The September 11 attacks precipitated the uncovering of extensive al-Takfir wa al-Hijra (Excommunication and Exile) networks across Europe specialized in logistical support to terrorist groups. While the obscure group had been previously encountered by law enforcement, many were surprised at the extent and reach of its networks. Once thought of as nothing more than a fringe group in Egypt, in the last 15 years the ideology has undergone a surprising internationalization and evolution with Takfir groups involved in terrorist attacks, criminal activities and cooperating with the al-Qaeda network in its jihad against the West.
Most contemporary Takfir doctrine was forged inside Egyptian jails following the great wave of arrests targeting the Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-1960s where many of its members were tortured and/or executed. One of those arrested, the sheikh of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque, Ali Ismael, postulated that not only were Egyptian President Nasser and his entourage apostates, but so was Egyptian society as a whole because it was not fighting the Egyptian government and had thus accepted rule by non-Muslims. This was another radical turn in the concept of takfir (to excommunicate), first enunciated by Sheikh Ibn Taymiyyah and further developed by Sayyid Qutb, both intellectual pillars of the contemporary jihadist ideology. While the sheikh later rejected this doctrine, his remaining followers quickly gravitated around a young charismatic agronomist by the name of Shukri Mustafa, who became the spiritual leader of Jama’at al-Muslimin (as they called themselves) but whom Egyptian police came to call al-Takfir wa al-Hijra (ATWAH).
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—then too weak—to take power. Arguing that Egyptian man-made laws were illegitimate, ATWAH was able to justify theft, kidnapping, forced marriages and even the assassination of anyone who was not part of the group (such as apostates). Most of these core precepts are still loosely followed by contemporary Takfir groups.
After Shukri Mustafa’s execution in 1977, what remained of the original group, along with its ideology, dispersed across the Muslim world. Throughout the last decade especially, numerous Takfir groups, unconnected to one another, sprang up and took violent actions in a number of Muslim countries. In Sudan, ATWAH has been responsible for at least five attacks on worshippers since 1994, resulting in scores of fatalities and hundreds of injuries. On December 31, 2000, in an uncommon display of power for the secretive group, hundreds of Takfiris organized a sudden attack in Northern Lebanon, killing civilians and clashing with the Lebanese army in its biggest operation since the civil war. Across the border in Syria, more than 24 Takfiris are imprisoned in Syria’s Saidnaya prison alone, and there have recently been deadly battles between security forces and Takfiris suspected of preparing terrorist strikes (Agence France Presse, July 12, 2005) . Similar clashes erupted in November 2002 in Jordan, where Takfiris may also have been involved in the murder of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley. In Turkey, at least 12 Takfiris were arrested in 2004 . In Africa, Kenyan security services warned of an al-Zarqawi-linked ATWAH group in the country and there are reports of ATWAH cells in Somalia where the group is also said to have a training camp (AFP, June 16, 2005; Les Nouvelles d’Addis, February 2006).
Many Takfiris also “immigrated” to jihad lands like Afghanistan or Bosnia where they participated in logistical support for the foreign mujahideen. In Egypt itself, the group, or rather the ideology, periodically resurfaces; there have been hundreds of arrests since 1990 and a “botched” plot (killing four people) to blow up al-Azhar University (Hebdo al-Ahram, April 20, 2005). While there have been arrests (and executions) of Takfiris in Saudi Arabia, there is some confusion on whether these were “real” Takfiris since the media uses this term interchangeably for those who only consider the house of Saud, and not other Muslims, apostates. In Morocco, a number of Takfir cells have sprung up since 2000, culminating with the attacks on Casablanca in 2003. In Iraq, there are reports that ATWAH is involved in some of the violence, particularly targeting police and government officials. There are also a number of groups with very similar ideologies who do not adopt the name of the original group; for example, Morroco’s Salafiya Jihadiya and Assirat al-Mustakim are almost indistinguishable from ATWAH in doctrine (Maroc Hebdo, May 23, 2003).
Excommunicate and Purge
A threshold was crossed in early-1990s Algeria under where Takfir was the main inspiration behind the decade-long, wholesale massacres of “excommunicated” Muslim civilians following the annulment of elections that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) looked poised to win. The Algerian civil war provided the ideal life-size laboratory for the Takfir ideology, which gradually permeated the GIA (Groupe Islamique Arme) groups spread out across Algeria until the GIA’s ideology became effectively indistinguishable from the Takfir’s. It is this “merger,” the first of its kind for ATWAH, 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 ATWAH: 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, for example, ATWAH offered support to al-Qaeda’s strategy, turning its sights on the West (Le Nouvel Observateur, October 18, 2001).
