This article was originally published in Ahul-Taqwa Issue 03.
From 2014 to 2016 I was a mujahid under the Islamic State. Now I have become one of the first to be returned to his country of origin. While many linger in prisons and refugee camps, my case became big news in the media and sparked the debate on how the West should handle the return of its citizens who had left for ISIS. Read more
Truth be told, I wanted to use the attention my case was getting to make the dawla a norm, to make it appealing. I still see myself as a member of the Khilafah, even if it has been destroyed. I do not believe in spilling the blood of innocents and killing unlawfully, but I think daily about bringing a glory that is worthy of Islam. The world needs to know and see that the way of Islam, the way of Allah and his Prophets, messengers and companions, is the way the world needs. I strive to study every day so that one day I can rectify my jamaat’s vision and goal, in sha Allah. Many mistakes have been made. I witnessed them first-hand.
My original lifelong goal was to fight in the frontlines. That was jihad to me. I wanted to fight the enemies of Islam who had bombed, invaded and besieged Muslim lands. I wanted to conquer cities and towns. I never believed in killing outside the battlefield, not even the kaafirs in the West. I felt it didn’t help our cause. Today, however, I feel like departing dawla was one of the biggest mistakes of my life, one I am still paying for. Society has not welcomed me back. I’m stigmatized. Some of those that pretend to understand betray my trust.
But I cannot avoid feeling a burn at the center of my chest when I think about the negative aspects related to the condition of the jamaat itself, to my actions, and to how life really was there. It drained me and left an everlasting scar on my insides. I am ashamed by some of the acts committed by dawla brothers. Some of them were obsessed with killing. Kill, kill, kill is all they did. I agree death is a component of war. But we were supposed to kill when we found enemies in battle, not unarmed prisoners. Does it not say in the Qur’an to not take a life of a Muslim, let alone the unarmed? We were becoming tyrants. We are supposed to be among the path of the sahaba and the grandsons of the sahaba, but instead we were acting like savages.
We were supposed to be there to expand our borders so that we could get rid of the regimes that oppressed the local people. Instead, I felt like we were becoming an annoying presence for them. When we raided shops and homes, or searched people, things would be confiscated. The excuse was ‘this will now be used to benefit the Muslims’ or ‘this will be donated to the Muslims.’ Shopkeepers would beg and oftentimes receive a heavy hit for it. On one occasion we had a shabiha prisoner and after they executed him, they made cars run him over till just his clothes were left on a smear of blood. Instead of protecting the people, the soldiers of the khilafah became an annoying presence, a police force rather than liberators.
There was also infighting and blood politics in dawla, something I thought I’d never see. I hated to see the killing of brothers. Unlike Iraqi emirs, not everyone grew up under American occupation, so not everyone is used to the level of violence they had seen. They had sacrificed it all to be there and it takes time before getting the courage to fight. They did not commit such a huge crime. I sometimes felt the killings of brothers happened because Iraqi emirs were just power hungry and loved wealth. They were arrogant, these Iraqis. Zarqawi was responsible for their savagery and teaching them this, but he was revered as if he was a wise old man who had knowledge and fought as well. He was a hero, no doubt, but he made many mistakes. One of those mistakes was setting violence above principles. Brothers ended up selling the deen for the crumbs of dunya. I disliked our method of following the rules of savagery and war rather than trying to end war and establish an advanced society. People feared us, rather than look up to us.
By not preaching and practicing by example, we were also inadvertently compromising the future. We were failing to educate our youth, the cubs of the caliphate, in basic Islamic principles and leadership. These kids, they had innocence and noor coming from them, but were forced to live in conditions beyond their comprehension and mental capacity. Why were we conditioning children for perpetual war instead of teaching them to become warriors from a historical point of view? We taught children to use guns and bombs. Weapons and war were being used even to solve basic math problems. We should have taught children to be future leaders and role models in the caliphate. We needed them to be warriors as a part of their life, not have their life engulfed in war. We needed them to fight, but we also needed them to function and be wise to build the ummah. The dawla did not see it this way. Brothers themselves lacked knowledge of simple Islamic principles, and only knew Islam at the war and political level. They were angry at the world and acted as if war was a religion. Some emirs were also jaahil (ignorant) and neglected basic rulings of Islam, or even justified crimes in the name of Islam.
What they did to Yazidi prisoners is one example. Some senior Syrian and Iraqi emirs loved them, so did Chechens. I had learned slavery was to be abolished, so why are we keeping these shaytaan worshippers? I hated this and it has put me off from sex ever since. If one Yazidi woman had ever come across me, I would have shot her to put her out of her misery. I would’ve shot the man raping her as well. It was disgusting that Muslim men were so sex-deprived that they were raping these women. However, we are talking about men who didn’t have respect for their own women. We were told woman were awra (a cover worthy of protection), but these men did not think twice before dragging someone’s mother away. Although we had al khansaa (women police), they still laid their hands on them. And they mingled with al khansaa as if the rulings of non-mahram did not apply there. We stole family members and disregarded the principle of Islam when it came to marriage. Muhajiras and muhajirs would have guardians they met yesterday. They would talk to non-mahram in the name of recruitment, and the big sin of cutting off family members and elders was also there. How were we supposed to build a society based on Islam if we ignored the Muslim family principles?
This made me think about my family. The emptiness I felt without my mom and dad made the tilawat of fajr sound harsh. I wondered what my family was up to, how my little brother had grown, and I thought of my sister. In sha Allah, I would unite in jannah with them. I thought a lot about them and the unforgettable sadness that kicked in when I first got to Syria. It was when I first actually shed a tear. I remember struggling to hold back my crying during the salaat. I cried so much that the brother beside me signaled to me to see if I was okay. I kept sniffling, and he heard. It was not the country, its condition, or its sudden electrical outage that got me. I was used to the third world from my time at University, and I knew from other sources what Syria was going to be like: a shattered place. It was more a feeling of “what have I done” that ripped out the ground from under me. I felt sick, sad and as if I was beginning to sink. I was now forced to accept the consequences of my actions. It felt like someone inside my brain had opened the floodgates and let all the emotions and reminiscent thoughts about home and family into my brain. I just wanted to sink into the ground. I took out this little note my younger brother had given me and read how he loved to play video games with me and asked me what I liked to do with him… that was the end. I cried and could not breathe. I just buried my face in my blanket and pillow and felt the burn of the crying in my eyes. I also thought about this girl I was in love with in the past. She was the most beautiful girl I’d seen in my life, but she could not be in it. I would fall in love with the black and white flag instead. Jihad would fill the void.
But it didn’t. Instead, I became a walking dead boy. I was used to the ironic smell of blood. I got used to the cries and screams of prisoners. I got so used to suppressing my feelings that I only saw the black and white. I thought about Muslims dancing with the West while we sacrificed everything we knew and loved to fight oppression and make a place for oppressed Muslims in the world. More and more shaykhs were selling out because the word of security agencies has struck fear into them. Our leaders and those put into positions of authority had always let down the Muslims and had shared in the oppression. Muslim communities have tried everything from nationalism, to socialism, to dictatorship but have always found ruin. People see this oppression, they see these taghuts with their army and their actions. They see how the so-called “Land of Tawheed” has repeatedly let down Muslims through misguided scholars. It made me sick to think about how only a few of us were doing anything to avenge our women and children who were being burnt alive. I thought about how I’d been lucky enough to have the curtains removed from my eyes. I felt lucky to see that my heart was not in the same state as the dunya and the people in it. My heart and soul, and those of my brothers in Syria, longed for Allah and his system. Unlike Muslims in the West, who are in a permanent state of identity crisis, we were aware of our roots, and the struggle of past legends who realized that this dunya is a test and were driven by an interest that is rather a way of life. We had not betrayed Allah and his commandments. Still, I struggled to stay committed.
Dawla did not appeal to the world because they spilled innocent blood around the world and in the caliphate. Is this the jihad I imagined all my life and left everything for? Why are these people obsessed with killing? In turn the world bombed us back to the Stone Age. The airstrikes and mortar strikes were deafening and traumatizing. They delivered a lot of damage and death. It was seeing the black and white that made realize the color I had left behind. During this time, I remembered a brother I met. He welcomed me as if he’d known me forever from the start. The first time we met he bought me a coke and started explaining to me everything about what I should expect, including rules, code of conduct, etc. He updated me on the latest events: the battle of Kobani was starting. I remember he said to me: “Once you are here, there is no leaving.” Abandoning jihad was the biggest sin, but I was also irritated with the fact that I had put myself in a place where there is no way of leaving. I was forcing myself to become something I wasn’t, while thinking something else. I guess in the back of my mind I did not want to completely sell myself to a life of war and I did not want to be in Syria that much anymore.
I realized this when I met this Australian boy, who was my only connection to the real world. He made me feel like I was still my pre-hijra self. He made me feel like a human being, and the stuff we talked about made feel normal. He made life slightly easier by being with me. We would chill and play PlayStation 3. It made me feel like I was not there but back home instead. I didn’t miss the West nor it’s shirk, but I did miss my family. I worried, though. If the West already understood very little about true Islam, I had now become a terrorist in the eyes of the world and, worst of all, to the eyes of my parents. But this was nothing in comparison to what I had to face when I was returned. I understood that real damage goes beyond airstrikes and bombings.
I had damaged my mum and my dad, both. I regret the pain I gave to my parents and how this affected them. I thought I could be a mujahid. I knew I had never been successful in this dunya: I had never really made my parents proud or done well in school. I barely made it through high school. I actually thought that I would not succeed in University and it would take a while to graduate. I thought that doing something important in the eyes of Allah would bring me closer to them. When I was returned, I saw how much I took away from them, how much I hurt them. Because of my actions my mom had developed heart conditions, she could not bear the stress and worry I had given her. She even needed heart surgery. So, when I was returned, I decided to go back to a life where I could help them and make them happy. I vowed to be at their service till death, at least fulfill this moderate jihad (if that’s what they call it).
But when I was back, I saw everything that dawla had said about Western society was coming true one by one. So was everything dawla had said about Arab and Western regimes. I saw how the West has brainwashed and pulled the wool over the eyes of Muslims by using weaknesses such as wealth and lust. I saw the differences between Muslim communities worldwide as well, and I saw the clear divide and the enmity between Islam and the West. I saw the Muslim youth entrapped in things like zina, partying, fitting in, and other worldly pleasures. You cannot even bring up past Islamic conquests without them getting offended or trying to water it down. Muslims are looking up to misguided scholars who are too afraid to speak the haqq. Scholars have changed or tried to interpret Allah’s word with a soft hand. On the other extreme, I found a community of dawla supporters online that also made me very angry. These kids were posting and arguing as if they were there sacrificing everything for dawla and they had just gotten on the bandwagon yesterday. It makes me mad that they know nothing about jihad and war but are acting like they are Hamza bin Ladens. My mind screamed at me. I was never meant to be back. To this day I refrain from anything that makes me like Western kuffaar. I see diseases of nationalism in Muslims and how they set their nationality above their religion.
This was even more evident when I was referred to a “deradicalization program.” I was put in contact with a Sufi who I considered a murtad (apostate). He kept pressing the idea that dawla was khawarij and used loosely associated hadiths for it. He said people like Ibn Taymiyyah were Sufi. Something similar happened with an imam introduced to me by an officer I met after I returned from Syria. This imam was hardcore Sufi from the shaadilil tareeka. He said he liked how I spoke my mind and seemed to be understanding of the Qur’an. I wrote him 50 points of my aqeeda. He refuted a lot of them, but I felt he did not understand salafiya fully. His understanding was that we love and follow Saudi scholars, which is not true. He even justified every kufr tradition, including things like saying “Merry Christmas.” I find Sufis are heretics and I see their innovative beliefs as a made-up religion, so why was it them trying to ‘change’ my beliefs? Plus, how did they intend to “deradicalize” anybody without addressing the important principles of deen that we believe in, principles and practice like jihad and Islamic governance?
After 4 years, I am numb to this society and just observant. I feel like I have been ripped away so many times that now I am just a zombie trying to get through. I struggle between the new ideas I have been introduced to and that are worth thinking about deeply, and trying to stomach how Western politicians will bash Muslims and Islam to get votes, while Muslim politicians lick the boots of kuffar and desperately try to adopt their values and ideals. These inconsistencies make every day a struggle. But I try to remember not to be like a neo-khawarij who thinks people are only Muslim if they pass a “test”. That has been a valuable lesson I have learned. And it was thanks to the last person I would have thought of.
I came across a former al-Qaeda recruiter and propagandist. My first impulse was lash out at him. I wanted to out him as stooge to Amreeka and its CIA and FBI. I was disgusted that a Muslim could live in that crusader nation. I thought he was just another sell out, like the Sufis I’d been in contact with. But then I saw his two sons and decided to give him a chance. I still think he’s on a mistaken path, but, to my surprise, he never pushed back or trashed my beliefs. Rather, he understood or seemed to understand what I had been through. It was easy to talk to him. I was dying on the inside from all this hate and warzone trauma, and I found his words to be soothing. They made me think twice. He has become a key asset to me being able to keep sane. Now I know I’m not alone. I think ‘deradicalization’ programs need to help people like me find work, go to school and that they need to refrain from concentrating on battling ideas they don’t really understand.
