I. General Aspects

The developments following the Arab spring upheavals that brought political instability in most of the countries involved, as well as the growing number of terrorist incidents brought to the attention the process of radicalization that is taking place not only in the Arab countries but is frequently seen in the young generations of the  Muslim communities all over Europe. According to most analysts, this process is rooted in the radical Islamist ideologies, mainly the Salafi and the “Takfiri” (apostasy) trend, and it is favored by the economic and social crisis and the global communication tools, namely the internet and the social networks.

The trend was acknowledged at the February 2013 Munich Security Conference by U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, who, while praising the “crippling blow” against al-Qaeda, mentioned the evolving threat posed by affiliates like AQAP in Yemen, al-Shabaab in Somalia, AQI in Iraq and Syria and AQIM in North Africa. Most of these groups do not pose the same threat, with the same capacity, to our homelands as core al-Qaeda once did. And in some cases they are merely amalgams of disparate groups adopting a name. But increasingly they are targeting Western interests overseas”. He also mentioned that “across North Africa and in parts of the Middle East, extremists are seeking to exploit the following: increasingly porous borders; a broad swath of ungoverned territory; readily available weapons; new governments that lack the capacity and sometimes the will to contend with extremism; a swelling generation of disaffected young people whose futures are stifled by stagnant economies”.

a) In Germany, only days before the Munich Conference, a German Islamist threatened, in a video posted on the Internet, to attack Berlin next summer and kill Chancellor Angela Merkel. The three-minute video showed a man calling himself Abu Azzam, who was quoted as saying: “Looking back at an Arab spring, we are looking forward to a European summer”, “Osama, wait for us… We want to see Obama and Merkel dead” and threatening that Germany’s Reichstag parliament building would be subject to attacks like those on New York’s World Trade Center in 2001. The author of the video is believed to be a radical Salafi who moved to Egypt last year, and the German authorities pointed to the local Salafi groups who espouse a radical version of Islam. Germany is home to roughly 4,000 Salafis, out of a Muslim population of about four million.

b) In Great Britain, Maajid Nawaz, the chairman of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist organization, pointed out last January 2013 that, as British jihadists venture abroad to capitalize on the aftermath of the Arab Spring and then return to the UK, they are likely to bring a greater level of violence back home. The comments followed incidents in which groups of Muslim vigilantes, dubbing themselves “Muslim Patrols” have approached Londoners and demanded they behave in an Islamic way by not drinking. They also told women to put more clothes on, claiming they are entering “Muslim areas”. The “Muslim Patrols” also posted footage on YouTube showing a gang hurling abuse at a homosexual man and described white women as “naked animals with no self-respect”. The vigilante patrols were the most recent in a long line of incidents, which have included homophobic attacks and the appearance of stickers branding the area a “Sharia Zone” and “Gay-free”.

Maajid Nawaz mentioned that such developments were also recorded in other European countries, such as Spain and Denmark, and warned that this could be “a sign of things to come” and part of a pattern of extremism spreading across Europe in different forms. He added that “the Muslim patrols could become a lot more dangerous and, perhaps willing to maim or kill if they are joined by battle-hardened jihadis”.

Nawaz’s and other warnings that the “Muslim Patrol” incidents would trigger a reaction from the far right appeared to be confirmed only days after the incidents in the same London East End neighborhood when an anarchist bookshop, that was previously targeted in 1993 by a neo-Nazi organization was firebombed in a supposedly far right attack.

“Muslim patrols” are also active in Denmark, where in 2011 a group called “Kaldet til Islam” (Call to Islam, a group strongly influenced by the British radical group “Sharia4UK” believed to have triggered the “Sharia zone” campaign) started a campaign and informed the press that they had implemented so-called “Sharia zones” in the residential area of Tingbjerg in Copenhagen. They also show contempt for Muslims who follow other denominations, such as Shia Islam, whom they call infidels (kufr).

c) In France, the operations in Mali has as a side effect a growing number of networks that facilitate young Muslims passage to the areas controlled by Islamic jihadist. This has prompted the French Interior Minister, Manuel Valls, to warn against radical Islam that imposes itself in the poor neighborhoods of the cities and the need to fight the “devoted Salafism” that comes like a hatred discourse.

Radical Islam: benefitting from the Arab Spring

According to most analysts, one of the most worrying consequences of the Arab Spring was the political instability and authority vacuum that favored the spread of Islamic radicalism.

In most of the countries, the 2011 uprisings may apparently have de-legitimized radical Islamist groups because they showed that political change can come about through people power, not violence. However, the uprisings increased some of the opportunities for radical Islamist groups to be active.

In Yemen the removal of President Abdul Abdullah Saleh further weakened the central government in Sanaa and caused an even greater vacuum of power. This gave al-Qaeda, associ­ated with a new formation called Ansar Sharia (“Partisans of Islamic Law”), and other radicals forces more freedom of movement. According to the International Crisis Group, Ansar Sharia is “a murky mix of al-Qaeda militants and young local recruits, many of whom appear motivated by economic rewards more than by ideological conviction”.

In Libya, most analysts agree that the new government and parliament do not have the capacity to hold the country together. The government’s fail­ure to monopolize violence has encouraged armed groups to provide security and services for their local populations, which has in turn further undermined central government. Alongside local militias, radical Islamist groups pro­liferate. In September 2012, the American consulate in Benghazi was attacked and the American ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans were killed, along with several Libyans. It has been argued that the violence is a sign of the militants’ isolation from the Libyan mainstream. However, there is no doubt that the radicals were able to find more space and opportunity following the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime, which further weakened the reach of central government, parliament and state institutions. In this context, analysts recall Gadhafi’s “prophecy” that chaos and holy war would erupt if he were toppled and “Bin Laden’s people would take over the country”.

Similar developments have occurred in Syria. Radical elements are active among the many groups fighting the regime. The fragmentation and chaos which have engulfed the country have created a space for militant groups com­ing from abroad. One such entity, Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham, was placed on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups in December 2012.

Within Syria, as in Libya, a fine line separates the radical Islamist from the mainstream Salafi groups. The former are prepared to use violent means while the latter, in their recent incarnations at least, have been non-violent, despite their hard-line ideological stance. However, while they eschew the use of arms or terrorist tactics, the Salafis do not hesitate in using coercion and intimidation: for ex­ample, in Egypt and Tunisia following the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak, there were a number of incidents involving Salafis smashing up “immoral” shops and establishments.

Another area where the 2011 events, specifically the uprising in Libya, affected radical Islamism is northern Mali. A revolt of the Tuareg clans caused the collapse of Mali’s central government, based in the south, following a military coup in March 2012. Radical Islamist elements, in particular Ansar Dine, backed by al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), used the opportunity to increase their presence and im­pose control in the north. The terrorist attack at the Tigantourine (In Aménas) gas plant in January 2013 was considered a sign of the force of those groups.


Jihad in “Sahelistan”

Northern Mali is just one part of the vast hinterland in which the Islamists can hide with many analysts pointing to the so-called “Sahelistan”, the new name of the Sahel desert in Africa, spanning 7,500 kilometers, from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east.

The Sahel zone is considered a lawless region. It begins in the southern part of the Maghreb region of North Africa, where the power of the Arab countries begins to fade, and where the already weak sub-Saharan countries like Mali, Niger and Chad were never able to gain a foothold. It is a no-man’s land honeycombed with smugglers’ roads and drug routes, an El Dorado for the lawless and fanatics.

In Sudan’s embattled Darfur region, militias hired by the Islamist junta were harassing the local population until recently, and in Somalia, Kenyan and Ugandan soldiers are trying to drive back the fundamentalist al-Shabaab militants. The International Crisis Group referred to such developments as “one of the darker sides of the Arab uprisings”, since the practical disappearance of the borders, the expansion of ungoverned areas, the proliferation of weapons, the disorganization of police and security services in all these countries became “a real boon to jihadists”.

Sahelistan’s new masters are forging alliances with local insurgents and internationally operating jihadists. In Mali, they took over the unrecognized state of Azawad, formed after a Tuareg rebellion in April 2012. After that, the new rulers were visited almost daily by supporters from Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Qatar.

According to General Carter Ham, commander of the US Army’s Africa Command, the “growing linkage, network collaboration, organization and synchronization” among the various terrorist groups in the region is what “poses the greatest threat to regional stability and ultimately to Europe”.

According to most of the researchers and the terrorism analysts, the “new terrorism” has its roots in two main tendencies, the Salafiyya (or Salafi jihad) movement, which has become broadly (although not wholly) identified with the Wahhabi tradition in Saudi Arabia, and the distinct current of Takfiri activism, mostly inspired by the Egyptian Islamic thinker, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966).

II. Salafi Jihad: Ideology’s deadly effect

Besides most of them being rooted in al-Qaeda (many of the leaders were mujahedeen and al-Qaeda fighters), many recent terrorist acts and incidents, including the recent events in Libya and Algeria, have their origins in the Salafi jihad ideology.

 From Salafi to Salafi-jihad

The Salafi ideology is based on the model of the Salaf (“predecessors” or “ancestors”), the earliest Muslims, as examples of Islamic practice. The term has been in use since the Middle Ages but today refers especially to a follower of a modern Sunni Islamic movement known as Salafiyyah or Salafism, which is related to or includes Wahhabism (a name which some of its proponents consider derogatory, preferring the term Salafism).

The first generations of Muslims are referred to as the “Pious Predecessors” (as-Salaf as-Saleh) and include the “Companions” (Sahabah), the “Followers” (Tabi’un) and the “Followers of the Followers” (Tabi’ al-Tabi’in). These are revered in Sunni Islamic orthodoxy and their example has been used to understand the texts and tenets of Islam by Sunni theologians since the fifth Muslim generation or earlier, sometimes to differentiate the creed of the first Muslims from subsequent variations in creed and methodology, to oppose religious innovation (bid’ah) and, conversely, to defend particular views and practices. Salafis view the Salaf as an eternal model for all succeeding Muslim generations in their beliefs, exegesis, method of worship, mannerisms, morality, piety and conduct: the Islam they practiced is seen pure, unadulterated and, therefore, the ultimate authority for the interpretation of the Sunnah. Salafis reject speculative philosophy (kalam) that involves discourse and debate in the development of the Islamic creed. They consider this process a foreign import from Greek philosophy alien to the original practice of Islam. As the Salafi da’wa is a methodology, Salafis can come from all the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence (Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali or Hanafi). Traditional Salafists also generally reject the notion of nationalism and refuse to partake in political life, as they believe in the rule of a global Islamic Ummah.

In modern times, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab is considered the first figure to push for a return to the religious practices of the Salaf as-saleh. His evangelizing in 18th century Arabian Peninsula was a call to return to the practices of the early Muslims. His works, especially Kitab at-Tawhid (“The Book about the Oneness of God”), are still widely read by Salafis around the world and the majority of Salafi scholars still reference his works frequently. After his death, his views flourished under his descendants, the Al ash-Sheikh, and the generous financing of the House of Saud and initiated the current worldwide Salafi movement.

Although the majority of Salafis reject the Wahhabi label because they consider it unfounded and to be called a “Wahhabi” denotes the following of a person other than what in actuality is the believed following of the Koran and Sunnah, and sometimes Wahhabism has been called a “belittling” and derogatory term for Salafi, researchers consider that, in time, the two ideologies became practically indistinguishable in the 1970s and both shared a rejection of “traditional” teachings on Islam in favor of a direct, more puritan interpretation.

Salafism is attractive to its adherents because it underscores Islam’s universality and, according to a 2010 German domestic intelligence service report, it is the fastest growing Islamic movement in the world.

