When Gilles Kepel was researching a book about the origins of the global jihad movement back in the 1980s, he recalls rarely coming across Muslim fundamentalists known as "Salafists" living in Europe. "The ones who were prevalent … were totally apolitical and they didn't deliver theoretically or in terms of doctrine," he says.
Salafism is an ideology that posits that Islam has strayed from its origins. The word "salaf" is Arabic for "ancient one" and refers to the companions of the Prophet Mohammed. Arguing that the faith has become decadent over the centuries, Salafists call for the restoration of authentic Islam as expressed by an adherence to its original teachings and texts. "Salafists originally are supposedly not violent," Kepel explains. "They are not advocating the revolt against one who holds power, against the powers that be. They are calling for re-Islamization at the daily level."
By the mid-'90s, Kepel saw an alarming change among Europe's Muslims. Increasingly he was coming across Salafists who had embraced jihad -- in other words, who felt violence and terrorism were justified to realize their political objectives. Kepel explains that when Salafists, who tend to be alienated from mainstream European society, meet and mingle with jihadists, it fuses into a volatile mixture. "When you're in the state of such alienation you become easy prey to the jihadi guys who will feed you more savory propaganda than the old propaganda of the Salafists who tell you to pray, fast and who are not taking action," he says. "And this is why the [Islamist terrorists] who had been arrested were often good Salafists in the beginning."
Kepel labeled these Muslim fundamentalists "Salafist jihadists", a term that he extends to include the followers of Al Qaeda. Salafist jihadists are now a burgeoning presence in Europe, having attempted more than 30 terrorist attacks among E.U. countries since 2001.
While European counterterrorism experts recognize that Salafist jihadism is an ideological movement with deep religious and historical roots, they feel that their counterparts at the FBI and American intelligence agencies don't share this understanding. "I began using the word Salafi and Salafists in 1997 in meetings in Washington and nobody raised the word and asked what does it mean," says Xavier Raufer, a Paris-based expert on Islamic terrorism who has close ties to France's intelligence community. "And I used it and wrote it many times, and the first response they had was when Ahmed Ressam [who planned to attack Los Angeles International airport] was arrested in1999. I had a friend in Washington who called me and said, 'What is that word you were using, "Salafist?"' They didn't know that such a thing existed."
+ The Origins and Beliefs of Salafi Jihadism
Salafi jihadists -- who constitute less than 1 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims -- see life as being divided between the world of Islam (dar al-Islam) and the land of conflict or war (dar al-harb). Through jihad, they wish to extend the Muslim world so that all of humankind can live under its umbrella. They harken back to the Great Caliphate, when the Muslim world extended from Spain (then called Andalusia), across North Africa and the Middle East, down the west coast of Africa, and across the Caspian region to India and the Philippines. At its height in the 1200s, the Caliphate was a highly sophisticated civilization, responsible for many inventions and innovations in mathematics and science.
The origins of Salafi jihadism can be traced to the Muslim Brotherhood, the seminal organization for Islamic terrorism. Founded in 1928 in Egypt with the goal of establishing an Islamic state, the Brotherhood had as its slogan "The Quran is our constitution." The Brotherhood's political agenda combined with its rigid version of Islam proved to be an explosive formula. "The Muslim Brotherhood is the mother of all these movements, ideologically," says Dr. Mamoun Fandy, an Egyptian-born professor of politics and senior fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute of Public Policy. "Salafist jihadism and the activation of the views of the world of the house of Islam and the house of war are the ideas that emerged from the writings and the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood."
Indeed, the Brotherhood spawned Sayyid Qutb, who provided the intellectual underpinnings of Salafi jihadism. Born in Egypt in 1906, Qutb received a traditional Muslim education -- committing the Quran to memory by the age of 10 -- before receiving a modern, secular education in college. In the 1920s and '30s he took up socialism and literature, and wrote novels and poems. He even traveled to the United States in the late 1940s, enrolling at the Colorado State College of Education and earning a master's degree.
After his return to Egypt, Qutb veered into ever more radical directions. He wanted to create a new society, based on ancient Quranic principles. Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood, became the editor of its journal and established himself as political Islam's principal theoretician in the Arab world.
After surviving an assassination attempt in 1954, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser banned the Muslim Brotherhood and imprisoned Qutb, who while languishing behind bars produced a series of books that laid out the ideological foundation for the Salafi jihadist movement.
Qutb wrote that the world had reached a crisis point: The human race had lost touch with nature. Man's inspiration, intelligence and morality were degenerating. Sexual relations were deteriorating "to a level lower than the beasts." And he laid blame at the doors of Judaism and Christianity, arguing that these faiths had strayed from God's true path. Qutb concluded that only through Islam would humankind be saved from its alienated state.
Qutb's solution -- the establishment of Islamic states -- ran contrary to the Egyptian president's nationalist, socialist and secular notions of government. In 1966, Nasser had Qutb executed.
