The Islamic State (IS) was never a part of the legitimate resistance against Syrian President Bashar al Assad. There are possibly hundreds of opposition groups inside Syria. Several of these groups consider themselves to be the leader of the rebellion. These groups are not part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, they are divergent ethnic and religious groups that are often antagonistic and even violent towards one another.

The Islamic State has used the chaos created by the Syrian rebellion to try and fulfill an obscure Islamic prophecy. Back during the zenith of Osama bin Laden’s war with the West, some Islamists started focusing on any Islamic teachings, no matter how obscure, that promoted a jihadist visionAtomic Explosion that would be global in scope. Their goal was to legitimize their politicized version of Islam and to cement the legitimacy of jihad in the minds of Muslim moderates. This search led to scholarship regarding something called Yawm ad-Din, the Day of Judgement.

Eschatology is a part of theology concerned with the final events in history. Such a concept is often referred to as “end times” and it is definitely not limited to Islam. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Baha’i, and new religious movements such as New Age religions also have eschatological theology and followers who believe in imminent apocalypticism

The Day of Judgement was first introduced to jihadi groups by the world’s foremost jihadist scholar, a Palestinian man named Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi. Maqdisi’s prominence and knowledge has attracted jihadi acolytes over the years including Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) called upon Maqdisi to find out if their jihad in Yemen would lead to an Islamic Caliphate. Maqdisi affirmed an exceptional destiny for the jihadists in Yemen, but added a caveat that the group in Yemen would have to go on to Syria to fulfill their destiny. Maqdisi explained that AQAP would help bring about Allah’s judgment by helping to usher in the end of the world. Maqdisi explained that jihadists in the AQAP would help mobilize popular support against the West and its apostate allies by launching attacks all over the globe. But first, the fighters in Yemen had to get to Syria.

Yemeni fighters poured into Syria, but the original al Qaeda and its affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq would play a part in popularizing Syria’s role in bringing about the Day of Judgement.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi assumed control of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010. Baghdadi’s closest aide, Hajji Bakr, who has been described as the “prince of the shadows,” helped his leader consolidate power. He proclaimed Baghdadi as a legitimate caliph that was helping to usher in the apocalypse. Baghdadi’s followers believe there will only be four more caliphs after Baghdadi before the end of the world.

During this period, Bakr saw jihad in pragmatic terms. He wanted to attack government troops and police as a blueprint to open up power vacuums to deplete security and resistance to an Islamic State takeover. He also wanted to introduce a powerful religious motivation for uniting jihadists behind a single program—his program. The Day of Judgement prophecy became an influential tool for motivating jihadists to take over Iraq and Syria under Baghdadi’s control. IS fighters

When Syrians began peaceably protesting against their government in 2011, Assad’s administration released an unknown number of jihadists from prison with a calculation that these men would foster violence among the protesters and give the regime an excuse to violently suppress them. Taking advantage of the volatility, al Qaeda’s Ayman al Zawahiri encouraged Baghdadi to send members of his Islamic State of Iraq into Syria. He did, and this group morphed and eventually came to calling itself Jabhat al Nusra or Nusra Front.

Nusra expanded in Northern Syria, and it eventually splintered with the Islamic State of Iraq.

In 2013, Baghdadi announced that he was in control of Nusra and that he was merging it with the Islamic State of Iraq into one group, “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIL or ISIS). Some leaders within Nusra rejected this merger and reaffirmed an allegiance to al Qaeda. Others, particularly foreign fighters from Yemen, joined with Baghdadi.

The end times prophecy worked as a solidifying agent and as propaganda to bring jihadists groups under Baghdadi’s control.

The Qur’an does not go into much specificity about the Day of Judgement. Instead, Islamists have had to depend on hadith for descriptions and guidance. Various hadith explain that chaos and corruption will rule in Muslim lands, and Jesus (whom Muslims see as a Muslim and a Prophet) will return near the day of judgement to restore justice and to defeat the Antichrist called the Mahdi. After he defeats the Mahdi, Muslims believe that Jesus will assume leadership of the world and will live for another 40 years before dying of natural causes. The rule of Jesus will be the precursor to Muhammad returning for the final day of judgement.