I will always miss my brothers, my state, and my jihad. But I don’t want to give anybody a chance to demonize me or demonize Islam. Violence is not the answer. Especially not against the innocent. Attacks without purpose just spill blood, and we have seen how they only brought more bombings and airstrikes, more hate and an increase in toxic violent ideologies. As Muslims, we need to fill families with Islam rather than break families. We need to spread the ideology by filling hearts and minds, not graves.
Falsely Framing War with Iran As Jihadist Victory In Defeat
by Jesse Morton
This article was originally published in Ahul-Taqwa Issue 03.
In his justification for funding and planning the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Osama bin Laden would frequently claim that he intended to utilize the strategy of targeting civilians in order to prevent the killing of innocent Muslims by the Crusader-Zionist-Hindu conspiracy against the Islamic world. The 9/11 attacks bin Laden directed took that strategy to the global stage. A deliberate effort to galvanize support for the contemporary khariji movement, the stated objective of preventing killing by killing has hardly been realized. If anything, Al-Qaeda itself has killed more innocent Muslims since the onset of the War on Terror than they did so-called kaffırs (not to mention the Muslims) on September 11th, 2001. Read more
For many in the jihadi community, these attacks and the chaotic destruction that has been wrought on the Muslim world since are representative of the pain and trials that must precede some fixed and prophesied foretold victory. The strategy of destroying everything in order to rebuild the promised caliphate is a convenient one. No matter how barbaric the outcomes of your strategy, you can always portray that the end justifies the means and portray defeat as victory, at least in that you cite verses suggesting it is neces şary to first suffer before developing an appreciation of these inevitable long-term gains. In reality, it’s a horrible and destructive tendency that has cost millions of people their lives, set the Muslim world back infrastructurally, educationally, and economically at least another generation, while chasing countless peoples away from any interest whatsoever in a religion whose name is actually derived from the Arabic word for humble submission and peace.
Since 9/11, the West has indeed been encumbered in a war with a transnational salafi jihadist movement. However, far from preventing the killing of more Muslims, the strategy on engaging America in a war of attrition unto defeat has killed far more Muslims than would have otherwise been the case. This global war has only opened the door to the infiltration of the Middle East by authoritarian regimes in countries like Russia, a state that backs the killing of innocent Muslims all around the world, but particularly in Syria, China, a country that houses its Uighur Muslim population in concentration camps and Iran, the avowed enemy to Sunni Islam and a regime that now stands equipped and poised to expand a Shiite Crescent throughout the Levant. Indeed, Iran may be the biggest benefactor of Osama’s global war. Gone from jihadist analysis is any connection to these realities.
Today, the void their destructive and non-Islamic war against the ‘far enemy’ generated has only benefited countries that are far more atrocious in their engagement with Muslims. Now, as the United States has decimated the jihadist movement again, the United States seems to be turning its primary focus onto eradicating the gains from countries like Iran. The assassination of Qassem Soleimani and the reaction that followed are emblematic of this shift. Now, it will be imperative to address the way Sunni jihadists will portray pending war between America and Iran falsely, as good and a consequence of their call to barbarity. For them, yet another milestone marker on a path to the realization of their long-term goals. But nothing could be further from the truth no matter how hard you search for scripture that suggests that is the case.
Whether in assessing the texts, rational analysis, or human intuition (fitra), this coming phase is clearly, not one of victory in defeat, particularly for the people of Iraq and Syria where most of the battle has been waged. Muslims around the world must be informed of the way Şalafi jihadists will manipulate America’s rising concern for the authoritarian threat on the Middle East, especially so they don’t fall for the way these narratives serve as a tool of recruitment for terrorism. Every Muslim should be weary to believe the propaganda from jihadists that always neglects to realize the actual consequence of their wanton violence, something that has no place in true Islam. Every non-Muslim should know that this strategy and these efforts have nothing to do with the actuality of Islam.
There may have been no two greater supporters for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 than Osama bin Laden and the neoconservative movement he claimed to be at war with. For neoconservatives, Iraqis would welcome American troops with open arms and a short-term presence would usher in a wave of Middle Eastern democratization, that is after expanding Operation Iraqi Freedom into Syria and Tran. For bin Laden, the occupation of Iraq opened up a new jihadi front in the heart of the Muslim world, part and parcel of his “bleed until bankruptcy plan,” which intended to lead to Al-Qaeda’s expansion and eventual domination. “All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies,” he said in 2004.
The ‘Black Flags’ bin Laden spoke of continued to “provoke and bait” the United States through the Bush and Obama eras and into the age of ISIS. However, today as the ever-more barbaric so-called ISIS caliphate retreats, Al-Qaeda struggles to exert influence while Bashar al-Assad, with his Iranian and Russian backers take back territory throughout Syria and America retreats. For jihadists, a new front of war between America and Iran could rescue the jihadi movement. For jihadists, pivoting primary focus in the Middle East away from Sunni jihadists and onto Shiite Iran would not only facilitate similar conditions to those that allowed Al-Qaeda in Iraq to resurrect itself from the throes of defeat in Syria and Iraq from 2012-2014, but would also satisfy theological indications that hearken back to the age of the prophet Muhammad and that indicate an End of Times victory on the horizon. In reality, groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda and others are auliya (intimate allies), not enemies of Iran.
Contemporary scholars of jihadist strategic logic tend to portray ISIS as deriving its strategy from apocalyptic tradition and Al-Qaeda as a stricter, patient and more nuanced entity. As Will McCants described it in his book ISIS Apocalypse, “Bin Laden tramped down messianic fervor and sought popular Muslim support; the caliphate was a distant daydream. In contrast, the Islamic State’s members… stir messianic fervor rather than suppress it. They want God’s Kingdom now rather than later.” Graeme Wood similarly explained in his infamous piece in the Atlantic, What ISIS Really Wants, that ISIS, “follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior.” Yet, these assessments are not altogether accurate. First, Al-Qaeda’s policies are heavily influenced by scripture as well, even if that influence isn’t explicit. Second, ISIS’ more direct millenarianism understates its capability as a fluid and rational learning and adaptable organization that also pays keen attention to End of Times narratives.
In order to grasp just how jihadist beliefs and scripture translate to strategy and practice, it is crucial to recognize the actual roots of a constantly mutating Salafi jihadist ideology. Both ISIS and Al-Qaeda are in fact branches borne by the same tree, with roots that rest not so much in an absolute cult-like reliance on prophecy, but on a rational synthesis of religious, political and military strategy. What Graeme Wood once controversially described as a “very Islamic” tends to be traced to a number of intellectual progenitors. These typically highlight Syed Qutb, an Islamist ideologue and prolific author hanged for plotting the assassination of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966, or the thirteenth century scholar Ibn Taymiyya, who influenced Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, intellectual founder of the Saudi State, and jihadists that twist his religious verdicts to justify attacks on the Middle East’s authoritarian regimes. However, the most appropriate ideological origins that spurred Al-Qaeda and the numerous splinters and offspring the organization has spurred since then are rooted in what Islamists call the ‘Sahwa al-Islamiyya’, or Islamic Awakening, a political movement of sorts in Saudi Arabia, largely induced by a controversial fatwa of the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Abdulaziz ibn Baz in 1990.
Bin Baz’s fatwa permitted the presence of American military forces on Saudi Arabian soil during the first Gulf War and spurred protests from a younger generation of Saudi scholars as an influential “Sahwa’ leader, Safar al-Hawali, described in a 1991 sermon, “What is happening in the Arabian Peninsula is part of a larger Western design to dominate the whole Arab and Muslim world.” A collective of Sahwa’ clerics eventually signed a memorandum that addressed the House of Saud and called for a larger role of the religious establishment in formulating the politics and policy of the Saudi State. It was an attempt to break from a tradition that traced the founding of Saudi Arabia back to a merger in the late-eighteenth century between Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, a merger that leads to a sort of Saudi fundamentalist secularism.
The House of Saud exclaims that the historic pact granted Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and the scholars that would follow him control over the state’s religion and that, in exchange for that support, the House of Saud would retain political and economic sovereignty. The Sahwa’ challenged this traditional presupposition, and when the Saudis started to round up ‘Sahwa’ clerics, Osama bin Laden took the ‘Sahwa’s sentiment to extreme conclusions. First, in 1995 bin Laden declared the House of Saud apostates, thereby permitting violent jihad against the Saudi government. Shortly thereafter, Bin Laden justified his far enemy doctrine on the grounds that, “The [Saudi] regime is fully responsible for what has been happening to this country. However, the occupying American enemy is the principal cause of this situation. Therefore, efforts should be concentrated on destroy ing, fighting and killing the enemy until, by the Grace of Allah, it is completely defeated.” Bin Laden’s diatribe couched socio-political grievances under revolutionary religious tenets. It was a frame work the Sahwa facilitated, and a methodology the Sahwa clerics labeled fiqh al-waqia (the jurisprudence of current affairs).
Fiqh al-Waqia is the name of a treatise authored by Nasir al-Umar, a key Sahwa enthusiast and professor at Muhammad ibn Saud University in Riyadh. Nasir Al-Umar was jailed for his political elaborations, and particularly for the content of the treatise. In Fiqh al-Wakia, al-Umar outlines just how political policy is to be derived from an understanding of the current context and understanding of fundamentalist scripture. One of the primary evidences Al-Umar utilized is a series of verses from the thirtieth chapter of the Quran, Al-Rum, or the Romans.
Al-Umar argues that the need to synthesize religion and politics is apparent from a reading of these verses. Surah Rum was revealed to the prophet Muhammad in the early days of his preaching in Arabia, and these verses addressed distant geopolitical realities that could have had a disheartening effect on Muhammad’s followers at the time. However, they would have a profound effect on the history of humanity in the long-run, opening up the entire Middle East for Islamic conquest. The 30th Quranic chapter begins by noting that Persian polytheists had defeated the Roman Byzantines Christians at the Battle of Antioch. As a consequence, the early Muslims were deflated. The Quraish tribe Muhammad was challenging with monotheism was polytheistic as well. So, they were vociferous in announcing that the Persian victory foretold the demise of Muhammad’s monotheism. The Byzantine defeat at Antioch seemed so devastating there could be no recovery from it. Yet, in subsequent verses, the Quran prophesied that the Byzantine Christians would ultimately prevail. In fact, it even gave a timeframe of 3 to 9 years, which is what occurred some seven years later, when the Byzantine emperor Heraclius initiated a counterattack that eventually reestablished Byzantine control over Jerusalem and eventually most of the territory the Romans had lost.
For al-Umar this clearly refuted the Saudi establishment’s claims that Islam was a religion void of (geopolitical reference. The students of knowledge (tulab al-ilm) could derive several benefits from this chapter. Current events were an important part of religion. What the early Muslims interpreted as defeat proved, in the long-run, divine providence. The war that unfolded between the two super powers of the time, the Romans and Persians, was akin to the struggle between America and Russia. Therefore, these Quranic verses were not in any way, an actual endorsement of the Byzantines, but an indication of future triumph. As the prophet Muhammad lay the foundations of Islamic conquest in Arabia then, the Persians and the Romans wore each other out. The consequent weakness of both superpowers paved the way for Islamic conquest of both the Byzantine and Persian empires in the years after the prophet of Islam’s death. In that same manner, jihadists would view a war between America, the contemporary Romans, and Iran and its allies throughout the Shiite crescent, the modern-day Persians, as hearkening to their eventual ascendance.
The Sahwa period did not lead to reform or revolution in Saudi Arabia, or anywhere else. Nevertheless, the framework Al-Umar and his compatriots developed, a synthesis of fundamentalist salafism and Muslim Brotherhood anti-imperialist discourses, lay a basis for the eschatological narrative the Salafi jihadi movement has weaponized and continues to employ. Today, the framework the period formulated serves as a foundation upon which a constantly mutating jihadist propaganda strategy evolves. As a result of recent setbacks, both Al-Qaeda and ISIS will need to lend hope to jihadist supporters, retain a flow of recruits and attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. War with Iran would seem to make this easy. Were the U.S. to shift its primary focus away from Sunni jihadists and onto Shiite Iran, Salafi jihadists would frame it in the context of the Quranic prophecy of the Roman-Persian war. They may even go so far as to attempt to provoke it, a strategic shift that would not be altogether new. The invasion of Iraq embroiled the United States in a protracted war against Sunni insurgents that prevented the plans of Bolton and other neoconservatives to proceed into conflict with Iran. At first, jihadists seemed content with that situation. Iran has provided Al-Qaeda higher-ups sanctuary in exchange for Al-Qaeda refraining from attacks in Iran. That ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ strategy was first challenged by Abu Musab Zarqawi, first when he merged and formed Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers in 2005, and then later when his progeny officially broke from Al-Qaeda and declared themselves ISIS in 2014.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was intent on creating sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiites in Iraq, a strategy Al-Qaeda disagreed with. In 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then deputy to Bin Laden, addressed Zarqawi in a letter that linked the struggle in Iraq to prophecies in the Quran and the Hadith, but Zawahiri framed the discourse to express his opinion that expelling Americans from Iraq and establish ing an emirate should take priority over, “extending the jihadi wave to the secular countries neighbor ing Iraq,” and Shiites in particular. From the onset of the invasion Zarqawi had targeted Shiites on the grounds that they were assisting the American occupation and that American forces were hiding shields of Shiite civilians. Despite his teacher, jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi rebuking him, Zarqawi continued to attack Shia wantonly.
