The current global jihad movement: disciples of Sayyid Qutb


The current Jihadi Narrative as experienced by the general public is one of a bunch of bloodthirsy killers who would kill everyone whom they see as “unbeliever”, including women and children, with medieval tools and accompanied by a cruelty that was current during the time of the Crusades.
Though the scale on which things are happening nowadays seems to be higher than anytime in recent history, there are examples of cruel beheadings by al-Qa’ida and their likes in the last decades. Also, the killing of underage persons happened before. For instance in the 1990s, Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered the killing of two underage egyptian boys in Sudan, who had been recruited by Egyptian Intelligence to spy on him.

Since at least 2009, al-Qa’ida and the Taliban were running a counter-intelligence unit, called the Khorasan Unit in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. The Unit was to hunt Pakistani spies who were informing the U.S. on the whereabouts of al-Qa’ida and Taliban leadership. Often these sources in the Tribal Areas would fix micro-chips on cars or put these chips close to houses where radicals were staying. Rockets fired from American drones would be guided to these targets by the linking to the micro-chips. The Khorasan Unit would go after these ‘traitors’ and behead them. Sometimes they would behead more than twenty-five persons and line them up in the main street of a village to create fear among the people living in the village.

Most of the operatives of the Khorasan Unit in Pakistan moved last year to Syria where they introduced their ways of operating in Syria and Iraq. Da’ish only started executing the Khorasan- developed operational tactics on a larger scale. But how did this narrative became the narrative? It is a fairly new phenomenon. The groundwork was laid in the 1930s in Egypt, when Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna supported the ‘Arab Revolt’ as declared by Hajj Amin al-Husseini in Palestine. In a push to make the Muslim Brotherhood a mass movement in Egypt and to gain countrywide influence, al-Banna sent of battalions of volunteer fighters to Palestine and declared the fighting against the British and Jews a jihad.

The next layer was developed by another Muslim Brother leader, Sayyid Qutb, like Hassan al-Banna an educator. Over the years, Qutb developed an aversion to the West and, after serving years in jail, had a radical worldview as he rejected all forms of government that did not follow what he thought was the true Islamic system. In three of his books, Fi Zilal al-Quran (In the shade of the Quran), Maalim fi al-Tariq (known as Milestones of Signposts) and al-Salaam al-Alami wa-al-Islam he lays the blue print that is currently in use with the global jihad movement, including Qa’idat al-Jihad and Da’ish.

In volume 10 of Fi Zilal al-Quran Qutb writes “Islam is not a theological system that is realized when appropriated as an ideology (…) and then its mission ceases. Islam is a pragmatic activist system of life. It withstands other systems which are based on power and is supported by material power. For Islam to establish its divine system, it is inevitable that these material powers be destroyed and the powers that administer the systems that resist the divine way be annihilated.” This is just one quote but the other later works are clear and to the point and well written, and one can see that Qutb is seen as the founding ideologue of the Salafi-Jihadi movement or the global jihad movement, and his works are still relevant today.

Following the hanging of Qutb in 1965 in Egypt, his works were taken in by a new group of young Muslims radicals who thought the Muslim Brotherhood was too soft. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat decided, and made a (for him) deadly mistake, in allowing radical Salafist groups to operate in Egypt as a counter-weight to radical left-wing political groups in his country, Qutb’s works spread fast through not only Egypt but the whole Islamic world, including the Shiite revolutionary thinker Ali Shariati.

The year 1979 was crucial to the spreading of the ideology of radical Islam. The Revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan can be called turning points for the jihadist movement. Until that point Qutb’s thinking had developed itself mainly domestically, especially after the Muslim Brotherhood had renounced violence in the 1970s. Groups like Takfir wal-Hijra and umbrella groups like al-Jihad and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya got an influx of young men who were inspired by Qutb and wanted to act. In 1981 the radical Islamists killed President Sadat. Following a clamp down in Egypt on radical Islamic groups, an influx of fighters from Egypt started to enter Afghanistan, together with many other volunteers.

Where most of the fighters that came to Afghanistan were convinced by preachers and often supported by their governments, the Egyptians were not only battle-hardened in Egypt, they were also ideologically well versed and started to spread the Qutb gospel. A new influx of radicalized Syrian Muslim Brothers in 1982, after the Assad regime had bombed them out of Hama, who were also acquainted with Sayyid Qutb, spread the ideology even faster. Although the Muslim Brotherhood had renounced violence for strategic reasons, they did not abstain from Qutb’s ideas. The current leadership of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is seen as “Qutbi”, as most of its senior leaders were in jail with Sayyid Qutb in the 1960s.