The prophecy that the Islamic State has used is a version of this narration. It describes that the armies of “Rome” will gather on what are currently grasslands in Northern Syria. These armies will face off against the armies of Islam (Islamic State) and then be vanquished. IS will then be free to takeover Istanbul before a final showdown in Jerusalem. It is there in Jerusalem that Jesus will return to slaughter the Antichrist and his followers the Christians and Jews.

Most Islamic sects consider hadith to be essential supplements to, and clarifications of, the Qur’an. Sunni and Shi’a hadith collections differ drastically. Sunni hadith texts number around 10 thousand. Shi’ites refute six major Sunni collections, but Shi’a sects cannot agree with one another on which of their texts are actually authentic. Consequently, hadith texts within Shi’a traditions are more contested, and therefore an exact number for Shi’a hadith is difficult to claim.

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People that live in the West have created stereotypes for terrorists. While profiling those who could become a terrorist can be beneficial and even save lives, creating iconic clichés can lead to misinformation and dangerous assumptions.

Rome Burning

Misinformation about terrorism has become popular, in part, because people crave a simple answer for the reasons why a heinous crime has been committed. The truth is that terrorism has been used by many groups and organizations throughout history as a tactic to influence populations. Terrorism has never been an isolated problem, and it has never been limited to a single religion or ideology.

Talal Asad, Robert Pape, Alan Krueger, and Mark Juergensmeyer are just some of the academics that have been theorizing about terrorism post 9-11. Their work and the work of others like them is incredibly important if we are going to correctly comprehend the motives and actions of terrorist groups. 

Terrorists have to commit themselves to a cause in order to be galvanized into action, and individuals associated with terrorism tend to experience a progressive radicalization.Terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda have a command structure of well educated operatives who often take a complicated worldview for their causes, and al-Qaeda is not the only group like this.

If one looks systematically across a number of terrorist organizations and at various incidents of terrorism, patterns begin to emerge. It can be argued that those who become involved in terrorist organizations are often from middle class backgrounds with a high amount of education relative to the society that they come from. The vast majority of Palestinian suicide bombers have been college students, for example.

Education can be an important mechanism for radicalization as it is an amplifier for the adoption of views, and for a confidence in the assuredness of those views. Furthermore, research has found that terrorist organizations typically send better educated individuals on the more important missions, because the better educated tend to have better odds at succeeding to carry out an attack. The most common occupation for a terrorist in an engineer. 

There are many instances where groups like the Taliban have recruited uneducated youths and indoctrinated them with an extreme ideology (religio-political) to incite and encourage them; however, data on failed terrorist attacks show that often terrorists are extremely educated people who are just as likely to cite nationalistic, economic, and civil inducements as they are to espouse religious ones.

Terrorists who do identify primarily as religious tend to coalesce their religious beliefs with existing socio-cultural views influenced by their economic status, national identity, and political reality. Religious terrorists may seek out extreme religious ideologies because they are in line with their pre-existing socio-cultural worldview. This would indicate that religious extremism is not a catalyst in creating a terrorist as much as it is an approbation.

As I have said in past posts, a better understanding of what role religious extremism may play (and may not play) in terrorist actions could save future lives. However, it is important to not sensationalize religion’s influence on acts of terrorism.

So, who believes in a cause so zealously that they are willing to give up their lives for it? Terrorism is a political tactic that is used to spread fear, but, more importantly, it is intended to inflict harm on a random group of people in order to reach and influence a much wider audience. Terrorism often targets a country’s foreign policy.

What countries do terrorists come from, and what countries do they target with their attacks?

