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Who Are the Players? The Jihadis

Jihadis, "holy warriors," are some of today's most prominent terrorists. The use of "jihadi" to designate Salafis of a militant stripe is controversial. Jihad has positive connotations in Islam, and those who fight to further the cause think of themselves as "holy warriors." The term was first used in the Arab media in 2013. These players can be part of the broader Salafi Movement, but most Salafis are not jihadis. Jihadi-Salafism is a unique ideological combination in Sunni Islam. It involves an international network of scholars, websites, media outlets, and, most recently, vast numbers of social media supporters. Out of 1.8 billion Muslims, one estimate places Jihadis between 100,000 and 230,000 across almost 70 countries.

Two streams of Islamic thought contributed to the emergence of the jihadi school in the latter part of the twentieth century. The first stream of thought was Salafism, a Sunni theological movement concerned with purifying the faith. The second school of thought caused an adverse reaction among the militant Salafis, and that was the Muslim Brotherhood, which originated in Egypt in 1928. The Muslim Brotherhood, which still wanted sharia and all its trappings, was a political movement that worked through civil activism to develop an Islamic constituency. The Muslim Brotherhood evolved in reaction to Western concepts such as democracy and political parties. It was willing to use tolerance and subjectivity in dealing with "quasi" Muslim governments and movements. That was unacceptable to the jihadist movement.

While Muhammad encouraged jihad, today's movement solidified from the hatred between Iran and Saudi Arabia when Wahhabism evolved in the eighteenth century. Salafis hate Shiites (the dominant sect in Iran) because they practice idolatry, such as the worship of saints, shrines, tombs of prominent clerics, and the excessive reverence of some of the Prophet Muhammad's family. Salafis consider the Shiites as apostates and deserters of the religion. Conflicts escalated in 1792 when Saudi Wahhabi forces attacked the Shiites in eastern Arabia. Later in 1802, they sacked the shrine and city of Karbala, Iraq. In 1927, the Saudis sought to convert or expel Shia clerics forcibly. Even today, the conflict still simmers, with the Trump administration in 2017, at the behest of the Saudi government, putting trade sanctions on the Iranian government.

Jihadis need a totalitarian system of government in which the Qur'an and hadiths are the governing parameters. Anyone who does not share their understanding of Islam will be declared an apostate. If one wants to know what a jihadi state will look like, contemplate the Taliban or ISIS's self-proclaimed caliphate – some examples of organizations that jihadis consider legitimately Islamic.

  • Unity of thought – no pluralism and no democracy.

  • Unadulterated sharia in every country in the Middle East.

  • Their violence to their people and governments is 1) necessary, 2) religiously sanctioned, and 3) the fault of the West, Israel, and apostate regimes.

  • They see their fight as a conflict between Islam and the apostate West. Apostate countries dominate Islamic states, and only the jihadis can break through.

  • Finally, Middle East countries are weak; they do not have the political will to remove tyrants or reform their societies.

While the Taliban is considered the type of Islamic state that Jihadis would emulate, their leader, Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, is not qualified to be a caliph. So, what are the qualifications to be a caliph? "To qualify for the caliphate, a person has to be an adult male of the tribe of Quraysh, (Muhammad's tribe) of good character, free from mental and physical defects, with administrative ability, knowledge of the Qur'an and hadith, and the courage to defend the territory of Islam."

How did Hibatullah Akhundzada fall short of the qualifications? First, he was not of the Quraysh tribe. Second, the caliph must espouse proper Salafi theology, not the Hanafi School of Law's interpretation of the law.

Jihadis lose credibility among mainstream Muslims when they attack innocent citizens, damage the sources of a nation's wealth such as tourism or oil, kill other Muslims and declare other Muslims as apostates. Criticism from influential religious leaders in the ulama is particularly damaging to their cause, as is criticism from former jihadis and prominent current jihadis. Denunciation from these sources can damage their ability to recruit fighters and funding; thus, a renegade terrorist unit can find itself alone in the field with no resources and no cooperation from other like-minded jihadis.

Unfortunately for Western governments, Jihadis feel they are God's right arm. Having kicked the Russians out of Afghanistan in 1989 and the Americans out in 2021, these "holy warriors" believe Allah makes them invincible.

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