It is news to few observers that thousands, even millions, of young Muslims are influenced—to some extent—by jihadi literature circulating on various Islamist websites and discussion forums. The mujahideen’s use of the internet for communication, indoctrination, recruitment and public relations has been well demonstrated. Through this medium, a field of preachers and ideologues compete for the vast audience of young Muslims, attempting to sway their opinion and bring them to the “correct” practice and understanding of Islam. Those backing the global jihadi movement have succeeded in capturing this audience—perhaps more so than other contenders—and have gained a wide following of careful but loyal readers. This phenomenon was studied in-depth by the recent Militant Ideology Atlas published at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point . The study examined the most popular texts read online from one of the websites most frequently used by al-Qaeda to host their literature—https://tawhed.ws. The literature is critical because it provides deeper motivation to the believer, who seeks ideological backing before taking action. According to the study, a group of Muslim scholars—Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Basir al-Tartusi, Abu Qatada al-Filistini, ‘Abd al-Qadir bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and a few other Saudi clerics—are the primary Salafi opinion-makers guiding the jihadi movement. These scholars are relied upon for their credibility since they have either been imprisoned or exiled by their home countries. They are also perceived as being true to Islam and putting the interests of Muslims before themselves, making them sincere, legitimate and incorruptible. For the mujahideen, they are portrayed as scholarly authorities and the source for doctrinal legitimacy.
Surprisingly, the study found that al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are not highly cited in jihadi literature. They are not considered authorities in Islamic law or looked to as the ideological force behind the jihadi movement. Indeed, in the world of Salafi-Jihadi ideology, they are relatively minor players. One possible reason for this is that the two are figureheads, pioneers in carrying out successful attacks against one of the enemies of Muslims. This suggests that there is a role for charismatic leaders to bring Muslims to jihad, as soldiers to the battlefield, but there is a separate role for these Salafi scholars in setting the broader goals for the movement, the limits and terms of engagement and selecting valid and legal targets. They are, in essence, creating the Islamic legal framework for this struggle so that the basis upon which it is waged will be sound. It is then left to strategists and mujahid leaders to conduct successful campaigns within this framework.
Sharia and the Larger Debate
There is no single governing body for determining Islamic law in the Muslim world. Movements tend to center around persuasive and influential scholars that can grant them legitimacy in the eyes of other Muslims. This has been the case for the Salafi movement, including militant Salafis who form the global jihadi movement. Although the mujahideen are not held accountable to their constituency, they understand the need for their fellow Muslims to support their actions, provide them with funding and safe haven and ultimately be able to mobilize them when needed. Accordingly, the advice and writings of Salafi scholars carry much weight with the mujahideen and Muslim readers—regardless of their affiliation. This can clearly be seen by the readership that websites like tawhed.ws and revivingislam.com receive.
For the most influential scholars of the Salafi movement, such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada and Abu Basir, the end goal is never jihad itself. The objective is to bring Muslims to a Salafi reading of Islam and then to deliver salvation to the global Muslim community. As such, the primary element of the literature is the meaning and implementation of the Sharia. The scholars first bring their interpretation of Islamic law on various political and social issues and present their advice on the appropriate action. The common ground among the scholars behind the jihadi movement is their rejection of Muslims living under apostate laws and political systems governing outside what God has decreed. The required response—for all, but to differing degrees and with differing tactics—is resistance.
This drive to instill Islamic law into Muslim society, and ultimately recreate that society under their interpretation of the law, often translates into an endorsement for violent jihad as practiced by bin Laden and others. While there are many Muslim scholars who call for these sources of law to be the primary factors in how Muslims live, the important distinction lies in how one should confront political systems that rule by law other than Sharia. The debate over law and society is critical in jihadi literature. It establishes the framework through which young Muslims should struggle; for these scholars, it is clear their aim is not jihad, but the creation of such a society through jihad, an obligatory struggle for the believer.
In this larger debate, militant Salafi scholars have a much different role than the mujahid leaders. A prime example of this is that of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a student of al-Maqdisi from their shared time in a Jordanian prison; al-Maqdisi, however, publicly disapproved of his former student’s tactics that targeted innocent Muslims. For them, the disagreement was a result of al-Maqdisi’s understanding of the Sharia and the best interests of Muslims. Examining such relationships can allow one to understand how the internal debates among the mujahideen are framed and directed, how limits on targets are created when scholars strongly condemn a certain act (such as al-Zarqawi’s hotel bombings in Amman) and how the various jihadi groups can work together under the ideological umbrella of one militant Salafi scholar, even though that scholar is not involved operationally in the groups’ actions.