In August 29, 2003, Zarqawi went a step further, authorizing an attack on the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, where Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, an Iraqi cleric exiled in Iran since the Iran-Iraq war of 1979, delivered a sermon that called for Shia unity and cooperation with the Americans. On al-Hakim’s way out, however, a truck bomb detonated and reduced the shrine, and al-Hakim, to rubble. In his letter, Zawahiri stressed that ordinary Muslims could not comprehend the sectarian targeting, and that their questioning the strategy, “increases more when the attacks are on the mausoleum of Imam Ali.” Zawahiri realized that attacking Shiites would further compel the Iranians to support the Iraqi regime and by extension the Americans. He inquired, “Do the brothers forget that both we and the Iranians need to refrain from harming each other at this time in which the Americans are targeting us?,” despite recognition that, “The collision between any state based on the model of prophecy with the Shia is a matter that will happen sooner or later. This is the judgment of history, and these are the fruits to be expected from the rejectionist Shia sect and their opinion of the Sunnis.”
Al-Qaeda’s population-centric approach versus Zarqawi’s strategy of all out savagery represented an initial rift between the two organizations, but by the time Zarqawi was killed in an American attack on June 8, 2006, the strategy of attacking the Shiites had failed miserably. Iraqi “Awakening” councils made up of Sunni tribesmen had rallied against Zarqawism and slowly depleted Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s influence. Documents found in his safehouse after his death revealed that Zarqawi found the situation then “gloomy;” to rectify it he proposed that, “the best solution in order to get out of this crisis is to involve the U.S. forces in waging a war against another country or any hostile groups…We mean specifically attempting to escalate the tension between America and Iran, and America and the Shiites in Iraq.” Yet, it seemed too late. Zarqawi was dead. By the end of 2011, bin Laden was as well. As the jihadi insurgency depleted, and the last American troops left Iraq it seemed the jihadist’s ambitions were destroyed. However, they would be resurrected with a Syrian civil war that increasingly turned jihadist.
From this history, most would conclude that ISIS and Al-Qaeda hold divergent perspectives, and that this was a repercussion of argumentation over strategy derived from prophecy versus one based on strategic logic and patience. Yet, it is important to consider that both Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Ayman al-Zawahiri were gentle in their criticism of Zarqawi. For Zawahiri, Zarqawi was, “more knowledgeable about the field conditions,” while Maqdisi recanted, “Our mujahidin brothers in Iraq have their own interpretations and choices that they choose as they see fit in the battlefield that we are distant from.” The events that occurred from 2012 unto the present seem to further confirm this reality. Despite clear difference in their interpretation on the jurisprudence behind killing civilians and other issues, there remains an ideological glue and strategic precedent between each khariji organization.
In 2005, Sayf al-Adl, a high-ranking member of Al-Qaeda with intimate ties to Zarqawi, penned two documents, a thorough biography of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his history with Al-Qaeda and a ‘Master Plan’ for jihadists. Penned on forty-two pages in a safehouse in Iran, they eventually made their way to a Jordanian journalist, Fouad Hussein, who had been incarcerated with Maqdisi and Zarqawi.
Al-Adl justified the Master Plan, explaining that, “Drawing up a clear plan is one of the divine laws.” He outlined the vision in seven stages and proved undeniably prescient. First was an ‘awakening stage’ that began with the plans for 9/11 and ended with the occupation of Baghdad in 2003. Second, the stage of ‘eye-opening’ was predicted to last until 2006. The phase was to make the world aware of Al-Qaeda and turn the organization into a transnational movement.
Third, ‘Arising and Standing Up’ – from 2007 to 2010 -would expand the jihad into Syria. Then, from 2010 to 2013 Al-Qaeda would make the U.S., “weak, exhausted and unable to shoulder the “responsibilities of the world order.” Arab regimes would then be overthrown, as seemed the case with an Arab Spring bin Laden endorsed, and Al-Qaeda would continue its expansion. The fifth, a ‘stage of declaring the state,’ predicts a caliphate in the Levant by the end of 2016, while the sixth, the stage of all-out confrontation – which would begin with caliphates declaration. Then, the seventh stage would be the stage of ‘final victory.’ The elements and timeframe Al-Adl outlined remain remarkable, however, while the jihadists have dwindled and American influence indeed seems on the wane, they’ve only thus far paved the way not for a caliphate, but rather a new authoritarian international order that will be way more harmful than the liberal order which protects Muslim rights to worship wherever it reigns.
Hussein included an analysis of the document in his book, Zarqawi…the Second Generation of Al-Qaeda. In that work, he also discussed Al-Adl and Zarqawi’s perspectives on Iran, claiming that instigating war between the U.S. and Iran was a key component of Al-Qaeda’s strategy, a strategy derived itself from an analysis of End of Time prophecy. In it, Hussein explains that Al-Qaeda interpreted peace talk between Palestinian and Israelis in February 2005 as aimed at countering Iranian influence on the Palestinian resistance, and the “first step toward launching an attack on Iran.” Ultimately, Hussein explained that Al-Qaeda expects the U.S. and Israel to attack Iran and then remove the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Thereafter, the country would be infiltrated by Al-Qaeda.
While the U.S. did not attack Iran, the infiltration of Syria occurred alongside clear covert operations meant to support Syrian rebels against Assad and his Iranian allies. Interestingly, the process for infiltration of the Syrian resistance was outlined in another document written by an Al-Qaedist from a safehouse in Iran under the nomme de guerre Abu Bakr al-Najdi. The book, entitled ‘Management of Savagery,’ offers a strategic outline that includes a call for creating all out chaos and luring the superpowers into confrontation, while indoctrinating and recruiting the Muslim masses. One section, labeled ‘Mastering the Security Dimension: Surveillance and Infiltrating Adversaries and Opponents of Every Kind calls for, “infiltrating the police forces, the armies, the different political parties, the newspapers, the Islamic groups, the petroleum companies, private security firms, sensitive civil institutions and etcetera.” With the situation in Syria deteriorating, jihadists may attempt a similar approach with regard to Iran.
Recent documents discovered at bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound have revealed more on the nature of Iran’s clandestine dealings with Al-Qaeda. One letter, from an unknown Al-Qaeda higher-up, claims that Iran offered money, training and weapons in exchange for an attack in Saudi Arabia. Others gave more information on the ‘core facilitation pipeline’ that made it possible for personal and communications such as al-Adl’s ‘Master Plan’ and the ‘Management of Savagery’ to pass safely through the country. However, while mostly downplayed in the media and halls of academia, the papers also reveal a great deal of contention. Bin Laden wrote directly to Ayatollah Khamenei and demanded the release of family members. In another document, bin Laden mused over the best methods for containing Iranian influence in the region. Another directed the kidnapping of an Iranian diploma to exchange for prisoners. When bin Laden died, a sustained relationship with Iran seemed absolutely necessary, but it is likely that both parties will change the calculation of that marriage of convenience going forward.
In 2007, there was a flurry of concern that Al-Qaeda would attempt to carry out an attack and blame it on Iran. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Bruce Reidal stated, “The biggest danger is that al Qaeda will deliberately provoke a war with a “false-flag” operation, say, a terrorist attack carried out in a way that would make it appear as though it were Iran’s doing.” At the same time, Vice President Dick Cheney, proposed taking advantage of a high-casualty event in Iraq that could be blamed on Iran to attack an Iranian Revolution Guard Corps base in Iran in the summer of 2007. In May 2007, former CIA director George Tenet published a memoir that described how the Bush administration threatened diplomats that Iran would be held accountable in the event an Al-Qaeda terrorist attack in the United States was planned in Iran.
In February of 2007, the first emir of the Islamic State in Iraq, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi announced that he welcomed the increase of troops in Iraq and informed the Muslims that, “we stand at the same point that was stood upon by the Companions with the Prophet, at the start of al-Medina phase, and our battle with the Persians has started as it has with the Romans, but the matter of the Persians is easier and more banal than that of the Romans, and it will especially be so after the impending limited American nuclear strike against Iranian military and nuclear facilities.” With this apparent parallel to the situation outlined in Surah Rum in the Quran, the predecessor to ISIS’ so-called caliph, suggested that war with Iran was pending and that it would ultimately create a void similar to the one that paved the way to Islamic conquest in the years following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. That attack never matriculated. However, now, war with Iran seems like the jihadists only hope, a conflict that would permit them to continue a crazed narrative that can turn defeat into victory with prophetic replete.
One of the primary works jihadists rely on for their eschatological analyses relating to politics and the End of Times is a collection penned by the Damascene scholar Ismail Ibn Kathir, a student of Ibn Taymiyya. Ibn Kathir wrote a voluminous collection he called ‘Al-Bidaya wal-Nihaya’ – ‘The Beginning and the End.’ In it, he outlines world history from the creation of the world and Adam and Eve up unto resurrection and eternity, either in hell or heaven. A section of the voluminous work was isolated and published alone. Called Kitab al-Fitan (The Book of Tribulations) it includes prophetic narrations, with political connotations, that culminate in the reestablishment of a caliphate ‘upon the methodology of prophethood, and final global domination. Before this immaculate period, however, the Muslim must enter into a period of immense fitnah (tribulation). Most of the events occur around Syria where the prophet Muhammad reported that, “the nations will gather together against you as though they are ready to feast on meal.” Time will converge and there will be an abundance of killing.
The notorious American Al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki once reported on Kitab al-Fitan in a notorious lecture he called “Allah is Preparing us for Victory.” “When I was young, 20 years ago, reading the book, I thought these were going to be wonderful times, but they were going to be very, very far away, because the hadith talk about certain areas, these areas are” Iraq, Khurasạn (Afghanistan), most of the hadith talk about Syria and the Levant,” he explained before his death on September 29, 2011. In the same way that Al-Awlaki wrapped apocalyptic scripture around current affairs, the jihadists would frame a U.S. led war with Iran as divine providence and indications of victory forthcoming, thus rescuing the movement from the throes of defeat, not unlike the period that followed 2011.
First, Ibn Kathir includes a narration that “the Black Flags will come from Khurasan,” interpreted by jihadists to mean Afghanistan, “and they will not be stopped until they reach Jerusalem.” However, prior to that the prophet reported that the Arabs “will make a truce of peace with Rome; you and they will conquer an enemy from behind them. You will be safe and you will achieve spoils. Then you will descend in a fertile soil that has many mounds in it. A man from the Romans will stand, raise the cross, and say, ‘victory is for the cross.’ A man from the Muslims will rise and kill him. At that point, the Romans will betray their agreement and there will be massacres. They will gather for you, advancing toward you with 80 banners, and with each banner there will be 10,000.” The notion is that the West (modern-day Rome) will ally in Syria against a common enemy of the Muslims. The modern-day Romans would lead an attack against a “common enemy,’ interpreted to mean Iran, Russia, and Assad. However, in the end, the West would betray the truce and all out conflict or Armageddon (malhama in Arabic) would occur. The forces of the West would remain overwhelming, but waves of mujahideen would be sent to sacrifice, while those that stayed behind would be destroyed. “The killing will be such as ‘nothing similar to it will have been seen, to the extent that a bird will pass by their sides and will not pass by them until it falls down dead,” a section of the narration that jihadists would indicate may means the utilization of nuclear weapons.
In fact, this eschatological framework is part and parcel of the perseverance witnessed in the jihadist community since 9/11, an ultimate war of attrition bin Laden explained early into the conflict as “the White House and us are playing as one team towards the economic goals of the United States, even if the intentions differ.” While war with Iran would grant jihadists a refuge by permitting proclamations that they were thereby on their way to fulfilling Al-Adl’s vision, most scholars of history and Islam explain these politicized prophetic narrations as probable fabrications recorded over 100 years after Muhammad’s death and tracking closely to events from that time period.
In reality, policies aimed at fulfilling End of Times hadith have only wrought more destruction. Even if you take End of Times narrations completely at their word, the Prophet (saws) actually praised the West. Al-Mustawrid reported of Ahul Rum that Amr ibn al-As said he heard the Messenger of Allah (saws) say, “The Hour will be established while the Romans are the predominant and majority of the people,” to which detractors replied, “Be careful what you say.” But Amr said, “I have said what I heard from the Messenger of Allah say. Indeed, there are four good qualities in them: they are the most forbearing of people in tribulation, they are the quickest to recover after a calamity, they are the most eager to return after retreat, and they are good to the poor, the orphan, and the vulnerable. Their fifth quality is good and beautiful: they are the best at stopping the oppression of their kings.”
