The bloody making of a global jihadi movement


ANALYSIS: The Soviet war in Afghanistan was criticial in building the contemporary ‘Jihadi International’

The seizure of scores of hostages in the Algerian desert and the emergence of an expansionist “Islamic state” in neighbouring Mali are the latest developments in the global war being waged by militant Muslims, jihadis, against the secular West and its allies, culture and influence in the Ummah, the worldwide Muslim community.

Algeria and France, the former colonial power in the region, responded differently to these challenges. Determined to bring a quick end to the hostage crisis, the Algerian military slew both jihadis and captives.

France, by contrast, intervened in Mali eight months after jihadi rebels had proclaimed independence in the north and only when they threatened the capital Bamako in the south. This response is likely to spur jihadis everywhere to mount fresh operations in a global campaign.

In Islam, jihad is a just war carried out in self-defence, warfare against persecutors and conquerors, and “war in God’s cause”. The Koran provides the basis for legislation governing warfare in Surah (chapter) II, verse 190: “Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not commit aggression, God loves not the aggressors.”

If aggressors and persecutors desist, verse 193 says hostilities should cease. Jihad-motivated Muslims fought Christian Crusaders in Palestine during the 11th-13th centuries and colonial masters during the 19th and early 20th century freedom struggles.

Commanders of the later campaigns are inspirational figures for contemporary jihadis. Three in particular can be mentioned: Abdel Qader who fought the French in Algeria in the 1830s; the Mahdi who staged the 1881-99 revolt against Anglo-Egyptian rule in the Sudan; and slew British Gen Charles Gordon, and Omar Mukhtar who led the 1911-43 Libyan resistance campaign against the Italians.

Sadiq al-Mahdi, great grandson of the Mahdi, remains a major figure on the Sudanese scene while Awad Mukhtar, the grandson of Omar Mukhtar – who was celebrated in a film starring Anthony Quinn – threw in his lot with the 2011 revolt against Muammar Gadafy.

No borders

Syrian cleric Izzedin al-Qassam (1882-1935) – for whom Hamas’s military wing was named – was another icon of resistance against the French in Syria and the British in Palestine. He, like most contemporary jihadis, believed that Islam inspires Muslims to resist oppression and foreign occupation and that there should be no borders dividing the Ummah.

The critical period for the contemporary jihadi movement was the Saudi-western backed campaign (1979-89) to oust the Soviet army from Afghanistan. Before the iconic figure of this war became Osama bin Laden and the launchpad of jihad became al-Qaeda, many veterans volunteered to defend Muslims in the Balkans or returned to their home countries and formed jihadi organisations.

One of the returnees was Mokhtar Belmokhtar, head of the faction that seized the hostages in Algeria. His post-Afghan war career is typical of self-styled jihadi emirs, or princes.

He joined the country’s Armed Islamic Group during its 1990s revolt against the secular government and in 1998 co-founded the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which recruited Algerians and Moroccans and launched attacks on security forces in the Sahel region. This group morphed into al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; in 2011 it expelled Belmokhtar, who set up his own faction, Those Who Sign in Blood, based in Mali.

This kind of evolution is common among jihadi organisations, particularly those that eventually set up as al-Qaeda franchises. For them the brand is important: al-Qaeda is considered by militants the most successful of the jihadi organisations because it struck a world-shaking blow against the West when its combatants attacked the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11th, 2001.

Since then jihadi groups have proliferated and evolved into a “Jihadi International,” a loosely connected global jihadi move ment similar to the “Communist International,” the Comintern which, after the communists took power in Russia, created dozens of communist parties the world over with the aim of taking over the world.

While the Jihadi International does not have a sponsor comparable to the Soviet Union, ultra-orthodox Salafi Saudi Arabia has become the movement’s ideological mentor and financier, and Saudi-trained clerics preaching in Saudi-built mosques serve as recruiting agents from Morocco in the West to Indonesia and the Philippines in the east.

Saudi Salafism was launched in the 18th century by preacher Mohamed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, whose puritanical teachings have been adopted and promulgated by the Saudi monarchy. The Salafi ideology did not, however, gain wider acceptance until the latter half of the 19th century, at a time the western challenge to Muslims was overpowering.


Salafis believe the Muslim world fell to foreign occupation because of a loss of faith and the corruption of the Ummah and that to win independence modern-day Muslims must revert to seventh-century exemplars, the revered Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, and try to follow their religious, cultural and social precepts and practices.

While Salafis are not necessarily jihadis, many jihadis are Salafis or claim to be Salafis, although respected Salafi scholars argue that jihadi urban guerrilla warfare and terrorism against civilians is forbidden. Their rulings are ignored both by jihadi commanders and footsoldiers.

Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) was a 20th century thinker who also shaped fundamentalist thinking, inculcating a revulsion against secularism and the US, which he considered impious and materialistic. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood, became head of its “enlightenment” effort, and edited its weekly publication. He is regarded highly by al-Qaeda, its franchises and offshoots.

Today there are dozens of jihadi groups, including the Pakistani military intelligence-supported Laskhar-e-Taiba fighting in Indian-administered Kashmir; al-Shebab in Somalia and Kenya; the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Chechen, Ingush and Dagistani separatists in the North Caucasus; the Islamic State of Iraq; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; Islamic Jihad in Gaza; Boko Haram in Nigeria; and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.

Michael Jansen reports for The Irish Times on the Middle East

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