Small Wars Journal

Justifying Jihad: A Case Study of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram

Sat, 12/26/2015 - 11:19am

Justifying Jihad: A Case Study of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram

Daniel Pesature

Jihad - Today this ancient Arabic word has near universal recognition, but also near universal misunderstanding.  In the non-Muslim world jihad erroneously conjures images of masked gunmen and televised beheadings.  Fundamental misunderstanding relating to jihad are not confined to non-Muslims however.  A perversion of Islam known as jihadi-salafism attempts to justify monstrous atrocities through the establishment of a pure Islamic State (Caliphate) and a return to the pristine version of Islam practiced in the age of the Rightly Guided Caliphs (Salaf).[i]  Al Shabaab and Boko Haram are two jihadi-salafist groups that manipulate the tenets of jihad to justify violence on an immense scale.  Their actions, and those of other jihadi-salafist groups, threaten to shape America’s perception of Islam.  At its core, jihadi-salafism is an ideological perversion, and the long-term solution is a counter narrative true to the tenets of Islam.

Drone strikes and commando raids will not solve this issue.  The United States (US) must understand the problem of jihadi-salafism so that the policies it enacts do not alienate the vast majority of good, law-abiding Muslims.  The cure cannot kill the patient.  Islam is the antidote to the poison of jihadi-salafism.  Al Shabaab and Boko Haram both manipulate Islamic law (Sharia) to justify their jihads in Somalia and Nigeria.  They use genuine transgressions like the collapse of order, foreign invasion, corruption, and oppression to sanction cruel, primal, reciprocal violence.  Analyzing the false jihads of Al Shabaab and Boko Haram provides a window into the minds of jihadi-salafists, and it also offers recommendations on countering this spreading and imminent threat.

Sharia regulates jihad.  Sharia is far more than a criminal code, as it influences every aspect of Muslim life.  Sharia is mainly derived from the Quran and from the sayings or actions of the Prophet Muhammed (Hadith).  The Quran is best divided into two sections: the Meccan period (before hijra), and the Medinan period (after hijra).  The two periods are written with different perspectives, and there are often contradictions.  The Quran is contextual.  It is based on the specific enemies and situations present during the time of Muhammad.[ii]  The Hadith provide even less clarity.  Some Hadith were recorded in the time of Muhammad, while others were recorded much later.  Islamic scholars (ulama) loosely codify the numerous Hadiths based on strength, veracity, probably authenticity, and consensus (ijma).

In the past, the ulama could also apply reasoning (ijtihad) to the Quran and Hadith, but in the ninth century the Abbasid Caliphate proclaimed that all pertinent guidance was extracted from these sources and closed the gates of ijtihad.  Today the ulama can only consult the Quran, Hadith, and prior rulings to reach ijma and issue a religious ruling (fatwa).  It is difficult for the ulama to apply dated sources and interpretations to the situations of a modern, globalized world.  For example, there is a Hadith that forbids women from traveling one day’s travel without a male escort.  During the age of reasoning, the ulama’s ijma was that this distance could not exceed fifty miles.  In the modern age, however, a woman can travel that distance in less than an hour by car and in mere minutes by plane.[iii]  Jihad originates from Sharia, and like Sharia it can be misinterpreted or misapplied in the modern age.[iv]

Jihad is derived from the Arabic root that means to struggle or strive in the service of God.  War is not simply jihad and jihad is not simply war.[v]  There is the greater jihad and the lesser jihad.  The greater jihad is the ever-raging battle within the hearts and minds of all Muslims to stay true to the teachings and tenets of Islam.  This greater jihad was called the “jihad of the tongue” because Muslims were ideologically struggling to overcome disbelief (kufr) and polytheism (shirk).  Muhammad stressed the importance of greater jihad repeatedly throughout the Quran.  Muhammad stated, “The best struggle is to struggle against your soul.”[vi]  The greater jihad is a peaceful jihad, and it is the most esteemed version of jihad in the Quran.[vii]

The lesser jihad dominates the headlines today.  This jihad is war, albeit war in the name and service of God.  The Quran emphasizes order because Islam is a communal religion and cannot thrive in chaos.[viii]  Accordingly, strict laws govern the violence inherent in lesser jihad.[ix]  Only the legitimate ruler of an Islamic State can declare jihad.[x]  Jihad, however, cannot create an Islamic State because only an Islamic State can sanction jihad in the first place.  Muhammad did not use the force of arms to establish the Islamic State in Medina.  God provided for the peaceful establishment of this Islamic State through the Charter of Medina.[xi]