Most analysts agree to the classification of Salafism developed by Quintan Wiktorowicz[1], who identified three types of Salafism:

  1. Purist Salafism, which refrains from an engagement in politics, and generally tries to distance itself from everything and everyone else. Purist Salafis are mainly concerned with disseminating the religious practices of Salafism and opposing other practices. They emphasize that the religious scholars should have the monopoly of authority.
  2. Political Salafism, that tends to focus on the contemporary world. Political Salafists are engaged in politics and openly criticize what they see as an un-Islamic political establishment. They seek to implement Salafism in the political system, in order to change the societies top-down. Political Salafis see the purist Salafis as being out of touch with the world.
  3. Jihadi Salafism, like the political Salafism, finds that it is necessary to engage in contemporary society. However, Salafis of this type believe that it is necessary to use violence in order to change anything. Jihadi Salafis are generally critical towards the Purist Salafis, seeing them as lackeys to a corrupt establishment.

Even though Salafis are originally non violent, in the mid 1990s several Salafi groups began developing an interest in jihad, feeling that it was justified to realize their political objectives. According to French researcher Gilles Kepel[2], the combination of Salafi alienation from all things non-Muslim – including “mainstream European society” – and violent jihad created a “volatile mixture”, since the jihadists “will feed you more savory propaganda than the old propaganda of the Salafists who tell you to pray, fast and who are not taking action”.  According to Kepel, Salafist jihadism combined “respect for the sacred texts in their most literal form… with an absolute commitment to jihad, whose number-one target had to be America, perceived as the greatest enemy of the faith”.

Salafi jihadists distinguish themselves from Salafis, whom they call “sheikist”, so named because (according to the jihadists) they had forsaken adoration of God for adoration of “the oil sheiks of the Arabian peninsula, with the Al Saud family at their head”. In their turn, Salafi scholars strongly opposed the violent acts of the jihadists and issued fatwas forbidding suicide bombing and declaring the act as being totally haram (forbidden).

Researchers point that Salafi jihadism is characterized by “five features”:

  • emphasis on the concept of tawhid (unity of God);
  • God’s sovereignty (hakimiyyat Allah) which defines right and wrong, good and evil, and which supersedes human reasoning is applicable in all places on earth and at all times;
  • the rejection of all innovation to Islam (bid’ah);
  • the permissibility and necessity of takfir (the declaring of a Muslim to be outside the creed, so that they must either repent or face execution);
  • the necessity of jihad against infidel regimes.

Divisions of a world to conquer

The origins of current-day Salafi jihadism can be also be traced to the Muslim Brotherhood, that had as its slogan “The Koran is our constitution” and that is considered the “ideological mother” of the jihadists, since it activated the views of the world of the “house of Islam and the house of war”.

Salafi jihadists see the world as being divided between the world of Islam (dar al-Islam) and the land of conflict or war (dar al-Harb). Through jihad, they wish to extend the Muslim world so that all of humankind can live under its umbrella. Their aim is to reinstate the Great Caliphate, when the Muslim world extended from Spain (then called Andalusia), across North Africa and the Middle East, down the west coast of Africa, and across the Caspian region to India and the Philippines.

The notions of “houses” or “divisions” of the world in Islam such as Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb do not appear in the Koran or the Hadith. Early Islamic jurists devised these terms to denote the legal rulings for the Islamic expansion. The very first use of the terms was in Iraq, where the idea was suggested by the early Sunni Muslim jurist, Imam Abu Hanifa, founder of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. Contemporary Islamic scholars have pointed out the inapplicability of this early philosophical division of the world, given its lack of scriptural backing and its reflection of an early Muslim response to geo-political realities that simply do not exist today.

Dar al-Islam means literally “house/abode of Islam”. It is also referred to as Dar as-Salam – “house/abode of Peace” (the term appears in the Koran in 10.25 and 6.127 as a name of Paradise), or Dar al-Tawhid – “house/abode of monotheism”. It refers to those countries where Muslims can practice their religion freely, usually Islamic cultures where Muslims represent the majority of the population, and are protected by the government. Most Dar al-Islam areas are surrounded by other Islamic societies to ensure public protection. Muslim scholars maintain that the labeling of a country or place as being a part of Dar al-Islam revolves around the question of religious security. This means that if a Muslim practices Islam freely in his place of abode despite that the place happens to be secular or non-Islamic, then he will be considered as living in the Dar al-Islam.

Dar al-Harb (“house of war”) may be also referred to as Dar al-Garb (“house of the West”) in later Ottoman sources; a person from Dar al-Harb is a harbi. It is a term classically referring to those countries where the Muslim law is not in force, in the matter of worship and the protection of the faithful and Dhimmis (territories that do have a treaty of nonaggression or peace with Muslims are called dar al-Ahd – “house of truce” or dar al-Sulh – “house of treaty”, after the terms used to refer to the Ottoman Empire’s relationship with its Christian tributary states).

Other divisions of the world in the Islamic culture are:

Dar al-Amn (“house of safety”) that refers to the status of Muslims either in the West or other non-Muslim societies. The term dar al-Amn may be used in conjunction with, or in opposition to dar al-Islam and dar al-Harb, from which it is derived. The dar al-Amn region usually refers to countries where Muslims have the right to practice their religion. Many countries with Muslim minorities have been declared as dar al-Amn at different points in time.

Dar al-Hudna (“house of calm”): The land of non-believers currently under a truce, which is a respite between wars. A truce is bought by tribute or agreement. It ends if the harbis break the conditions for the truce, or after ten years, whichever comes first. Furthermore, only treaties that conform to Islamic prescriptions are valid; if these conditions are not fulfilled, the treaty is worthless.

Dar al-Dawa (“house of invitation”) refers to a region where the religion of Islam has recently been introduced. Since the population had not been exposed to Islam before, they may not fit into the traditional definition of dar al-Harb. On the other hand, as the region is not yet Muslim, it cannot be dar al-Islam either. The most frequent use of the term dar al-Dawa refers to Arabia in the so called period of Jahiliyyah, the era of ignorance of divine guidance before and during the life of Muhammad. More recently, the term dar al-Dawa has been proposed by Western Muslim philosophers for the status of Muslims in the West.

Salafi jihadists are not only interested in establishing the caliphate: many of them are simply interested in promoting and waging jihad as an act of worship, with little understanding of strategic rationales; reaping the rewards of martyrdom; facilitating the beginning of the end of time; or in some cases, simply taking part in adventure modeled on the raid paradigm immortalized in Islamic literature and glamorized by their leaders.

Salafis after the Arab Spring

Analysts consider that the Salafi jihadists can be grouped in three generations: those waging jihad in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Iraq. As of the mid-2000s, Arab fighters in Iraq were the latest and most important development of the global Salafi-jihadi movement, and jihadists were becoming an increasing presence in Europe. Salafi jihad leaders include Afghan veterans such as Palestinian Abu Qatada, Syrian Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, Egyptian Mustapha Kamel, known as Abu Hamza al-Masri and later Osama bin Laden. Salafi jihadist groups include al-Qaeda, the former Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and, prior to 2009, Kashmir-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The growing visibility and popularity of Salafis, with their fundamental objective of the establishment of Sharia is a worrying sign for most of the analysts. The fall of authoritarian regimes has offered Salafis, who had hitherto maintained a low profile, a rare opportunity to organize and agitate.

Even before the Salafi jihadists attacked the Benghazi US Consulate, they were more and more visible. The more peaceful groups have been lobbying for the strict implementation of Sharia in constitution-drafting processes; the more radical have sought to impose their vision by force, destroying Sufi shrines in Libya and attacking unveiled women and artists in Tunisia. In its most extremist fringe, the movement produces jihadis such as Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra, which the US recently labeled a terrorist group tied to al-Qaeda. According to most analysts, they are a direct result of the revolutionary period.

The Salafi surge is seen by secular-minded Arabs as the biggest threat to democratization in the region, with the Islamists’ Saudi-style vision particularly damaging for the development of women’s rights. But the Salafis are also a significant complicating factor in the more moderate Islamists’ early experiments in governing. Mainstream groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood find themselves pulled towards more hard-line views by the Salafis while also facing pressure for greater moderation by the liberal opposition.

In Egypt, the Salafi Jihadi leaders have recently rejected the draft constitution for not applying Sharia forcefully enough. They plan to continue meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafi movements to attempt to convince them to vote “no” in the second phase of the constitutional referendum, and demand a new draft constitution that would be based more strictly on Sharia.

“The draft says the people are the authority, not God”, said Salafi Jihadi leader Mohamed al-Zawahiri, brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. “This makes us infidels”. The group boycotted the first round of voting and plans to continue the boycott in the second round.

The more active involvement of Salafis in the new Arab political order also threatens to deepen the divide between Sunni and Shia Islam, a trend already visible in Lebanon, where a once muted movement is making itself heard and trying to challenge Hezbollah, the Shia militant group allied to Iran. Lebanon’s Salafis were suppressed by occupying Syrian forces between 1976 and 2005, but the uprising in Syria and Lebanese Sunnis’ growing anger at a security establishment seen as under the influence of Hezbollah, have given them a new platform.

In Syria, the most popular figure of the current opposition is Sheikh Adnan Arour, a fierce radical Salafi who has been a godfather of sorts for the revolution, dedicating his program on a Saudi television channel to the uprising, and propagating a more puritanical form of Islam. His influence is such that he was co-opted into the leadership of some of the military councils. Salafi rebels say the revolution has allowed them to express religious sentiment the regime had forced them to suppress. They insist the fact they were forced to take up arms does not make them jihadists bent on fighting a global war. Two years into the conflict, however, they have welcomed into their ranks well-trained and disciplined fighters from al-Qaeda in Iraq because they bring much-needed financing and military expertise. These fighters have formed the core of the Jabhat al-Nusra, which has attracted jihadists from abroad.

According to an International Crisis Group analysis, the Salafi jihadists’ success is based on the idea that “Salafism offers answers that others could not. These include a straightforward, accessible form of legitimacy and sense of purpose at a time of substantial suffering and confusion; a simple, expedient way to define the enemy as a non-Muslim, apostate regime, as well as access to funding and weapons…At a time when [rebel] groups struggled to survive against a powerful, ruthless foe and believe themselves both isolated and abandoned, such [Salafi] assets made an immediate, tangible difference”.

Strongholds in Bosnia

In Europe, one of the Salafi jihadists’ strongholds is located in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where they continue the activities of the mujahedeen who came to fight during the civil war in Yugoslavia. They are commonly called the “new” Muslims, who aspire to impose the Salafi and Wahhabi doctrines in the country.

During the war, the mujahedeen presence in Bosnia was favored by the United States and several European countries, as well as financed by Saudi Arabia, who wanted to counter the Iranian influence in Bosnia. On the other hand, many of the mujahedeen in Bosnia had the sense of their religious-ideological mission to bring back to Bosnia the pure faith and practices of early Islam, i.e. the Salafiyya. For them, the Bosnia crisis was another means of rallying the Muslims worldwide to awaken and join the global struggle, as happened with the earlier war in Afghanistan and the later one in Iraq.

Despite Western demands to expel the mujahedeen, many of them remained in Bosnia, integrated into the local population and continued to spread their ideas and gather support. They are active in the community and the state, and have websites, newspapers, and youth organizations that spread their doctrine.

The mujahedeen were part of the first Salafi community in Bosnia, in the village of Bočinje.  Barčić advocated non-recognition of the state and its institutions, and accordingly refused to obey state laws, “even a red light”. He came to Bosnia in 1999, after studying at the Tafsir (Koranic Commentary) Department at the Islamic University in Al-Madina, Saudi Arabia.

According to the official Bosnian religious establishment, Barčić’s activity was funded by Muhamed Fadil Porča, a Bosnian cleric and head of the Vienna-based Al-Tawhid mosque, who had studied with Barčić in Saudi Arabia. He served as the representative of the Saudi High Commission for Aid to Bosnia (SHCAB), and the Saudis used him to funnel money to Bosnia in order to purchase land to establish Salafi settlements. Barčić also maintained close ties with Palestinian businessman Ahmad Shehadeh (the brother of Salah Shehadeh, founder of Hamas’ military wing), who studied medicine in Belgrade in the 1980s, and during the war, he established the Bosnian office of the Saudi-based International Islamic Relief Organization.

