We talk a lot about ideology when it comes to terrorism: sometimes it is a good idea to remind ourselves of the basics.
In all the discussion about terrorism, and there certainly has been a lot of that over the past twenty years or so, there are debates on just how important this or that aspect is. Religion. Socioeconomics. Psychology. Mental illness. The list goes on and on and on…
The same goes for ideology. I have read analyses in which ‘experts’ say that this is not that important, as if terrorism is just another form of criminal behaviour. In this light, terrorists do not need to understand anything about ideas or greater goals – they just need to be willing to kill.
Not surprisingly I disagree. I believe that terrorism is ALL about ideology and, at least in Canada, the law agrees with me. The Canadian Criminal Code describes terrorist activity as “an act committed in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause”. ‘Ideology’ is self-explanatory: religion and politics are ideologically-based as well.
I think that one of the problems is that ideology can be difficult. It may be framed mostly in another language. It may contain elements that are highly complex (religious concepts, historical references, etc.). Ideology takes time to grasp and even more time to see how it applies to terrorist movements.
Ideology may contain elements that are highly complex (religious concepts, historical references, etc.). Ideology takes time to grasp and even more time to see how it applies to terrorist movements.
But sometimes we get ideology handed to us on a silver platter of sorts. I came across this piece put out yesterday (March 23) by Thomas Joscelyn and the good folks at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) in the US. They maintain a really good site called The Long War Journal which you really should bookmark.
This particular article was a summary of an audio message by the new ‘Emir’ of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the more effective AQ franchises over the years, Khalid Batarfi.
In his message to the troops we see the following critical elements of Islamist extremist ideology:
- He pledges allegiance (bayat) to AQ leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri (“I pledge allegiance to you, to listen and obey, during (times of) hardship and ease.”). Bayat is an important to jihadis as it establishes an oath to follow a leader: Batarfi notes that his pledge covers “all the brothers” in AQAP;
- This bayat is for “waging jihad and for establishing Allah’s sharia (Islamic law) in this world”. Islamist terrorists see jihad (‘struggle’) as an individual obligation on all Muslims (fard ayn: see Abdallah Azzam’s works on this concept – or read Thomas Hegghammer’s excellent new biography of Azzam). The reference to sharia is also critical. Jihadis see divine law as the ONLY law applicable to all. During his 2015 trial in Toronto, wannabe terrorist Chiheb Esseghaier demanded that he be tried based on Islamic, not Canadian, law (he lost btw);
- Batarfi warns the ummah (worldwide community of Muslims) against pursuing democracy, claiming that such thinking is the work of Satan and a “far cry from the methodology” set forth in the “Holy Book” (Quran) and the “pure sunna” (traditions of Islam). This is linked to the previous point: democracies are man-made institutions that abide by man-made laws. “True” Muslims must reject anything that is not divine or divinely-inspired;
- The ummah should only call for a “return to the book of Allah and the sunna of His messenger” and continue to wage jihad, while practicing supposedly good morals and “uniting around” proper “scholars” and the mujahideen. Again, there are a small number of sources that provide everything a good jihadi must do. By extension, most scholars are considered ‘improper’;
- The US’s ‘loss’ in Afghanistan is the fulfillment of a Divine vow, what both Allah and His messenger “promised.” This is the belief that sacred (Quran) and semi-sacred (hadiths – sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) scripture must be taken literally;
- A widespread belief in jihadism and martyrdom have arisen all across the ummah, as Muslims wage jihad against the “occupying invaders” and “tyrants” oppressing the masses. Invasion/occupation and ‘tyrants’ (taghout (plural tawaghit) in Arabic) are common tropes used to define the ‘enemy’ of Islam and justification for armed response;
- Batarfi also praises Al Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, for conducting a “series of operations against the sponsor of infidelity in the region”. Labeling everyone who does not abide by a narrow interpretation of Islam – and this includes most Muslims by the way – is a neat way of determining who deserves to die;
- Jihadists are part of “one ummah” as they supposedly act in concert everywhere across the globe. Islamist extremist groups, despite their differences and at times internecine conflicts, like to pretend that there is one movement, and that one movement speaks for the global Muslim community;
- Batarfi also asks Allah to accept Qasim al-Raymi (his predecessor as AQAP ‘Emir’) and two other fallen figures as “martyrs”. Martyrdom is of course a huge part of Islamist extremism and there is a whole canon on what it is and how to achieve it (not to mention the rewards of those who embrace it – postmortem naturally);
- Finally, Batarfi lists al-Qaeda’s enemies as America, Israel, Russia and Iran, as well as all those who help these nations. This comprehensive register includes the US (the ‘Great Satan’), Russia (the ‘Lesser Satan’), Israel (the seat of ‘Zionism), Iran (a Shia state: Islamist extremists HATE Shias), and just about every other nation which ‘helps’ out, leaving just about no one safe.
There you have it, a compendium of jihadi ideology in one audio message. You can take any part of it and go down a rabbit hole of ideas, admonitions and incredibly detailed expositions by religious scholars. This all defines what it means to be a jihadi.
Sure, some Islamic State (ISIS) ‘foreign fighters’ had ‘Islam for Dummies’ in their knapsacks before they hooked up with the terrorist group. This does NOT mean we can or should ignore ideology religious or otherwise. It is too important to dismiss.
The Lesser Jihads: Bringing the Islamist Extremist Fight to the World (2017)
The Lesser Jihads examines conflict through the lens of Islamist terrorist groups. Bringing together in one volume different conflicts where terrorist groups are active worldwide, this text introduces the world and thinking of Jihadists while highlighting a number of seldom reported cases.