Salafi jihadism

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Salafi jihadism or jihadist-Salafism is a transnational religious-political ideology based on a belief in "physical" jihadism and the Salafi movement of returning to what adherents believe to be true Sunni Islam.[1][2]

The terms "Salafist jihadist" and "jihadist-Salafism" were coined by scholar Gilles Kepel in 2002[3][4][5][6] to describe "a hybrid Islamist ideology" developed by international Islamist volunteers in the Afghan anti-Soviet jihad who had become isolated from their national and social class origins.[3] The concept was described by Martin Kramer as an academic term that "will inevitably be [simplified to] jihadism or the jihadist movement in popular usage." (emphasis supplied)[6]

Practitioners are referred to as "Salafi jihadis" or "Salafi jihadists". They are sometimes described as a variety of Salafi,[7] and sometimes as separate from "good Salafis"[5] whose movement eschews any political and organisational allegiances as potentially divisive for the Muslim community and a distraction from the study of religion.[8]

In the 1990s, extremist jihadists of the al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya were active in the attacks on police, government officials and tourists in Egypt, and Armed Islamic Group of Algeria was a principal group in the Algerian Civil War.[3] The most infamous jihadist-Salafist attack is the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States by al-Qaeda.[9] While Salafism had next-to-no presence in Europe in the 1980s, Salafist jihadists had by the mid-2000s acquired "a burgeoning presence in Europe, having attempted more than 30 terrorist attacks among E.U. countries since 2001."[5] While many see the influence and activities of Salafi jihadists as in decline after 2000 (at least in the United States),[10][11] others see the movement as growing, in the wake of the Arab Spring and the breakdown of state control in Libya and Syria.[12]

History and definition[edit]

Gilles Kepel writes that the Salafis whom he encountered in Europe in the 1980s were "totally apolitical".[3][5] However, by the mid-1990s he met some who felt jihad in the form of "violence and terrorism" was "justified to realize their political objectives". The combination of Salafi alienation from all things non-Muslim – including "mainstream European society" – and violent jihad created a "volatile mixture".[5] "When you're in the state of such alienation you become easy prey to the jihadi guys who 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".[5]

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."[13]

Salafi jihadists distinguished themselves from salafis they term "sheikist", so named because – the jihadists believed – the "sheikists" had forsaken adoration of God for adoration of "the oil sheiks of the Arabian peninsula, with the Al Saud family at their head". Principal among the sheikist scholars was Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz – "the archetypal court ulema [ulama al-balat]". These allegedly "false" salafi "had to be striven against and eliminated", but even more infuriating was the Muslim Brotherhood, who were believed by Salafi jihadists to be excessively moderate and lacking in literal interpretation of holy texts.[13] Iyad El-Baghdadi describes Salafism as "deeply divided" into "mainstream (government-approved, or Islahi) Salafism", and jihadi Salafism.[7]

Another definition of Salafi jihadism, offered by Mohammed M. Hafez, is an "extreme form of Sunni Islamism that rejects democracy and Shia rule". Hafez distinguished them from apolitical and conservative Salafi scholars (such as Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, Muhammad ibn al Uthaymeen, Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz and Abdul-Azeez ibn Abdullaah Aal ash-Shaikh), but also from the sahwa movement associated with Salman al-Ouda or Safar Al-Hawali.[14]

According to Mohammed M. Hafez, contemporary jihadi Salafism is characterized by "five features":

  • immense 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, and makes unnecessary and un-Islamic other ideologies such as liberalism or humanism;
  • the rejection of all innovation (bid‘ah) in Islam;
  • the permissibility and necessity of takfir (the declaring of a Muslim to be outside the creed, so that they may face execution);
  • and on the centrality of jihad against infidel regimes.[14]

Another researcher, (Thomas Hegghammer), has outlined five objectives shared by jihadis:[15]

