ISIL Theological Roots: The Last Two Men

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As previously mentioned, in my teaching at seminaries I have told my students that Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, Abu Bakr Naji and Fouad Hussein, are going to become so famous that they will overshadow Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Finally it happened, although not exactly how I thought it would happen. ISIL is the product of the writings and thinking of these three men and others. In my first blog on this subject, I gave a bird’s eye view of five men whose writings have had the greatest impact on ISIL, and then in the next blog I addressed three more. In this blog I will address the last two. The first eight addressed in the previous two blogs were:

1. Ibn Taymiya

2. Hasan al Banna

3. Sayid Qutb

4. Osama bin Laden

5. Ayman Zawahiri

6. Abu Mus’ab al-Suri

7. Abu Bakr Naji

8. Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi

As I share about the last two men, I hope you have been motivated to go deeper to learn more about these men and their influence. As you read, please notice words and ideas that describe or influence what ISIL is doing today, such as territory, wearing down the enemy, terrorism created by individuals or small autonomous groups, leaderless resistance, luring America to overreach, create failed states then enforce order, decapitation for shock and awe, Israel’s occupation of West Bank and Gaza, hatred for the Shiites, expand into Syria, Caliphate, shift of balance, an Islamic army, electronic capabilities, the Iraq war, Camp Bucca in Iraq, steady growth and expansion, the near and distant enemies and an Islamic eschatology.

9. Fouad Hussein was a radical political Jordanian journalist who was imprisoned in Jordan along with Zarqawi and Zarqawi’s mentor, al-Maqdisi. In 2005, Hussein wrote a book with the title Zarqawi: The Second Generation of al-Qaeda. In this book he described what should be al-Qaeda’s “grand strategy” over a twenty-year period. The first stage in the plan was 9/11, and it served its main purpose of luring the U.S. into military conflict in the Middle East. In the second stage of the struggle, al-Qaeda was to move from being merely an organization to becoming an inspiring idea and a popular trend in various countries around the world. In the third stage, al-Qaeda was to expand attacks to countries in the Middle East, such as Iran, resulting in a gradual weakening of governments in the Middle East. Dragging Iran into conflict with America would cause the U.S. to overextend its forces. Syria was to be next, bringing al-Qaeda closer to its ultimate goal, Israel. By the end of this stage, al-Qaeda would have completed its electronic capabilities. The fourth stage was to continue to wear down the Americans, and in the fifth stage Hussein believed that the balance of power would shift in the Middle East, with an increased hatred for America and Israel and an increased popularity of the jihadi movements. The sixth stage was to be the beginnings of an Islamic army and a caliphate. At this stage, al-Qaeda would launch electronic attacks to undermine the U.S. economy, the goal being the collapse of the dollar. Finally, the caliphate would be consolidated with a strong Islamic army trained with urban warfare and  ready for total confrontation. This would be the beginning of defeat of the “nonbelievers” in a global conflict. Do you see ISIL using this twenty-year plan?

10. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a mysterious figure where more questions about him remain than there are answers that can be found. He is known to be the leader of the world's most dangerous jihadist group, the Islamic State. He is believed to have been born in Samara, Iraq, in 1971, with the name of Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, and according to jihadist Internet forums, he obtained a BA, MA and a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. Reports suggest he was a cleric in a mosque in Baghdad around the time of the U.S.-invasion in 2003. Some believe that he was already a militant Muslim fundamentalist during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Other reports claim that Baghdadi’s ruthlessness lies in the bloodshed unleashed after the U.S. invasion to topple Saddam Hussein and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Not long after the invasion on April 9, 2003, Iraq descended into anarchy. Saddam and his men went into hiding while the Sunni insurgents began their deadly attacks. Baghdadi was captured in Fallujah by U.S. forces, perhaps because he was an associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is believed that al-Zarqawi, the mastermind of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in 2006, mentored Baghdadi after the invasion began. It is more likely that Baghdadi was radicalized to a deeper degree during the years of imprisonment at Camp Bucca, the U.S. facility in southern Iraq where many of the radical jihadists were detained. Camp Bucca was described as a summer camp for ambitious terrorists. Under the eyes of Americans, the prisoners interacted, traded information and battle tactics, and made important contacts for the future. Former Baathists were radicalized as well, and the camp is still referred to as “The Academy” because it held so many radical Islamists, jihadists and battle-hardened soldiers who made lifelong commitments to fundamentalism. Later on, most of these prisoners were released. Perhaps ISIL was conceived at Camp Bucca.

Following his release, Baghdadi resumed his activities, and in May 2010 he was appointed the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq. In 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq expanded into Syria and ISIL was formed. In June 2014, ISIL announced the establishment of a caliphate and Baghdadi was named “Caliph Ibrahim” and ISIL was renamed the Islamic State (I.S.). In an audiotaped message, Baghdadi announced that ISIL would march on “Rome” (the West) and expand the Islamic State to Europe. Dabiq (a town north west of Syria where a war took place between Muslims and Christendom in early Islamic history) was the name chosen for the ISIL magazine that was launched in July 2014. The name and the contents of the magazine reveal ISIL's connection with an Islamic version of end time eschatology and an Islamic perception of an “Armageddon” between the Islamic State and the West which is the distant enemy. Another foundation of their belief is that growth goes hand in hand with purifying the defiled Islam with the blade of the sword leading to a unified authority and a single leadership. The "near" enemy (the urgent) that needs to be purified with the sword are the countries of the Middle East including Iran, in order to build strength to face the "distant" (important and ultimate) enemy, Israel and its patrons. Finally, they have an unshakable conviction that ISIL needs to continue to grow steadily, just like the first hundred years in the history of Islam, and if it stops growing it will die or go into decline. Like multi-level marketing, its continuity depends on constant growth and expansion.

Here is a CNN short video on ISIL. Here is another short video on the Islamic State expansion into Libya and the martyrdom of the twenty-one Egyptian Christians.

How should we respond?

In February 2015 by the Mediterranean Sea in Libya, twenty-one Egyptian Christians dressed in orange marched alongside twenty-one ISIL men dressed in black. Which group was in fear? Those who refused to renounce their faith in Christ for forty-five days and walked to their deaths believing that they would soon be in the presence of God, or was it those who were hoping that by their demonic act God might accept them into paradise? “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Revelation 12:11).

Paul used to be one of those dressed in black. “And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him” (Acts 22:20). Stephen paved the way for many Christians who have followed, and will follow, in his footsteps.  

Dr. Nabeel Jabbour