But the Muslim Brotherhood lived on, and it spawned new terrorist organizations, including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, run by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the doctor who, in the 1990s, merged his organization with Al Qaeda and who now serves as bin Laden's right-hand man.
+ Takfir wal-Hijra
Another group that emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood was Takfir wal-Hijra, which inspired some of the tactics and methods used by Al Qaeda and whose ideology is being embraced by a growing number of Salafist jihadists living in Europe.
Takfir wal-Hijra was founded in 1971 by Shukri Mustafa, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who had been in prison with Sayyid Qutb and had become one of his radical disciples. Mustafa believed that most Arab societies were corrupt and decadent. He argued that true Islamists had to leave their countries -- or go on a "hijra" -- to gather their forces, before returning home and ridding their country of corrupt leaders and "infidel" practices. Takfir wal-Hijra's members often dropped out of Egyptian society and moved to the countryside.
In 1978, Takfir wal-Hirja members kidnapped and murdered an Egyptian ex-government minister, and Mustafa was executed. Although the organization was crushed, Takfir's ideology blossomed outside Egypt, with its adherents forming the most extreme and violent strand in the Salafist jihadist movement. Takfir followers believe it's acceptable to kill Muslims who are not pure enough. In 1994, Takfir gunmen killed 16 Muslim worshippers in the Sudan, and six years later, another Takfir follower slaughtered 20 people and wounded 33 others praying at a Sudanese mosque
A central tenet of Takfir ideology has alarming implications for police engaged in counterterrorism work, namely that believers may deviate from strict Muslim practices in order to blend in and avoid detection while plotting attacks. Followers are allowed to shave their beards, drink alcohol, visit topless bars and commit crimes against Westerners -- all under the cloak of subterfuge. "They are the mothers and fathers of sleeping cells," says Fandy. "The hijra idea gets to the bottom of a lot of things. It gets at the question of: are Muslims in Europe in Canada and America everywhere, are these people citizens or sojourners? Are they in a hijra or are they citizens of Islam? In my mind, from the research I have done and the experiences I have had, it seems to be that most Muslims think in the back of their head they are sojourners, they are not citizens. And this is really where the black box opens up."
+ The Al Qaeda Connection
Fandy says Al Qaeda appears to have been inspired by Takfir ideology. "[Takfir] is very central to the Al Qaeda movement," he states. "First of all, you have to see the physical hijra that happened when bin Laden and Zawahiri left the Arab world, and it was a hijra, or a flight, to the land of the Taliban… So for them to leave the Arab world and go to Afghanistan is a literal interpretation of Takfir wal-Hijra: that they had pronounced their own societies to be the societies of infidels and therefore they had to leave it, and they leave it to a place where they feel safe and work hard and build a mini-Islamic state in the case of Taliban, with the idea of coming back to undermine the Saudi government, the Egyptian government, the Algerian government, and so on, and turn the Arab world into a Muslim society."
The case of Djamel Beghal, a French-Algerian who was arrested in Dubai and who admitted to being the head of a Takfir terrorist cell planning a suicide attack on the U.S. embassy in Paris, revealed how Takfir ideology had spread alarmingly to Europe. Beghal claimed that Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian soccer player, was the designated suicide bomber (Beghal later recanted his statements, saying they had been extracted under torture). After Trabelsi's arrest, he admitted to planning to launch an attack against a canteen located at the NATO airbase at Kleine Brogel in Belgium. The French made a series of arrests around France, rolling up the Takfir cell on Sept. 10, 2001.
One member of this Takfir cell later testified in France that an alliance between the Taliban and Takfirs had been established in the late '90s, and that according to this agreement, bin Laden would finance the European Takfir cell if it joined the global jihad and targeted the U.S.
More recently, Spanish media reports have indicated Takfir connections have emerged in the investigation into the March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid. The former leader of an Al Qaeda cell in Spain, Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, gave an interview from prison in which he said the attack had all of the hallmarks of a Takfir operation.
The flourishing number of Takfir adherents within Europe's Muslim populace is one of the most alarming developments for police on that continent. "[Takfir ideology] is spreading like an amazing virus throughout Muslim communities and it's taking hold actually more so amongst the Muslim communities outside the Arab world than it is inside the Arab world," says Fandy.
Overall, experts warn that the Salafist jihadist movement will remain a pervasive and difficult threat to nullify. "They are against European democracy," declares Gilles Kepel. "They would rather build citadels of jihad within Europe out of which to reach out not only to the young, deprived people of Muslim descent who live in European suburbs, but also to reach out to what is happening in the Middle East. And this is the major battle."
Bruce Livesey is an investigative journalist with "the fifth estate", a television newsmagazine broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Canada's national radio and television network. His work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, The Financial Post and Canadian Lawyer, among others. He was an associate producer on Al Qaeda's New Front