Salafi-Jihadists recently posted a recording by the Islamist Arab fighter Abu-Omar Al-Seif on the Chechen website www.qoqaz.com. The recording called for more assistance from Muslims to the Mujahideen in Chechnya in preparation for escalating violence following the election of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The message also advised Islamists in Saudi Arabia to direct attacks at American troops in Iraq rather than clashing with the Saudi regime. This profile considers the writings of Abu-Omar in order to better understand the thinking of one of Chechnya’s most prominent Arab fighters on democracy, local governments and the Iraq question.
Islamist websites confer a variety of titles on Abu-Omar Al-Seif – legal advisor to the Chechen Mujahideen, member of the Shari’ah Court, member of the Judicial and Fatwa Committee of Chechnya, Head of “Court of Cassation” in Chechnya – all indicating his position as a religious authority for Islamists in Chechnya. Islamists, especially those categorized as Salafi-Jihadists, hold Abu-Omar in such great esteem that his writings can be found on the websites of even the most famous Salafi-Jihadists, like the ideologue Abu Mohammed Al-Maqdisi (currently imprisoned in Jordan). Radical Islamists opposing the Saudi state quote his writings in their electronic magazine Sawt al-Jihad. A short, videotaped speech he made, entitled Wasaya Shuhda’a al-Haramain (“Testaments/Wills of the al-Haramain Martyrs,” referring to the two most holy mosques in Saudi Arabia), includes the “testaments” of those responsible for the May 2003 apartment complex bombing in Riyadh.
Abu-Omar was born Mohammad Bin Abdullah Al-Seif. There is considerable confusion about the facts of his early life, but it is safe to say that he spent some time in the Al-Qaseem Region near the Saudi capital of Riyadh. English versions of the Islamist magazine Nida’ al-Islam (“The Call of Islam”) mention that in 1997, Abu-Omar, “Head of Shari’ah courts in Chechnya,” in addition to being from Al-Qaseem, graduated from the “Islamic University” with excellence. His mentor there was Sheikh Mohammad Bin Saleh Al-Otheimeen.
Abu-Omar arrived in Chechnya in 1995, joining Arab fighters in the region led by Amir bin Khattab. Having been delegated the responsibility of forming the Shari’ah court, he developed a structure that spread throughout Chechnya by the end of 1996, when then Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev declared the republic an “Islamic State.” He was also responsible for educating judges, and – while depending on his mentor, Al-Otheimeen – for solving many of the judicial problems he faced.
Writings and Ideology
Abu-Omar has numerous writings featured on Islamist websites. Many can be found on the Chechen Salafi-Jihadist website www.qoqaz.com, the most recent of which is a letter entitled Risalah Lil-`Ulama’ wa Tullab al-`Ilm, wa at-Tujjar, Wa Kafat al-Muslimeen (“A Letter to Scholars, Students, Merchants and all Muslims”). The letter asks Muslims to assist the Mujahideen in Chechnya, and scholars to take Jihad into their consideration.
Among Abu-Omar’s significant studies is Hal Intaharat Hawa’a Am Istushhidat? (“Did Hava’a Commit Suicide or is She a Martyr?”), in which he discusses the controversial issue in the Islamic world of suicide operations. A religious study, the essay argues that suicide operations are allowed under Islamic Shari’ah. Interestingly, the study encourages such operations, especially in Chechnya, for the detrimental impact they have on opposing forces, but limits their use to war time.
Abu-Omar’s most interesting work, however, is entitled al-Iraq wa Ghazu As-Saleeb: Durous wa Ta’amulat (“Iraq and the Invasion of the Cross: Lessons and Meditations”), which, according to the introduction, is comprised of a series of collected lectures Abu-Omar gave during and after the war in Iraq. Political in nature, the work presents Abu-Omar’s perspectives on three issues: democracy, local government, and the Iraqi question.
Democracy, Governance and the War in Iraq
Like many radical Islamists, Abu-Omar treats democracy as an ideology or even a religion rather than as a political system. He rejects the democratic principle of “collective will,” arguing that Allah alone must be the source of all legislation. The rejection of democracy by Islamists comes from the concepts of Jahiliya (the ignorance in which societies live) and Hakimiya (governance, which has to be exclusively in the hands of God). The first one is a result of the second.
In that spirit Abu-Omar writes: “The democratic system which puts Hakimiya in the hands of the people means kufr (infidelity) in Allah’s Hakimiya, and a shunning of Islam as a way of life. It means [at the same time] that people believe in other gods instead of Allah.” He concludes that democratic systems and dictatorial systems are the same: “There is no difference between despotic systems and secular democratic systems, in that both oblige people to follow the words of other gods but not Allah. Despotic systems give the ruler the right of legislation, and democratic systems give it to the parliament, thus appointing the ruler/parliament a god for people. And these people start to worship the ruler/parliament instead of Allah by following its laws as to what it deems Halal (lawful or permitted) and Haram (unlawful or prohibited).”