Today, Salafi preachers in Bosnia spread their message via websites, and by delivering sermons in Salafi communities in former Yugoslav countries and throughout Europe. Their center is the village of Gornja Maoča, dominated by a group that follows the teachings of the Salafi-jihadi movement. Its leader is Nusret Imamović, who was born in Bosnia in 1971, and studied religion in Sarajevo and several Arab countries including Saudi Arabia. Imamović also fought in the Bosnian war. In February 2012 Imamović was arrested on suspicion of involvement in an attack on the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo but was released several days later.

The number of residents in Gornja Maoča varies and is estimated at 20 to 50 families. Bosnian Salafis from Austria, Germany, Serbia, and the Sandžak region come to the village to study, conduct paramilitary activities and receive indoctrination from Nusret Imamović. The Salafis begun to purchase lands in the area from Serbs and Croats (at prices far above market value) in order to create a continuous territory under their control in Bosnia-Sandžak-Kosovo. Their resources come mainly from Austria, through Muhamed Porča. Many of the villagers hold Austrian citizenship, which entitles them to assistance and social services from the Austrian government.

According to a Gornja Maoča visitor, the village has been visited by many fighters on their way to jihad fronts in Iraq and Yemen. Al-Qaeda material is translated into Bosnian and the village’s leaders are in contact with Samir Khan, editor of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language magazine Inspire. Imamović rules the village with an iron fist and brainwashes the residents with al-Qaeda ideology. After the attack on the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011 and the subsequent arrests, Imamović ceased all visible action such as weapons training, and banned the use of electronic devices. Security and secrecy are the responsibility of all residents, including children, so that everyone watches everyone.

Three residents of Gornja Maoča were indicted on April 23, 2012 by a Bosnian court on charges of establishing a terrorist organization and undermining national security by carrying out the shooting attack on the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011. The indictment stated that the attack had been planned in Gornja Maoča, and that the group had tried to cover up the trail by hiding the weapons and the DVD featuring a statement declaring their intention to perpetrate the attack.

The Bosnian Salafi preachers are well known through many videos placed on YouTube, inciting against the U.S., the West, and other “infidels”, as well as through sermons and preaches all over Europe that are also to be found on the Internet.

The main websites are “Put Vjernika” (“The Way of the Believer”) and “Stazom Islama” (“In the Path of Islam”). The websites provide a variety of religious content, as well as and videos by al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups translated into Bosnian. In addition to matters of Koran, jurisprudence, and Islamic customs, the websites also discuss issues like takfir, jihad and relations between Muslims and infidels, and answer readers’ questions. The websites also provide translations of articles, books, and fatwas by prominent Salafi-jihadi clerics such as Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi and his disciples. Jihad is a central theme on “The Way of the Believer” website, which reports from all the jihad fronts: Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Chechnya, Iraq, and recently from Syria. Almost all of the reports are based on statements by al-Qaeda and its affiliate organizations. Some of the videos have been downloaded as many as 4,000 times.

Recently, the website featured an article marking the first anniversary of the death of bin Laden, which warned that “America will long for the days when Osama was alive” and that “time will prove that the murder of bin Laden is a boomerang that will come back to bite the killers”.


According to a German counter-terrorism expert, “the confrontation with Salafism has only just begun” and “dealing with the Salafists who advocate jihad but don’t express this publicly is much more difficult”. The German intelligence agency warned that Salafism is the ideological “breeding ground of terrorism”, and in an interview, the interior minister summed up the position of the security authorities thus: “Not every Salafist is a terrorist, but almost every Islamist terrorist has some kind of link to Salafism”.


III. The Takfiri movement: subverting Islam from inside


According to most analysts, in the current framework of the terrorist phenomenon, even more difficult to address than the Salafi jihadism is the so-called  Takfiri movement, considered the extreme anti-Western jihadis, for whom all non-Muslims are kafir (infidels) and therefore by definition enemies of Islam, for whom Muslims allied or associated with the West in any way are themselves kafir, and for whom the killing of innocent Muslims in order to attain victory over the kafir is acceptable collateral damage.

The Takfiri ideology is based on the main concepts of:

  • Kufr – Unbelief (in Islam) – literally, ingratitude;
  • Kafir – An infidel (non-Muslim);
  • Takfir – Excommunication; declaring a person or group of people non-Muslim.

In mainstream Sunni Islam, it is considered wrong to engage in takfir, since to declare takfir is to pre-empt Allah’s judgment. The Muslim who considers another’s actions to be wrong may say so, but will stop far short of declaring that person an apostate from the faith. Even qualified mainstream religious scholars are reluctant to declare takfir.

  • Takfiri – those who excommunicate, or declare “kufr”, mainstream Muslim individuals, societies and leaders.

Although nominally Sunni, the takfiris reject major aspects of the mainstream Sunni religion. They are also apt to reject components of society, culture and law in Muslim countries, which they consider to have slipped back into a pre-Islamic state of pagan ignorance (jahiliyya). Consequently, the takfiris often support militancy against their regimes.

Ideological roots

The Takfiri ideology has its origins mainly in the works of thinkers like Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328), Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703–1792), Mawlana Abul A’la Mawdudi (1903–1979), and Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966).

According to researchers, the Takfiri movement’s origin may be found even earlier, in the Kharijites (Khawarij) sect, formed by Muslims who, while initially supporting the authority of Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law and cousin of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, later rejected his leadership. They first emerged in the late 7th century (the first century of the Moslem calendar). They concentrated in today’s southern Iraq, and are distinct from both Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Khawarij are recorded for the violence against Muslims they qualified as apostates and Kafir, citing certain verses and phrases from the Koran as justification. The Kharijites also insisted that any Muslim could be a leader of the Muslim community and had the right to revolt against any ruler who deviated from their interpretation of Islam. The Khawarij were also fanatical and suicidal and fought all their battles to the death. Some analysts are calling the Takfiris a “Neo-Khawarij” movement.

Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyyah established the precedent, when he pronounced takfir against the Mongols, even though they had become Muslims. The political leadership acted upon this fatwa, establishing a valuable precedent for Islamic radicals centuries later.

In the 18th Century, Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab referred back to Ibn Taymiyyah in constructing an interpretation of Islam that allowed him to fight his fellow Muslims. He condemned many mainstream Muslim traditions (such as Sufism) as bid’a (innovation of the religion) and his followers slew many Muslims for allegedly kufr practices.

Ibn Wahhab’s most relevant work for the radicals is a small book titled The Ten Voiders (or Nullifiers) of Islam which outlines ten things that automatically expel someone from the religion[3]:

1)    Polytheism (associating others with God in worship);

2)    Using mediators for God (for example, praying to saints);

3)    Doubting that non-Muslims are disbelievers;

4)    Judging by non-Islamic laws and believing they are superior to divine law;

5)    Hating anything the Prophet Mohammed practiced;

6)    Mocking Islam or the Prophet Mohammed;

7)    Using or supporting magic;

8)    Supporting or helping non-believers against Muslims;

9)    Believing that someone has the right to stop practicing Islam;

10) Turning away from Islam by not studying or practicing it.

Among the voiders, three are of particular importance for the jihadis: first, a Muslim becomes a disbeliever if he associates someone or something in worshipping God. This “voider” is also used to condemn any ruler who uses non-Islamic law. Second, any Muslim who judges by “other than what God revealed” and believes this is superior to divine law is an apostate. Third, supporting or helping nonbelievers against Muslims is apostasy. This voider seems to have become the central “evidence” used by al-Qaeda to charge regimes in the Muslim world with apostasy.

Another origin of the Takfiri ideology may be found in 19th Century British-controlled India, where conservative Indian Muslims feared that Shia Islam and the British were undermining the purity of Sunni Islam. Hardliners reacted by drawing a sharp distinction between “true believers” and the infidels, which included Muslims who deviated from a rigid interpretation of Islam (apostates). Radical Sunni groups supporting this Manichean perspective emerged in Northern India during the 1820s and 1830s, including a movement led by Sayyid Ahmad Rai-Barelvi[4]. The groups were called by the British “Wahhabis” after sect in the Arabian Peninsula.

These conservatives were the intellectual predecessors of Mawlana Abul A’la Mawdudi, who in the 1930s seemed to give a “modernist cast to Sayyid Ahmad Rai-Barelvi’s approach”. Whereas Rai-Barlevi and others rejected anything Western as antithetical to Islam, Mawdudi sought to appropriate Western technology, science, and other aspects of modernity while returning to the fundamentals of Islam.

Mawdudi’s importance for the Takfiri movement is given by his influence on Sayyid Qutb, considered the main predecessor of the modern-day Takfiris. Member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb became the editor of its journal and established himself as political Islam’s principal theoretician in the Arab world. After the banning of the Brotherhood by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, Qutb was imprisoned, and it was in prison where he wrote the books that laid out the ideological foundation for the Takfiri movement. In 1966, Nasser had him executed by hanging, and since then, Sayyid Qutb is considered a martyr.

Qutb’s concept of “modern jahiliyya”, outlined in his book “Fi Zilal al-Qur’an” (In the Shade of the Koran”), provides the cornerstone for declaring rulers apostates and waging jihad.

“Jahiliyya (barbarity) signifies the domination (hakamiyya) of man over man, or rather the subservience to man rather than to Allah. It denotes rejection of the divinity of God and the adulation of mortals. In this sense, jahiliyya is not just a specific historical period (referring to the era preceding the advent of Islam), but a state of affairs. Such a state of human affairs existed in the past, exists today, and may exist in the future, taking the form of jahiliyya, that mirror-image and sword enemy of Islam. In any time and place human beings face that clear-cut choice: either to observe the Law of Allah in its entirety, or to apply laws laid down by man of one sort or another. In the latter case, they are in a state of jahiliyya. Man is at the crossroads and that is the choice: Islam or jahiliyya. Modern-style jahiliyya in the industrialized societies of Europe and America is essentially similar to the old-time jahiliyya in pagan and nomadic Arabia. For in both systems, man is under the dominion of man rather than Allah”.

However, whereas Mawdudi formed a political party and social movement to promote reform, Qutb advocated jihad to establish an Islamic state. In doing so, he argued against well-established Islamic legal opinions that jihad was primarily a struggle against the soul (jihad al-nafs) or a defensive war to protect the Muslim community. In a kind of Islamic liberation theology, he argued that force was necessary to remove the chains of oppression so that Islamic truth could predominate. Even more importantly, because the rulers in the Muslim world used non-Islamic legal codes, they were part of the modern jahiliyya and therefore not real Muslims. As infidels, they could be fought and removed from power, because the primary objective of Muslims is to establish God’s rule on earth (divine hukm).

Takfir wal-Hijra: Jihad with no rules

Following the writings of Maulana Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb, groups of Takfiri have disengaged themselves from the surrounding society and planned insurrections. Qutb’s philosophical principles influenced al-Jihad, al-Takfir wal-Hijra (TwH) and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group – IG) in Egypt, and also other extremist organizations outside its borders. Each cell operated independently and was self-contained, which allowed the organization to be structured, but at the same time loosely organized. Organized contact between the leaders of the groups was noticed, but it was difficult to identify a central authority on the direction and activities of the independent groups.

Takfir wal-Hijra (translated as “excommunication and exodus”, “excommunication and emigration” or “anathema and exile”), was founded in 1971 under the name Jama’at al-Muslimin (“Society of Muslims”) by Shukri Mustafa, a young charismatic agronomist. The label Takfir wal-Hijra was a derogatory one used by the official Egyptian press media.

Mustapha excommunicated Muslim societies (Egyptian in his case) and prescribed physical separation to avoid ‘contamination’ and to develop strength for their eventual overthrow. Takfir members exiled themselves (al-Hijra) in the desert practicing complete isolation (al-Uzla) from excommunicated (al-Takfir) Muslim societies. While jihad certainly remained an imperative, Shukri Mustafa initially believed that an imminent world war between the superpowers would leave free reign to the jihadists to take power. The Egyptian group was crushed by security forces after it murdered an Islamic scholar and a former government minister in 1977. After Shukri Mustafa’s execution, TwH developed two wings, one under the leadership of Abbud al-Zammut (considered one of the original founders) and one under the leadership of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, later second in command of al-Qaeda.