The Western Exile
The rise of the Taliban, the Algerian civil war and the Western exile produced changes in the Takfir modus operandi. 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. Beginning in 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. Further arrests were made in Switzerland and France in 1998 when Takfir members Tesnim Aiman and Ressous Houari were arrested. In Paris, a 10-men Takfir cell specialized in raising funds through counterfeit clothing was uncovered in 2003 (Proche-Orient.info, November 25, 2003). In North America, the head of the Lebanese Takfir, Bassam Ahmad Kanj, and one of his lieutenants, Kassem Daher, would go on to head a cross-border logistical support network in Canada and the United States, funded from drug trafficking and charity fronts (https://medintelligence.free.fr/arliban.htm, November 27, 2001). Kassem Daher also had links to a number of jihadi groups and individuals, including Jose Padilla (Sun Media, November 25, 2005).
Beyond fundraising and logistics, Takfir has been part of a number of foiled plots, including significant operations such as the targeting of Algerian interests in Marseille, the U.S. Embassy in Paris, NATO headquarters in Brussels and a foiled 2002 attack on the St. Denis football stadium in France (Le Nouvel Observateur, October 3, 2002). The European ATWAH appears more structured than its Middle Eastern manifestations; a 2002 confidential report titled La Menace Islamiste Sunnite, produced by France’s intelligence service, cites the Takfir group (along with the GSPC) as one of two groups most likely to attempt terrorist strikes in Europe (Fides Journal, November 13, 2002). In Spain, home to a large and structured Takfir network, the group’s role in the Madrid attacks has been confirmed by law enforcement, while in Barcelona Takfiris have been cited in a plot to buy materials for a dirty bomb (El Pais, December 19, 2005; Maghreb Arabe Presse, October 28, 2005). The doctrine itself, now “globalized,” seems to have influenced a number of attacks, including the murder of Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands.
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. Al-Qaeda’s growing legitimacy as the harbingers of jihad worldwide may have had an influence on the movement’s new direction. For al-Qaeda, an alliance with Takfir would be in keeping with al-Qaeda’s drive to put doctrinal differences aside, federating and uniting all jihadist tendencies to fight the West. While some commentators have claimed that al-Qaeda is a Takfiri organization, there is no evidence that al-Qaeda or its leadership have excommunicated Muslim societies other than their governments and its supporters, even if, for al-Qaeda, Muslims who fail to support them are on the wrong path.
Unlike al-Qaeda in Iraq or the GSPC, Takfiris—in part because they are not an organized, structured entity—have not officially joined al-Qaeda or sworn an oath of allegiance to bin Laden. Takfiris can now, therefore, 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.
Additionally, 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. As stated above, Takfir is able to legitimize criminal activities, justifying these 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. In many Muslim countries, Takfiris have been involved in theft from both private homes and mosques; indeed, before it was uncovered by security services, the Jordanian cell led by Mohammed Chalabi was heavily engaged in robbery and drug trafficking from its headquarters in Maan (AFP, March 27, 2000). In Europe, a Takfir logistical support network based in France and Italy was involved in theft, trafficking and forging documents (AFP, October 26, 2001).
The quintessential sleeper, 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 Takfir in Algeria were known to be using Artane, Hashish and other drugs while many of the Takfiris involved in the Madrid attacks were themselves drug users. Thus, where one expects an austere bearded militant, one may find a boozing womanizer. 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—including bizarre and macabre rituals involving the victim’s dismemberment. The aforementioned incursion into Lebanon in 2000 involved a series of mutilations; in Morocco, mutilated corpses became a regular occurrence in cities like Casablanca where the number of civilians ritually murdered by Takfiris reached 166 in 2002 alone (Maroc Hebdo International, December 3-9, 2004). In Madrid, Takfiris are reported to have exhumed and dismembered the body of the GEO sub-inspector who died in the anti-terrorist operation in Leganes following the March 11, 2004 rail bombings.
Takfir is first an ideology and then a group or groups who adhere more or less loosely to its founding principles, with the result that ATWAH has now become a 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.
1. https://web.amnesty.org/report2004/syr-summary-fra, 2004.
2. Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, Radio Turkey, June 2004).