  • Changing the social and political organisation of the state, (an example, being the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the former Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) which fought to overthrow the Algerian state and replace it with an Islamic state.)[15]
  • Establishing sovereignty on a territory perceived as occupied or dominated by non-Muslims, (an example being the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (Soldiers of the Pure) in Indian occupied Kashmir and the Caucasus Emirate in the Russian Federation).[15]
  • Defending the Muslim community (ummah) from external non-Muslim perceived threats, either the "near enemy" (al-adou al-qarib, this includes jihadists Arabs who travelled to Bosnia and Chechnya to defend local Muslims against non-Muslim armies) or the "far enemy" (al-adou al-baid, often affiliates of Al-Qaeda attacking the West).[15]
  • Correcting other Muslims' moral behaviour. (In Indonesia, vigilantes first used sticks and stones to attack those they considered "deviant" in behavior before moving on to guns and bombs).[15]
  • Intimidating and marginalising other Muslim sects, (an example being Lashkar-e-Jhangvi which has carried out violent attacks on Pakistani Shia for decades, and killings in Iraq.[15])

Robin Wright notes the importance in Salafi jihadist groups of

  • the formal process of taking an oath of allegiance (Bay'ah) to a leader.[16] (This can be by individuals to an emir or by a local group to a transglobal group.)
  • "marbling", i.e. pretending to cut ties to a less-than-popular global movement when "strategically or financially convenient". (An example is the cutting of ties to al-Qaeda by the Syrian group Al-Nusra Front with al-Qaeda's approval.[16]

According to Michael Horowitz, Salafi jihad is an ideology that identifies the "alleged source of the Muslims' conundrum" in the "persistent attacks and humiliation of Muslims on the part of an anti-Islamic alliance of what it terms 'Crusaders', 'Zionists', and 'apostates'."[17]

Al Jazeera journalist Jamal Al Sharif describes Salafi jihadism as combining "the doctrinal content and approach of Salafism and organisational models from Muslim Brotherhood organisations. Their motto emerged as 'Salafism in doctrine, modernity in confrontation'".[18]

Antecedents of Salafism jihadism include Islamist author Sayyid Qutb, who developed "the intellectual underpinnings" of the ideology. Qutb argued that the world had reached a crisis point and that the Islamic world has been replaced by pagan ignorance of Jahiliyyah.

The group Takfir wal-Hijra, who kidnapped and murdered an Egyptian ex-government minister in 1978, inspired some of "the tactics and methods" used by Al Qaeda.[5]

In Afghanistan the Taliban were of the Deobandi, not Salafi, school of Islam but "cross-fertilized" with bin Laden and other Salafist jihadis.[3]

Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation finds in his research that Salafi-jihadist numbers and activity have increased from 2007 to 2013. According to his research:

  • the number of Salafi-jihadist groups increased by over 50% from 2010 to 2013, using Libya and parts of Syria as sanctuary.
  • the number of Salafi jihadist fighters "more than doubled from 2010 to 2013" using both low and high estimates. The war in Syria was the single most important attraction for Salafi-jihadist fighters.
  • attacks by al-Qaeda–affiliated groups (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, al Shabaab, Jabhat al-Nusrah, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula)
  • despite al-Qaeda's traditional focus on the "far enemy" (US and Europe), approximately 99% of the attacks by al-Qaeda and its affiliates in 2013 were against "near enemy" targets (in North Africa, the Middle East, and other regions outside of the West).[12]

Leaders, groups and activities[edit]

Leaders and development[edit]

"Theoreticians" of Salafist jihadism included Afghan jihad veterans such as the Palestinian Abu Qatada, the Syrian Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, the Egyptian Mustapha Kamel, known as Abu Hamza al-Masri.[19] Osama bin Laden was its most well-known leader. The dissident Saudi preachers Salman al-Ouda and Safar Al-Hawali, were held in high esteem by this school.

Murad Al-shishani of The Jamestown Foundation states there have been three generations of Salafi-jihadists: 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".[20] These fighters were usually not Iraqis, but volunteers who had come to Iraq from other countries, mainly Saudi Arabia. Unlike in earlier Salafi jihadi actions, Egyptians "are no longer the chief ethnic group".[20] According to Bruce Livesey Salafist jihadists are currently a "burgeoning presence in Europe, having attempted more than 30 terrorist attacks among EU countries" from September 2001 to the beginning of 2005".[5]

According to Mohammed M. Hafez, in Iraq jihadi salafi are pursuing a "system-collapse strategy" whose goal is to install an "Islamic emirate based on Salafi dominance, similar to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan." In addition to occupation/coalition personnel they target mainly Iraqi security forces and Shia civilians, but also "foreign journalists, translators and transport drivers and the economic and physical infrastructure of Iraq."[14]


Salafist jihadists groups include Al Qaeda,[7] the now defunct Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA),[13] and the Egyptian group Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya which still exists.

