For many of us the spectre of Islamist extremism started with 9/11. Prior to that fateful day no one, aside from a small handful of scholars and those in the security intelligence sector, knew or even cared about this brand of terrorism. Full disclosure: I was in the Canadian intelligence community from 1983 to 2015 and only began to focus on jihadis in 2000. Well, at least that made me a little more prepared when the airliners found their targets in New York and Washington.
So no, Islamist terrorism was not born with Al Qaeda. It had a long history before, dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In other words, around the same time we began to talk about terrorism as a phenomenon.
“We have killed Pharaoh!”
On Oct. 6, 1981, assassins posing as soldiers opened fire on Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as he watched a military victory parade to mark Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel. One of the killers proclaimed “We have killed Pharaoh!” This was not a reference to ancient Egypt but rather the conviction that Sadat was not a true Muslim but rather an apostate.
The enormity of this attack is hard to underestimate. Sadat was followed by Hosni Mubarak who defined Egypt for a generation, not always well. The price to be paid for any Arab leader who discussed peace with Israel was well established. And an ideologue whose work resonates to this day was also involved.
When it comes to ‘jihadi literature’, the name Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj is poorly known yet very important. Al Faraj was an Egyptian Islamist extremist who wrote Al Faridah al Ghayba (rendered as ‘the forgotten obligation’ or ‘the neglected duty’ in English). This seminal work picked up on the writing of another Egyptian jihadi, Sayyid Qutb, and was, and is still, very influential.
While short, it essentially outlines why violent jihad is mandatory, hence the use of the word ‘obligatory’. In one passage al Faraj wrote:
“It was the Muslim’s responsibility to fight, but that ultimately, (based on Qur’an 9:14) supernatural divine intervention would provide the victory.”
Al Faraj was arrested and executed in 1982 for his role in the assassination of Sadat. Regardless of the actual part he played in this act of terrorism, his real influence is his written work.