The Quran advises Muslim leaders on the criteria for jihad, and the intended audience is not every Muslim.[xii]  Jihad must restore order and provide justice.  If this is not the purpose of jihad, then it is just violent anarchy which the Quran forbids.[xiii]  Furthermore, a just end can never be achieved through unjust means.  Muhammad Tahir Al Qadri, the founder of Minhaj Al Quran International and a fierce opponent of extremism, preaches pure acts for pure goals.  A Muslim cannot finance the construction of a mosque by robbing a bank.[xiv]

Islam prefers order to chaos, even if that order is not perfect.  Jihad to overthrow rulers is extremely difficult to justify.  Muslims who live in non-Muslim societies cannot use jihad to overthrow non-Muslim rulers who do not implement Sharia.  A non-Muslim ruler who protects the religious rights of Muslims and does not force them to act against Sharia cannot face jihad.[xv]  The Quran advocates peace and dialogue in the face of oppressive rulers.  Muhammad said, “The best jihad is a true word spoken in the presence of a tyrannical ruler.”[xvi]  God granted Muhammad permission to wage jihad only after he migrated to Medina and the Meccans pursued him.[xvii]  Quranic verse 22:39 is the first verse that approves violence.  It reads, “Permission is given to those who are fought against,” but it comes only after seventy previous verses forbidding violence.[xviii]

It also difficult to justify jihad through claims of disbelief.  In Islam there is a huge difference between disbelief and sin.  The Quran advises all Muslims to assume sin and let God be the judge of disbelief.  Anything short of a public denouncement of Islam fails to justify a jihad to overthrow a Muslim ruler, and an uprising against a non-Muslim ruler is only permissible jihad if that ruler blatantly oppresses the practice of Islam.  For example, if a Muslim ruler announces publicly that Ramadan is forbidden, then that is disbelief and worthy of jihad.  However, if that ruler simply fails to fast, then that is laziness and merely sinful.[xix]

There are many additional laws that control that conduct of jihad.  The false jihad of the Islamic State flies in the face of true and legitimate jihad.  Massacres on the streets of Paris, suicide bombings in Beirut, and pressing captured Yezidi girls into sexual slavery are not jihad.  Muhammad set the precedent for true jihad during the conflicts of the Medinan period and the Quran clearly demarcates these rules.[xx]  Sharia prohibits the killing of the elderly, sick, women, or children.  The deliberate destruction of animals or fruit producing trees is also forbidden.  The Quran specifically inhibits the mistreatment of prisoners, the mutilation of fallen enemy warriors, and reneging on treaties or agreements. 

Saladin is perhaps the most accepted exemplification of righteous jihad in Islamic history, excluding the Prophet.  Saladin waged a defensive jihad at the behest of a legitimate Muslim ruler to regain the holy city of Jerusalem.  In 1099 Christian Crusaders sacked Jerusalem and put the Muslim residents to the sword.  Saladin avenged this conquest, and reconquered Jerusalem, in 1187.  Saladin, however, followed the tenets of jihad and spared the Christian inhabitants of the city.  The wives and daughters of killed Crusaders even asked for his mercy, which he granted by giving them gifts, money, and protection.[xxi]  Saladin honored all treaties, truces, and agreements with the Crusaders and ensured that prisoners were treated in accordance with Sharia.[xxii]  Saladin is considered the standard in Islam for just, righteous jihad.

The jihads of Al Shabaab and Boko Haram do not live up to Saladin’s standard.  The jihadi-salafists today use Al Qaeda’s interpretation of jihad, which stems from the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.  The gradual exposure of Somalia and Nigeria to Wahhabism made their populations more susceptible to the militant tenets of jihadi-salafism.  Saudi Arabia used their significant finances to export their particular strain of Islam.  In the 1990’s, Saudi Arabia provided over $70 billion to fund over 1500 mosques, 210 Islamic Centers, 202 Islamic Colleges, and roughly 2000 Islamic schools all over the Muslim world.[xxiii]

Al Shabaab’s and Boko Haram’s ideological ties to Wahhabism explain how fundamentalist jihadi-salafist groups sprung from the largely Sufi landscapes of Somalia and Nigeria.  When Al Shabaab emerged in 2006 fully half of their eight-man Shura council were veterans who fought under Al Qaeda’s banners in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the late 1980s.[xxiv]  Boko Haram’s origins stem from the ideological founder of the Salafist Izala movement in Nigeria, Sheikh Abubakar Gumi.  Gumi worked in Saudi Arabia and established a network of Wahhabi financiers who bank rolled his Izala movement.  Boko Haram’s founder, Muhammad Yusut, was a former member of Izala.