In the Algerian Civil War 1992–1998, the GIA was one of the two major Islamist armed groups (the other being theArmee Islamique du Salut or AIS) fighting the Algerian army and security forces. The GIA included veterans of the Afghanistan jihad and unlike the more moderate AIS, fought to destabilize the Algerian government with terror attacks designed to "create an atmosphere of general insecurity".[21] It considered jihad in Algeria fard ayn or an obligation for all (adult male sane) Muslims,[21] and sought to "purge" Algeria of "the ungodly" and create an Islamic state. It pursued what Gilles Kepel called a "wholesale massacres of civilians", targeting French-speaking intellectuals, foreigners,[21] and Islamists deemed too moderate, and took a campaign of bombing to France, which supported the Algerian government against the Islamists. Although over 150,000 were killed in the civil war,[22] the GIA eventually lost popular support and was crushed by the security forces.[23] Remnants of the GIA continued on as "Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat", which as of 2015 calls itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.[24]

Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, (the Islamic Group) another Salafist-jihadi movement[25] fought an insurgency against the Egyptian government from 1992 to 1998 during which at least 800 Egyptian policemen and soldiers, jihadists, and civilians were killed. Outside of Egypt it is best known for a November 1997 attack at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor where fifty-eight foreign tourists were hacked and shot to death. The group declared a ceasefire in March 1999,[26] although as of 2012 it is still active in jihad against the Bashar al-Assad regime Syria.[25]

Flag of al-Qaeda

Perhaps the most famous and effective Salafist jihadist group was Al-Qaeda.[27] Al-Qaeda evolved from the Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK), or the "Services Office", a Muslim organization founded in 1984 to raise and channel funds and recruit foreign mujahideen for the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. It was established in Peshawar, Pakistan, by Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Yusuf Azzam. As it became apparent that the jihad had compelled the Soviet military to abandon its mission in Afghanistan, some mujahideen called for the expansion of their operations to include Islamist struggles in other parts of the world, and Al Qaeda was formed by bin Laden on August 11, 1988.[28][29] Members were to making a pledge (bayat) to follow one's superiors.[30] Al-Qaeda emphasized jihad against the "far enemy", i.e. the United States. In 1996, it announced its jihad to expel foreign troops and interests from what they considered Islamic lands, and in 1998, it issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to kill Americans and their allies whenever and wherever they could. Among its most notable acts of violence were the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi that killed over 200 people;[31] and the 9/11 attacks of 2001 that killed almost 3000 people and caused many billions of dollars in damage.

According to Mohammed M. Hafez, "as of 2006 the two major groups within the jihadi Salafi camp" in Iraq were the Mujahidin Shura Council and the Ansar al Sunna Group.[14] There are also a number of small jihadist Salafist groups in Azerbaijan.[32]

The group leading the Islamist insurgency in Southern Thailand in 2006 by carrying out most of the attacks and cross-border operations,[33] BRN-Koordinasi, favours Salafi ideology. It works in a loosely organized strictly clandestine cell system dependent on hard-line religious leaders for direction.[34][35]

Jund Ansar Allah is, or was, an armed Salafist jihadist organization in the Gaza Strip. On August 14, 2009, the group's spiritual leader, Sheikh Abdel Latif Moussa, announced during Friday sermon the establishment of an Islamic emirate in the Palestinian territories attacking the ruling authority, the Islamist group Hamas, for failing to enforce Sharia law. Hamas forces responded to his sermon by surrounding his Ibn Taymiyyah mosque complex and attacking it. In the fighting that ensued, 24 people (including Sheikh Abdel Latif Moussa himself), were killed and over 130 were wounded.[36]