This thinking extends to local governance. In the late 1970s Jihadists thought of local governments as al-Adu al-Qareeb (the close enemy) because they did not rule by Hukm Allah (Allah’s rule), but by “positive laws.” Fighting these governments became a priority over fighting al-Adu al-Ba’eed (the distant enemy) such as the USSR, the United States and Israel. The cooperation of Muslim countries with “the distant enemy” (U.S. allied forces) against Muslims has recently strengthened this conviction, with Osama bin Laden rarely missing an opportunity to call for the withdraw of American forces from the Arabian Peninsula. Abu-Omar writes: “If the ruler changed Allah’s Shari’ah and ruled by ‘positive laws’ in all or some of the affairs of daily life, he is a … Taghoot (tyrant), Kafir (infidel), and Muharib (literally a militant – in this context one who fights against Islamic creed) … Those governments that have American bases on their lands are collaborator governments.”
The recent posting on Qoqaz.com of a voice recording by Abu-Omar advising Saudi Mujahideen to fight in Iraq instead of clashing with the Saudi government does not necessarily contradict this view. Abu-Omar’s admonishment may be a result of some strategic thinking on the part of the radical leader. Clashes with the Saudi government may only serve to make the situation for radicals around the world more difficult. Following September 11, 2001, the Saudi government has tightened its grip on the activities of Islamic NGOs, private businessmen and other committees, which channel funds to Salafi-Jihadists in Chechnya and elsewhere.
The call for fighters in Iraq also fits well with the radical view of U.S.-led operations in the region as “the third cycle of Crusades against Muslims.” According to Abu-Omar and others, the first cycle corresponds to the wars from 1096 to 1291 and the second to the Colonial Movement of the nineteenth century. In his writings Abu-Omar makes it clear that he believes the term “War on Terrorism” was coined simply so as to avoid aggravating Muslims.
He writes that: “Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and Russia, under the cover of Colonialism, achieved their goals of destroying Islam as a way of life (in Muslim societies), enforcing secular thought in education, media, economics, and social fields, empowering the Jews in Palestine, and dividing the Muslim Countries in small polities with rulers loyal to [those] Crusades.” This latest cycle, he argues, is simply an attempt to “impose the kafir democracy in the region, steal and loot the Iraqi oil, and control the entire region … The Mujahideen in Sham [a geographical term used in Arabic to describe Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq], the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Turkey, and from other areas to join the Jihad against the conspirator alliance: Christian-Jews with Murtadeen (apostates).”
Abu-Omar recommends the use of guerilla warfare as a tactical means to achieve the goals of the Mujahideen in Iraq, given that the territories involved are large and that weapons are available there.
The concept of Murtadeen Abu-Omar’s into dividing Iraqi society into four categories enemies to the Mujahideen: “The original Kuffar (infidels), like the Americans, the British, the Australians, and other Christians. Murtadeen, Muslim secularists like some Arabs and Kurds whose principles were a cross between secularism and nationalism. Rafidah (rejecters) [the Salafi name for the Shiites, considered aberrant Muslims], who will collaborate with the Americans as their predecessors did when the Mongolian Tartars invaded Iraq [in the thirteen century]. Munafiqeen (hypocrites) serving Americans and their allies either by their words or by fighting on their side.” 
Abu-Omar’s Salafi-Jihadist ideology – based on a vision of the world as an eternal battle of Islam with either the Adu Qareeb or Adu Ba’eed – fails to reckon with differences among places, peoples and cultures. Such a unilateralist form of thinking has led to the rejection of Abu-Omar’s ideology by many in Chechnya who have nationalist aspirations, and the ideology is certainly not representative of the majority of Muslims. But although the political model generally presented by Salafi-Jihadists does not attract many Muslims, especially with regard to the Iraqi question, the rhetoric of the Salafi-Jihadists could still mobilize young Iraqis against U.S. troops. This is especially true if the United States remains an occupying force without being able to provide for a stable transfer of power to the Iraqi people.
1. The recording is available at http://www.qoqaz.com/ab.rm, Ra’i Al-Sheikh Abu-Omar Lel Mujahideen Fi As-Sau’diyah (“Sheikh Abu-Omar’s Opinion to the Mujahideen in Saudi”). An English language version is available in MEMRIs Special Dispatch Series – No. 635, December 13, 2003, at: http://www.memri.org/bin/opener_latest.cgi?ID=SD63503.
2. Nida’ul Islam magazine, December-January, 1997-1998, at: www.islam.org.au.articles/21/news.htm. (This information is not available in the Arabic version of the magazine).
3. Ibid, p.66.
4. Abu-Omar Al-Seif, Al-Iraq wa Ghazwo As-Saleeb: Dorous wa Ta’amulat (“Iraq and the Invasion of the Cross: Lessons and Meditations”). See: http://www.tur-reisen.de/assets/php-bin/simpnews/gfx/dnews.php?seid=8Q84M1d8&action=88&sid=11&aid=960.
5. Ibid, p.39.
6. Mohammad Abedl-Salam Faraj was the first to use this dichotomy in his book Al-Faridah Al-Ghaeeba (“the Absent Duty”), which was considered a Manifesto for the Jihadists in the 1980s.
7. Al-Seif, Al-Iraq wa Ghazwo Al-Saleeb: Dorous wa Ta’amulat.
8. Ibid, p.23.