Additionally, when the Prophet (saws) spoke of violence in the End of Times, he categorized it as sense less, warned people not to get involved and even endorsed commitment to non-violence. In one of many examples, the Prophet (saws) did not discuss tribulation as victory but rather informed that, “There will be a tribulation (fitnah) – the one who is lying down during it is better than the one who is seated; the one who is seated is better than the one standing; the one who is standing is better than the one who is walking; and the one who is walking is better than the one who is seeking it out.” So, he (saws) was asked, “O Messenger of Allah (saws), what do you order me to do then?” The Prophet (saws) said, “Whoever has camels, then let him go to his camels; whoever has sheep, then let him catch up with his sheep, and whoever has land, then let him go to his land. And whoever does not have any of that, then let him betake himself to his sword, crush its blade with a rock, and then save himself as much as he is able to do so. (Abu Dawood).”
There many more narrations that indicate the same. Of course, the jihadists have mastered cherry picking from End of Times hadith, while at the same time negating the principles of the Quran. In conclusion, we can expect more statements to stem from jihadists that try to proclaim America’s confrontation with Iran and the wanton, indiscriminate destruction they call to and wage as victory in clear defeat, but Muslims everywhere should not be deceived. The only way Muslims will regain self-determination is to return to the essence of their religion, a religion derived from peace, that forbids such barbarism and that is so much more spiritual than these scriptural adulterations indicate. Do not be deceived by these callers to the gates of hell. They destroy whatever they touch. Do not permit them into your heart and mind, where they can destroy your spiritual, mental and physical condition as well.
by Bryant Neal Viñas & Maria Juncal Fernández-Garayzábal, Ph.D.
This article was originally published in Ahul-Taqwa Issue 03.
The controversy surrounding the repatriation of foreign fighters has had me thinking a lot about myself. I can’t avoid but seeing my own history and fate in the hundreds of Western mujahedeen being held in Syrian and Iraqi prisons. I don’t sympathize with them, but I do feel for them. I was once in their shoes. I am America’s first foreign fighter after 9/11, but now I am evidence that transformative change is truly possible. Read more
Like these foreign fighters, I was also once a mistaken idealist who had self-convinced himself that I was acting upon Allah’s will. Like them, I didn’t surrender or turn myself in; I was captured. Like them, I was held in a prison in a foreign country, waiting for extradition. Like them, I feared what my fate would be. There is also one more thing I have in common with Western foreign fighters. At the time of my arrest, I was still heavily influenced by a strong anti-U.S. sentiment. It’s true that I had seen and experienced enough to grow disillusioned with Al-Qaeda’s endeavors, but was nowhere near to where I am today, neither ideologically nor personally. In fact, upon my arrest, I was negotiating the price of a rifle scope with a local store owner in Peshawar.
It was November 5th, 2008 and I was 25 years old. Only a year earlier, I’d boarded a plane at JFK Airport (New York City) with the original intention of joining the Taliban. Instead, I ended up joining Al-Qaeda by pure chance and haphazard networking.
As I was speaking to the store owner, a local police officer entered the store and started talking to me. Needless to say, I didn’t understand a word of what was being said. The friend I was with and I decided to step out of the store, only to be “kindly escorted” to the police headquarters. I was never given an explanation as to why I was there, so, in my mind, I was being held with no charges.
I didn’t understand how or why it was happening. To my knowledge, only a handful of people knew that I’d left for Pakistan. When I radicalized, there was no such thing as encrypted platforms or blockchain messaging apps, so I was always extremely careful whom I shared any information with. I went as far as to book my tickets to Pakistan in person, at a travel agency owned by a Pakistani. What I didn’t know was that he had contacts in the Pakistani embassy, so he ultimately handled the visa arrangements for me. All I could think about in that cell in Peshawar was what could possibly be going on.
I got a hint after several days. It came after a violent altercation I had with the lieutenant that was followed by a severe beating and my transfer to the local jail. I was only taken back to police headquarters to meet some people from the U.S. consulate. But I spent the night in the local facility. The next day, some uniformed men I’d never seen before came into my cell. They took me out. I was chained and blindfolded. I panicked. Who were these people? Where were they taking me? In retrospect, I understand the security measures, but back then it felt like I was being kidnapped.
They sat me in a truck, in the front seat, guarded by to individuals. My ears were my only guide as to what might be going on. We stopped. I heard a conversation between my custodians and a third individual. The truck pulled backwards and we started driving. After some minutes, we stopped again. Another conversation. It was the same voice as earlier. This time, however, some metal doors opened. I imagined I was in a compound of some sorts. The next thing I knew, I was in another cell. But I still didn’t know exactly where I was at. It was an ISI prison.
Somebody came to get me, and took me to a basement. Interrogation time. It felt like being put in a dungeon. The jail I’d been sitting in for the past days was no better, but this time my eyes were blinded and I was being asked all sorts of questions in a less than friendly manner. My charges weren’t read to me until the U.S. authorities took custody of me. Therefore, I still saw myself as being held against my will and for no apparent reason.
These perceived irregularities aggravated me. From where I stood, I had traveled to Pakistan to join a just cause: Afghanistan is a country at war, and I had decided to support my Muslim brothers and sisters against a foreign invasion. My involvement with Al-Qaeda didn’t go beyond protecting a group that fired rockets at a military base on the Afghan side of the border. Back in the U.S. and after cooperating with authorities, however, I ultimately pled guilty to receiving military training from a terrorist group, providing material support to a terror organization, and wanting to fight U.S. military as U.S. nationals abroad.
While in Peshawar, I assisted in planning an attack in Long Island Rail Road. I travelled that line often before leaving to Pakistan, so my insight on routes and times was crucial for those actually planning the attacks. Though I’m now horrified by my own actions, I once justified them. I had only left for Pakistan to fight in the Afghan war. But my mindset changed the day I heard that an orphanage had been wiped out during a U.S. drone strike. I could no longer stick to ‘defensive action,’ I had to do something more. If the West didn’t care about those babies and children, I couldn’t afford to care about those back in the U.S.
To be clear, I’m not condoning my past actions in any way. However, I do feel the need to be transparent about who I was because I’m proud of who I am today. I was once unrepentant, and felt like any damage done to the U.S. was legitimate. I supported Osama Bin Laden’s “war of attrition” and the need to focus on the “far enemy.” Back when I was in Afghanistan I agreed with the idea of destroying the only mass transit route that connects Long Island to Manhattan and cause major damage to the U.S. economy. Back then, I believed that the death toll was merely a side effect. Being in a war zone had desensitized me to the idea of death. Yet, eventually, I found myself thinking: was contributing to the death of innocent civilians in the Long Island railroad any different to the unjustified death of those children at the orphanage?
What set me off in the path towards actual change were trust and compromise. And none of the two initially came from me. As I sat in that godforsaken ISI prison I was terrified of the possibility of repatriation. I was convinced that if the U.S. government ever claimed me, it would be to take me to Guantanamo and lock me up forever. The day finally came. Again the chains, the blindfold…and this time, noise-cancelling headphones too. Until I was told that we were actually going back to the U.S., all I could think about “This is it, I’m going to Cuba (Guantanamo).”
After what seemed to be the longest trip of my life, I was back in the U.S. Being in New York was rather surprising. I thought I’d be taken somewhere around the D.C. area, probably the same place that Jose Padilla was being held as an enemy combatant. In any case, I could have easily been taken to Guantanamo, and nobody would have ever missed me. Instead, the U.S. government took a chance on me. Although it took me a while to reflect on this, I couldn’t continue being angry at my own country when instead of letting me rot in a Pakistani prison, or taking me to Guantanamo and throwing away the key to the cell, they were willing to at least listen to what I had to say and trusted that I could become an asset.
Being in a U.S. prison and not anywhere else helped me reflect on all the reasons why I was locked up. It was far more complex than a simplistic ‘the West is at War against Islam’ argument. It was about the damage and harm I could have caused. In the beginning, I sat by myself for 23 hours a day. Eventually my lockdown hours were reduced, but I was behind bars for almost nine years. I’ll admit it was dreadful, but I was able to put my own beliefs and my own experiences into perspective. That’s when reality kicked in.
I remembered when I first got to Waziristan, and how I felt fulfilled. I had longed for that feeling of eagerness and enthusiasm for so long before I departed for Pakistan. I was excited about the training and the fighting, and hungry to pray alongside my Muslim brothers in the front lines. Although it was in prison when I came to accept the truth of about the fight in Waziristan, it’s true that I was already very disappointed with the cause while I was there.
The land where the will of Allah was supposedly taking place had been corrupted by the goods of the dunyah: money, power, strength, privilege. There was no such thing as protecting the ummah, and incoherence prevailed. Corrupt warlords who were allegedly connected to the Pakistani Intelligence services controlled the area; the Taliban who helped al-Qaeda navigate the mountainous areas were allegedly connected to the drug lords; the rumor that the drug lords were connected to the Afghan President’s brother were widespread. In the meantime, everybody was getting a cut out of illegal mining profits. There was no such thing as pure intentions in Waziristan. Allah’s will was secondary to greed and personal interests.
I guess what also helped me put things into perspective was the self-proclamation of ISIS’ so-called caliphate. I was still incarcerated when it happened. I remember how thousands worldwide answered Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s call to migrate. And I remember what followed: unwarranted brutality, indiscriminate attacks towards Muslim scholars who they deemed apostates for not conforming to their excessiveness, and blanket attacks towards ahlul-kitab (People of the Book). It shocked me that those who claimed to be the perfect followers of Prophet Muhammad (saws) weren’t even able to remember Bukhari’s narration: “He who wrongs a Jew or a Christian will have myself as his accuser on the Day of Judgement.”
Governments and citizens worldwide have been terrorized by ISIS’ violence since 2014. Only in Europe, the total number of completed, failed and foiled ISIS attacks mounted up to 89 between 2014 and 2018. Yet, ISIS’ caliphate had been distorted by excessiveness and had nothing to do with the jihad I’d read about in the Qur’an. And neither did Waziristan. I broke: would Allah have ever approved killing the store owners, teachers, mechanics, nurses, retail store workers, mothers, school-aged kids, etc. that traveled every morning into New York City, when it was in the name of a corrupt cause?
That’s when I understood the true meaning of jihad, jihad al-akbar. There are no deradicalization programs in U.S. prisons. There was no person, program or initiative that could assist me in the process of coming to terms with my change of mindset. I was by myself, in the solitude of my cell. For once in a long time, I was able to think for myself, explore my beliefs, and tap into past experiences. It was a painful process, but certainly worth it. I finally understood that I’d been guided by my passions and there was still a lot of self-improvement that needed done before I could even being to speak about carrying out Allah’s duty in this world.
Reflection also helped me cope with probably the harshest of realities: what life is like after coming home from prison when one is labelled a terrorist. The day of my release I only had my prison ID with me. It was not easy. I wasn’t just a convicted felon, I was a convicted terrorist. I eventually got access to basic healthcare, but struggled with employment and housing for a very long time. I guess prison also turned me into a more patient and calm individual, but I could have turned into another number among U.S. recidivism statistics.
For most people, you’ll always be a terrorist. Not everybody will be willing to give you a second chance. Unemployment, homelessness, lack of access to basic care and social stigmatization can easily fester resentment in an individual. The worst part is that resentment can easily turn into a feeling of abandonment, repudiation and depression that is very difficult to grapple with.
Luckily, I wasn’t completely alone. I met a group of individuals who, like me, had once walked the path of extremism but had also acknowledged the uselessness of violence. Others, like me, had understood that striving for self-perfection is a long and complicated process. It requires a level of spiritual maturity that is not found in extreme religious interpretations. I was also able to connect with others who weren’t aware of what it is to live by hate, but who are nonetheless willing to be there for me when I struggle. I’m happy to have regained contact with people who were in my life before I went to Pakistan, and I’ve experienced true appreciation when I see that they’re just happy to have me back.
I now have hope. I now have support. I now have expectations. I now know what it is to be truly grateful to Allah for no longer being misguided, and for letting me find sincerity both in my heart and in my actions. I also now believe in the prospects of deradicalization. I know it is possible and I know that what drives resentment against the West the most is when we contradict our values and the principles we claim to believe in.
Those that traveled to join the so-called Caliphate saw worse hypocrisy than what I witnessed. It’s hard to believe, but pretty apparent, that ISIS is evermore barbaric than even the terrorists in Al-Qaeda. Those that could be repatriated should and would also sit in prison, and in cases like my own and others, I know of document that true transformation is possible. My experiences tell us that it takes time, but I conclude by stating that the perpetual war on terror, or as President Trump likes to call them, ‘never ending wars,’ will never end until we recognize that it isn’t nearly so much about who our enemies are as it is about who we are as a society. Those lingering in the makeshift camps and prisons should be brought back based solely because of the principles we claim to believe in, a way of life that, no matter its shortcomings, I have come to truly appreciate. It is time to offer that same second chance to others.
by Jason Walters
My name is Jason Walters. I was part of the Dutch Salafi jihadi terror cell known as De Hofstadgroep. My colleague, Mohammed Bouyeri murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on November 2, 2004. I was arrested shortly after, and originally sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Read more
I spent almost eight years in a maximum security prison in the Netherlands. During that time, I studied philosophy and ended up rejecting the worldview I’d constructed my entire youth around. It was an existential angst that first connected me with Islam, and it was the same desire to answer existential questions that led me to reject the violent ideas I once espoused.