The militant ideology of jihadi-salafism stretches back to the thirteenth century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya.  Ibn Taymiyya preached a return to the pure Islam of the Prophet, and he argued that a lack of Muslim piety caused the calamity of the Mongol invasion.  Ibn Taymiyya released a fatwa which stated that multiple emirates, or Islamic states, were permitted, and that each ruler could proclaim jihad.[xxv]  Hassan Al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, brought Ibn Taymiyya’s militant jihad into the twentieth century.  Sayyed Qutb, Muhammad Abd Al Salam Faraj, and Abdullah Mawdudi continued to expand on this unique and controversial interpretation of jihad.[xxvi]

Abdallah Azzam merged the disparate militant interpretations into today’s modern version.  Azzam issued a fatwa in 1979 titled, “In Defense of Muslim Lands,” that really championed the notion of non-state sanctioned jihad.[xxvii]  He supported the claim that the famous “sword verse” of the Quran abrogated all the preceding verses which promoted peace.  Azzam ushered in the age of Islamic terrorism by giving groups like Al Shabaab and Boko Haram the doctrine they needed to lay a false claim to justified jihad.

Azzam provided the Islamists in Somalia the ideological doctrine to wage jihad, but the iron regime of Said Barre prevented them from actually acquiring power.  The complete collapse of order in 1991 provided the opening for the Islamist groups waiting on the periphery, Al Shabaab among them, to rise to prominence in Somalia.  Al Shabaab existed as an organization long before they officially became a distinct group in 2006.[xxviii]  The Sharia Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Mogadishu served as an incubator for the fledgling group.  The years following the collapse of the Barre regime were filled with chaos and corruption.  Islam requires order to flourish, and Somalis were tired of the constant conflict.  Somalis experiences the failures of authoritarianism, clannism, nationalism, socialism, and warlordism.  The powerful and influential Mogadishu businessmen were especially desperate for order, and they turned to the Islamists.[xxix]  The Sharia courts appeared in Mogadishu in 1998, and they merged in the street battles of 2006 to become the Islamic Courts Union.

The ICU, Al Shabaab, various militias, and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) all controlled certain areas and neighborhoods of Mogadishu.  Al Shabaab suddenly experienced the opportunity to govern and administer actual territory.  The disparity in governance between Al Shabaab’s area and the areas under the control of the TFG or militias quickly became apparent to the residents.  The international community trained the majority of the TFG-militia members, but the Somali government lacked the resources to actually pay these fighters a fixed, predictable salary.  As a result, these militia members preyed on the local population through corruption and extortion to acquire the fixed income that their government could not provide.[xxx]  The TFG-militia forces alienated the people under their administration, and many of these people began to support Al Shabaab.

The price of Al Shabaab’s order was far from cheap.  Al Shabaab prevented theft and corruption, but in the process they altered the very fabric of daily life.  They destroyed Sufi tombs and assassinated Sufi clerics under charges of heresy.  Al Shabaab ruthlessly applied a draconian interpretation of Sharia law that was totally alien to the local population.  Sheikh Abdallah Ali, a senior cleric in the ICU, release a fatwa in 2006 which stated, “He who does not perform prayers will be considered an infidel and Sharia law orders that person be killed.”[xxxi]  Somalis, however, were willing to pay Al Shabaab’s price to eliminate corruption and chaos.  A unanimous Somali man told the Human Rights Watch, “A human being always strives to get independence and freedom, but the Shabaab administration brought peace and stability.”[xxxii]  Al Shabaab initially justified their jihad by proclaiming that they reestablished order, stability, and rule of law.