Takfir wal-Hijra grew substantially through the 1990s, as Arab Afghans returned from Afghanistan to their homes throughout the Middle East and North Africa spread their doctrine and established a decentralized network of believers, mainly in throughout Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan and Sudan. According to news reports, the name of TwH was mentioned in connection with the killing of 16 Muslim worshipers in the Sudan in 1994 and the slaughter of 20 people and wounding of 33 others while praying at a Sudanese mosque six years later. In 2005 in Lebanon, a group calling itself Takfir wal Hijra assumed the killings of Christian civilians in the Dinnieh area. The 2004 assassin of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, Mohammed Bouyeri, left a note on Van Gogh’s body contained references to Takfir wal Hijra’s ideology. In February 2011, militants identified as members of Takfir wal-Hijra carried out an attack in Rafah, Egypt, leading to a two-hour battle with Egyptian security forces and local tribesmen in which two people were reported injured. However, according to Jane’s World Insurgency and Terrorism, while Takfir wal-Hijra has been used to describe a wide variety of militant groups, these groups have little or no connection to each other or the original group.

In 2002, Takfir wal-Hijra was included on the European Union’s list of terrorist persons, groups and entities, especially since Takfiri theorists overtly advocate the use of immigration to expand their interpretation of jihad into Europe. A Takfiri scholar, Abu Basir, wrote in 2001 that “jihad and immigration go together… the one cannot be achieved without the other”.

The neo-Takfiris

A threshold was crossed in early-1990s Algeria, where Takfir was the main inspiration behind the decade-long civil war. The war provided a life-size laboratory for the Takfir ideology, which gradually permeated the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) until GIA’s ideology became effectively indistinguishable from the Takfir’s. It is this “merger” which would further shape the ideology of many contemporary Takfir groups toward a less exclusionary vision of jihad. While initially Takfir members turned on fellow Muslims and were primarily concerned with Muslim societies, starting in the mid-1990s several things changed for TwH: some of its branches, starting with the North African branch that had fused with the GIA, became involved in jihadi support networks in Europe, and a “true” Islamic state had finally been founded in Afghanistan where many Takfiris would migrate. Beginning in 1999, TwH offered support to al-Qaeda’s strategy, turning its sights on the West.

According to al-Qaeda researchers, bin Laden’s organization seems also to have been inspired by Takfir ideology, as shown by the physical “hijra” that happened when bin Laden and Zawahiri left the Arab world for the land of the Taliban. That implied that they pronounced their own societies to be the societies of infidels and therefore they had to leave it for a place where they might build an Islamic state from which they could start to undermine the Arab governments and turn the Arab world into a Muslim society. Later on, in the early 2000s, investigations in various acts of terrorism in Europe revealed that an alliance between the Taliban and Takfiris had been established in the late ’90s, and that according to this agreement, bin Laden would finance the European Takfir cells that joined the global jihad and targeted the U.S. They also revealed the rapid growth of the Takfiri ideology in Europe’s Muslim communities.

The rise of the Taliban, the Algerian civil war and the Western exile also produced changes in the modus operandi of the Takfir. Far from breaking with infidel society, the neo-Takfiris were now infiltrating it and have since become the logistical backbone of jihad in the West, maintaining their own networks in countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Germany. Since 1994, members of the group were arrested in Europe, where law enforcement found Takfiris involved in all aspects of logistical support for terrorism: smuggling weapons, trafficking drugs and sheltering and moving operatives from conflict to conflict.

The neo-Takfiris follow a loose or rather dynamic interpretation of Shukri Mustafa’s doctrine. Mustafa was anti-modernity and anti-intellectual, whereas the neo-Takfiris use technology and modernity to their advantage. Where Shukri Mustafa preached a physical withdrawal from infidel society, neo-Takfiris are fully immersed in it, using secrecy and dissimulation as a core tactic. Whereas the original Takfir (and some remaining branches) excommunicates even other jihadi groups, the emphasis on excommunicating fellow Muslims is no longer central; instead, cooperation is now favored.

This particular approach that has also been adopted by al-Qaeda, is a legacy of Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, a Takfiri ideologue who challenged Mustafa’s ideology. His book, The Neglected Duty (also known as The Absent Obligation, 1979), helped delineate the boundaries of jihad, or more accurately, he helped eradicate any boundaries to jihad. It urges Muslims to undertake violent jihad with the ultimate goal of creating the global caliphate. Even more significantly, Faraj endorsed the use of any means necessary to advance the cause of jihad.

Faraj also redefined taqiyya (theologically justified deception). Among moderates, taqiyya is the act of pretending to be non-Muslim in order to avoid persecution. Moderate Muslims have a very narrow view of circumstances under which it is acceptable to practice taqiyya. Faraj expanded the concept to include taqiyya and terrorism, hand-in-hand, as weapons for jihad. While the strategy pervades al-Qaeda and may cross sectarian lines, taqiyya and terrorism are particularly employed by the reconstituted Takfiri cult.

After TwH had been broken up, Faraj declared that TwH’s isolation was merely a cowardly attempt to avoid the obligation of jihad. Faraj’s group, al-Jihad, delayed terrorist attacks only for long enough to infiltrate the apparatus of state. However, this model also failed and it was al-Qaeda that synthesized the competing models. The resultant ideology holds that, in the absence of an Islamic state, the Muslim community must find a geographical location for hijra (flight from kufr), such as the Afghan training camps. However, the new model avoids a prolonged period of inactivity by alternating periods of hijra with periods of coexistence and infiltration with the outside world. This was considered an ideological synthesis that turned the intellectually clumsy cult of TwH and the bloodthirsty bravado of al-Jihad into a sophisticated and workable revolutionary system.

Unlike al-Qaeda in Iraq or the GSPC in Algeria, Takfiris – in part because they are not an organized, structured entity – have not officially joined al-Qaeda and can be viewed as semi-aligned “free agents” who may collaborate with other jihadi groups on an ad hoc basis, working toward the same overreaching goal. Most cells consist of 10-15 people and are usually formed from individual initiatives.

The new Takfiri ideology is popular, because it encourages followers to reconfirm their faith by breaking its own rules. That flexibility, coupled with their seemingly deeper integration into Western life, makes it harder for police to detect their presence. Traditionally, Takfir wal-Hijra called for isolation from society, during which violent clashes were limited. It was only after the influence of the transnational terrorism network in Europe became known that the true extent of this interpretation emerged. These Islamist extremist elements were schooled in Takfir wal-Hijra and trained by Afghan veterans of al-Qaeda, who made them think, recruit and operate differently from traditional Islamist extremist networks that acted openly.

Unlike Salafi-Jihadists, the Takfiris lack any legitimate scholar and the ideology is not very elaborate, since Mustafa himself did not have any religious diploma. As a result of its theological weakness, the doctrine has been interpreted to allow the worst imaginable deviancies. Without any central leadership, the group’s ideology, already extreme, now evolves through self-appointed ideologues who double as cell leaders. Neo-Takfiris legitimize criminal activities through the theory of the fay’e (the licit) by appropriating the goods and property of infidels and apostates. Criminal activities like theft and drug trafficking are thus encouraged if one-fifth of the proceeds are used to fund the jihad.

Takfiris have “theologically” authorized themselves to break any and every Islamic rule to blend into Western society; they do not frequent mosques and often consume drugs and alcohol. The Takfiris effectively stand outside the boundaries of Islam itself to better defend it, with the jihad imperative as the only “rule” to keep. Because of this idea of “sinless sin”, the disenfranchised, delinquents or criminals are often found within its ranks and are a known target for recruitment because of their ability to raise funds. In truth, nothing is illicit or off-limits for the Takfiris; it is essentially a jihad without rules that allows for any and all transgressions.

Since Takfir is first an ideology and then a group or groups who adhere more or less loosely to its founding principles, Takfir wal-Hijra is considered currently a real brand name. It has, over time, acquired an aura of mysticism and is now transnational, its members having been found in most Muslim countries as well as in Europe and North America. Apart from al-Qaeda and to a lesser extent Hezbollah, no other Islamist group has achieved the same internationalization across cultures and continents. The secrecy and dissimulation of Takfiris makes them particularly difficult to infiltrate, but also highly unpredictable as attacks may be sporadic and improvised, forcing law enforcement to cast an ever-wider net. The spread of the Takfir doctrine through the internet, its reliance on criminal activities and the atomization of small, secretive autonomous cells present a further challenge for counter-terrorism efforts. These efforts need to place a greater focus on recruitment, especially in prisons and high-crime areas, while increasing understanding of the emerging links between criminality and terror.

From Europe to Asia

The Takfiri movement spread not only in the Arab world and Northern Africa, but may be found also in other Muslim communities from Eastern Europe and Asia.

a) A Takfiri group from former Yugoslav countries called Kelimetul Haqq operates in Austria, under the leadership of Nedžad Balkan, aka Ebu Muhammad, the imam of the Al-Sahaba mosque in Vienna. Formerly an associate of Vienna-based Bosnian cleric Muhamed Porča (see above), he took up his position at the Al-Sahaba mosque after quarreling with Porča and his friends. He is also at odds with Imamović’s Salafi movement, which he considers insufficiently devout.

Nedžad Balkan studied at the Islamic University in Al-Madina, Saudi Arabia, but was disappointed and returned to Vienna, where he developed extreme views, similar to those of Takfir Wal-Hijra. Balkan also rejects the act of living in Bosnia, since, according to his world view, a Muslim must not live in a country that purports to be Muslim yet does not enact the laws of Islam in their entirety.

Balkan operates several websites mainly concerned with identifying unbelief in the main streams of Islam and with the ways to deal with it, but are also concerned with the evil ways of the West. In July 2011, he posted on one of his websites a book titled “The Unbelief of the UN and Its Member States”, in which he intends to demonstrate Muslim countries that accept UN authority have betrayed Islam. The book criticizes Saudi authorities, portrays the U.S. and Europe as “infidel” countries and calls on Muslims to oppose their agenda, because relations between Muslims and infidels must be based “on hatred, hostility and war – for the blood and property of the infidel are forfeit!”

b) In Pakistan, the term “Takfiri Deobandi” is more and more used referring to the growing number of Muslims associated with groups declared as terrorist by the state of Pakistan, such as, Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan (now known as Ahl-e Sunnat Wal Jamahat – ASWJ, also operating as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jundullah) and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). All these banned organizations are Deobandi, and practice Takfiri by treating Shia Muslims, Sunni Barelvis and other Islamic sects as non-Muslims.

The authorities warned that a growing number of jihadist Salafi/Wahhabi and Deobandi groups have split from the orthodox method of establishing takfir through the processes of the law, and have reserved the right to declare apostasy themselves. This belief allows Takfiris to justify the use of violence against fellow Muslims and to consider all political authority that does not abide by their interpretation of Islam as illegitimate and apostate. However, the authorities labeled the authors as “extremists” and did not use the term “Takfiri – Deobandi” for the authors of terrorist acts like the 2008 bombing of Marriott Hotel Islamabad, the 2009 attack on GHQ Rawalpindi, and the more recent attacks on Sunni Barelvi and even Deobandi mosques around Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Criticism from Islam against the Takfiri fatwas

The fringe Takfir ideology has attracted criticism from the Muslim community (including reform Salafis), and many Muslims call them “Kharajites”[5], responsible for amplifying the suffering of Muslims worldwide by provoking Western powers and killing their co-religionists.

a) Religious scholars in Jordan accused, as early as 2006, the Takfiri with distorting the principles of Islam, with tendentious and misleading interpretation of verses and values in the Koran and Hadith, and in taking things out of context from these two sources of religious law. They also challenged the authority that the Takfiri have assumed in declaring Muslims as heretics who have left the community of Muslims (murtadun). They also challenged the way these leaders use the Koran and Hadith to do “takfir” to Muslims.

b) In Saudi Arabia, the Senior Ulema Council and the Saudi Shura Council discussed, beginning with 2010, the growing trend of issuing takfiri fatwas in Islamic countries. The speakers described such fatwas on takfiri as mischief of modern times and very dangerous for the Muslim Ummah and asked for an action plan to prevent the increasing trend of issuing unnecessary and misleading fatwas that have “bomb-like destructive power”. The fact that many groups and persons in all Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia, issue fatwas of takfiri without any proper knowledge or investigation or research, was considered “of great concern to whole Muslim Ummah”.