I’ve realized a ton from these experiences and today I explore radicalization as an existentialist choice. I don’t want to present radicalization as just a choice that one ‘thinks through’ from an exclusively rationalist standpoint. It’s not just a thought process. It is a decision made by an individual as a thinking, feeling and conscious being. It is a decision taken based on what one considers an authentic existence, one that provides meaning to one’s life.
I know this now because I wasn’t the only one in my family who chose Salafi jihadism. My younger brother, Jermaine, was radicalized under my guidance. He was, at least in some sense, luckier than I was. When De Hofstadgroep case went to trial, Jermaine was acquitted. He avoided the solitude and the agony of incarceration. Yet, his freedom was also unfortunate. Jermaine wasn’t able to separate himself from the echo-chamber we had been immersed in over the past years. While incarcerated, was able to take a step back and reconsider the path I’d taken so far. Unfortunately, even after I was released from prison, I wasn’t able to lead my brother down the same road. In 2014, he and his family left for Syria to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
I opted for rejection of violence. My brother chose jihad and death for what he thought was a greater good. Both decisions, as different as they were, were made based on what we each understood was a purposeful life. What was different in each case? The fact that each radicalization and deradicalization process are unique is nothing new. But I do want the conclusion of my story to reveal an important take on violence. Violence is a choice, not an irremediable consequence of your religious convictions. And, as any decision you may take in life, there will be consequences. Not just for you, but also for those you love.
I will describe radicalization as an existentialist choice in a three-article series for Ahul-Taqwa. It seems to me that radicalization is a two-tier process. There’s an initial aesthetic phase that is followed by an engagement or commitment phase. Some will recognize my description of this first aesthetic phase as the phase you want to become a living Qur’an. Similarly to what Ibn abd al-Wahhab described, one expands the definition of worshipping to every aspect of one’s life. It is a very powerful phase where one immerses in a world of spirituality, almost detached from this earthly world. This detachment also leads to rejection, rejection to anything that doesn’t come from Allah. This phase precedes jihad, the acceptance phase. Jihad becomes more sensual than ever. It becomes the defining criteria of what it meant to be a good Muslim. But prior to this, there is a phase of what could be called an ‘Islamic awakening phase.’ It is during this phase that one seems to find answers to existential questions. I remember exactly how and when this happened to me.
My childhood was a pretty happy one. I grew up in the Dutch village of Amersfoort with my brother and my parents, an African American soldier and a Dutch mother. It was a Christian household. I went to a Christian school. We read the Bible. We used to go to church on Sundays… Yet, there was something missing, something experiential that I couldn’t quite grasp. I understood life has a meaning. I knew I existed, but I wanted to know why I existed. Then, one night, I had a horrible nightmare. I was being burned alive and felt so much pain. I interpreted this as me not being in the right path and that I was going to hell. Of course, I didn’t want to burn in hell. But what could I do? The Christian environment I grew up in didn’t give me such insight. I saw Christian doctrine reduce ‘living’ to a “be nice” morality, through which not even priests could solve my existential questions, what to expect from life or where I came from. Everybody has asked themselves such questions at some point in life, but I started at a very early age, when I was around 6 or 7 years old. Getting no answers only increased my existential angst.
Some years later, my parents divorced. For a young child, it is never an easy situation to cope with. My father resettled in a Muslim-majority area, close to Amersfoort. He himself eventually converted to Islam. At first, Islam was an exotic religion, mysterious even. But then I discovered it was the same thing I had been taught growing up – even Jesus was in the Qur’an. But not only was it compatible with what I had learned so far, in a sense it was more logical and consistent, a sort of improved version of what I already knew. There was another thing that fascinated me about Islam: its strong sense of identity and structure. Islam provided not just a sense of being, but also a strong set of rules of what can and cannot be done, what is halal, haram and what is in between.
I chose to convert. I was only 12 years old, and it was Ramadan. The mosque was full. Seeing people praying together, sharing food and building a community had a very profound impact on me. It was so much nicer than the dead-looking, museum-like, cold churches I’d been in. It was like comparing a ‘dead religion’ to a ‘live religion.’ It was a very spiritual experience, as if angels were flying over the congregation. I took my shahada that same day. Thus began my relationship with Islam. My initial relationship with Islam was very ritualistic. I learned Arabic, I learned how to pray, fasted during Ramadan, and acquired basic knowledge. But, for once in my life, everything started to make sense.
At the age of 16, everything changed. It was September 11, 2001. Al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center, killing almost 3,000 people. A little less than a month later, on October 7, the United States invaded Afghanistan. For me, 9/11 marked ‘the end of history.’ The future was now stagnant, it would become an extension of the present, and nothing would change much, let alone improve. The 9/11 attacks was a derailment in history. They had such an impact that they required an explanation. What did 9/11 actually mean? What’s more, as a Muslim, I wanted to know what Islam said about this.
Coincident to 9/11 was the birth of the Age of Information. Access to information technology was widespread and fast. It opened up a new world by providing widespread access to information. Events and debate worldwide could now be followed (almost) live. I found answers to my questions online easily. I was able to follow the debates between moderate and extremist Islamists online. Extremists, in my eyes, had better arguments. They convinced me. Their interpretation and perception of time and history were an appropriation of the texts. The extremist worldview combined past and future into the present, a discourse that seemed to answer what 9/11 meant from an Islamic perspective.
Extremists deny that there is something called ‘history.’ They strategically use texts and Islamic sources to explain how history stopped after Prophet Mohammed founded the first Islamic State. It was a perfect society, and it is therefore their duty to recreate a world that mirrors that Islamic State. Even military doctrine depends on that worldview. They point out the first military expansion of Muslims was a historical project to make the world into one ummah that replicated the Prophet’s city-state. Al-Qaeda and ISIS claim to be the groups that will reestablish the caliphate. The rest of the ummah are apostates – they are no longer Muslims according to them, or they are jaahil (ignorant). Anything that changes or deviates from the perfection established by the Prophet is a degeneration. This Prophetic past is presented alongside a future of al-Malhama (apocalypse), perfectly represented in ISIS’ taking on Dabiq, a town in Syria prophesied to be the potential location of Jesus’ return to fight the antichrist and usher in Islam’s domination. To justify their view and legitimize themselves they use ahadith which they pick and choose at will. It is a very strategic narrative that justifies the overthrowing of governments, and the reestablishment of the caliphate, one that allows politics to predominate in the religious discourse and to expand Islam’s role in explaining every aspect of life.
Based on these premises, I became convinced. I was “awakened” to what I thought was the truth. I was now convinced that this life, dunyah, was just an investment that will determine your life in the hereafter. The complete solution was to sacrifice your life for the sake of God. I would now become the perfect Muslim. I wanted my life to become the perfect worship of God. This feeling prevailed when I was first incarcerated. But then something else happened. As in any totalitarian ideology, there is only one truth. So, at a given point, you learn everything there is to know. Theology had just become an indexation of heresies. Shariah, as interesting as it is, is very specialized in some ways though shallow in essence. I got bored. And when I’d finally reached this point, somebody recommended I read Abu Majid al-Zindani. I’d never heard of it and, despite it being a bit of a conspiracy theory, it made sense: God creates heaven and earth, God creates everything, and it all comes together.
The book said all true insights of modern science can be found in the Qur’an. So, I started studying science. I wanted to start assimilating science into faith. I wanted to Islamize science. I wanted to use science and scientific means to make dawah and convert people. After all, people in the West are mostly non-religious, but they would accept scientific arguments, and even Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is in the Qur’an. However, something different happened, something unexpected.
Instead of assimilating science into faith, I assimilated modern rationality. It’s different to religious rationality. Religious rationality is based on rhetoric and language. That rhetoric is capable of convincing you that if God is all-powerful, then you are free. It makes sense at first glance, but it doesn’t follow a logic. I found that scientific rationality has different boundaries, different criteria to establish what the truth is. This changed me. Yet, I was unable to explain my new approach to understanding life. Science doesn’t give you language. I was then that I was introduced to philosophy. Once I lost the fear to think for myself, I was able to understand what Plato said about truth being able to emerge triumphantly by the use of reason alone, without arguments from any authority.
This changed me. It was my second awakening. The same existential angst that had led me to adopt Islam, espouse jihadism and embrace violence, as well as a desire to prove Wester atheism wrong, that same critical thinking, allowed me to reconsider my worldview. And along with it came the second rejection phase, which meant more than a rejection of violence. I rejected everything I had stood up for.
With this first article I do not wish to tell anybody how to live a meaningful life. Each individual should be free to make that choice. I would encourage everybody to strive to become, not a perfect Muslim like I once strived to be, but rather a perfect version of themselves. Violence is only an option. And the consequences of it go beyond you going to jail. There’s families, friendships, religious freedom, and human brotherhood at stake. Although I have now embraced science over faith, I cannot avoid but remember:
If anyone killed a person unless it be for manslaughter, or (and) to spread mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all mankind… (Surah 5:32)
What will your choice be?
This interview was originally published on Ahul-Taqwa Issue 03.
The current situation of the War on Terror is similar to that of 2011. The Obama administration killed Osama bin Laden right when the Arab Spring was flourishing, and the War on Terror seemed to be over. Though it’s not the exact same scenario, the Trump administration is focusing on the threat posed by Iran after Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was killed and ISIS was declared defeated. ISIS and Al-Qaeda seem to be in decline, but are they really? Read more
We spoke to Average Mohamed, a cartoonist from Minneapolis, United States, on the importance of ideas in the struggle against division, hate and extremism. Average Mohamed works to challenge narratives of hate, intolerance and extremism. Its founder, Mohamed Amin, spoke to us on issues regarding religion, diversity, identity and the role communities play when combating polarization, extremism and hate.
Where were you born?
Out of security reasons, I can’t specify. But I can say I’m from Africa, a Somali man and came here 25 years ago.
And you live in Minnesota?
Yes, with my wife and four kids.
Can you tell me what Minnesota was like when you first came here?
When I first arrived, I saw Minnesota was nice. It’s not just about how people live; it’s about how people think. They welcomed us. It was a warm welcome to their community. We got access to re sources, we got access to services that helped us adapt, assimilate and improve upon ourselves. Minnesota has done amazing things for Somali and Kenyan refugees.
Have things changed over the years? mean, the Somali community has been home to many terrorism cases, but that’s not representative of the Somali community at large. Have you noticed any changes over the years, especially after the breaking point which was 9/11, as the War on Terror devel oped, and ISIS appeared? Can you cover the trajectory of life in Minnesota over the years that you’ve lived there?
It is simple. There was an open, inclusive society post 9/11. You also have to understand that we are black, and there are issues with black people in America. But what we‘ve come to learn because of terrorism is Islamophobia. Terrorists have tamed our community and have actually amplified racism within our commu- nity. Minnesota has accounted for the largest number of recruits for terrorism in America. This shocked me; this shocked the community. I was a businessman, and I decided that I would go ahead and fight this problem. I looked at the problem and determined the solution is law enforcement (which the government jumped on immediately), but it is also community, which the government has not addressed that much. The solution is addressing ideology itself.
The people who joined ISIS, Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda from Minnesota, they have no profile. But they all have one thing in common: the ideology. Unfortunately, though, law enforcement is rather targeting the community. Although the overall goal is to stop terrorists from acting here in America, this approach has its good and bad points. Especially because when it comes to the ideas that drive the generation joining ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab, we are doing nothing other than what we are doing with Average Mohamed here in Minnesota. There is nobody else out here, in the spectrum, talking about ideology like we do. We spoke to 50,000 kids in the last 6 years. There is nobody here in Minnesota delivering this message to media like we do at Average Mohamed, let alone using three languages (English, Somali and Swahili). We‘ve reached millions across the globe; it went global because the whole world wanted to hear this. But our mantra is that ‘it takes an idea to defeat an idea,’ and our goal is to develop those ideas to counter the ideology itself. This is what we do, and this is why I have such a high affinity for Light Upon Light and Parallel Networks.
The problem is, however, is that the government talks a lot about this, but they don’t act on it. Obama talked a lot about this, even united Muslims in the White House and held a special conference, but he provid ed no funds or resources. Trump’s administration has actually cut the money to target ideology within DHS. Targeting ideology has been set aside, they are more interested in law enforcement means, travel bans and the like. Yet the ideas are here, the ideas are growing, they are available to our kids and we’re doing nothing about it other than what is being done by organizations like Light Upon Light and Average Mohamed.
Can you tell me how you came up with the idea of the Average Mohamed cartoon? What year was it and what were you doing then?