The collapse of order gave Al Shabaab their initial opportunity, but foreign intervention enabled them to continuously justify their jihad.  Al Shabaab played off traditional Somali xenophobia by claiming a defensive jihad, and by tying Somalia into the Muslim clash of civilization with the West.  Ethiopia was wary of a potential Islamist state on their border, and they executed a relatively limited incursion into Somalia in 1996 to secure their borders.  In December 2006, Ethiopia raised the stakes substantially by conducting a large-scale invasion to prevent the Islamists from conquering the TFG capital of Baidoa.  Ethiopian forces proceeded to occupy parts of Mogadishu and Kismayo, two of the largest cities in Somalia.  The African Union created the Somalia Mission (AMISOM) and deployed roughly 1,500 Ugandan troops to Mogadishu in March 2007.  Kenya followed in 2011 with an additional deployment of troops.  Meanwhile, the United States conducted near continuous drone strikes targeting Al Shabaab leadership.[xxxiii]  Somalis watched as foreign forces poured into their homeland.

None of the forces that intervened in Somalia originated from Muslim majority countries, and these attacks enabled Al Shabaab to advertise a defensive jihad against infidel and apostate forces attacking Islam.  The very fact that the TFG received support from Ethiopia and Kenya tainted them in the eyes of the Islamists and prevented any potential peace negotiations.  In June 2006, the leader of the ICU, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, said, “As long as Ethiopia is in our country, talks with the governmental cannot go ahead…if the government cares about the Somalis it should remove our enemy from the country.”[xxxiv]

Foreign intervention justified Al Shabaab’s jihad and provided a steady stream of recruits.  Ethiopian forces followed a Soviet Doctrine which relied on heavy artillery bombardments.  They adhered to this doctrine even when operating in the heavily populated urban areas of Mogadishu.[xxxv]  These bombardments caused massive civilian casualties and collateral damage, and Al Shabaab stepped in to market themselves as defenders and avengers of Muslim blood.  Consequently, the clans with the most exposure to Ethiopian forces provided the most recruits to Al Shabaab.[xxxvi]

Foreign intervention did more than justify the jihad in the eyes of Al Shabaab, it also changed the very nature of their jihad.  In his book Chechen Jihad, Yossef Bodansky coined the term “Chechenization” to describe the process of jihadi-salafists co-opting a localized conflicts and steering it toward global objectives.[xxxvii]  Today, Al Qaeda pursues this same objective when it seeks to “unify the jihad.”  Lorenzo Vidino applied this concept more directly to Somalia in his article, “Bringing Global Jihad to the Horn of Africa.”  Vidino uses the term “sacralization” to describe conflicts where religion goes from being irrelevant or secondary in the initial phases to becoming the driving force in the later phases.[xxxviii]  Al Shabaab exploited the feeling within the broader Muslim community (ummah) that Islam was under siege worldwide from Somalia to Iraq, Palestine to Afghanistan to tie the struggle in Somalia into the conflicts raging across the Muslim world.[xxxix]

Al Shabaab worked with Al Qaeda to globalize the Somali jihad.  In 2006, Usama Bin Laden released a video in which he called the TFG leader an “agent of foreign apostates,” and promised the international community that all true Muslims would “fight your soldiers on the land of Somalia and will fight you on your own land if you dispatch troops to Somalia.”[xl]  The ideologue of Al Shabaab, Sheikh Shongola, released a statement in 2007 tying Al Shabaab to the struggles in Jerusalem, Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan.[xli]  Muktar Robow, a key Al Shabaab leader, further embraced the concept of a global jihad when he said, “Al Qaeda is the mother of holy war in Somalia.”[xlii]

Al Shabaab and the ICU did not share a vision for a global jihad, and this difference led to severe tensions.  In their official magazine, Millet Ibrahim, Al Shabaab attacked the leader of the ICU for simple nationalism when they wrote, “He had a different opinion about Ethiopia and its war, and about America and its aggressiveness.  Rather, he is nothing more than a Somali nationalist, pure and simple.  The global jihad means nothing to him.”[xliii]  Al Shabaab altered the purpose of the Somali jihad by aligning it with the global aims of Al Qaeda.  This alignment became official in 2012, when Al Shabaab formally merged with Al Qaeda.  In truth, this merger simply formalized in name what was already occurring in practice.

The Somali ulama were slow to condemn Al Shabaab.  In 2006, when Al Shabaab emerged, no one was really certain of their aspirations or intentions.  Over time, Al Shabaab clearly demonstrated to the ulama that they were manipulating Islam and perverting the concept of jihad to help them consolidate power.  On 12 September 2013, after years and years of wanton violence and bloodshed, 160 Somali ulama finally convened and released the first fatwa against Al Shabaab.  This fatwa prohibited violence against the legitimate Somali government, joining or supporting Al Shabaab, and urged Somalis to fight the group.  The fatwa stated, “Al Shabaab has strayed from the correct path of Islam, leading the Somali people onto the wrong path.  The ideology they are spreading is a danger to the Islamic religion and the existence of the Somali society.”[xliv]  Al Shabaab confirmed the danger they posed only a week later when they stormed the West Gate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya and massacred dozens of innocent shoppers.