Takfiri fatwas are fatwas or religious advisory opinions that state that a certain practice or act is haram or religiously impermissible and that anybody who takes part in such practices is not a Muslim. Takfir rulings, favored by extremist groups like al-Qaeda, first came to prominence in the West in 1989 when Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa sanctioning the murder of British author Salman Rushdie for his controversial novel Satanic Verses. The writer spent many years in hiding as a result.

The eventual criminalization of the “Takfiri fatwas” and the “financing of terrorism” were also discussed at the meetings that were considered “secret and extraordinary”. The proposal came from Dr. Zuhair al-Harthi, a member of the Shura Council’s Human Rights Committee, who justified his decision on the grounds that the fatwas in question exceed their limits, and that this phenomenon has reached the point of “infringing upon the principles, values, and spirit of religion and the value of national unity and also diminishes the prestige of the state, as well as impacting on external relations between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world”. He added that the issuance of a decision criminalizing illegitimate Takfiri fatwas “is no longer a luxury but a necessity”. However, the discussions were limited to the fatwas that did not come from official sources and did not result in a formal decision.

Experts consider that the so-called “Fatwa Chaos” stems from Islam’s lack of a central authority, comparable to, for example, the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican. For centuries, this wasn’t a problem because most people could not read and write and they followed the religious advice of scholars respected within their communities. The explosion of literacy and global communications created conditions in which more Muslims could aspire to be fatwa-issuing scholars, and transmit those rulings to a wide audience, sometimes with political agendas. The trend is favored by the satellite television channels, the Internet and other modern channels of communication. If traditionally, fatwas addressed major life issues and were presented by a scholar after careful consideration, today, many “rulings” are issued on the spur of the moment by scholars in response to questions called in by television viewers. Many analysts doubt that the efforts to control fatwa-giving will be successful, partly because it’s also a big business for the TV channels that have fatwa-issuing programs with their own scholars.

c) In current-day Somalia, the population is helped by the Muslim imams not to accept the Takfiri ideology of al-Shabaab (Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen – “Mujahideen Youth Movement” or “Movement of Striving Youth”– HSM), the Somalia-based cell of al-Qaeda, who controls large swathes of the southern parts of the country.

According to Sheikh Mohamud Khalif Diriye, an imam at a mosque in Mogadishu’s Waaberi District, al-Shabaab uses Takfiri ideology-inspired suicide bombings to intimidate and kill defenseless civilians, casting Somali society into turmoil. According to the Somali Imam, “Takfiris have distorted the true image of Islam”.

In Europe however, although mainstream Muslim organizations and Imams condemned terror attacks and recent terrorist incidents or plots, there are still few moderate Muslims who speak out openly against radical Islamism and the positions of defensive/ambiguous Muslim leaders and extremists.


IV. Radical Islam in Europe: “home-grown” and “lone wolf” terrorists


According to most analysts, Salafi jihadism and Takfiri ideologies’ spreading in Europe resulted in a new, more complex terrorist threat that includes ongoing changes in the portrait of a person attracted to terrorist activity.

The so-called “new terrorists” are not acting at a global level, but they are given designated targets so that a terrorist organization can then claim responsibility for the attacks, a strategy that is sometimes called “global proxy terrorism”. On the other hand, the fact that most of those involved in the smaller-scale terrorist attacks were part of the Muslim local communities generated their being labeled “home-grown” terrorists.

Home-grown terrorism is defined as acts of violence against targets primarily, but not always, in Western countries in which the terrorists themselves have been born or raised. The purpose of such terrorism is to advance political, ideological or religious objectives.  A distinctive factor of home-grown terrorism is that it is carried out by persons whose upbringing and cultural influence took place in the Western world, as well as their radicalization process. However, evidence from home-grown terrorist cases has shown that some level of international contact or visit to foreign countries for ideological inspiration or training camp attendance had taken place.

The analysts of the phenomenon point out that the threat of Islamist radicalization and home-grown terrorism in Europe is on a growing trend and those involved are born or bred in Europe and appear to be integrated in their Western societies. Home-grown Islamist terrorist groups primarily consist of young Muslim men, most likely second or third generation immigrants but also converts and women who have come to know each other through school, sport, family relations, work or social-religious activities.

Home-grown terrorism has also been described as decentralization of al-Qaeda and the rise of militant Islam. However, essentially it is due to a mixture of ideological influences, group dynamics and more structural problems in Western societies.

In the same pattern might be included the so-called “lone wolfs”, who come mainly from the same background and have a similar evolution, but they act alone or in very small groups. The “lone wolf” usually shares the views of one of the well-known organizations, uses its methods and sees himself as its member but he does not contact this organization. The growing number of “lone wolves” can also be attributed to global changes, more radical sentiments, first of all among Muslim young people.

What the home-grown terrorists and lone wolfs seem to have in common is a deep-seated religious faith, often newly discovered, hatred of the West and a sense of alienation from their societies. A common characteristic of these networks is that they are loosely knit and fluid, with varying, or no, international links. They all comprise of a violent ideology and are influenced by radical propaganda shared though mediums such as the Internet.

The Internet and the social networks: new weapons of the jihad

According to most analysts, the 21st century communication media are one of the main factors that influenced the evolution of the Islamic radicalization process and the spread of the so-called “fringe” doctrines of Islam, Salafi jihad and Takfiri.

Using the Internet is cheap, it has global reach, it allows for rapid dissemination of text and video in order to spread propaganda, threats or claim responsibility for attacks. Furthermore, the Internet is anonymous and serves as a platform for contacts, communication and information sharing for both males and females. Propaganda can be circulated widely without any significant contradiction or a third party filter. A typical message sent out is that Islam is under siege and that Muslims have a personal duty to commit violence in defense of Islam.

According to FBI estimates, in 2006 there were 5,000-6,000 extremist web pages on the Internet. Most of them were either mirrored versions of existing sites, or simply bulletin boards that disseminate material originated from terrorist organizations. Once material has been published, it is immediately duplicated on a large number of sites located on servers across the globe.

A significant example of the use of the Internet and the social networking is that of the Somali group al-Shabaab, who uses intensively online forums and chat rooms in order to recruit young followers to their cause. Al Shabaab‘s official website, which has since been banned, featured posts, videos and official statements in English, Arabic and Somali, as well as online classrooms to educate followers. Prior to its expulsion from Mogadishu in mid-2011, Al-Shabaab had also launched the Al-Kataib propaganda television station. In addition, Al-Shabaab is using music to influence and appeal to their young followers, with one of Al Shabaab’s foreign-born leaders, American Omar Hammami, gained notoriety after an April 2009 video of him rapping about jihad.

Al-Shabaab also reportedly began using the Twitter social media network. The account, HSMPress, has attracted over eight thousand followers. Most of Al-Shabaab’s messages on Twitter are in English, with authorities suggesting that they are intended for an outside audience and potential recruits in the West. In January 2013, the account was suspended by Twitter. It was reported that Al-Shabaab opened a new Twitter account on February 4, 2013.

A typical pattern in the process of radicalization is that information is exchanged freely and openly on the Internet. At the beginning, people visit extremist homepages, download videos, text, terrorist journals, songs or go to chat rooms to discus religious subjects with other persons. In later stages, communication get more secretive, persons might continue discussions in smaller bilateral chat sessions and encrypted information might be used. Bilateral sessions are often focused on recruitment and persons might be introduced to a charismatic Muslim person.

Researchers agree that the Internet has removed the practical barrier to entering terrorism, thus making it easier. Besides being used for propaganda, a meeting place and vehicle for spreading the message of radical Islam, the Internet is also used in ways which are of particular relevance in the later phases of radicalization. These include provision of training manuals and manuals on explosives. In the case of the Madrid train bombers, as well as in other cases, electronic books were found on the authors’ computers, including military manuals and information on how to deal with arrests and interrogation, as well as manuals for bomb-making.

A significant as well as worrying case was mentioned recently, when a brochure about how to escape drone attacks, published in Yemen two years ago and uploaded on a jihadist forum, was found in Timbuktu on the premises vacated by the militants of al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) before the arrival of the French troops. The document was seen as a proof of the coordination and communication among radical Islamists all over the world.

A similar role is played by Satellite TV which is also easily accessible, allows the rapid dissemination of video and audio files and allows anonymous communication with the global community of Islam. Broadcasts are often in English or have English subtitles, to reach as large a community as possible, especially in the non-Muslim world. Satellite channels include Al Jazeera and Hezbollah’s satellite channel, al-Manar. The stations used by al-Qaeda are al-Sahab and the Global Islamic Media Front that show interviews and speeches given by radical leaders and pictures of attacks on coalition forces in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The messages of radical Islam and the stories of “clash of civilizations” delivered on the Internet or through satellite channels have the potential to create a culture or world view among young Muslims that justifies Jihad or acts of terrorism against the West. The Internet has a capability to further radicalization by creating links between extremists located around the world or in other regions and serves as a virtual network in which to obtain knowledge, skills training and reconnaissance. Satellite channels can be vehicles of propaganda and present images that contribute to the creation of a common perception of reality for a very large audience. These new media are giving many European Muslims a feeling that they belong to a broader Muslim community.


The Internet is also more and more used for the so-called cyber-jihad, a with more and more “Hacktivists” attacking U.S., Israeli and Western sites.

In the last decade, multiple fatwas were issued allowing cyber-jihad, including religious justifications, Koran verses and quoting Hadiths.

The issue permitting cyber-jihad has been a frequent topic of discussion and since 2000, cyber-jihad has been repeatedly declared against the U.S., Israel and other Western countries.

The first known fatwa on cyber-jihad was reported by the Saudi government religious magazine Al-Dawa on May 11, 2000; the fatwa, which approved of sending viruses and other methods of online attacks, was issued by Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abd Al-Aziz Al-Sheikh.  Asked “If there are websites on the Internet that are hostile to Islam, and are disseminating immoral materials… is it permissible for me to send viruses to disable and destroy these websites?”, the mufti replied: “If such a website is hostile to Islam and you counter its evil with good, and
respond to it, refute its falsehood, and show its void content – that would be the best option. But if you are unable to respond to it, and you want to destroy it, and have the ability to do so, it’s okay to destroy it, because it is an evil website”.

On August 25, 2008, the Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee issued a fatwa permitting the hacking and damaging of American and Israeli websites that harm Islam and Muslims, as part of “electronic jihad.” Dr. Muhammad Fuad Al-Barazi, director of the Islamic Association in Denmark and member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, which is currently headed by Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, thanked Al-Azhar for issuing the fatwa and stressed that attacking websites that harm Islam was considered a kind of jihad. He added: “We need now many types of jihad. Anyone who thinks that jihad is limited only to going out to battle is mistaken; there are many types of jihad, including media, economic, and verbal [jihad]… Anyone with [access to] a certain technology can dedicate it to the cause] and assist [in electronic jihad operations]. [Jihad] is an obligation incumbent upon all… [Likewise,] if [those waging electronic jihad] need economic support, those [who can help them] are obligated to do so”.

A new type of Mosque

Although defenders of “pure” Islam, many of the preachers of the Salafi jihad and Takfiri doctrines are not to be found in the traditional mainstream Mosques (since most of them lack the scholar credentials). Besides using the Internet and the social networks, they speculate on the young generation’ frustration with the traditional worship places, since the established Mosque environment is often seen as representing their parents’ generation.