Six years ago, I witnessed ISIS recruiting within my community and I got pissed off. Look at what we have here in America: we have access to edu cation, we have access to healthcare, we have access to opportunities. Our children, who are immigrants, have the biggest opportunities in the history of my people as Americans, the greatest opportunity for the Somali community in all of history. The opportunities they have in America are unbelievable. They can be anything, do anything, achieve anything and become anything. When youth walk away from that, they want to harm our country and harm our community, they want to kill our own community here: Muslims, Christians, Jews…and all in between, including the gay community. And we say ‘No.’ We will counter the message, whether it is anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, ISIS’ and Al-Qaeda’s ideology, or that difference between what ISIS preaches and what ISIS actually does within the Muslim community. We will show the people, especially our kids, what that looks like, what that is, and we will win their minds and their actions, because they will see it is a false, un-Islamic narrative.
What is the motivating personality traits or experiences in life that led you to develop the creative character of Average Mo hamed? And who is Average Mohamed? What does he represent to you and for the community?
That’s a great question. I’m not a clergyman, don’t have a PhD in terrorism or counter-terrorism, I’m not law enforcement… I’m just a citizen. I’m just that, an ‘average Mohamed.’ I’m a business man, I’m a family man, and I’m just an average Minnesotan. So we created Average Mohamed because we understand that it takes average people to talk to these kids. None of these terrorists is a PhD holder, none of these terrorists is other than what you can call an average person. They don’t have anything but convictions. And with those convictions they can be recruited and recruit. So Average Mohamed is just our own vision, which by the way is mainstream of Muslim Somali ideas. With these ideas, we can also compete and win this war.
So, essentially, what you’re saying is that there is a role for everyone to play in addressing the polarization, hate and extremism which affects our societies, particularly when it comes to recruiting for violent extremis organizations? Would you say that holds for all forms of extremism? Right now, we are facing a rising threat posed by right-wing Russia, China We’ve experienced this extremism. Do you think that Average Mohamed or a character like that could play a role in combating that threat, using the same methodology you’ve used with your character?
Well, if you look at the driving factors behind white supremacy it is identical to the ones driving Islamic extremism: annihilation, identity issues, opinion, indoctrination, ideology and the violence of the ideology. Now, how do we deal with this? I tell people: ‘Don’t do to our white community what you did to our Muslim community.’ Let me explain: we didn’t have any resources, we had no networks, and they didn’t allow us to establish a community-based initiative. They passed a lot of laws which were law-enforcement-based, and they gave a budget to law enforcement. Basically, they suspected the community more than they respected it, more than they walked with it.
And this needs to change, because these people who are extremists know that what they’re doing is wrong and they’re not afraid of jail. They’re not afraid to die for their values because they believe they’re going to go to a higher place after they die, whether it is going to heaven or be coming an icon for their movement. They willingly give up their lives.
What scares them is what Light Upon Light is doing, what Average Mohamed is doing. What scares them is that we can convince the next generation to join us.
And this is something we can do with the white supremacists and we can do with religious extremists, because issues are the same. So when I go and talk about identity with kids, I tell the white kids: “Be proud you’re white.” Why would I tell them that? Because I don’t want that the first person that tells them they should proud to be white is a white nationalist. I want to tell them what I tell the black kids, the Muslim kids, the Asian kids, the Hispanic kids: “We value you. Our democracy values you. Our democracy is dependent on you being different than us.”
We have a lot of understanding that, in a sense, the primary concern right now id less with Salafi jihadism and more with Iran, Russia, China… We’ve experienced this before, when we saw Osama bin Laden was dead, that there was an Arab Spring, democratization… The Obama administration kind of took their eyes off Salafi jihadism. Why do you think they were able to sustain themselves? I know it has a lot to do with ideology, but if we’re going to get this right, if we’re going to figure out how to cut off the head of the snake (whatever that head might be), how can we do that while at the same time countering all the threats we face? You said it has a lot do with convincing a generation, but what do you think is the best platform, or the greatest way to go forward effectively to sustain the American system we have come to increasingly appreciate? What can we do to preserve this way of life?
I’ve thought about that for a really long time, and it has to do with the principles I promote as Average Mohamed. The first principle I promote is peace. Islam is peace, and peace is a value we believe in as Muslims and that is what we try and show Muslims who are choosing violent ways. The second principle we promote is democracy. When we talk about democracy, we talk about a multicultural world. And in this multicultural world there should be basis upon which we should understand each other. The basis which we promote is liberties, freedoms and rights. Everybody should have access to liberties, freedoms and rights. It doesn’t matter who you are, what community you belong to: as long as you are a human being, you should have a series of freedoms and basic rights.
When we talk about Iran, we cannot ignore the Shi’a militants, in the same way we cannot ignore the Sunni militants of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. But, how do we compete with them? It’s simple. I’ve been working with the State Department through their International Visitor Leadership Program (VLP) and I’ve been speaking to delegates from Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq… and what I’ve been telling them is “Look, man, America is good for us Muslims. We are thriving because of secular constitutional democracies. We ask you to stand up for the same thing, a system that respects you, gives you rights and allows you freedoms. And this is something we can do as Muslims.”
Muslims, overall, don’t trust the American government anymore. You can look at Gallup polls: In the last two decades, America has gone from being the most favorite country for Muslims to one which is completely disgusting. What does that mean? Does that mean that we stop our American ideals? Does that mean we stop our agenda? No. It means we have to adapt. And how do we do that? Even if we speak the same language as our governments, people will listen to us because we are normal people. That is the power of soft diplomacy. That is a power that our government is not taking advantage of.
If you take a look at countries like Israel, at how they put their Sephardic community at use to promote their values: America should copy the same system. No matter where the issues are in the world, make use of the local communities. We have the resources, and we will make the case for our governments. Because it is a democratic government and it is a representative government. But this requires leaders to understand that. Israel has successfully done that, who says America can’t do it?
Recollections of a Former ‘Salafi Jihadi’
by Jesse Morton
This article was originally published in Ahul-Taqwa Issue 03.
This is the first of what will, in sha Allah be a 42-part series on Imam Nawawi’s 40 hadith. Each article will analyze one of the narrations recorded in this great and famous collection but do so through the lens of modern-day radicalization and how the jihadist ideology misrepresents the true Islamic message. Read more
For centuries, Muslims across the globe have read and referred to Imam Nawawi’s 40 Hadith (Al-Arbain al-Nawawiyyah). This collection of 40 narrations of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) – 42 actually (but the Arabs tend to round down in numbers), has inspired and encouraged countless Muslims to cultivate a core character based on the actual message of Islam. Indeed, almost every Muslim on the planet is familiar with it.
In the introduction to his explanation of the 40 hadith, Imam Nawawi described his objective as an effort to compile the most prominent narrations of the Prophet (saws), narrations the scholars of Islam had described with atributions such as “The entire religion revolves around it.” These descriptions suggest that the message and meaning of these hadith is so crucial to the universe of Islam that their understanding and implementation is an imperative component of creating an Islamic personality.
Unfortunately, for many today, there is too much miscomprehension and not enough implementation of what one learns. Our present age is marked, simultaneously, by severe disregard for spirituality and religion and an ugly fundamentalist extremism that chases others away from the religion and fails miserably in its ostensible objective of removing authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and so-called “Western” influence from so-called “Muslim” lands.’ I should know. I’ve experienced both sides of extremism.
As Younus Abdullah Muhammad, I ran an American-jihadist organization. I know it sounds like an oxymoron. I radicalized and recruited on behalf of Osama bin Laden’s Global Jihad. I helped Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaki design and develop the first version of the glossy jihadi English-language magazines we see connnue to cause mayhem unto today. Held side-by-side, those four issues of what we called Jihad Recollections look identical to an issue of Al-Qaeda and ISIS’ own Inspire, Dabiq or Rumiyya. I worked hand-in-hand with extremist preachers, such as Anjem Choudary, Abdullah Faisal and Musa Cerantonio, to spread an interpretation of Islam that was built on my own desires, one preconceived and a result of my quest for meaning and significance, to locate something through which I could project my personal frustration with self and a society I felt betrayed and oppressed me. In return, I only oppressed myself. I only oppressed others.
When I finally went to prison, the FBI explained how I operated my organization, “to radicalize those who saw and heard his materials online and to incite them to engage in violence against those they believed to be enemies of Islam.” And it was true. In prison, however, I altered my beliefs and renounced extremism, but then, for a multitude of reasons, I fell backwards. I reverted to behaviors that I hadn’t gone back to since my conversion to Islam, and I forgot how beautiful the way of truly ‘being’ a Muslim was. Today, I am establishing a balance, between these two extremes. I am attempting to return to the true path of the Prophet Muhammad. As Imam Malik explained it, “The only thing that will rectify the affairs of the ummah is that which rectified the first of it.” And what reccfied the first of it, was the comprehension and understanding of the personality that was the Prophet Muhammad (saws). As Aisha (raa) explained, Muhammad’s “character was the Quran.”
Imam Nawawi’s 42 hadith are beautiful and mostly simplistic, deep in their meaning, but incredibly difficult in their implementation. I now realize that proper study (preferably with a true scholar) and fulfillment of the principles embodied in the collection represents a pathway to physical, mental, spiritual, and even material well-being, a path to the balance each soul naturally requires and seeks. Taken holistically and incorporated, these hadith may lead individuals (and whole societies) down a path of peace and prosperity (in a true sense of the word). Indeed they led to the establishment of an entire civilization.
Still, the contemporary climate is riddled with confusion. Things seems representative of the time the Prophet (saws) mentioned when he prophesied that, “Knowledge will be raised, ignorance will descend, and there will be much senseless killing (Ibn Maajah).” We are all connected by the World Wide Web but polarized in our own little clusters of the like-minded. He (saws) also stated that, “Islam began as something strange and will end as something strange. So give good tidings to the strangers (ghuruba).” Contrary to the interpretations of Islamic terrorists, these ghuruba are far from those strapped with explosives and projecting bullets and bombs. They are rather those that can suppress the allure of instant gratification and surpass the bessal state. Imam Nawawi’s collection represents a comprehensive guidance to do just that. As Ibn al-Qayyim put it, “Guidance to the path is one thing, but Guidance upon the path is something altogether different.”
In relation to the time of the strangers, the prophet actually recommended to refrain from moving fast and to adopt a nonviolent position. It is recorded that the Messenger of Allah (saws) said, “Indeed there will be tribulation – the one lying down during it is better than the one seated; the one seated is better than the one standing; the one standing better than the one walking; and the one walking better than the one who is seeking it out.” A companion Bakrah (raa) then asked him (saws) what he should do. So the Prophet (saws) told him to stay away from the situation, to avoid the arena of conflict and tribulation and for the one without a refuge to, “betake himself to his sword, crush its blade with a rock, and then save himself as much as he is able (Abu Dawood).” So, I hope that this endeavor will permit me to save myself and to make amends for running headlong into tribulation and in the process, destroying my own path, and the path of others. I pray the youth benefit from my advice and learn from my mistakes.
I intend to pen (in’shaAllah) a commentary for each of Imam Nawawi’s 42 hadith. In doing so, I will juxtapose the way I used to think and behave, with the way I am currently. I will refer both to experience, scholarship and, where appropriate, put these interpretations into a (post)modern context. As we will see in the first hadith, ‘every act in Islam is by intention.’ I set my own intentions as projecting a guidance for me, an effort to make amends, and an attempt to steer others away from a path I chose that has made my life incredibly difficult, a path that took me away from my family, ullmately destroyed me spiritually, and that will go on to affect my well-being for the rest of my existence. It may affect my afterlife as well. The Prophet (saws) stated that the khawarij (extremists) eventually exit the religion like the arrow exits game.” The arrow flies through an animal at an incredibly high speed, it penetrates it deeply, until it kills or wounds the target, and then pulling it back out is tough, as the arrow must come out in reverse.
It is a perfect analogy. I flew into Islam; I ran and did not walk. I went deep, too deep, and I massacred the target, I did more harm than good when one considers the objective. Finally, I nearly lost the religion and the path was tough on the way out. Only Allah knows what will become of our efforts, but to be accepted they should conform to the Quran and Sunnah of our beloved Messenger of Allah (saws), and I pray that in so doing they help me draw closer to Allah. I pray in particular that He (swt) make them reach those radicalizing and trekking down similar stairways and that He (swt) allow it to serve as a means of prevention.
After ISIS declared its so-called Caliphate on June 29, 2014 the term “foreign fighter” became increasingly popular. It was used to designate all the Westerners that answered Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s call to hijrah. However, long before ISIS was even in the making, Bryant Neal Viñas was already “the first foreign fighter after 9/11.” In 2007 he was the first U.S. citizen to join Al-Qaeda in Waziristan. Bryant now works to combat violent extremism and preventing others from following my footsteps. His trajectory and his accounts of what he experienced in Waziristan are key in demystifying violence in the eyes of those enthralled by jihadist propaganda.
