ISIL Theological Roots: The Next Three Men


For years 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 has 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 the previous blog, I gave a bird’s eye view of the first five men whose writings have had the greatest impact on ISIL. I will address the next three in this blog and in the blog that follows I will address the last two. The first five addressed in the previous blog were:

1. Ibn Taymiya

2. Hasan al Banna

3. Sayid Qutb

4. Osama bin Laden

5. Ayman Zawahiri

As I share about the next five men in this and in the next blog, I hope to whet your appetite and motivate you to go deeper to learn more about these men and their influence. As you read, please notice words and ideas that describe what ISIL is doing today and what they are aiming for, 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 the 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.

6. Abu Mus’ab al-Suri was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1958, and his name at birth was Mustafa Sitmariam Nasar. He lived in various countries including Jordan, England, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but most of his years were in Spain. He married a Spanish woman who converted to Islam, and Suri became a Spanish citizen. In 1987 he joined in the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets. At about the same time, he met Osama bin Laden and it is believed that Suri joined bin Laden’s inner circle before going back to Spain in 1992. In 1997 he moved with his family to Afghanistan, and in 1998 he left al-Qaeda. He was arrested in Pakistan in 2005 and rendered to his home country, Syria. According to Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, Suri is still in prison in Syria.

His biggest impact on the jihadi movements, including ISIL, came through his writings. He published a 900-page treatise critiquing the Muslim Brotherhood in 1991. This work became part of the intellectual foundation of al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda used to be an anti-communist organization. Suri’s contributions transformed it into a vehicle of his thinking. His most important work came through his 1,600-page book that appeared on the Internet in 1994, with the title The Global Islamic Resistance Call. In this book he dissected the weaknesses of the jihadi movements, including al-Qaeda, and laid down a plan for the future struggle. He believed that the 9/11 attacks were wrong and caused a setback. He pointed out that the next stage in Jihad should be terrorism created by individuals or small autonomous groups (leaderless resistance) to wear down the enemy, all for the goal of gaining territory (important impact on ISIL). Suri stated that, “The American occupation of Iraq inaugurated a historical new period that almost single-handedly rescued the Jihad movement just when many of its critics thought that it was finished.” For further insights I recommend The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright.

7. Abu Bakr Naji’s name at birth was Muhammad Khalil al-Hakaymah, and it is not known whether he is Jordanian or Tunisian. In 2004, he published his book, The Management of Savagery, on the Internet. He was inspired on the one hand by Ibn Taymiya, and on the other by Western thinkers such as Paul Kennedy, whose book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, claimed that imperial overreach leads to the downfall of empires. Naji recommended that the jihadists should attack the vital economic centers of countries, forcing them to become failed states. Once that happens, the people will lose confidence in their governments. Once the government loses control, savagery (anarchy and chaos) will naturally follow. This will be the golden opportunity for the jihadists to win the allegiance of the populations in desperate need of order and security. Once the jihadists impose security, provide food and medical treatment, and establish Islamic courts of justice, the population will forget that the jihadists created the anarchy in the first place. ISIL is putting into practice the principles of Naji’s book.

8. Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi is from the town of Zarqa, Jordan. His name at birth was Ahmad Fadeel al-Khalayleh. He was neither an intellectual nor a strategist, but a reckless warrior who won the respect of other warriors when he came to Pakistan to fight the Soviets. While in Pakistan he met a Palestinian Sheikh, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who transformed him from a foot soldier to a leader. In 1993, Zarqawi and Maqdisi went back to Jordan and were imprisoned. In 1999, King Abdullah of Jordan granted amnesty to prisoners, and both men were released from prison. Zarqawi went to Afghanistan and established his own training camp for Jordanians, Syrians and Palestinians. After 9/11 he went to Iran, then to the Kurdish region in Iraq, then to Baghdad after the invasion of Iraq. In addition to his hatred for Americans for their support for Israel, he was obsessed with a desire to fight the Shiites. After the invasion of Iraq, he bombed a Shiite mosque killing 125 people, including Ayatollah Muhammad Baker al-Hakim, a well-respected Shiite leader. Zarqawi wanted to awaken the Sunnis to the imminent danger of Shiite power. He finally convinced bin Laden of his vision: spontaneous groups carrying out terrorist acts (wearing down the enemy) and an open struggle for territory in Iraq. In 2004 he became the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. In that same year he decapitated Nicholas Berg, the young American contractor. Zarqawi’s joining of al-Qaeda resulted in the doubling of murders committed by al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi’s objectives were: a) expel the Americans from Iraq; b) establish an Islamic authority in the direction of the caliphate; c) extend the jihad wave to Iraq’s neighboring countries; and d) ultimately and most importantly begin a clash with Israel. In June 2006, Zarqawi was killed in an air raid in Baquba, Iraq. For a period of time, Zarqawi mentored Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of ISIL. For further reading on “ISIL,” see this article.

How should we respond?

Recently a friend sent me a video clip of a woman who was ordered to kneel on a sidewalk in one of the towns of Syria or Iraq and bow down her head. The ISIL man stood there with his knife ready to decapitate her. Before doing the act he recited some Islamic statements along with Allahu Akbar (God is great). I stopped the video right there because I could not watch the rest of that repulsive event. I believe that this man was not empowered by God as he claimed, but was empowered by a demonic spirit. So many evil events have happened in history and continue to happen when people do evil acts in the name of God. Jesus warned us about this when he said, “A time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God” (John 16:2).

Conflicts or wars are going on in so many places in our broken world today and that is the focus of news reporting. Yet there is an even larger invisible war between God and the devil taking place. We call it spiritual warfare. In this war, we already know the winners and the losers. D-Day was declared on that Sunday morning when Jesus rose from the dead and conquered the evil one by disarming him of his greatest weapon: the fear of death. With the resurrection event, death became a door to eternal life in the presence of God to those who believe in Jesus. The devil, although ultimately defeated, continues to fight fiercely. God’s people will suffer, but we need to persevere because we know the end of the story. The question addressed to us by Jesus is this: “However, when the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). For more on spiritual warfare, you can download for free my short book, The Unseen Reality.

Dr. Nabeel Jabbour