When Said Barre fled Somalia in 1999 he found sanctuary in Nigeria.  The chaos and conflict for which Somalia is infamous followed him there.  By 2011, the Nigerian academic professor Pat Utomi remarked, “We’ve arrived in Somalia…the average Nigerian now seems disconnected from the Nigerian state (like the Somalis).  He doesn’t feel he is worth much.  If his life means nothing, the lives of others means nothing to him also.”[xlv]  Theophilus Danjuma, a former Nigerian Minister of Defense, coined the term “Somalisation” to describe Nigeria’s rapid descent into chaos.[xlvi]

Nigeria contains about 20% of Africa’s entire population, and it is the largest country in the world that is almost equally divided between Muslims and Christians.[xlvii]  Nigeria has a long history of inter-religious and inter-communal violence which is exacerbated today by the earning potential of massive hydrocarbon resources.[xlviii]  Nigeria is a different case than Somalia, but it is similar in that it also under siege by violent jihadi-salafists.  In Somalia, Al Shabaab used a lack of governance to initiate jihad and foreign intervention to sustain it.  In Nigeria, Boko Haram used the corruption of an existing government to begin jihad and unrelenting government brutality to spread it.

In 1999 Nigerians looked to a restored democracy to solve their problems and realize their hope for a better future.  Nigerians yearned for better living conditions, and for Nigeria to take her rightful place among the industrialized nations of the world.  They were soon disappointed.  Today about 75% of Northern Nigerians live on less than a dollar a day.  Oil revenues increase yearly, but so does the percentage of Nigerians living in poverty.[xlix]  Less than 54% of men can read and half of all children under the age of five are stunted due to malnutrition.  Only one house out of four has access to electricity.[l]  All of this abject poverty is present in Northern Nigeria despite Nigeria earning over $86 billion in hydrocarbon exports in 2011 alone.[li]

Northern Nigerians saw the quality of life improve in the non-Muslim south.  Southern Nigerians today fare better in every economic and educational statistic.  Democracy failed the Nigerian Muslims, and bereft of other options, they looked to their religious history to secure their future.  The implementation of Sharia law began in the Zamfara state in October 1999, and it quickly swept across the North.  Life, however, did not improve under Sharia for the majority of Muslims.  The elite used Sharia to consolidate power, enrich themselves, and continue to oppress the masses.[lii]  The misapplication of God’s law and continued corruption propelled the rise of Muhammad Yusuf and the organization he founded: Boko Haram.

Boko Haram began as an Izala splinter group which sought to implement Sharia law and eliminate the endemic corruption in Nigeria.  Corruption was culprit for the disparity between horrid living conditions and massive hydrocarbon wealth.  Government officials at every level siphoned off hundreds of billions of dollars since the discovery and exportation of Nigerian hydrocarbons.[liii]  Bribes were part of the rhythm of everyday life.  Bribes initiated criminal investigations, and bribes determined the eventual outcome of those investigations.  Corruption permeated everything, from school admissions to road construction.  Extortion was also rampant.  The police organizations were pyramid schemes.  Low-level police officers made payments up the chain to the highest levels.  This organizational demand for cash pushed policemen to relentlessly extort the local populations.[liv]

Boko Haram’s message of a return to the pristine Islam of the Prophet and the equal justice of Sharia law resonated with the corruption weary populace.  The membership and influence of Boko Haram soared.  A Nigerian journalist interviewed Yusuf and wrote, “His teaching was easily accepted because the environment, the frustrations, the corruption, and the injustice made it fertile for his ideology to grow fast, very fast, like wild fire.”[lv]  An arrested Boko Haram member shouted to journalists in the crowd, “Our objective of fighting corruption by institutionalizing Islamic government must be achieved very soon.”[lvi]  The government grew wary of Boko Haram’s growing reach and influence.