Since the Mosque is not seen as having a role to play in easing tensions or helping integration nor is it seen to pay attention to political issues, young people drift away either because they were banned to discuss controversial issues in the mosque or found nothing inspiring on offer there. Many radical and active young people began drifting away, organizing themselves outside the influence of the mosque structure, just to go under the influence of the Jihadist ideology.

On the other hand, the increased focus of intelligence services, initiatives in Muslim circles to resist extremism and the banning of radical preachers have had the effect that radicalized individuals are withdrawing from the mosque environment to carry out meetings in private homes, bookshops, cafes etc. This trend is encouraged by the radical Islam preachers, who advise people to abandon the Mosque in favor of home-based religious instruction, where they could be mentally prepared for the violent Jihad.

Another pattern is seen when young Muslims attend religious instruction classes in regular non-radical Mosques. After a while some come to consider these classes as insufficient and start looking for (more radical) places outside the Mosque hierarchy. Such informal communities have been termed the “Islam of cellars and garages”.

Radical Islam preachers also have found good ground in prison environments, with statistics showing that Muslim youth who are deprived of their freedom “display a striking receptivity” for radical Islam. Prison Imams and influential inmates play a significant role since they have the potential to influence the mindset and belief system of other inmates by speaking from a position of authority on religious issues.

In the absence of certified or qualified Muslim preachers, inmates themselves are often allowed to act as spiritual leaders. In this regard, individuals who do not have prior knowledge of Islam are especially vulnerable to a distorted image of Islam. Prison gangs may also adopt the so-called “jailhouse Islam” which is a form of Islam that incorporates values of gang loyalty and violence. Often prisoners who have a radical interpretation of Islam tend not to recognize the authority of prison Imams, either because their views are not radical enough or they are perceived as representing the official prison system.



V. Case studies: Preachers and followers of the “fringe” Islam


The following case studies are considered significant for the evolution and perspective of the radical Islam Salafi jihadi and Takfiri doctrines and may also offer ground for reflection on the short- and medium-term future.

Preachers: Anwar al-Awlaki, Omar Bakri, Zakir Naik 

Anwar al-Awlaki

An American of Yemeni origin, an engineer and educator by training, Anwar al-Awlaki (or al-Aulaqi, 21 April 1971 – 30 September 2011) is considered a senior talent recruiter and motivator who was involved with planning operations for al-Qaeda, as well as an example of the Takfiri-inspired jihadism.

His calm eloquence and fluent English turned al-Awlaki into a YouTube phenomenon, and his emergence as the ideological guide of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, put him at the heart of one of the most dangerous terror groups on earth. He became the spiritual mentor to would-be jihadists living in anonymous suburbs half a world away. When he left the USA in 2002 he had a unique understanding of the vulnerabilities of an open society, the sentiments of American Muslims and the opportunities of social media in the 21st century, especially the online propaganda.

Because of the impact of his blog, his on-line magazine Inspire, his Facebook page and his YouTube videos (that were removed in 2010 by YouTube at the request of the US Congress), Awlaki was considered the “bin Laden of the Internet”. The 1 May 2010 Times Square failed car bomb attacker, Faisal Shahzad, is said to have told U.S. investigators that Awlaki’s online lectures urging jihad helped inspire him to act.

Al-Awlaki didn’t have a formal Islamic education, having spent intermittent periods with scholars and reading and contemplating works by several prominent Islamic scholars. He was said to have developed an animosity towards the U.S. and became a proponent of Takfiri and Jihadi thinking, following his imprisonment in Yemen after 2004, where he was influenced by the works of Sayyd Qutb. Awlaki recalled that he read 150–200 pages a day of Qutb’s works, and described himself as “so immersed with the author I would feel Sayyid was with me in my cell speaking to me directly”.

He later became noted for attracting young men to his lectures, especially U.S. and UK-based Muslims and he was considered to be one of the main jihadi luminaries for the “home-grown terrorists”. His fluency with English, his constant advocacy of jihad and mujahedeen organizations, and his Web-savvy approach were a powerful combination. One of Awlaki’s lectures, “Constants on the Path of Jihad”, which was based on a similar document written by al-Qaeda’s founder, is considered the “virtual bible for lone-wolf Muslim extremists”.

Awlaki is also known for his essays and fatwas meant to justify the attacks against civilians (one of his last essays was to be titled “Targeting Populations of Countries at War With Muslims”). In November 2010, he released a video, where he said there was no need for a fatwa to kill Americans. “Killing Satan does not require a fatwa”, he said. “We have reached with them a situation of «Either Us Or You»”. As always, he was careful to justify and explain his words through Koranic verses, which gave his sermons and speeches greater credibility among would-be jihadists.

Awlaki’s speeches and lectures were criticized by moderate Salafis, who exposed him, as well as his mentors, Sayyid Qutb and Salman al-Awdah as “Khariji[6] (Renegade) Jihadists”, whose real goal is to overthrow the Muslim governments in Arabian Peninsula, especially Saudi Arabia. They accused al-Awlaki and other West-based preachers of benefitting of the protection of the Western governments to launch internet tirades inciting violence and rebellion in the Muslim lands, thus acting “the way of the Khawarij..: rebelling against the rulers and not listening to them, nor obeying them if there is any sin found amongst them”.

Awlaki repeatedly called for jihad against the United States and was involved in the 9/11 coup, as well as in previous al-Qaeda activities in the country. The Yemeni government began trying him in absentia in November 2010, for plotting to kill foreigners and being a member of al-Qaeda, with a Yemeni judge ordering that he be captured “dead or alive”. U.S. officials alleged that in 2009, al-Awlaki was promoted to the rank of “regional commander” within al-Qaeda. In April 2010, in an unprecedented move against an American citizen, the U.S. President Barack Obama placed al-Awlaki on a list of people whom the CIA was authorized to kill because of terrorist activities. Since he was believed to be in hiding in Southeast Yemen, the U.S. deployed unmanned aircraft (drones) to search for and kill him, succeeding in a fatal American drone attack in Yemen on 30 September 2011.

The Awlaki case came again to the attention at the beginning of this year, after the release of FBI documents revealing that, besides being linked to 26 separate terror plots, he purchased airplane tickets for the hijackers of the 9/11 coup. The documents detailed how al-Awlaki became a central focus of the FBI’s investigation into 9/11. However the then-30-year-old preacher apparently refused to co-operate with agents. Yet in February 2002, just four months later, al-Awlaki was invited to a dinner held at the Pentagon as part of the military’s “outreach to the Muslim community” in the aftermath of the attacks. Another document details how al-Awlaki was detained and questioned at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport in October 2002, under an arrest warrant for passport fraud – a crime carrying a potential 10-year sentence. However, the FBI ordered his release, allowing him to fly to Washington, DC, before eventually returning to Yemen. Previously released documents showed that al-Awlaki was detained by US authorities a further two times in 2006 and 2007, both times again being released for undisclosed reasons. According to Judicial Watch, an accountability watchdog group, the released documents provided “further evidence that the federal government, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, has been operating a ‘catch and release’ program for terrorists”.

In the same case, debates are fuelled by another recently disclosed document of the Justice Department that is supposed to provide legal arguments for the drone strikes against al-Qaeda suspects abroad, including the September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaeda operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan (both U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes). Critics of the document argue that it gives the government the right to carry out extrajudicial killing of American citizen and circumvent the legislation that provide constitutional protections to American citizens as well as a U.S. law that criminalizes the killing of U.S. nationals overseas. The document was evoked in the context of the U.S. Congress’ hearings for the confirmation of John Brennan – former White House counterterrorism adviser and a key architect of the drone campaign – to be CIA director, but also of the lawsuit launched against the Obama Administration by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of Awlaki’s family.

Omar Bakri

Omar Bakri Muhammad (born Omar Bakri Fostock in 1958 in Syria) was instrumental in developing Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Islamic Liberation Party) in the United Kingdom before leaving the group and heading another Islamist organization, the Al-Mouhajiroun, disbanded in 2004 and  more recently known as Islam4UK, Shariah4UK and Muslims Against Crusades (led by his close follower Anjem Choudary).

According to his statements, since his youth, Omar Bakri was a member of several radical Islamic organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood (in Syria and later, Lebanon) and of Hizb ut-Tahrir (in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia), before founding his own organization, al-Muhajiroun, in 1983.

Bakri moved to the United Kingdom on 14 January 1986 and became the leader of the British Hizb ut-Tahrir. He left the organization ten years later upon disagreements on policy, style and methods. He declared Al-Muhajiroun an independent organization and continued as its Amir until 2003. Omar Bakri praised the 9/11 attacks as “magnificent”. Soon after the attacks, he stated that he had become a Salafi Muslim and openly supported jihadist organizations. In a significant move, he issued a fatwa containing a death threat against President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.

Although sometimes he was seen as a “figure of fun” by the media who gave him the nickname “the Tottenham Ayatollah”, his organization is considered by many analysts as being closely involved in the London terrorist attacks in July 2005. Analysts noted that the 2005 London bombings occurred only four months after Omar Bakri declared that the “covenant of security” that he previously established (forbidding his followers from carrying out attacks in Britain) was no longer in force.  After the attacks, it was reported that “a dozen members” of al-Muhajiroun were involved in suicide bombings or have become close to al-Qaeda and its support network. Shortly after, Omar Bakri left the UK for Lebanon and since then he was not allowed to come back. He is known as a leader of the Atibaa’ Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah movement.

Omar Bakri is considered by the specialists as being in contact with many al-Qaeda operators in Europe, including the authors of the 2012 “lone-wolf”-type terrorist attacks in France and Bulgaria. Bakri himself acknowledged that he was the mentor of the known or suspected authors of both attacks as well as other terrorist coups. Mohammed Merah, the author of the Toulouse attacks was a member of Forsane Alizza, associated to the British organizations led by Omar Bakri. Mehdi Ghezali, the initially supposed suicide bomber responsible for the 18 July 2012 Burgas bus attack, and a former Guantanamo detainee, previously declared that he has been studying at the madrasah of Omar Bakri in London. Similar connections surfaced when the Swedish authorities profiled Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, a 28-year-old Iraqi-Swede who became, on December 11, 2010, the first suicide bomber in Sweden (he accidentally detonated one of the six pipe bombs strapped to his body among busy Christmas shoppers in central Stockholm). According to Swedish analysts, while in England, al-Abdaly came under the influence of Omar Bakri and his al-Muhajiroun group that had open recruitment stalls on the high street near the al-Abdaly family home.

Most analysts point that the central element of Bakri’s doctrine is Jihad. A document entitled “Jihad: The foreign policy of the Islamic state” was posted on the al-Muhajiroun website. The document included an analysis of the meaning of Jihad. “Jihad, as a term, cannot be translated as «holy war» … nor can it be translated as… «struggle». At best, its legal meaning can be understood as «using military force, where diplomacy fails, to remove the obstacles the Islamic State faces in carrying its ideology to mankind».

In an Internet lecture in June 2006, he asked his followers to send him, through his son, money for the financing of the mujahedeen and in other lectures, he called for attacks against “British Muslims who are in the Army over there” (the authorities linked his calls with an alleged planning to kidnap, torture, and behead a British Muslim in the army, all of which would be videotaped and later broadcast on the internet).

He is also known for a 2005 preach where he declared Britain as Dar-ul-Harb (land of war) and called for the Muslims to come to the jihad. In the context of the terrorist attack in Burgas (Bulgaria), he also stated that “When Islam enters a territory, that state turns into an Islamic state. It’s our duty to liberate them”. When asked about the European states that are considered Islamic, he said: “Spain, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia are all Islamic countries”. He claimed that the Balkans are occupied Muslim land which should be released. “Even Spain and Eastern Europe should be released. Bulgaria is a legitimate target”.

