This is the ninth in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad and Islam. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.
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QUESTION #9 – WHO ARE AL-QAEDA, ISIS, AND BOKO HARAM?
JIHAD HAS EXISTED FOR 1,400 years, and is probably here to stay. That said, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram have been highly successful in their murderous aims, and their motives give us insight into their relationship with Islam.
Translated “the base,” al-Qaeda has its roots in the Afghan anti-Soviet efforts of the 1980s. Near the end of the 1970s, the political atmosphere of Afghanistan was tumultuous, with Marxist leanings gaining strength and ultimately leading to the coup of 1978. The country’s new president, Nur Muhammad Taraki, bolstered ties with the Soviet Union and initiated a series of modernizing reforms that actively suppressed traditionalists. Conservative Muslim leaders were arrested by the thousands and executed.
Had Western leaders been paying close attention to the development of radical Islam’s ideology, they might have seen these circumstances as a pressurized incubator for growing radical Islam. Instead, after the Soviet Union deployed troops to Afghanistan and staged another coup, the United States and various other nations financed the training and equipping of Afghan insurgent groups. These insurgents called themselves mujahideen, which means “the fighters of jihad.”
The United States allied itself with a man who seemed perfect for their needs; a mild-mannered and educated Saudi millionaire who was using his ties to the Saudi royal family and his own wealth to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan – his name was Osama bin Laden. The United States and allied Arab countries funneled tens of billions of dollars in funds and weapons through Pakistan, into the hands of Osama bin Laden and other mujahideen. Bin Laden was even given clearance to establish recruiting offices in the US and other nations in order to recruit mujahideen in his fight against the communists. By the time the Soviets began withdrawing from Afghanistan in 1988, a faction of mujahideen under the leadership of bin Laden had split away from the rest because their goals were less political and more religious, and Al-Qaeda was born.
Only hindsight is 20/20, but this development should probably have been more foreseeable by those who worked with bin Laden. Shortly before being recruited by the US, Osama bin Laden had been studying the Qur’an and jihad at his university. The work of Sayyid Qutb had directly impacted bin Laden. In fact, Sayyid Qutb’s brother and sympathizer, Muhammad Qutb, was on of bin Laden’s professors.
It was understood that bin Laden engaged in charitable efforts, and perhaps that made people think his general outlook on life was loving and peaceful. But love for Islam is also what drove bin Laden to perpetrate acts of terror, and what fueled his desire to liberate Muslim people from Western superpowers he viewed as enemies of Islam. It was his sincere religious motivations that were expressed upon the theater of world politics.
Osama bin Laden
In response to questions of his followers and of ABC reporter John Miller in 1998, bin Laden said, “The call to wage war against America was made because America has spearheaded the crusade against the Islamic nation, sending tens of thousands of its troops to the land of the two Holy Mosques.” A desire to defend Muslim lands, combined with a mistrust of the Jewish people that is widespread and latent in Muslim cultures, is what drove bin Laden to target America. That bin Laden’s motivations were ultimately religious and not political is his own assertion, as he stated with great clarity in the same interview: “I am one of the servants of Allah. We do our duty of fighting for the sake of the religion of Allah. It is also our duty to send a call to all the people of the world to enjoy this great light and to embrace Islam and experience the happiness in Islam. Our primary mission is nothing but the furthering of this religion.”
The United States responded to the September 11, 2001 attacks by spending the next decade systematically dismantling al-Qaeda, an effort that was largely successful. The initial incursion into Afghanistan was hardly unwarranted, and America enjoyed widespread support from both non-Muslims and Muslims around the world as they attacked al-Qaeda targets.