Countries that have a suppression of civil liberties (such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen) tend to be a producer of terrorists. However, Islamic countries are no more likely to produce a terrorist than non-Islamic countries. By and large, the most common signifier for a terrorist producing country is chronic political instability and widespread suppression.

Terrorist organizations tend to target wealthier countries. Globalism has interconnected the international system like never before, and wealthier countries have more influence and power in the international system because of their ability for unilateral decision making. Terrorist attacks are commonly perpetrated by groups that wish to force states into a multilateral decision making process.

failed-female-suicide-bomber-speaks-out

The phenomenon of suicide bombings is one of the terrorist acts most reported by the media (even though those kinds of attacks only make up around 5% of terrorist attacks overall). These are people that are willing to kill themselves in order to kill other people. Experts have been studying Suicidology in an effort to prevent suicides for the last thirty years, but it is an incredibly difficult challenge. Are there better ways of identifying people who are radicalized or may have mental instability, and, if so, could policies be implemented that could reduce the frequency of suicide attacks?

One of the consistent factors in suicide bombings is that the bombing itself is an act of contesting authority.

We face risk every day going about our regular lives. We are at risk for getting in a car crash, falling down a flight of stairs, and getting assaulted by someone on the street. We adequately cope with that level of risk, and it is important that we keep the risk of a terrorist attack in perspective.

Terrorism can only effect us if we let it. We cannot let past terrorist acts rule our lives or direct our policymaking. We need to think about the ways that we can reduce acts of terrorism, and then we need to continue on with our lives.

There are arguments that both support and oppose the hypothesis that suicide bombers are foremost a product of religious extremism.

Since 1980, suicide bombings have been identified with a variety of religious and secular ideologies. These ideologies include: the Hindu BKI in India, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the SSNP in Lebanon, the PFLP in the Palestinian territories, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the PPK in Turkey.

Salafi, Deobandi, and Marxist ideologies are three of the most common belief systems that are associated with suicide bombings. Marxism is a socio-political and economic worldview that is not historically associated with religion. This would suggest that suicide bombings are at least not completely a product of religious extremism.

Focusing on the Deobandi and Salafi movements, both of which I have written on in this blog before, neither Deobandi nor Salafi are unified belief systems. There is no single authority on either. Quintan Wiktorowicz has written in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism that “(t)he divisions within the Salafi community, in part, represent a generational struggle over sacred authority–the right to interpret Islam on behalf of the Muslim community.” In other words, Wiktorowicz claims that there is no single and exclusive understanding within Salafi ideology regarding actions such as suicide bombings. With this knowledge, one can assume that other ideological factors other than religion are also contributors in the making of a suicide bomber. We can come to this conclusion, because there is no homogeneous authority within a belief system like Salafi to encourage every believer into becoming a bomber. If there were, the world would have experienced millions more of these bombings.

What Makes A Suicide Bomber?

Suicide bombers seek to coalesce their religious beliefs to existing socio-cultural views influenced by their economic status, national identity, and political views. Therefore, they may seek out extreme religious ideologies because they are in line with their pre-existing socio-cultural worldview. This would indicate that religious extremism is not a catalyst in creating a suicide bomber as much as it is an approbation.

Individuals associated with suicide bombings tend to experience a progressive radicalization. A better understanding of what role religious extremism may play (and may not play) in that experience could save future lives. However, it is important to not sensationalize religion’s influence on acts of suicide bombings.

A lack of data on successful suicide bombers is a contributing factor to the ambiguity that religion plays in these events. Many groups that plan the bombings put off releasing the bomber’s identities in order to protect their families and larger community from revenge. Yet, data from failed suicide bombers is available, and it is conclusive. There are plenty of instances where groups like the Taliban recruited uneducated youths and indoctrinated them with an extreme religious ideology to incite and encourage them. However, there are just as many instances where failed bombers turn out to be extremely educated, and these people are just as likely to cite nationalistic and economic inducements as they are to espouse religious ones.