At the beginning of 2012, Omar Bakri Muhammad also called for jihad in Syria against the Assad regime, saying that hard-line Salafi Muslim groups, including al-Qaeda and his own al-Ghuraba group, were ready to help their “Muslim brothers” with a campaign of suicide attacks against President Bashar al-Assad. He also described the regional uprisings that rocked the Middle East as “al-Qaeda’s victory”. According to Omar Bakri, the Arab Spring and “the dismantling of authoritarian regimes and ruthless intelligence services have given Salafist groups room to breathe; and the thousands of jailed Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, released as the dictatorships crumbled, have been perfect for recruiting”.

In February 2013, Anjem Choudary, who took over Bakri’s place in London after the latter’s expulsion, was secretly filmed when he asked, in a sermon, that Muslims in England, many of whom live on government allowance, should “take money from the kuffar (non-believers)” in order to support the jihad and called that money the “Jihad Seeker’s Allowance”.

In a lecture that was broadcast at a Muslim rally in Denmark in September 2012, organized by the local radical organization “Kaldet til Islam” (“Call for Islam”), Omar Bakri called for the death of those who insult the Prophet Mohammed. The Danish media also reported that Abu Asadullah and Abu Musa, the spokesperson and chairman, respectively, of “Kaldet til Islam” – which numbers only around 50 members – regularly listen to Omar Bakri’s teachings over the internet.

According to Jacob Scharf, head of the Danish security service (PET), Bakri’s use of the internet and technology to spread his message is not unusual, and greater efforts are needed in order to prevent young Danish Muslims, particularly men, from being groomed by radical Islamists over the internet. According to Scharf, social media such as Facebook are used by radical Islamists to make first contact with potential recruits. At first, the viewpoints they share seem harmless, but subsequently the recruits may be linked to closed web forums where the viewpoints become increasingly radical.

Zakir Naik

Zakir Abdul Karim Naik (born 18 October 1965) is one of the most influential Salafi preachers in India, through his “Islamic Research Foundation” (IRF) and its “Peace TV” channel based in Dubai, UAE.

Originally a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MBBS), Karim Naik began preaching in the early 1990’s, inspired by Ahmed Deedat, an Islamic preacher that he met in 1987. According to media analysts, Naik’s style of memorizing the Islamic literature in various languages made him extremely popular, with many  of his debates being recorded and widely distributed in video and DVD media and online.

According to Naik, if a Muslim converts and then speaks against Islam or propagates another religion, it should be considered treason and, under Islamic law, this is punishable by death.  He also believes that the Islamic injunction prescribing death for apostasy – those who leave the faith – is justified. He compares it to death penalties meted out to national traitors (army generals who defect being the example cited) and proclaims that apostates fall into the same category.

Zakir Naik is considered an example of the practising of Da‘wah, that is the proselytizing or preaching of Islam through debating Christian polemics and holding Q&A sessions with Christians, on his Peace TV channel.

Da‘wah literally means “issuing a summons” or “making an invitation”, being the active participle of a verb meaning variously “to summon” or “to invite”. A Muslim who practices da‘wah, either as a religious worker or in a volunteer community effort, is a person who invites people to understand Islam through a dialogical process, one who invites people to the faith, to the prayer, or to Islamic life.

Although claiming not to advocate terrorism, Naik said that “if bin Laden is fighting enemies of Islam, I am for him… Every Muslim should be a terrorist. The thing is that if he is terrorizing the terrorist, he is following Islam”. On the other hand, he also sustained that he “had proof” that the 9/11 attack was “an inside job” engineered by “some politicians in the White House”. In 2008, Naik was criticized for supporting al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and had a fatwa issued against him by Islamic scholars in Lucknow (India). In the fatwa, Naik is described as a kafir (non-Muslim), who should be excommunicated from Islam.

Because of his extremist views, in 2010, Naik was denied entry into the United Kingdom and Canada, but in the same year, he was ranked 89 on “The Indian Express” list of the “100 Most Powerful Indians in 2010” and the local media considered him  “perhaps the most influential Salafi ideologue in India”. He was on the list of the “500 Most Influential Muslims in the World” published by George Washington University in 2011 and 2012. He was listed No. 3 in the “Top 10 Spiritual Gurus of India” in 2009 and he topped this list in 2010.

According to Indian analysts, people drawn to Naik’s message include Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-American arrested for planning  the 2009 suicide attacks on the New York subway; Rahil Sheikh, accused of involvement in a series of train bombings in Bombay in 2006; and Kafeel Ahmed, the Bangalore man fatally injured in a failed suicide attack on Glasgow airport in 2007. He was also accused of preaching “the Wahhabi-Salafist brand of Islam”, supported by Saudi Arabia.

Other analysts consider Naik to be a part of the so-called “tempered Jihad”, defined as Jihad calibrated to advance Islamist political objectives. According to those experts, Naik’s IRF has proved to be a “magnet” for figures linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba, while his message has mesmerized violent Islamists.

Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Good) is one of the largest and most active terrorist Islamist organizations in South Asia, operating mainly from Pakistan. It has attacked civilian and military targets in India, most notably the 2001 Indian Parliament attack and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Its stated objective is to introduce an Islamic state in South Asia. It is banned as a terrorist organization by India, Pakistan, the United States, the United Kingdom the European Union and Russia. Some experts believe that Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is providing intelligence help and protection to Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Although very popular among Indian Muslim listeners, influential sections of the Deobandi community in India have a negative view of Naik, considering that he was not abiding by ijma (Islamic consensus) and qiyas (analogical deduction of the Quran and Hadith), and therefore undermining their authority (Naik also sustains that anybody can interpret the Quran). In December 2012, Mufti of Deoband (India’s foremost Islamic centre of theological learning) have issued a formal fatwa against Zakir Naik calling him “a preacher of Ghair Muqallidin” (a term used to describe those whose teachings are not directly based on any one of the four accepted schools of Islamic thought) and recommending Muslims to avoid listening to him. Also in December 2012, Naik’s “Peace TV” was included on the list (based on data from India’s Intelligence Bureau) submitted to the government to be banned in India for “hate propaganda”.


Followers: Mohammed Merah, Mehdi Ghezali, Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Mohammed Merah

The case of Mohammed Merah, the author of the so-called Toulouse and Montauban killings in March 2012[7], is symptomatic of the so-called “new wave” or “home-grown” terrorism inspired by the takfiri/salafi jihad ideology, with debates still going on whether he was a “lone wolf” or part of a “post al-Qaeda” organization.

Merah was a 23-year-old French-Algerian, born to French parents of Algerian descent. He was an Islamist and, previously, a petty criminal. The French investigators believe that Merah turned to Salafism in prison and his radicalization increased after two journeys he made to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some sources have also cited Merah’s familial connections to al- Qaeda. Merah said he was a mujaheed and claimed ties to al-Qaeda. The police investigation suggested that he was not working alone and had made more than 1,800 calls to over 180 contacts in 20 different countries, in addition to several trips to the Middle East and Afghanistan.

After the shootings, a French intelligence document, dating back to 2006, presented Merah as a member of the Islamist jihadist movement, Forsane Alizza (Knights of Pride), a French organization with followers in Toulouse, suspected of inciting to violence and terrorism. Merah was described as having the “ability to travel and furnish logistic assistance to other militants.” Forsane Alizza was outlawed in France for encouraging citizens to travel to Afghanistan to fight jihad.

Forsane Alizza was associated, in Great Britain, with a group called Sharia4UK, closely associated with the banned extremist groups al-Muhajiroun, Islam4UK, and Muslims against Crusades, formerly headed by the preachers Omar Bakri Mohammed and Anjem Choudary.

According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at King’s College, London, Forsane Alizza, with between 30 and 100 official members, is part of a loosely connected European network of extremist Islamists who share the same ideology and use similar tactics. Forsane Alizza declares itself a fundamentalist Salafi organization with the primary objectives of proselytizing for jihad and the establishment of a caliphate and supports the mujahedeen. They disavow democratic systems and elections and proclaim that their principal targets are the French military, Jewish institutions and Israel, and perceived anti-Muslim prejudice. Although not “formally structured”, Forsane Alizza had many sympathizers, with nearly 2,000 supporters on Facebook and 400 followers on Twitter. The group has a significant YouTube presence, with at least 26 well produced videos and a video-sharing site Dailymotion, on which they posted 75 videos. In January 2012, Forsane Alizza was banned by French Interior Ministry for inciting racial hatred but it has re-formed on the internet, establishing the Force de Défense Musulmane sur Internet (Online Muslim Defence Force). In January 2013, in the context of the terrorist attack against the In Amenas gas plant, a Moroccan citizen was expelled from France suspected of links to Forsane Alizza, after the threat of domestic attack escalated following the intervention in Mali. Ali Benhammou, who was sent back to Morocco, had been involved in two cells linked to Forsane Alizza, and he had been trying to travel to Iran, with the ultimate objective of reaching Afghanistan.

Most of the analysts of the case agreed that Merah was drawn to radical Islam during his 18 months he spent in jail for violent theft, in 2007-2008. While in prison, Merah turned to Salafism, the creed that urges adherents to recreate the piety of Islam’s original followers. After his release, he was noticed as having changed, renouncing at the traditional Muslim appearance and he began to travel frequently outside France. By the end of 2010 he was stopped in Afghanistan and sent back to France, and a year later, he travelled to Pakistan, spending two months in the tribal heartland of Waziristan, where he is thought to have received training from al-Qaeda and Taliban. In November 2011, Merah was questioned by police over his Pakistan trip, but convinced them of his innocence with a slideshow of his “holiday snaps”.

According to sources in Serbia and Republika Srpska, Muhammad Merah spent time at a jihadi training camp in Bosnia some two weeks before starting his series of attacks. The camp is run by the Poziv U Raj (“Call to Paradise”) organization, the Bosnian branch of the German organization by the same name (“Einladung zum Paradies”), headed by the radical preacher Pierre Vogel, whose activity was banned in Bavaria due to its missionary nature.

The advocates of the “lone wolf” theory mention that Merah had also a history of psychological problems, including a suicide attempt and French intelligence officials have suggested he had a double life or even a split personality which allowed him to party in nightclubs and drink alcohol with acquaintances who were unaware that he was amassing an arsenal of weapons, visiting Afghanistan and Pakistan and was methodically plotting attacks.

On the other hand, during the standoff with police, Merah told police that he intended to keep on attacking, and he loved death the way the police loved life. He also claimed connections with al-Qaeda.

It was also revealed that Merah had familial links with militant Islam (his mother was married to the father of Sabri Essid, an Islamic militant arrested in 2006 at an al-Qaeda safe house in Syria for militants en route to Iraq. Merah visited Essid in a French prison, and sent him money). He also visited a radical Syrian-born preacher known as “The White Emir”, who drew young fundamentalists to his home 30 miles outside Toulouse.

According to radical Islamist media, Merah is an example of the self-radicalized jihadists who get training in Pakistan and then go home to carry out small but deadly attacks in their countries. According to an Internet posting of an author that calls himself Abu Qaqaa al Andalusi (using the Arabic name for Spain), Merah – whose alleged nom de guerre was Yusef al Faransi, or Yusef of France – was  obsessed for years with joining the jihad. In his second trip to Pakistan in 2011, he successfully contacted the Taliban in Islamabad. They put him in contact with a small cell of jihadist trainers who helped him develop his skills with small arms. “For reasons that can’t be discussed” mentioned al Andalusi, it was decided that Merah should go home to France “to accomplish what he could”.

The American al-Qaeda plotter Anwar al-Awlaki was one of the most prolific advocates of the lone-attack tactic. Before his death by drone in Yemen, Awlaki had urged the jihad to focus on small attacks that could create terror. Later on, Jihadist websites showed the Toulouse attacks as proof of the concept.

