Remembering the jihadists’ progenitors

By Claude Salhani

Mao Zedong wrote in his famous “Little Red Book” that the first step towards defeating an enemy was to know him. Mao was right but he was not the first to write that.

Mao plagiarised another Chinese military theorist who had written his thoughts hundreds of years earlier in “The Art of War.” So advanced was Sun Tzu’s thinking on military tactics that his book is still widely read by senior military personnel across the globe.

With the rise to prominence of numerous jihadist figures, a thirst for information developed regarding who those figures are and their backgrounds, what attracted them to the jihadist movement and what common denominator might have led them to join a struggle in a part of the world that was alien to them.

Another question is what connects these violent individuals to seemingly “non-violent Islamists.”

This issue has come to the fore again after the White House announced that US President Donald Trump is pushing for the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.

In a March 2017 report, the Tony Blair Centre on Religion and Geopolitics issued a study titled “Milestones to Militancy: What the Lives of 100 Jihadis Tell Us,” which stated that about half of the jihadists examined had previous ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and an additional 12% had ties to the Palestinian group Hamas.

The study’s findings showed there is no cookie-cutter mould shaping jihadist leaders. There are, however, similarities among a high percentage of them.

Almost half (46%) had a college education and about one-third had combat experience in Afghanistan. Some 25% had links to government or military officials and 16% served time in prison prior to joining jihad.

The majority of today’s radical Islamist leadership had not undergone theological training. Intelligence reports suggest that one of the most common items found in possession of foreign recruits who travelled to Syria or Iraq to fight alongside the Islamic State (ISIS) is a copy of “Islam for Dummies.”

Where does the current strain of jihadist cadres come from? It is a mixed bag, really.

Several in the top echelons of ISIS, for example, emerged from the Iraqi Army, where they served in front-line positions over the years, from the war against Iran to the fight against the US-led coalition and, of course, in Afghanistan against the Soviets when they invaded.

That’s where al-Qaeda was formed and from where today’s jihadists emerged. That was the trajectory taken by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of a global Muslim ummah.

The battlefield, the neighbourhood mosque and the prison cell have turned into meeting and recruiting locations where jihadists preach and convert. Serving in combat positions creates bonds between jihadists who develop a great sense of loyalty towards their fellow fighters.

An interesting fact that emerged from a study carried out several years ago in the occupied Palestinian territories was the similarity between Islamists and Marxists.

There are hardly any similarities between Islam and communism. Nevertheless, after the death of George Habash, the founder of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, many of the rank and file joined the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. It was quite a seemingly implausible transition but it did take place.

An easier transition is that from Muslim Brotherhood creed to jihadism. Both Islamist strains share a belief in the pursuit of an Islamic rule based on sharia, although the means towards that goal differ and the paths followed diverge.

Even when proclaiming adherence to democracy and non-violent means, the followers of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology see politics as subservient to the goal of imposing an Islamic mould to a country’s society and politics. Such a mould is destructive for democracy on top of the inhibitive effect it has on progress in the Arab-Muslim world.

There will be much debate about whether the Muslim Brotherhood should be designated a “terrorist organisation.” Whatever the outcome of the tug of war between the members of the Washington establishment involved in the decision making, the process will shed light on a connection that has been politically incorrect to highlight, that between a supposedly non-violent organisation as the Muslim Brotherhood and its jihadist progeny.

That aspect of the debate will hopefully wean the US community of Middle East experts and well-meaning democracy advocates from its naivety and put Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers on notice that the illusions about their defining roots have been dispelled.

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