaching La Paillote Hotel.
While Africa suffers under the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, South Asia suffers under the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). In Pakistan in October 2015, they killed seven people and injured thirteen in a bomb targeting the political office of Pakistan Muslim League MNA Sardar Amjad Farooq Khan Khosa, who was not present at the time. In January 2016, two TTP extremists fired upon Bacha Khan University near Charsadda, killing twenty-two people and injuring over twenty more. Over 200 students fled the campus. The two extremists were killed by security forces. In March 2016, the TTP were suspected of bombing a bus of government employees in Peshawar, killing fifteen people and injuring twenty-five people. Also that month, they killed seventy-five people and injured over 340 people in a suicide bombing at the main entrance of Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore. The attack targeted Christians who were celebrating Easter. However, the majority of the victims were Muslim women and children. Continuing their targeting of Christians in September 2016, the TTP attacked a Christian colony near the town of Peshawar, killing one, and detonating a suicide bomb in a district court in the town of Mardan, killing eleven people and injuring forty-one people. A total of four suicide bombers entered the colony, but local civilian guards and security forces responded quickly, preventing further loss of life.
On the legal side on the fight against Islamic extremism, the International Criminal Court tried Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, leader of the Hesbah of the Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, for the destruction of Timbuktu’s 15th-century Sidi Yahya Mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The trial marks the first time that the destruction of a world heritage site is classified as a war crime. On 27 September 2016, Ahmad al-Mahdi was found guilty and sentenced to nine years imprisonment. The Sidi Yahya Mosque has since been restored, and at the dedication ceremony for the reinstallation of the mosque’s sacred gate, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, stressed the importance of renovations and the community by stating: “The reinstallation of the sacred gate, a religious and cultural landmark of Timbuktu, marks a new and decisive step in Mali’s reconstruction and peace building work. This–along with the reconstruction of the mausoleums of Timbuktu and the trial of those responsible for their destruction at the International Criminal Court–sends strong message to all extremists”.
Also on the legal front this last year, Radovan KaradÅ¾iÄ‡ was found guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to forty years imprisonment. He was found guilty of genocide for the Srebrenica massacre, which aimed to exterminate the Bosnian Muslim community. He was also convicted of persecution, extermination, deportation, ethnic cleansing, and murder in connection with his campaign to drive Bosnian Muslims and Croats out of villages claimed by Serb forces. While the guilty verdict sent a warning to those who would commit genocide in the future, many Bosnians did not feel the sentence was harsh enough with many calling for life imprisonment–or even capital punishment. Since KaradÅ¾iÄ‡ is seventy-one years old and must serve nineteen more years in prison, many argue that it is unlikely that he will live to finish his sentence.
Another old legal case that has received justice concerns HissÃ¨ne HabrÃ©, the former leader of Chad. The Extraordinary African Chambers found HabrÃ© guilty of rape, sexual slavery, and ordering the killing of 40,000 people during his tenure as Chadian president and sentenced him to life in prison. The verdict marked the first time an African Union-backed court convicted a former African ruler for human-rights abuses and the first time that the courts of one country have prosecuted the former ruler of another country for crimes against humanity. It also signalled to the world that justice does not originate from the West; that justice may come from within.
Justice may also come in admission to long past mistakes. In this case, in admitting that the Iraq War in 2003 was based on falsities. In July 2016, seven years after UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced the inquiry, The Iraq Inquiry was published. Sir John Chilcot published a public statement in which he stated that Saddam Hussein did not pose an urgent threat to British interests, that intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction was presented with unwarranted certainty, that peaceful alternatives to war had not been exhausted, that the United Kingdom and United States had undermined the authority of the United Nations Security Council, that the process of identifying the legal basis was “far from satisfactory,” and that a war in 2003 was unnecessary. The report is available under an Open Government Licence. The response to the report by the Americans was simply to ignore it, as John Kirby, the US State Department spokesperson, noted, “We’re not going to go through it, we’re not going to examine it, we’re not going to try to do an analysis of it, or make a judgment of the findings one way or the other”. Tony Blair took responsibility for the political decisions made at the time but stated that the report made “real and material criticisms of preparation, planning, process, and of the relationship with the United States”. However, many conclude that Tony Blair was not to blame directly for the UK’s participation in the Iraq War, but that he was deceitfully led into the war by politicians wanting the war. The hope is that politicians and the public that elects them will become more introspective about their policies concerning war and military actions–not in shying away from such things, but in making sure that rightful, just cause is used.
At the end of August 2016, an Islamic conference of Sunni scholars met in Grozny, Chechnya to discuss what defines a Sunni–or more specifically an Ahla Sunnah wa Jama’a. The Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayyeb (see bio on page 36), defined the Sunni community (Ahla Sunnah wa Jama’a) as those who follow Imam Abul-Hasan Al-Ash’ari and Imam Abu Mansur Al-Maturidi and the scholars of Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i jurisprudence, as well as the moderate scholars of Hanbali school. He also included the Sufis following in the way of Imam al-Junayd. While some criticised the conference for excluding some Muslim countries–particularly those states identifying closely to Salafi and Wahhabi thought–that fact in itself has become a point of discussion. Already within some circles of Muslims–especially in the West–there are signs of growing interest in traditional Islamic sciences, especially the aqeedah of Al-Ash’ari and Al-Maturidi. One might hope that this knowledge of traditional Islam will fight radicalization of Muslims more than the democratic civics and secularization courses some western countries are demanding.
As DA’ISH loses more and more of its territory– most imminently Mosul and eventually even its strong hold and de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria–both types of terrorist attacks that have plagued Europe and the United States, as well as Turkey and Indonesia are likely to increase as retaliation for its defeat on the ground in Syria and Iraq. What is incredible is how slow it has taken and the unwillingness of the Arab League of States, or the Muslim equivalent, to form a large expeditionary force of infantry, assisted by the revived New Iraqi Army, the rebels in Syria and the most effective fighters against DA’ISH–the Kurds of Iraq and the Kurds of Syria with logistical support from the West to coordinate air cover for the ground forces.
But what is most troubling of all is that the murderous ferocity of the procession of Takfiri-Jihadi groups, increases with each new formation. That is a disturbing thought as we consider the imminent demise of DA’ISH and wonder about the next manifestation.