One of the few consistent factors in suicide bombings is that the bombing itself is an act of contesting authority.

Suicide bombers are reactionary. They are reacting to their socio-economic-cultural realities. They are disgruntled by factors (both real and perceived) within their community, region, or nation state.

I think it is pragmatic to state that suicide bombings are not singularly a product of religious extremism. But, for those instances where religious extremism is a factor, it would be beneficial to ask if suicide bombers (who we know are religious) subscribe to an extreme religion because they are already disgruntled, or does an extreme religion advance their militancy?

The militant group known as al Shabab has claimed responsibility for the two bombings that erupted in Uganda this past Sunday.

The bombings killed more than 70 people who were watching the World Cup final.

Al Shabab is based in Somalia, and it is believed that the group has links to al Qaeda. The attacks on Sunday mark the first time that al Shabab has struck outside Somalian borders.

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Militant insurgents bombed several hotels and an office of the ministry over the course of this week in Bagdad, Iraq.

On Monday, there was a coordinated attack in Bagdad in which three bombs in 10 minutes were targeted at hotels known for serving foreign reporters, soon these hotels were to house foreign observers for the March 7th Iraqi elections. An article in the New York Times by Anthony Shadid and John Leland said that these attacks are “underscoring the uncertainty of the political landscape weeks before parliamentary elections.”

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Jihadi Cool

January 12, 2010

Al Qaeda’s dissemination of jihadi ideology has become more sophisticated over the last few years. Al Qaeda is investing large amounts of capital into creating books, magazines, and music videos that are designed to appeal to Muslims under 30 years of age. Language and graphics are designed with specific local audiences in mind so that al Qaeda can properly target young Muslims in a desired area. Al Qaeda is paying close attention to what material their desired demographics respond to and connect with.

Al Qaeda is expanding into cyberspace

Al Qaeda’s reach in Cyberspace is multifaceted, because the network has a variety of different messages available on the internet that are designed to resonate with different groups. The regional arms and affiliates of al Qaeda, like the one in Yemen that I posted about yesterday, tend to focus on local issues that affect a particular local population. However, the traditional centralized body of al Qaeda, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, tends to disseminate messages that are more global in scope.

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Iranian state media has reported that 5 top commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have been assassinated by a suicide bomber along with at least 26 others. The attack occurred in a region of south eastern Iran that borders Pakistan. 

Information being provided by Iranian state media indicates that the Revolutionary Guard commanders were meeting with local tribal leaders when one or two explosions went off and killed the commanders as well as the tribal leaders that they were going to meet. 

The south eastern region of Iran is a very volatile region due to narcotics trafficking. The area is known as a gateway for smuggling drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan into Western Europe. Therefore, elements of the Taliban and al Qaeda have connections with Sunni insurgents working in the area.

The attack is being claimed by Jundullah (Army of God), a Sunni resistance group openly opposed to the Shia led government of Iran. Jundullah first made a name for itself in 2003. It is said that Jundullah was founded by a Taliban leader out of Pakistan named Nek Mohammed Wazir. Jundullah has a sectarian/ethnic agenda. The group wishes to free the millions of Sunni Balochs which it alleges are being suppressed by Tehran. 

Today’s attack highlights how the Taliban and al Qaeda’s regional influence is spreading. The suicide bombing is a hallmark of the al Qaeda playbook. While Jundullah has used suicide bombers in it’s attacks before, such actions indicate that Jundullah militants are likely receiving training from al Qaeda within Pakistan’s borders.

The House of Saud (royal family of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia) has been at overt odds with Osama bin Laden since 1994. At that time, the Kingdom revoked his citizenship and froze his assets within the country. This was due to bin Laden’s support for militant movements within the country. Once this happened, bin Laden was moved to the fringes of Saudi society and became more outspoken against the royal family. Bin Laden and dissident activists have called for the removal of the House of Saud ever since. 

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