Corruption enabled Boko Haram to craft a message that resounded with the Muslim population and attracted new members.  Heavy-handed government oppression, however, handed Boko Haram the provocation they needed to declare jihad.  Nigerian Security Force (SF) members conducted Operation Flush in June 2009 to oppress a growing and alarmingly influential Boko Haram.  They stopped a Boko Haram funeral procession in the Boko Haram stronghold of Maiduguri because several motorcyclists within the procession were not wearing helmets in accordance with local laws.  The Boko Haram members refused to comply, and the SF opened fire on the procession, wounding seventeen people.[lvii]  Yusuf demanded a public apology and a transparent investigation, but the government did not concede to Yusuf’s demands.  In response, Boko Haram’s jihad began in earnest on 26 July 2009 with attacks across Bauchi, Kano, Yobe, and Maiduguri.

The SF’s brutality continued to sustain Boko Haram’s jihad by alienating the population and providing Boko Haram with the manpower and motivation to continue.  Yusuf warned his followers against surrendering to the mercies of the government and told them, “If we give ourselves up, or they get us or me, they will kill me.”[lviii]  It was a prophetic revelation.  Police captured Yusuf alive on 30 July 2009 and summarily executed him while he was in police custody shortly thereafter.  The police executed at least twenty-four suspected Boko Haram members in Maiduguri alone between 28 July and 1 August 2009.[lix]  Yusuf’s father-in-law, Babu Fugu Mohammed, sent a letter to the Borno State governor prior to the attacks warning him of the impending violence.  After the attacks, Babu turned himself in to the local authorities at the behest of his lawyer, and the police promptly shot him dead.[lx]

The government failed to restrain their forces or investigate extrajudicial killings.  In a colossal display of short-sightedness, the Information Minister said that Yusuf’s murder was, “the best thing that could have happened to Nigeria.”[lxi]  The Nigerian government learned a lesson that the United States would learn years later after the raid on Abbottobad: killing the leader does not always kill the organization.  The government’s brutality validated all of Yusuf’s teachings and turned him into a martyr.  Boko Haram went underground for about a year, but then they reemerged with a vengeance in 2010 under the leadership of Yusuf’s more extreme protégé, Abubakar Shekau.

Under Shekau’s leadership, Boko Haram attacks have increased in frequency, scope, and sophistication every year since 2010.  Government forces continue to answer violence with violence.  The government holds suspects indefinitely without charges or trials.  They execute suspects, burn homes, torture detainees, and use rape as a weapon.  Human Rights Watch estimated in 2012 that government forces caused as many casualties as Boko Haram.[lxii]  Today, the jihad of Boko Haram is in danger of transitioning to a full-fledged local insurgency under the banner of the Islamic State.  Boko Haram continues to rely on government brutality to recruit and sustain its membership.  In 2012, Shekau stated, “Everyone has seen what the security personnel have done to us.  Everyone has seen why we are fighting them.”[lxiii]  Government oppression continues to fuel the false jihad of Boko Haram.

The Nigerian ulama, unlike the Somali ulama, quickly attacked Boko Haram publicly with fatwas and statements.  The Nigerian ulama challenged the legitimacy of Boko Haram’s ideology even before the violent outbreaks.  The salafist Ja’far Adam publicly attacked Yusuf’s ideology and Islamic pedigree.[lxiv]  Muslim leaders like the Sultan of Sokoto labeled Boko Haram members as common criminals.  The prominent Nigerian cleric, Dr. Muhammad Abdul Islam Ibra him, issued the most damning fatwa in 2012.  Dr. Ibrahim said, “Terrorism, in its very essence, is an act that symbolizes infidelity and rejection of what Islam stands for…Only the victims of ignorance, jealousy, and malice go for militancy.  Islam declares them rebels.  They will abide in hell.”[lxv]  The global ummah was largely silent on Boko Haram until they kidnapped two-hundred school girls in April 2014, and today the entire ummah universally condemns Boko Haram.

The ulama across the Muslim world are finally awakening to the dangers of jihadi-salafism and the threat that groups like Al Shabaab and Boko Haram pose to the world at large.  The issue is that the ulama will often condemn atrocities, but refuse to condemn the individuals who committed those atrocities.  A former Kuwaiti official lamented in 2004 that the ulama did not issue a single fatwa calling for Bin Laden’s death.[lxvi]  There is bitter struggle within Islam between the educated ulama and unqualified criminals for the authority to issue fatwas.  If charismatic leaders with scant Islamic educations like Yusuf can issue religious rulings with no repercussions, then the system of Islamic jurisprudence is threatened with irrelevance.  A true Islamic education is a powerful for force for counter-radicalization, which is why few jihadi-salafist leaders are true members of the ulama.[lxvii]  The ulama must wage relentless jihad against the legitimacy and ideology of jihadi-salafism in order to take the narrative of Islam back from the hands of criminals and psychopaths.