In a secret al-Qaeda document found in Berlin by German police after the Toulouse attacks, al-Qaeda operatives in Western Europe and America were asked to look for loners like Merah, recruit them, and then task them to conduct what al-Qaeda called “mini-Mumbais”, small-scale versions of the 2008 terror assault on Mumbai, in which 10 jihadists armed with small arms terrorized a megacity for three days. The author of the secret al-Qaeda document is supposed to be Rashid Rauf, a British citizen of Pakistani origin who helped plan the 2005 London metro attacks and the 2006 foiled plot to blow up 10 airplanes leaving Heathrow for the U.S. and Canada. In the captured document, Rauf encourages the lone attackers to blend in with Western society by going to night clubs, drinking, and having girlfriends.

Mehdi Ghezali

The initial phase of the investigations of the 18 July 2012 terrorist attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, revealed that the bomber, who died in the attack, might have been Mehdi Ghezali, a Swedish citizen of Algerian and Finnish origins, ex-Guantanamo prisoner and apparently a follower of the takfiri ideology preached by Mohammad Omar Bakri who even declared that Ghezali was his student.

According to the Bulgarian newspaper 24 Chasa, after being asked to identify the suspect from a TV monitoring tape, Omar Bakri said that “this man was indeed a student of mine, but for a short time. Then he left for Afghanistan. His name is Mehdi Ghezali. Because of the Burgas bombing, the brothers from al-Qaeda declared him a martyr”. He later changed his declarations, saying that he was not positively certain about the identity of the person he saw on the TV recording. He indicated that he was been given a leading question, while a senior Bulgarian intelligence official reconfirmed that the bomber was not Ghezali.

Like many converts to extremism, Ghezali was first a criminal. After being sentenced to jail for a bank robbery, Ghezali went off and sought a new life in the ranks of al-Qaeda. Before his capture in Afghanistan, Mehdi Ghezali studied at a Muslim religious school as well as at Omar Bakri’s madrasah in Britain, then he traveled to Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. After being released from Guantanamo and transferred to the custody of the Swedish authorities, he went to Afghanistan claiming that he wanted to study Islam. He gave a similar declaration several years later, when he was arrested, together with a multinational group, while trying to reach the al-Qaeda stronghold of Waziristan. Pakistani sources claimed that the group was carrying $50,000 in cash, maps indicating Western embassies, and an explosives belt.

Although the Burgas attack was declared by Israel – as soon as it was announced – as being the work of Iran, using Hezbollah as a cut-out, the evidence to support the accusations is considered to be still vague. On the other hand, analysts point out that the suspect picked up on the Burgas Airport CCTV cameras resembled to Mehdi Ghezali, and the fact that he simply “disappeared” since the attack still raises questions and gives plausibility to the rumor that the “Cuban-Swede” (as Ghezali is dubbed by the media) actually might have been the killer.

The day after the attack Mehdi Ghezali was “praised” for coup, in a video posting on YouTube hailing “Mehdi Ghezali Abu-Sabikh al-Jazairi” (who “terrified the Jews”), thus showing the intention to credit him with the crime. Yet Bulgarian and Swedish intelligence were quick to announce, in July 2012, that Ghezali could not have been the bomber, and since then they maintained that story. Adding to the mystery, Dr. Galina Mileva, the legist who performed the autopsy on what was left of the bomber, told the press that the man was not Ghezali – without explaining where that conclusion came from – yet adding that the remains were those of a half-Arab, half-European, just like Mehdi Ghezali. To add to the mystery, there was no mention whatsoever about Ghezali, dead or alive, since the Burgas attack.

The investigations’ conclusions became a complex political and diplomatic problem, since the Burgas attack became an important argument to increase the US and Israel’s political pressure on the European Union to name Hezbollah as standing behind attack and eventually to officially label it a terrorist organization.

John Brennan, U.S. President Barack Obama’s former adviser on homeland security and counter-terrorism, nominated to be Director of the CIA, issued a statement that portrayed the Bulgarian investigation as having reached a definitive conclusion and praised the Bulgarian authorities for “their determination and commitment to ensuring that Hezbollah is held to account for this act of terror on European soil”.  More recently, an almost “official” request[8] came from U.S. President’s national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, who asked Europe to “act collectively and respond resolutely to this attack within its borders by adding Hezbollah to the European Union’s terrorist list”.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar

The Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar (born 1 June 1972), the leader of the group responsible for the January 2013 terrorist attack of the Tigantourine gas field, near In Aménas, Algeria, is considered by many analysts one of the deadliest examples of the so-called “new al-Qaeda”, and his evolution and modus operandi show a significant influence of the takfiri principles.

The In Aménas terrorist attack was done by Belmokhtar’s organization, the Al-Mulathameen (“Masked”) Brigade, also known as the al-Mua’qi’oon Biddam (“Those who Sign with Blood”) Brigade. The Brigade took hostage over 800 people, and the subsequent intervention resulted in at least 39 foreign hostages killed, along with an Algerian security guard and 29 members of the Brigade. Belmokhtar proudly accepted responsibility, speaking in a video about the Crusaders and exacting revenge from France and the US: “We are behind the blessed daring operation in Algeria… We did it for al-Qaeda”, he said.

According to his affirmations, Mokhtar Belmokhtar became interested in jihad as a schoolboy. He was inspired by the Jordanian-Palestinian scholar Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden’s mentor and a man whose ideology still has a powerful hold on the jihadi movement. Belmokhtar traveled to Afghanistan to support the mujahedeen and trained in al-Qaeda’s Afghan camps at Khalden and Jalalabad. In 1993, he came back to Algeria to join the “Armed Islamic Group” (GIA) that aimed to overthrow the government and replace it with an Islamic state.

In 1998, he quitted the GIA and joined the militant Mali-based “Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat” (GSPC), later known as “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM). This group’s goal was also to overthrow the Algerian government and institute an Islamic state. Belmokhtar became GSPC field commander and, by the time GSPC became AQIM, in 2006, his reputation as a hardened fighter, leader, and financier brought him into the graces of the AQIM emir, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud (Abdelmalek Droukdel) and he became commander of his own brigade of AQIM. However, in late 2012, when Belmokhtar either was removed or chose to quit AQIM, he formed and currently commands the Al-Mulathameen (“Masked”) Brigade, also known as the al-Mua’qi’oon Biddam (“Those who Sign with Blood”) Brigade, that pledges allegiance to and takes direction from al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri.

He announced this new unit (which he described as a “guerilla battalion”) in a December 2011 video entitled “Our Sharia: Loyalty and Steadfastness Until Victory”, that began with religious proclamations and touched upon such themes as the battle between Islam and disbelief, the need for the implementation of Islamic law, and Azawad (the breakaway area in northern Mali) being an “Islamic project”.

Belmokhtar established and developed an elaborate smuggling network in southern Algeria, in order to raise money for the jihad. He smuggled cigarettes (that earned him the nickname “Mr. Marlboro”), drugs, stolen cars, diamonds, and people. He also kidnapped dozens of Westerners, including diplomats, aid workers, doctors, and tourists. The kidnappings are believed to have netted him tens of millions of dollars in ransoms, with intelligence think-tank Stratfor reporting he was able to get an estimated $3 million per European captive.

Despite his fluent French and his involvement in organized crime, Belmokhtar is considered to be a real jihadist, convinced that victory is achieved through the humiliation of your enemies, rather than military conquest, and who often speaks about the struggle against disbelief, the importance of Islamic law and the Islamic project in northern Mali. According to Belmokhtar, Northern Mali was threatened by “the Crusader Western nations, especially France” and aggressors would be would be fought “in their homes”, and “experience the heat of wounds” in their own countries. Consequently, al-Qaeda’s “purity of arms” would be directed not towards the hopeless aspiration of a world caliphate, but at struggles which could humble Islam’s kafir enemies.

After the In Aménas attack, Belmokhtar’s spokesman threatened “crusaders and Zionist Jews’ France” with attacks on its own territory done by “tens of Mohammed Merah and Khaled Kelkal” (n.n. responsible for several terrorist attacks in France in the 1990ies). Although claiming Belmokhtar’s threats as a “media coup”, the French counterterrorism experts warned about an “inner enemy” consisting of several dozens of dangerous individuals that went to combat in Afghanistan, Syria and want to go to Sahel, people who are “self-radicalizing, lone wolfs that are difficult to identify”. Another worrying aspect was the alleged involvement in the In Aménas coup of jihadists coming from Canada, as well as growing indications that Westerners were traveling to join militant factions in hot spots like North Africa and Syria as part of a radicalization process that could motivate them to engage in violence on their return to their home countries.

Consequently, after being several times sentenced for terrorism and criminal activities, Mokhtar Belmokhtar is considered for inclusion on the so-called “kill list” of the U.S., thus extending the reach of the U.S. program of drone strikes and other lethal counterterrorism operations, which have concentrated on Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. Adding Mokhtar Belmokhtar to a U.S. targeted-killing list would represent a significant U.S. expansion into northwestern Africa, an effort that could rely on the military’s special-operations units, with help from the Central Intelligence Agency. The inclusions on the list are vetted by a group of senior officials, acting through the White House, and Belmokhtar is likely to be considered for addition to a list of military targets, which is overseen by the Joint Special Operations Command, because the CIA’s drone programs are currently confined to Pakistan and Yemen.


VI. Conclusion


The Salafi jihad and Takfiri inspired terrorism is considered by many European analysts as the most difficult to identify and pin down, since it involves easier dissimulations of the possible commanders small groups of self-starting, self-motivated individuals with no discernible organizational links, who get the triggering fatwas and technical advice from the internet. The main danger is that many such individuals scattered through European and Western countries, and their motivations may be very complex.

Analysts point out that this kind of terrorism is favored by an environment marked by the sense of deprivation, despair, humiliation or general hopelessness about one’s future. In that kind of environment, young men and women will become increasingly vulnerable to recruitment by those who play upon that insecurity, fire up a more focused sense of grievance, and offer a religious justification for making holy war. The sense of hopelessness or alienation, combined with the impact of particular religious mentors or role-models, is seen as a significant cause of terrorist commitment among young, second generation immigrants who have not succeeded in their new world but who feel they have lost the cultural moorings of their old. Marginalization of Muslims or the perception of being outsiders, high unemployment rates and low socio-economic standing, a feeling of not being part of society, the existence of parallel societies and youthful rebellion against the community can explain their support for radical Islam and the lack of a more visible Muslim front against terrorism.

Although there have been many suggestions and strategy proposals for countering the phenomenon, the current evolutions show that preventing Islamist extremism and radicalization is a complex undertaking.

The threat of home grown terrorism and Islamist radicalization is unlikely to be significantly reduced within the coming years, or even decade, but community building and development of shared values may lessen the attractiveness of radical Islam. In particular, the culture of hatred and the ideology of “killing in God’s name” need to be reversed by engagement of communities and dialogue at all levels of society.

Experts from the police and the intelligence agencies who have been concerned with this issue for years are worried by the political response to the phenomenon that they consider heavy on populism, light on strategic thinking and lacking an effective communication approach. In particular, most politicians are more inclined to score points and gain popularity in a society where the anti-Muslim feeling is growing, a trend that, with the continuing economic crisis, may favor the radicalization process in the Western Muslim communities.

[1] Quintan Wiktorowicz: Anatomy of the Salafi Movement, in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 29, 2006, pp. 207-239

[2] Quoted by Bruce Livesey in: The Salafist Movement, posted 25.01.2005 in Frontline

[3] Cf. Quintan Wiktorowitz: “A Genealogy of Radical Islam,” in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 28 (Autumn 2005), Taylor and Francis, 2005.

[4] An analysis of the main Muslim branches in India, including the Barelvis may be found in a previous paper

[5] See supra.

[6] Referring to the Khawarij sect, see supra.

[7] A series of three gun attacks targeting French soldiers and Jewish civilians in the cities of Montauban and Toulouse in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France in March 2012. In total, seven people were killed, and five others were injured, four seriously. The perpetrator was shot and killed after a 30-hour siege with police.

[8] On 17 February 2013, in the New York Times article “Hezbollah Unmasked”,

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