In 2011, Salafist jihadists were actively involved with protests against King Abdullah II of Jordan,[37] and the kidnapping and killing of Italian peace activist Vittorio Arrigoni in Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.[38][39]

In the North Caucasus region of Russia, the Caucasus Emirate replaced the nationalism of Muslim Chechnya and Dagestan with a hard-line Salafist-takfiri jihadist ideology. They are immensely focused on upholding the concept of tawhid (purist monotheism), and fiercely reject any practice of shirk, taqlid, ijtihad and bid‘ah. They also believe in the complete separation between the Muslim and the non-Muslim, by propagating Al Wala' Wal Bara' and declaring takfir against any Muslim who (they believe) is a mushrik (polytheist) and does not return to the observance of tawhid and the strict literal interpretation of the Quran and the Sunnah as followed by Muhammad and his companions (Sahaba).[40]

Flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

In Syria and Iraq both Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS[41] have been described as Salafist-jihadist. Jabhat al-Nusra has been described as possessing "a hard-line Salafi-Jihadist ideology" and being one of "the most effective" groups fighting the regime.[42] Writing after ISIS victories in Iraq, Hassan Hassan believes ISIS is a reflection of "ideological shakeup of Sunni Islam's traditional Salafism" since the Arab Spring, where salafism, "traditionally inward-looking and loyal to the political establishment", has "steadily, if slowly", been eroded by Salafism-jihadism.[41]

List of groups[edit]

According to Seth G. Jones of the Rand Corporation as of 2014 there were around 50 Salafist-jihadist groups in existence or recently in existence ("present" in the list indicates a group's continued existence as of 2014). (Jones defines Salafi-jihadist groups as those emphasizing the importance of returning to a “pure” Islam, that of the Salaf, the pious ancestors; and those believing that violent jihad is fard ‘ayn (a personal religious duty)).[1]

Salafist-jihadist groups as of 2014[27]
Name of Group Base of Operations Years
Abdullah Azzam Brigades
(Yusuf al-Uyayri Battalions)
Saudi Arabia 2009–present
Abdullah Azzam Brigades
(Ziyad al-Jarrah Battalions)
Lebanon 2009–present
Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) Philippines 1991–present
Aden-Abyan Islamic Army (AAIA) Yemen 1994–present
Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI) Somalia, Ethiopia 1994–2002
Al-Qaeda (core) Pakistan 1988–present
Al-Qaeda in Aceh
(a.k.a. Tanzim al Qa’ida Indonesia
for Serambi Makkah)
Indonesia 2009–2011
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia) Saudi Arabia 2002–2008
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen) Yemen 2008–present
al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
(AQIM, formerly Salafist Group for
Preaching and Combat, GSPC)
Algeria 1998–present
Al Takfir wal al-Hijrah, Egypt (Sinai Peninsula) 2011–present
Al-Mulathamun (Mokhtar Belmokhtar) Mali, Libya, Algeria 2012–2013
Al-Murabitun (Mokhtar Belmokhtar) Mali, Libya, Algeria 2013–2017
Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia-
Union of Islamic Courts (ARS/UIC)
Somalia, Eritrea 2006–2009
Ansar al-Islam Iraq 2001–present
Ansar al-Sharia (Egypt) Egypt 2012–present
Ansar al-Sharia (Libya) Libya 2012–2017
Ansar al-Sharia (Mali) Mali 2012–present
Ansar al-Sharia (Tunisia) Tunisia 2011–present
Ansar Bait al-Maqdis
(a.k.a. Ansar Jerusalem)
Gaza Strip, Egypt (Sinai Peninsula) 2012–present
Ansaru Nigeria 2012–present
Osbat al-Ansar (AAA) Lebanon 1985–present
Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters
(BIFF, a.k.a. BIFM)
Philippines 2010–present
Boko Haram Nigeria 2003–present
Chechen Republic of Ichkeria
(Basayev faction)
Russia (Chechnya) 1994–2007
East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM,
a.k.a. Turkestan Islamic Party)
China (Xinjang) 1989–present
Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) Egypt 1978–2001
Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya Syria 2012–present
Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen Somalia 2002–present
Harakat al-Shuada’a al Islamiyah
(a.k.a. Islamic Martyr’s Movement, IMM)
Libya 1996–2007
Harakat Ansar al-Din Mali 2011–2017
Hizbul al Islam Somalia 2009–2010
Imarat Kavkaz (IK, or Caucasus Emirate) Russia (Chechnya) 2007–present
Indian Mujahedeen India 2005–present
Islamic Jihad Union
(a.k.a. Islamic Jihad Group)
Uzbekistan 2002–present
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan 1997–present
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) Iraq, Syria 2004–present
Jabhat al-Nusrah Syria 2011–present
Jaish ul-Adl Iran 2013–present
Jaish al-Islam
(a.k.a. Tawhid and Jihad Brigades)
Gaza Strip, Egypt (Sinai Peninsula) 2005–present
Jaish al-Ummah (JaU) Gaza Strip 2007–present
Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis Egypt (Sinai Peninsula) 2011–present
Jamaat Ansarullah (JA) Tajikistan 2010–present
Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) Indonesia 2008–present
Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) Indonesia, Malaysia,
Philippines, Singapore
Jondullah Pakistan 2003–present
Jund al-Sham Lebanon, Syria, Gaza Strip,
Qatar, Afghanistan
Khalifa Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM) Philippines 2013–present
Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT, a.k.a. Mansoorian) Pakistan (Kashmir) 1990–present
Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) Libya 1990–present
Liwa al-Islam Syria 2011–present
Liwa al-Tawhid Syria 2012–present
Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM) Morocco, Western Europe 1998–present
Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa
Mali 2011–2013
Muhammad Jamal Network (MJN) Egypt 2011–present
Mujahideen Shura Council Gaza Strip, Egypt (Sinai Peninsula) 2011–present
Salafia Jihadia (As-Sirat al Moustaquim) Morocco 1995–present
Suqour al-Sham Brigade Syria 2011–2015
Tawhid wal Jihad Iraq 1998–2004
Tunisian Combat Group (TCG) Tunisia, Western Europe 2000–2011