Muslim democrats are also leading the ideological fight against jihadi-salafism.  Abdullahi Al-Naim adovcates a return to the Islam of the Meccan period.  “Meccan Islam” puts a premium on reasoning, the peaceful celebration of God, and upholding the moral responsibilities of the faithful.[lxviii]  A return to the Islam of the Meccan period would also open the gates of ijtihad, which is critical because this would give the ulama the right to apply logic and reasoning to modernize the applications of Islam.  Without ijtihad unqualified terrorists will continue to deliberately manipulate and misapply Sharia by exploiting loop-holes to justify bloodshed.

Misapplying Sharia is not uncommon, and cunning, charismatic leaders like Yusuf can selectively edit the Quran or Hadith to justify almost any action.  This is not a new trend.  In the thirteenth century the Islamic scholar Ibn Qayyim Al Jawziyya made an observant that remains relevant today: “As for the fanatics, they can place any problem upside down.  When they turn to the Sunnah they borrow only what corresponds to their pronouncements and contrive tricks to push away evidence that does not suit them.”[lxix]

There are true heroes within the ranks of the ulama, but not enough to turn to tides of this ideological war.  Jamal Al Banna actively disputes the ideology of his brother and founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan Al Banna.  Jamal compares the militant Islamists today to the Kharijites who killed the Caliphs Uthman and Ali.[lxx]  El Fadl, Al Na’im, and Qadri are among the ulama who aggressively undermine the legitimacy of jihadi-salafism, and the jihadi-salafists who continue to commit heinous crimes in the name of Islam.  The Islamic State conducts mass executions, sells captured girls into a life of sexual slavery, and destroys ancient relics all while waving a black flag emblazoned with the name of God.  The question is, will mainstream, moderate Muslims confront these corruptions, or will they continue to let a bloodthirsty band of radicals define Islam for the non-Muslim world?

Jihadi-salafism is an Islamic problem, and it requires an Islamic solution.  Dr. Ibrahim, when speaking of Boko Haram, said, “They are in the minority in the Muslim ummah, but as is often the case, such forces are always the most vocal.  It is time now in our dear country for the voice of the majority who have always been against extremism and terrorism to move away from silence and let their voices be heard.”[lxxi]  If the majority remains silent, then it is likely violence will continue to escalate and transcend international borders, as it has most recently in France and Kenya.  Eventually the non-Muslim world, be it France, Russia, or the United States, will seek to impose a non-Muslim solution through the force of arms.  This will only add more fuel to an already blazing fire.  Will the ummah respond?

The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.


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Williams, Daniel. Spiraling Violence: Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria. New York: Human Rights Watch, 2012.

End Notes

[i]    John A. Turner, Religious Ideology and the Roots of the Global Jihad: Salafi-Jihadism and the International Order (England: Macmillan, 2014), 105.

[ii]  John Kelsay, Arguing the Just War in Islam (London: Harvard University Press, 2007), 175.

[iii]  Ibid., 182.

[iv]  Turner, 57.

[v]  Asma Afsaruddin, Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 10.

[vi]  Ibrahim Kalin, War and Peace in Islam: The Uses and Abuses of Jihad (Jordan: Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought, 2013), 61.

[vii]  Ibid., xii.

[viii]  Shmuel Bar, Warrant for Terror: Fawtas of Radical Islam and the Duty of Jihad (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Inc., 2006), 3.

[ix]  David Cook, Understanding Jihad (Berkely: University of California Press, 2005), 20.

[x]  Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, The Islamic Shari’ah of Jihad (Lahore: Institute of Islamic Sciences, 2005), 1.

[xi]  Ibid., 50.

[xii]  Ibid., 7.

[xiii]  Kalin, 162.

[xiv]  Afsaruddin, 266.

[xv]  Kalin, 88.

[xvi]  Afsaruddin, 35.

[xvii]  Ghamidi, 6.

[xviii]  Afsaruddin, 35.

[xix]  Kalin, 85.

[xx]  Ghamidi, 14.

[xxi]  Jonathan Phillips, Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades (New York: Random House, 2009), 135.

[xxii]  Anne-Marie Edde, Saladin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 272.

[xxiii]  Shaul Shay, Somalia Between Jihad and Restoration (London: Transaction, 2008), 49.