When did you travel? Read more
It was September 10, 2007 when I got on the plane in New York City’s JFK airport. I had officially embraced Islam three years earlier in a small mosque in Queens and I was now headed to participate in jihad. My feelings were a mix of excitement, eagerness, humility, spirituality and gratitude to Allah. As I boarded the plane I remembered the words of a friend I had in the Marines: “All you do is talk, and you never do anything about it.” I had finally been granted the opportunity to act on principle and fulfill my duty as a Muslim. Eventually, however, I’d realize that everyone in Waziristan had their own personal interests and that true jihad was not the actual purpose.
How did you feel when you first arrived in Pakistan?
After a layover in Abu Dhabi, I arrived in Lahore on September 12th. Once in Pakistan, it didn’t take me long to make the necessary connections to get embedded in the net-work of Waziristan militants. The process was probably not that different to how foreign fighters and their smugglers have operated in the Turkish-Syrian border in the last years. And those Western mujahedeen probably felt the same way I felt when I got to my destination: fulfilled. You feel you’ve made the correct decision and that you have answered Allah’s call for a greater purpose, a divine duty.
What was life like in Waziristan?
We were all full of expectations and hopes, eager to begin. But then reality kicked in, and it was not all praying, training and fighting. At first, I wasn’t discouraged. I never did much more than re a couple of rockets and never killed anybody, but it still felt like I was fulfilling Allah’s command. Yet, I also started to realize that there were no such thing as pure intentions in Waziristan. I used the down time we had to pray and contemplate. I slowly started realizing that the cause had been corrupted, and there was little chance that anything would ever be achieved. What was supposed to be a land where the will of Allah was taking place was corrupted by warlords, drug lords and illegal mining. It was a constant struggle for power and money that had very little to do with the purpose of jihad that I had read about in the Qur’an.
Can you explain this a bit more in detail?
The incoherence in Waziristan still bothers me today. For example, some areas were run by old warlords like Nazeer who controlled every one of our movements. I met Nazeer once, when I was stopped at a checkpoint because I was suspected of being an Uzbek. He was a stern man with a soft character and the interaction was polite, even kind. When I told others about it, the first comment I got was that he was connected to the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service. It was less a warning than it was actual gossiping. And I only found one person who actually defended Nazeer against such accusations. I heard that the opium farms and the local drug lords were connected to the Taliban, the same people that would help us navigate the mountainous areas when we were out on a mission. I was never certain of this, but it was a constant rumor among the locals. To make matters worse, it was said that the top person in the chain of command who got a cut of the opium profit was Hamid Karzai’s brother. The family of the then President of Afghanistan was supposed to be connected to the same people that were helping our cause. In the meantime, everybody was supposed to also be profiting off illegal mining of mine mineral deposits.Whether or not these rumors are 100% true is something I still don’t know. They do say, however, that when there’s smoke there’s re. I cannot avoid reflecting on how the power dynamics, the greed and personal interests were the actual driving force in Waziristan, so much more than fighting for the sake of Allah. There was no such thing as pure intentions. Even the unity and camaraderie among those of us who had joined the cause was a mirage. And I only found this out towards the end.
Do you mean after your arrest?
Yes. I was arrested in November 2008, shortly after President Obama won his first election. I thought my life was over, that I would be taken to Guantanamo Bay or an ADX prison for life. Yet, somehow, that became a secondary concern when, while being interrogated, I figured out that my former friends, the people I’d considered my family, had ratted out on me. .
You mean your cooperation with authorities?
Yes. I could have indeed stayed true to my principles and not take the opportunity of being given a second chance. I could have indeed considered that I would then be deemed an apostate. However, I know now that this all came from Allah himself. The disillusionment, the fact that I was able to see what goes on behind closed doors in the lands of jihad, how at the end of the day personal interests prevailed over protecting the ummah. So I took that chance and did what I still this day consider Allah’s duty. I cooperated with authorities not against my Muslim brothers and sisters, but acting on the same principle that had led me to depart to wage jihad in the first place: “if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind.”(5:32) I was behind bars when ISIS declared its so-called Caliphate and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called for hijrah. It didn’t take long before some of those who answered that call realized the same thing I did in Waziristan: jihad as we understand it today is nothing but a distortion of the religion. We have all heard stories about ISIS’ brutality, indiscriminately attacking Ahul al-Khitab (People of the Book) and other Muslims, including scholars, who they have deemed apostates because they do not conform to their excessiveness. That’s just to name a few examples. Ironically, though, they still do not see themselves as Khawarij and are unable to see who their lack of knowledge has caused them to stray away from their religion. As Bukhari put it, “They shoot out from the Religion just as an arrow shoots out from the hunted game.
Did that remind you of your own experiences?
Very much. What I saw in Waziristan is very similar. It did not come out of excessiveness, though, but rather from a prevailing interest in the goods of the dunyah: money, power, strength, privilege. The heart of those that fought alongside of me had been corrupted not by excessiveness in the religion, but because they forgot the actual purpose of what it means to fight jihad. They’d forgotten that, before engaging in the outer, lesser jihad, one must first fight al-jihad al-akbar, our own personal struggle. It is only then that we will realize that there is a lot of self-improvement that needs done before one can even speak about carrying out Allah’s work in this world. We must understand ourselves and the religion properly and not let our passions and our haste guide us.
What is your main take away from your travels and your spiritual journey? What would your advice to others be?
I myself am still struggling with my own inner jihad. It is not an overnight process. How-ever, I’m grateful that my experiences have allowed me to understand the need to strive for self-perfection. I invite you all to take a step back and reflect upon what Allah himself revealed through our beloved Prophet (saws) and reconsider your path. When you’re alone at night, do you truly feel at peace with yourself and with Allah? I have seen first-hand in Waziristan what misguidance can do to people. You have also seen the con-sequences of it after ISIS’ fall. A true believer understands that Allah is all merciful and will always accept a sincere heart. Now I ask you, are you being sincere in your heart?
Bryant now works with LightUponLight.Online to Combat Hate and Extremism. Contact Bryant Neal Vinas.
by Jesse Morton
In April of 2009, I, then known as Younus Abdullah Muhammad, a chief propagandist for Al-Qaeda living in New York City, helped release the first glossy English-language jihadi magazine over the internet. Entitled ‘Jihad Recollections,’ the initiative represented the first in a long line of English-language jihadi magazines that would later be adopted, first by Al-Qaeda and then by ISIS. It was soon regarded as the ‘Vanity Fair’ for jihadists. Read more
As author of the lead article in the first edition and designer of the template, I have a primary responsibility for unleashing the bloody and heinous message of those magazines to the public. Since then, countless lives have been affected. According to Shariah, I may share in the negative ramifications as they continue to produce only animosity and destruction. As the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) explained, “Whoever prescribes a good practice and people practice it, he will reap its reward and the reward of those who do it and nothing will decrease their reward. Whoever prescribes a bad practice and people follow it, he will suffer its heavy burden and the burden of those who practice it and nothing will decrease its burden.”
Today I reject the extremist views of salafi jihadists. Today I seek to make amends and am dedicated to combating them. This magazine, Ahul-Taqwa (people of consciousness) will adopt the model and template I created with the help of other jihadists, such as Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, who after five editions of Jihad Recollections moved to Yemen, embedded with Al-Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula and continued to publish under the title Inspire. Inspire looked exactly the same as Jihad Recollections but was different in that, now, Western propagandists who had joined terrorist organization abroad could “Inspire” attacks, not just with the dissemination of the ideology but with actual recipes and instructions for killing. In fact, the first edition of Inspire (launched in June 2010), was a reaction to threats my organization, Revolution Muslim, made against the writers of South Park for portraying the Prophet (pbuh) in satire.
Apart from a fatwa calling for the murder of anyone insulting the Prophet (pbuh) and other complete rubbish, the first edition of Inspire included an article “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom.” The recipe the article offered has been used to kill and maim innocent civilians in the West since then, and while Inspire continues unto today, the same template has been adopted by ISIS, first with Dabiq and now with Rumiyya. Today, with this initial issue of Ahul-Taqwa, we take the template back and create an alternative resource based on principles antithetical to those that espouse hate and violent extremist interpretations. We’re reclaiming it, and what will become evident through each edition is that there is little to nothing the extremists will be able to say or do about it. It is time to bury the project I helped create, forever!
Life is a process of pitfalls and purification. The objective is to end it in a state of faith and sincerity. As Allah (swt) says in the Quran, “Have Taqwa of Allah and do not die in a state other than as a Muslim.” Allah (swt) is the Most Merciful, as the Prophet explained, “Those who are merciful will be shown mercy by the Most Merciful. Be merciful to those on the earth and the One above the heavens will have mercy upon you.” As the Prophet (pbuh) was a Mercy to the Creation (Rah- matul Alameen), so must we be. The religion is based on mercy. In fact, there is a divine connection between the horizontal relationship we have with the Creation (fiqh al-mua’malaat) and our relations with the Creator (fiqh al-ibadaat). But what of those that confine relations with the people to violent jihad? What of those that have made the very word jihad itself conjure up images of terrorism and totalitarian conquest?
Certainly jihad is a part of Islam. That is only denied by those that want to alter the religion. But jihad is justice. If understood properly it fits what military strategists today call ‘Just War Theory.’ The ‘Just Terror Tactic’ articles ISIS English-magazines propose is completely barbaric and un-Islamic. Jihad has conditions and is solely confined to fighting those that fight you. As Allah (swt) says, “And fight in the Way of Allah those who fight you, but transgress not the limits. Truly, Allah likes not the transgressors (2:190).” It is clearly transgression to target innocent fathers, pregnant mothers and small, vulnerable children. This is undoubtedly evident, and we will document this clearly while showing an alternative perspective.
As we work to achieve this, the reader will see that the jihadist sympathizers and supporters will only remain silent, rife with ignorance. As the scholars of Islam have put it: the worst type of person is the ‘one who does not know, but does not know that he does not know.’ We ask those falling into the trap of jihadism to pause and reconsider. We do not condemn you; I was you, as were many other contributors to this initiative.
We also recognize that many jihadis are sincere and passionate, albeit overzealous. Ahul-Taqwa is not here to ridicule, though one must be tough at times. We are here to counsel and advise. As the Prophet (pbuh) put it, “The deen is sincere advice (naseeha).”
Ahul-Taqwa also aims to rectify and offer an alternative pathway to healing (tazkiyya), to fighting the anxiety and stress that those radicalizing know afflicts them when they are alone and only Allah (swt) is watching. We’ll promote and provide services and support and grant others that have left extremist movements an opportunity to make amends, an outlet for expression and a parallel network that can grant the same sense of meaning and purpose extremists offer recruits and adherents.
Please feel free to contact us if you’d like to write, give your artistic input, help spread Ahul-Taqwa online, have us speak preventatively in your community, get us to print it for distribution at your local masjid, or if you or anyone you know might like to discuss it, peacefully as brothers and sisters.
Were I not arrested outside a small mosque in Casablanca on May 23, 2011, just a few weeks after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad and as a faltering Arab Spring was about to turn to civil war and wanton violence, I more than likely would have been one of the deceived youth that answered ISIS’ call to join their so-called Caliphate. As a consequence, I would likely be dead or imprisoned forever.
When I was originally sentenced to federal prison in 2012, the prosecuting attorney told the judge that, “someday, somewhere innocent people would die as a result of my creation of the English-language jihadist magazines.” I will forever remember April 15, 2013, when the Tsarnaev brothers utilized the recipe in the first edition of Inspire to kill three people and injure hundreds at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. That very moment I decided to do whatever I could to rectify the error of my ways. Allah soon made a way out for me (makhrajan). Thus, Ahul-Taqwa is part of the effort to correct my past misdeeds and to work to prevent others from making similar errors, from throwing away their lives for a hateful ideology and sacrificing for jihadist organizations that will forget you immediately and entirely.
Ahul-Taqwa is part of a journey, into and out of extremism. The magazine will document the passionate tales of others, cover politics, economics, society and culture in a balanced way, painting the grays between the deceitfully black-and-white, warped worldviews of all extremists. It is dedicated to promoting a platform of mercy and tolerance, documenting that a commitment to creative pacifism represents the best way to address grievances and important issues. Standing up to injustice with pacifism is not weakness. The Prophet’s (pbuh) life embodied this notion. He suffered for 13 years without raising a finger. He never sought to build a state, as Islamists would have it, but simply for the right to express himself freely. His example proves that it is possible to fight against evil without taking the lives of innocent human beings. Documenting that a commitment to peaceful principles is in line with a correct interpretation of the Prophetic (pbuh) path for addressing social issues, such as an advancing Islamophobia.
Ahul-Taqwa is dedicated to the families and loved ones of those that have been harmed by terrorism. It is dedicated to the innocent men, women and children that all too often end up being those that suffer the most from hate, war and polarization the likes of which the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) informed us when he (pbuh) said, “Just before the Hour, knowledge will be raised, ignorance will descend and there will be much senseless killing.” The cure for ignorance is experience and knowledge. Ahul-Taqwa is derived from the experiences of one that learned to admit he was wrong and who now seeks to walk before running. We hope that you will read on. We pray that you will join us. As the great scholar Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzi put it,
“The heart becomes sick, as the body becomes sick, and its remedy is al-Tawbah (repentance) and protection [from transgression]. It becomes rusty as a mirror becomes rusty, and its clarity is obtained by remembrance. It becomes naked as the body becomes naked, and its beautification is al-Taqwa (consciousness). It becomes hungry and thirsty as the body becomes hungry, and its food and drink are knowledge, love, dependence, repentance and servitude.”