The same was not the case for America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction. Among radical Islamic groups, the invasion was touted as obvious Western aggression, and their ranks swelled with sympathizers and supporters. Many Iraqi jihadist groups at this time consolidated under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was given seed money by Osama bin Laden, and who labeled his organization al-Qaeda in Iraq (“AQI”), as an homage or a sign of loyalty to al-Qaeda. Zarqawi’s aims were different from bin Laden’s, though, as Zarqawi was more interested in regional concerns than global politics. He focused on sectarian matters, mostly attacking Muslim leaders in Iraq that he considered apostates; even those Sunni leaders who collaborated with Shia. This cost him a great deal of support among Muslims, and it kept Zarqawi’s AQI a lesser threat to the United States than bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
By the time of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the personalities had changed. US forces had killed both Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had taken over AQI, and Ayman Zawahiri had ascended al-Qaeda in place of bin Laden. Baghdadi capitalized on the chaos in Syria by sending Iraqi fighters to take part in the conflict, ultimately establishing an al-Qaeda presence in Syria. For a variety of reasons, Zawahiri ordered Baghdadi to release the new Syrian division from AQI, but Baghdadi refused. This led to the split between al-Qaeda and AQI in February of 2014, the latter now preferring to call itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Four months later, Baghdadi’s forces swept through Iraq and expanded further into Syria. They gained control of several important resources such as the city of Mosul, with its 1,500 Humvees and fifty heavy artillery howitzers that had been supplied by the US. It was rumored that ISIS even gained control of $430 million by taking over the banks of Mosul, though ISIS never confirmed this report. In the wake of this tremendous success, ISIS realized the dream of Abd al-Salam Faraj and radical Muslims around the world: They announced a caliphate, with Baghdadi the obvious occupant of the ruling seat. This move, considered symbolic by some pundits and moot by many Muslim scholars, nonetheless garnered tremendous support within the radical Muslim community.
Thousands of sympathetic Muslims flocked to Iraq and Syria to join the idealistic cause. In the middle of 2015 it was estimated that 20,000 foreigners were fighting for ISIS, including 5,000 Europeans. Although official counts of ISIS fighters range between 30,000 and 80,000, the former number seems less likely, as official body counts of deceased ISIS fighters released by the US have now exceeded 20,000. The latter number of 80,000 fighters, released by the Russian government, is still conservative compared to Kurdish reports of 200,000 ISIS fighters.
The war against ISIS has moved into the realm of propaganda, as some governments are moving to call the organization Daesh. France and Russia began using the term as far back as 2014, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron suggested the change at the end of 2015. Part of the reason for this move is an insistence by some to ignore the relationship of ISIS to Islam. As Obama averred in a 2014 memorandum released from the White House, ISIS “is not Islamic… [and] certainly not a state.” A more legitimate reason to cease referring to ISIS as “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” is that its influence has moved beyond Iraq and Syria. The group openly conducted beheadings of twenty-one Christians in Lybia. Even though ISIS currently controls one-third of Syria and one-third of Iraq [at the time of Qureshi’s writing of Answering Jihad], referring to the group by the lands it controls is problematic, and might be a good reason to change how we refer to them.
“Daesh” is the acronym for ISIS as it is rendered in Arabic, “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa ash-Sham,” but since such acronyms are hardly ever used in Arabic, the term comes across as satirical. Although the word itself has no meaning, it is a pun, with the word daes meaning “those who trample.” The term also sounds barbarous to some Arabs, vaguely suggestive of jahiliyya illiteracy and superstition. No surprise that the term Daesh appears to anger ISIS, which has threatened to cut out the tongues of those who use it. Regardless of how we refer to the entity, ISIS is the realized dream of many radical Muslims to reestablish an Islamic state with a caliphate. It certainly is Islamic. Any avoidance of the group’s theological motivations can only harm us in the long run.
Boko Haram Soldiers
Nigeria is by far the most populous African nation, with nearly twice as many people as the next closest nation, Ethiopia. Throughout the 2000s, it was home to dozens of radical Muslim movements, including Boko Haram. The movement, along with ISIS, has a longer, official Arabic name. Roughly translated, that name means “People Committed to Muhammad’s Teachings for the Propagation of Islam and Jihad.” However, the group’s more common name reflects one of its founding principles, which is “secular education is forbidden.” The founder of Boko Haram, Muhammad Yusuf, was a high school dropout who enrolled instead in Islamic schooling. Although he was quite articulate and learned, he believed that the earth was flat and denied the water cycle.