[xxiv]  Stig Jarle Hansen, Al Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012 (New York: Columbia University press, 2013), 63.

[xxv]  Available from:

[xxvi]  Afsaruddin, 214.

[xxvii]  Bar, 38.

[xxviii]  Hansen, 26.

[xxix]  Ibid., 33.

[xxx]  Hansen, 26.

[xxxi]  Shay, 100.

[xxxii]  Chris Albin-Lackey, Harsh War, Harsh Peace: Abuses by Al Shabaab, the Transitional Federal Government, and AMISOM (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2010), 22.

[xxxiii]  Hansen, 117.

[xxxiv]  Shay, 97.

[xxxv]  Hansen, 50.

[xxxvi]  Ibid., 63.

[xxxvii]  Yoseff Bodansky, Chechen Jihad: Al Qaeda’s Training Ground and the Next Wave of Terror (New York: Harper Collins, 2007).

[xxxviii]  Lorenzo Vidino, “Bringing Global Jihad to the Horn of Africa: Al Shabaab, Western Fighters, and the Sacralization of the Somali Conflict,” African Security 3.4 (2010), 216-238.

[xxxix]  Hansen, 31.

[xl]  Shay, 31.

[xli]  Hansen, 62.

[xlii]  Vidino, 223.

[xliii]  Ibid., 222.

[xliv]  Mary Harper, “Somali Islamic Scholars Denounce Al Shabaab in Fatwa,” BBC, 12 September 2013; available from

[xlv]  Adeyemi Johnson Ademowo, Boko Haram, Peace Culture, and the Quest for a United Nigeria (Ibadan: Ayomide, 2012), 21.

[xlvi]  Ademowo, 22.

[xlvii]  Daniel Williams, Spiraling Violence: Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2012), 27.

[xlviii]  Williams, 26.

[xlix]  Johannes Harnischfeger, Democratization and Islamic Law: The Sharia Conflict in Nigeria (New York: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 196.

[l]  Williams, 27.

[li]  Ibid., 24.

[lii]  Hamischfeger, 155.

[liii]  Williams, 24.

[liv]  Ibid., 25.

[lv]  Ibid., 24.

[lvi]  Ibid., 25.

[lvii]  Philip Oluwole Ukanah, In God’s Name: The Story of Nigeria’s Religious War and Its Brutal Killing (Ibadan: Divine Press, 2011), 251.

[lviii]  Williams, 35.

[lix]  Ibid., 61.

[lx]  Williams, 63.

[lxi]  Ibid, 36.

[lxii]  Williams, 9.

[lxiii]  Ibid., 42.

[lxiv]  Anonymous, “The Popular Discourses of Salafi Radicalism and Salafi Counter-radicalism in Nigeria: A Case Study of Boko Haram,” Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012): 122. 

[lxv]  Dr. Muhammad Abdul Islam Ibrahim, Fatwa on Boko Haram Suicide Bombing and Other Terrorist Activities in Nigeria. Available from: 

[lxvi]  Bar, 98.

[lxvii]  Shane Drennan, Constructing Takfir: From Abdullah Azzam to Djamel Zitouni. Available from: 

[lxviii]  Kelsay, 175.

[lxix]  Bar, x.

[lxx]  Ibid., 241.

[lxxi]  Ibrahim, 1.


About the Author(s)

Major Daniel Pesature, U.S. Army, is a foreign area officer specializing in the Middle East and North Africa.  He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 2005 and recently earned a Master of International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.  Major Pesature is currently a student at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.



Sun, 12/27/2015 - 12:11pm

The advance of «Post Modern Jihadis» like Daesh (the So Called Islamic So Called State) cannot be understood - in territorial terms - without a deep study of areas without governance, failed/struggling states or unstable areas.

On the other hand, the progression of the same form of small Jihad in Muslim communities in the West or in stable societies in general cannot equally be understood without grasping the crisis of Islam as a living religion, the existential status quo of such groups (a different category from its «social-economic» status quo) and the propaganda effect of having Daesh as a successful territorial entity in Syria and Iraq, in Nigeria and Somalia, in the Sinai or Northern Mali, in Libya or in the no-man's land bordering Algeria and Mauritania.

So, to destroy Daesh in its territorial dimension is only one part of crushing the small jihad lurking in western and stable societies all around the world.

It is good not to have too many illusions regarding this matter

Nuno Rogeiro
Lisbon, Portugal