We pray that Allah heals all our hearts and protects from such sickness. And our final prayer is that all praise is due to Allāh, Lord of the worlds.
by Jesse Morton
“So let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken. Whoever was shocked and amazed must comprehend. The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots. They have a statement to make that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy, and uncover its deviant nature.” Read more
This was the boisterous statement of so-called caliph Ibrahim, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on June 5, 2014, when he originally pronounced that ISIS had reestablished an Islamic caliphate from the pulpit of the Nuri Mosque in Mosul, Iraq.
The pronouncement occurred just months before the 13th anniversary of the tragic September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that initiated the War on Terror, lured the United States and its allies into the Iraq War, and that would require an international coalition and enormous effort over the next five years to dismantle. Now, the so-called caliphate is no more, at least territorially, but in the process of uprooting ISIS from Syria and Iraq, infrastructure lay dismantled, refugees number in the millions, and there is little political will or practical effort to reconstruct or resurrect it.
This is largely a consequence of the material metrics and measurements that have marked the post 9/11-era. If there is anything that we must learn as we approach an abyss in the War on Terror, it is that physical reconstruction, while important, must always be matched, or even superseded, by careful attention to an intellectual and ideological infrastructure built on principles of liberty and individual freedom. That is the only route to sustainable social, political and economic alteration. Otherwise, in the same way that America turned the Twin Towers into Freedom Towers while simultaneously losing much of its reputation as a defender of democracy and human rights; in the same way that the United States and most democracies are falling into dangerous political and social polarization at home, the void left in the wake of Syria and Iraq may be filled, not so much by jihadism but by an authoritarian counter to the liberal world order led by China-Russia-Iran and the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
There is perhaps no better representation of this general reality than in the situation un- folding in and around Mosul, Iraq, where al-Baghdadi launched his global campaign to shatter both nationalist and democratic identity. When approximately 1,500 ISIS fighters seized Mosul in June 2014, many people fled. However, 1.5 million people remained in the city. The so-called caliphate soon established a repressive bureaucracy to manage city affairs and control the life of its citizens. The Hesba morality police were created to ruthlessly enforce ISIS edicts and to implement a secure police-state like society where all “sin” and dissent would be reported and dealt with accordingly.
Many public employees, including teachers and health workers, continued working un- der ISIS, while other persons were hired to replace those who fled. ISIS looted the Mosul banks and aggressively collected taxes from the local population to fund its military campaigns. Factories were dismantled and the goods and machinery sold in neighboring countries alongside stolen antiquities.
ISIS completely restructured the educational system and adopted a curriculum based on their ultra-literalist and exclusivist worldview. At the University of Mosul, subjects such as law, arts and philosophy were removed. Women could not study natural sciences and were often forced to marry ISIS fighters to pursue an education. Children were raised as cubs of the caliphate, indoctrinated to carry the global jihad into the next generation.
On October 17, 2016 the campaign to liberate Mosul from ISIS was initiated. It was the beginning of the largest urban conflict since WWII. Iraqi forces entered east Mosul on November 1, and declared it liberated on January 24, 2017. Then the battle turned to West Mosul, particularly in the old city, where ISIS fighters mostly resided. Progress was slow and the entire city was bullet and bomb-ridden with unspeakable damage caused by incessant artillery and airstrikes that decimated entire neighborhoods.
On June 29, 2017 Mosul was declared liberated and by December Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq declared victory … “The battles against Daesh are over, but the war is not,” he said.
Indeed the resilience of ISIS is becoming more apparent. In Iraq and Syria at large ISIS is operating clandestinely and has returned to a synthesis of guerilla war and terrorism tactics. In Mosul, the organization is silent, operating from the shadows as Shiites aligned with the Iraqi government and some with pro-Iranian militias have increased their presence and influence while working consciously to make sure the international community and media remains largely unconcerned.
Shiite militias played a significant role in the Battle for Mosul but committed an array of human rights abuses including rape, unlawful detention, abductions, disappearances and abuse against Sunni civilians. A December 2017 Human Rights Watch report documented that the authorities in Mosul held at least 7,374 individuals on charges of affiliation with ISIS, largely without notifying their families and therefore inducing reports of disappearings. Researchers estimated that the detention numbers were far greater.
Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, said the Obama ad- ministration downplayed abuses by both Shiite militia and Iraqi forces. “This administration is so determined to be able to declare victory over ISIL (that) they don’t really care about any of the rest of it,” he explained. The approach screened the militiamen, many backed by Iran, from criticism and scrutiny while the barbarity of ISIS put the international community’s focus on Sunni violence with less concern for the reality that violence comes from both sides in Iraq’s sectarian conflict.
Scholar Scott Atran explains this well. While reports were suggesting that ISIS fighters were surrendering en masse and denouncing the group as the conflict in Mosul unfolded, Atran’s interviews with captured fighters in Kirkuk showed the men, “recounted growing up in the failed Iraqi state after the American invasion in 2003: a hellish world of guerrilla war, disrupted families, constant fear, and utter lack of hope. They saw Iran and the Shia as their greatest enemy but they also believed that America had enabled the majority Shia to suppress the Arab Sunnis’ religion and communities.”
Now conditions are worsengin and Sunni insurrection looms over the landscape while any looking at images of Mosul’s destruction grow disheartened. And conditions are deteriorating. Shiite militiamen and sectarian actors may portray a veneer of retained Sunni control, .but the inclusion of Shite militiamen in retaking the city has allowed them to reconstruct a historical and religious narrative that pushes Sunnis into discrimination and disenfranchisement.
In the aftermath of Mosul’s liberation, these shiite militiamen erected posters and banners affiliated with key shiite leaders. These paramilitary groups became dominant in the city for a short period but have reduced ostensible visibility. Instead, Shiite religious authorities are quietly buying up property they say is historically Shiite. They have seized properties in Mosul marketplaces and have even threatened to take control of Al-Noori mosque, where Al-Baghdadi pronounced his so-called caliphate.
The Shiite narrative necessarily goes back to the mosque itself. The Al-Noori mosque was built by Noor al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, a Turkish amir in Mosul who ordered the mosque’s construction and is famous for laying the foundations for the success of Salahudin Ayaoubi, who was his commander in Egypt, before founding the Ayyubid dynasty and retaking Jerusalem from Christian Crusaders. Noor al-Din was also fierce in his criticism of Shiism and worked to defeat Shiist influence in Mosul. Now, the Shiite religious establishment is hearkening back to the period before Nour al-Din and proclaiming a historical victimization that can facilitate their taking property and businesses from Sunnis. Were Shiites to control Sunni provinces in Iraq, a very real Shiite crescent stretching from Iran, through Iraq and into Syria could pave the way for an authoritarian restructuring and realignment of the Middle East in general.
All things considered, it is absolutely necessary to contemplate the effects of neglecting to rebuild and restructure Mosul and the region in general. The retaking of Mosul killed thou- sands of civilians and left 900,000 displaced refugees. They want to return, but there has been no commitment from the international community. A nonprofit organization has been the most successful at removing the debris preventing refugees from returning to their homes. The head of the Sunni Muslim Endowment laid a foundation stone for the rebuilding of the al-Noor mosque and was joined by UN and EU dignitaries but Shiites reject Sunni control and the Shiite Muslim Endowment has challenged the notion that it should remain Sunni.
The physical reconstruction is daunting. It will take years, perhaps a generation but the fact that the Sunnis have been indoctrinated by ISIS and that expanding Shiite influence will cement the grievances that drive the ideology suggest that restructuring the educational and social circumstance is as important. In September 2014, the ISIS education bureau revised the curriculum for primary, secondary and university education, adding many religious topics, physical fitness and weaponry training. Because of the fear of indoctrination and radicalization, almost all families kept their children from school. Many feared their older sons would be taken to be fighters during regular ISIS raids on schools. The children have witnessed executions and beheadings.
The fear of forced marriages of daughters to ISIS members, especially foreign fighters, drove some Mosul residents to flee Mosul. As the ISIS forces consolidated control of Mosul, young adult males also fled, fearing that if they stayed they could have no social contact with women and would be at risk of ISIS forced recruitment if they remained. 34.5% of women respondents reported intimate partner violence leading to injury in interviews conducted after Mosul’s liberation.
Yet, instead of recognizing the importance of restructuring Mosul and other cities in Iraq and Syria, the international community, particularly the U.S., is doing little. According to the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the U.S. government has spent $5 trillion on the war on terror since Al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. homeland in 2001. This while the Center for Strategic Inter- national Studies suggests that there are three times as many jihadists today as there were on 9/11. Estimates for reconstruction in Mosul number between $10 and $20 billion, and that is for physical, not intellectual reconstruction. That is a scant amount in comparison to military expenditures. In 2018, the Trump administration allocated only $7.7 million to build shelters, and eliminated a large portion of foreign aid altogether., this while increasing the Pentagon’s budget by $47 million. We have learned little since 9/11 apparently.
We must consider as well that the towers that fell in America have been replaced, but that the intellectual scaffolding in the West generally has only divided in ways similar to the Sunni, Shiite sectarianism in the Middle East. This division is pushing further toward potential World War. It is time to pause and reflect on what it important. There should be an interest in supporting and working alongside of grassroots activists in places like Mosul, those seeking to reconstruct the libraries, the schools, universities, media, journalistic outlets and the like.
Now, five years after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s pronouncement, his promise to show the world terrorism has clearly been fulfilled, but the militants of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have been driven out of the territories they had conquered. The so-called Caliphate did nothing to trample nationalism or democracy other than to pave a way for Bashar al-As- sad to stay in power in Syria, for Russia to expand support for authoritarianism, while Iran and the Shiite generally benefit from their demise. This while China, a communist and atheistic power severely oppressing its own Uighar Muslim population seeks to enhance its influence throughout Syria and Iraq.
The motto- “baqiya wa tatamaddad” (remaining and expanding) is now relegated to the online realm of fantasy while the cities they once ruled over are completely decimated. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi told no lie when he announced from Mosul five years ago, “So let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken.” However, the new era he pronounced has proven nothing more than one of unknown misery, suffering and confusion. The revolutionary awakening he promised failed miserably. Still, people in the region who have never known peace and stability, people with little to lose with little hope will need a vision for tomorrow that involves more than mere reconstruction and that will not come overnight.
What we see happening is a tragedy that speaks to the general difficulties of the War on Terror. Cities like Mosul, where al-Baghdadi made his laudatory pronouncement, lay decimated while western governments, particularly the U.S., have little will, ability or faith in funding reconstruction. Apart from that, Turkey will not accept a Kurdish state on its borders in Northeastern Syria. Russia, China and Iran all want to protect Assad, end rebellion completely and then cooperate on redeveloping Syrian infrastructure to advance their authoritarian counter to the liberal world order. The Iraqi government is entwined with Iranian policy, and conflict with Iran and the U.S. seems imminent. It is clear that the contest for tomorrow’s world order hinges on what happens to the territory ISIS’ caliphate once controlled.
Certainly the cities in Syria and Iraq need rebuilt, and the priority must be to establish physical security. Yet, in the same way that America rebuilt its freedom towers while lessening an ability to project freedom abroad and experience security at home, a major part of Iraqi and Syrian reconstruction should focus on the development of intellectual infrastructure. The way and the means utilized to rebuild the cities will have serious implications and are likely to serve as indicators for the geopolitical order we’ll live in tomorrow, but we should recognize that the most important component of reconstruction in the post-ISIS Middle East is the advancement of an intellectual infrastructure that can lay the foundations for a successful, stable and free tomorrow.
Where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his cohorts seek immediate change and rush to revolution, the religion of Islam, as in the Prophet Muhammad’s version (saws) is patient and balanced. A narration from Abu Bakr (raa) reports that the Prophet (saws) said: “Abu Bakrah said, The Prophet said, “There will be a tribulation during which one who is lying down will be better than one who is sitting, one who is sitting will be better than one who is standing, one who is standing will be better than one who is walking, and one who is walking will be better than one who is running.” Someone asked, O Messenger of Allah, what do you advise me to do? He said, “Whoever has camels, let him stay with them, and whoever has land, let him stay in his land.” Someone asked, What about someone who does not have anything like that? He said, “Then let him take his sword and strike its edge against a stone, then go as far away as possible.”
The people of areas once under ISIS control, primarily big cities like Mosul cannot simply disappear. It is impossible to disappear and in an age of interconnectivity it will be impossible for anyone to remove themselves from the ramifications of what happens there. The people must rebuild, must attempt to reconstruct their societies, return to homes that are now barricaded with rubble and to marketplaces coated in artillery and under Shiite control. There must be movement forward and in so doing there is an opportunity for us to learn the same lessons at a global level the Prophet Muhammad (saws) taught with regard to tribulation. Those moving the most today are indeed those doing the most harm. We need principles and patience.