Ruling strategy[edit]

In several places and times jihadis have taken control over an area and ruled it as an Islamic state, such as in the case of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan or ISIL in Syria and Iraq.

As Islamists, establishing uncompromised sharia law is a core value and goal of jihadists, but strategies differed on how quickly this should be done. Observers such as journalist Robert Worth have described jihadis as torn between wanting to build true Islamic order gradually from the bottom up to avoid alienating non-jihadi Muslims (the desire of bin Laden), and not wanting to wait for the Islamic state.[43]

In Zinjibar, Yemen, AQAP established an "emirate" that lasted from May 2011 until the summer of 2012. It emphasized (and publicized with a media campaign) not strict sharia law, but "uncharacteristically gentle" good governance over its conquered territory—rebuilding infrastructure, quashing banditry, and resolving legal disputes.[44] One jihadi veteran of Yemen described its approach towards the local population:

You have to take a gradual approach with them when it comes to religious practices. You can't beat people for drinking alcohol when they don't even know the basics of how to pray. We have to first stop the great sins, and then move gradually to the lesser and lesser ones ... Try to avoid enforcing Islamic punishments as much as possible unless you are forced to do so.[44]

However AQAP's "clemency drained away under the pressure of war",[44] and the area was taken back by the government. The failure of this model (according to New York Times correspondent Robert Worth), may have "taught" jihadis a lesson on the need to instill fear.[44]

The ISIS, is thought to have used for its model a manifesto entitled "The Management of Savagery", which emphasizes the need to create areas of "savagery", i.e. lawlessness, in enemy territory. Once the enemy was too exhausted and weakened from the lawlessness (particularly terrorism) to continue to try and govern, the nucleus of a new caliphate could be established in their absence.[45] The author of "The Management of Savagery", emphasized not so much winning the sympathy of the local Muslims but extreme violence, writing that: "One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening [others] and massacring – I am talking about jihad and fighting, not about Islam and one should not confuse them."[45] (Social-media posts from ISIS territory "suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks", according journalist Graeme Wood.[46])


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