Yusuf preached largely to university students and disaffected youth, asserting that there were four true Muslims they should follow, among whom were Osama bin Laden and Sayyid Qutb. It is widely believed in Nigeria that the government did not interfere with Yusuf’s teaching because many members of Boko Haram came from wealthy and influential families. Although there were long-standing tensions between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, until 2009 the overall approach of the movement was innocuous enough to be described as quietist, and uninvolved in political affairs. But the short fuse was lit when, on an otherwise normal day, police ordered some young men from Boko Haram to wear motorcycle helmets. The young men’s refusal led to a confrontation during which several young members of Boko Haram were shot and wounded. Conflicting reports make it unclear what happened next, but members of Boko Haram clashed with police in pockets around the nation, leaving a thousand of their members dead. Nigerian military captured Muhammad Yusuf and executed him.
Boko Haram, now led by Abudakr Shekau, was spurred into wide-scale action and declared an official jihad against the Nigerian government and against the United States, the latter an apparent influence of al-Qaeda. Boko Haram began targeting politicians and clerics for assassination, holding true to their founder’s principles by also focusing on symbols of Western advancement, such as schools, hospitals, and churches. Their methods have evolved from terror attacks implemented by individuals, such as suicide attacks and drive-by shootings, to massive onslaughts against against whole villages.
The West has only intermittently noticed the death and devastation leveled by the group. The world reacted in horror in April 2014 when approximately 300 teenage students were captured from their Christian girls’ school in Chibok. First Lady Michelle Obama delivered the weekly presidential address on her husband’s behalf, assuring Americans and Nigerians that the White House would do everything it could to “bring back our girls.” She held up a sheet of paper which read “#BringBackOurGirls” for social media purposes, though it is unclear what she hoped this would accomplish.
In contrast to to this outpouring of support, the West virtually ignored Boko Haram’s coordinated massacres in January 2015. Boko Haram is alleged to have assaulted sixteen Christian-majority villages resulting in 2,000 casualties and 30,000 displaced residents. The lack of response from the West may have made little difference, however, as the earlier show of support for the kidnapped Nigerian girls has resulted in no tangible benefit thus far. In late 2015, one of the girls escaped Boko Haram and informed the world of the girls’ fates: forced conversions, beheadings, point-blank executions, rapes, and sexually transmitted diseases, but no rescue.
Because of their brutal efficiency, whether heeded or unheeded by the West at large, Boko Haram has been dubbed the world’s deadliest militant group. In its Global Terrorism Index 2015, the Institute of Economics and Peace at the University of Maryland concluded that Boko Haram had killed 6,664 victims in 2014, 600 more than ISIS. For a time Boko Haram functioned as a counter to ISIS, even announcing its own caliphate less than two months after Baghdadi claimed the seat. What caught many analysts by surprise, though, was Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to Baghdadi and the Islamic State in March 2015. Boko Haram now refers to itself as the “West African Province of the Islamic State.” Judging by the improvement of the group’s videos and speeches, the ISIS’s propaganda machinery is at the service of its African sibling.
Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram are interconnected, and they all interpret and conduct their politics through the lens of their religious beliefs. There is no denying that each group has political aims, but these aims are grounded in a religious worldview, and their actions are driven by religious principles and motives. Each group sees themselves as champions of true Islam, applying their views on the canvas of global politics for the sake of Muslim societies. Their practice of Islam places relatively greater emphasis on the foundational texts of the faith than does the practice of more moderate Muslims. Their methods are based on the writings of Sayyid Qutb, whose teachings were almost entirely derived from the Qur’an, and Abd al-Salam Faraj, who focused on the life of Muhammad in addition to the Qur’an.
When leaders and media members insist that these groups are not Islamic, they are either speaking out of ignorance or intentionally engaging in propaganda. These three groups are dynamic expressions of the modern Islamic reformation, and their interpretations of the Qur’an and hadith, in terms of being devoid of accreted tradition, are among the most pure in the Islamic world.
Thanks for reading.
Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #10 –Who Are the True Muslims: Violent Muslims or Peaceful Muslims? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.
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