The Jihadi ideology went into a new stage in 1988 when Osama bin Ladin created al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan. According to its bylaws, al-Qa’ida was to be a vanguard for the Islamist movement as Abdallah Azzam had described in an article title al-Qa’ida al-Sulbah (the Solid Base) in al-Jihad Magazine in April 1988. A few years later Bin Ladin and al-Qa’ida moved to Sudan and were followed by Egyptian groups who had moved their operations to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s.

In Khartoum Bin Ladin started with al-Qa’ida 2.0 or the Islamic Army. Many in the West have overlooked this part in the history of al-Qa’ida but former al-Qa’ida member and crown witness for the U.S. public prosecutors, Jamal al-Fadl reported “Once established in the Sudan, there were many meetings and talk was of uniting people and improving the way of life for all Muslims. Bin Ladin said that they had to find a common objective and unite because the enemy was united. Bin Ladin stated that there were two enemies, one being Arab countries not living under Islamic law, and other countries preventing “us” from becoming an Islamic state. Bin Ladin complained that Arab wealth was not distributed for Muslims, but was kept in western banks.” The influence of Qutb can be read in Bin Ladin’s words.

After Bin Ladin returned to Afghanistan in 2006, he returned to the idea of al-Qa’ida, a vanguard of highly trained fighters who, now we know, were prepared to attack the West with the purpose of furthering the cause of the global jihad movement. Initially the response in the Islamic World after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC was one of shock. After the U.S. and its coalition partners responded in Afghanistan, there was no rush of volunteers to go and join al-Qa’ida or the other jihadi groups present in Afghanistan-Pakistan.

Actually, al-Qa’ida lost Afghanistan, its leader went into hiding and it took multiple years for the organization to regroup and reorganize. In early 2002 the al-Qa’ida leadership had taken the decision not to take the Western troops in Afghanistan head on. Some of the heavy fighting in Tora Bora but also later in Afghanistan (Operation Anaconda) had taught them that Western troops could call in additional help that made fighting them very costly for the jihadis. Al-Qa’ida decided to support local Taliban groups with specialized help, like snipers or mortar units, and as such became a force multiplier.

In 2005 high level al-Qa’ida operatives had convinced the leadership of the Taliban that “martyrdom operations” were the way to go and that made decisive change in the fighting in Afghanistan and in Pakistan as well. At the same time Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had developed his own hardline jihadi organization in Iraq and merged his hardline jihadist organization with core al-Qa’ida to become al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI). Suicide operations was one of the core operations for AQI.

A highly effective drone campaign in Afghanistan-Pakistan in the last years decimated the number of high level al-Qa’ida and Taliban operatives in the Tribal Areas. They were so effective that in 2010 a group of German Jihadis (known as the German Taliban Mujahidin) left Pakistan and pleaded with the German government to take them back, even if they had to go to jail. During their interrogations, they said that the constant threat of the drones made it unbearable for them to stay in Pakistan. With the successful drone attacks in Pakistan we are full circle.

It is clear that the current extreme radical ideology of the jihadis, not in Iraq and Syria alone, but also those who adhere to the ideology and still live in the West or in North America, is a relatively new phenomenon that was formulated in the 1950s and 1960s by the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb. It took its baby steps in the 1970s in Egypt and then accelerated in the 1980s to become a full grown stream in the late 1980s following its expansion to new theaters (Africa, Bosnia and the Philippines). In the 1990s, it thought it was grown up when it attacked the West in 2001.

As is clear from Western responses, there is no clear answer to the jihadi narrative. There are many reasons why, nowadays, young Muslims who are born and raised in Europe flock to Syria and Iraq in numbers we have never seen before. Demonstrations in many European capitals in favor of Da’ish are a shock to many Europeans and Western governments are struggling with formulating a response. Years before the civil war in Syria, Europeans thought that they had everything under control with their de-radicalization programs but it turned out that there is a big difference between the real world and programs developed by bureaucrats. Might one problem be that Europe has lost its religious fervor and that religion is no longer popular in Europe, so that Europe can no longer understand the jihadis? If you don’t understand the mindset of your target or enemy, it is diffuclt to come up with a solution.

* Ronald Sandee is a Dutch Historian and former senior counter-terrorism analyst at the Dutch Military Intelligence Service, MIVD

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