The Key Thinkers and their Positions
The main authors identified in the West Point study are all considered reliable sources for the mujahideen and their supporters when they seek a ruling on a given issue. They are generally careful and diligent in investigating questions put before them, regarding jihad or other matters, and write in a scholarly, but authoritative tone, unlike the rants heard by many mujahid leaders. In this backdrop, the scholars establish the principles for carrying out jihad—what is lawful and unlawful in their operations, and what broader goals should be kept in mind by those Muslims who answer the call to jihad. This process more often determines what course of action should be avoided, not only based on the Quran, hadith and the earliest generation of Muslims, but also based on lessons learned from past jihadi endeavors and their failings.
‘Asim Tahir al-Barqawi, better known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, is one of the most prolific contemporary jihadi ideologues and a classically trained scholar. He was born in Nablus in 1959, but has been imprisoned intermittently since the 1990s by the Jordanian authorities for his criticism of the government and calls for jihad. Al-Maqdisi is regarded as one of the highest living authorities in Islam for Salafis, jihadis and other conservative Sunni Muslims who share elements of his program. His imprisonment, however, seems to have had little effect on his scholarly output. As part of the aforementioned study, he was the most frequently cited living Salafi scholar, indicating the wide range of jihadis (from strategists to mujahideen to fellow scholars) that cite his writings.
Al-Maqdisi is well traveled; he spent time in Saudi Arabia (with the scholars of the Saudi establishment) as well as in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he spent time with and observed various mujahideen groups. He returned to Jordan in 1992, having formed his views in the previous years’ travels, and denounced the rule of the royal family as being in contradiction to Sharia. Al-Maqdisi’s texts are frequently aimed at the youth in Jordanian prisons and similar Muslims around the world that are encouraged to hold steadfast to the path of jihad in accordance with the principles of Islamic law detailed in his texts. To be sure, the legal arguments are lost on many of his students who lack formal Islamic legal training, but he provides contemporary examples to buttress his points. Many of his texts are in response to criticisms of jihad by other Salafi clerics, typically from the Gulf states or Saudi Arabia. Other writings include the education of the next generation of leaders, numerous issues relating to resistance to tyrannical regimes and the need to uphold the Sharia and one of his most-widely read works, the Creed of Abraham, on monotheistic faiths (which is highly critical of contemporary Christians and Jews) .
Through his writings on tawhed.ws, al-Maqdisi sets out the “correct” agenda for the various mujahideen groups to follow, what their intentions and objectives should be as they enter jihad, what preparation is required and what they should avoid (such as hasty actions that make the mujahideen look inept, inexperienced, or indifferent to killing innocent Muslims). There are more nuanced discussions of espionage, defining apostasy, takfir (labeling another Muslim an unbeliever), different examples of interaction with tyrannical rule and explanations of when resistance is obligatory for the believer. Yet, in the end, a clear direction is set out for the mujahideen and those who support their cause on how best to proceed. Al-Maqdisi’s calls for unity are respected because of the scholarly weight behind his name and reputation. This also exposes one of the movement’s weaknesses, and the shortcomings of governments confronting jihadi ideologues: a blow to his standing or a publicly lost debate would likely do much more to damage the unity of the jihadi movement than would his imprisonment.
Abu Basir al-Tartusi is another prolific contemporary scholar of Syrian origin. He is a slightly more moderate Salafi ideologue who resides in London, more often criticizing past jihadi mistakes and urging caution and selective action. His tone is due in large part to the scrutiny he was put under following the 2005 London train bombings. He has provided scholarly arguments to back armed resistance to tyrannical rule (by employing jihadi tactics), also prefaced on the importance of Muslims living by the Sharia.
Abu Qatada al-Filistini, born in 1960 in the West Bank, is another example of a Palestinian-born cleric who encourages jihad against apostate rule in accordance with the Sharia and is among the most frequently cited authors in the study. He is alleged to be a member of al-Qaeda’s Fatwa Committee and is currently fighting extradition from the United Kingdom to Jordan . His writings contend that, according to the Sharia, it is every Muslim’s individual obligation to overthrow and expel any secular government from Muslim lands by bombing, sabotage, coup, or other means available to them that would advance the implementation of Sharia in that land.
These Salafi scholars play a critical but not widely observed role in the global jihadi movement. Ideology is often overlooked and is considered separate from the strategic and operational aspects of Islamist militancy. Yet, the scholars behind the jihadi movement set the framework for debates and provide direction that is by and large adhered to, or is at the least a determining factor in the planning of attacks. By better understanding their role in the movement, governments combating terrorism can attempt to intervene earlier in the radicalization process and ultimately work toward undermining their influence.
1. The author was one of the researchers and compilers of the study. He spent 10 months cataloging the most widely read and downloaded Arabic-language texts related to jihad from tawhed.ws and conducted a citation analysis of the data. The views in this paper are those of the author, they do not represent the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense, or any other agency of the U.S. government.
2. See Militant Ideology Atlas, Combating Terrorism Center, table of contents, p. 28-29.
3. According to testimony of Jamal al-Fadl in Southern District Court of New York in February 2001.