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xavier raufer

We are astonished when we see, when we hear, when we read what the present American administration describes as Al Qaeda.  It has nothing to do with what terrorism is today. If you're explaining to a general audience, what is Salafism?

Salafism is [a] classic, historic brand of Islam; that is, it started in the 18th century in what is known now as Saudi Arabia. And you had a fundamentalist preacher named Abd al-Wahhab, and he started teaching in mosques that the faith, the Muslim faith, should revert to its origins, be absolutely pure, nothing added.

And what was added, in the meantime, in all the centuries between the sixth century, Christian century, and the 18th was some cults of some saints or things like that that were not originally Muslims, a sort of cult towards Imam Ali for the Shi'a, and they forget all that. And that is the start of what we call Wahhabism.

Inside Wahhabism, you have something that is an even simpler faith for the expert brand of Wahhabism [called] Salafiyya.

So it's a fundamentalist sectarian version of Islam?

It is fundamentalist per se because it wants to revert to the origins of Islam. The ideal for society for them is what happened when the prophet was alive and after him, the first four caliphs that were the right-guided caliphs. So this part of history is a model, and you should project it until the present time without adding and without [subtracting] anything in it.

In the United States, was there an understanding of this Salafism before 9/11?

No. We started in Europe. My colleagues, myself, some other scholars -- we used to cooperate within Germany and Spain and so on. We saw Salafism becoming something dangerous for us -- that is, the Western world -- in the beginning of the '90s; that is, since 1992, 1993.

When we went to the Gulf and when we went to Pakistan, we heard about some groups that used to be in the jihad against the Soviet Union and that now were preparing some things, and these people were called either jihadi -- that is, people having fought or wanting to fight in the jihad -- or Salafi -- that is, people who share this fundamentalist creed in Islam.

We heard that. I wrote a first article in a French magazine in 1998 explaining what was Salafism, and at that time I sent it, of course, I can e-mail to some friends in the government in the United States, and they didn't react. We saw the first American reaction to what was Salafism after an attempted bombing that was supposed to happen in, I think, Los Angeles for the --

photo of raufer

A former French intelligence officer, Xavier Raufer currently heads the department on organized crime and terrorism at the Institute of Criminology at the University of Paris. In this interview, he recounts the history and ideology of Salafism, and he explains the difference between the French and American methods of fighting terrorism. "We are astonished when we see, when we hear, when we read what the present American administration describes as Al Qaeda," he tells FRONTLINE. "For God's sake, they describe this as some kind of an Irish Republican Army except that, instead of being Catholics, they are Muslims." This interview was conducted on Oct. 13, 2003.

The [Ahmed] Ressam case?

Yes, Ressam case. So as the guy was an Algerian, the group he belonged to before he joined the large jihad, the worldwide jihad, he belonged to a group acting on a smaller scale in Algeria for a lesser jihad. And the name of that group was GSPC, the French initial Groupe Salafist, [Salafist] Group for Jihad [Preaching] and Combat.

So at that time, suddenly in Washington, they said, "Hey, what's this Salafist thing, and why [do] these Algerian Salafists want to plant a bomb in the Los Angeles Airport?" This is the first time that I had phone calls from Washington saying: "What did you say to us last year about this Salafist thing? We just saw something happening here that has a Salafic brand."

So around year 2000, you have the feeling that in Washington, they start understanding that this Salafi thing is dangerous. Not before.

Is there a reason why not before?

Of course there is a reason. For a long time, these Salafi Muslims and the ones that wanted to fight a jihad were the allies of the United States and the Saudis, fighting against the Soviet Union. For a long time, they were on the good guys' side. Even at one moment, you had some rather 100 percent pure Salafists out of Afghanistan. They were taken to the White House, and [the] president said, "Those are the freedom fighters." So they were on the side of the good guys.

It took, to our point of view, too long for the United States to understand that after being their friends, now the United States for these guys were becoming a target.

In this Salafist movement, how important are the works of Sayyid Qutb?

You have two or three intellectuals to [cite] references. You have Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian member of the most extremist and radical part of the Muslim Brotherhood. You've got [Abdullah Yousef] Azzam also, and you've got some scholars in Pakistan, complicated names.

All of them, they build up the solid ground on which Salafism afterwards was erected as a fighting doctrine, as a jihadi doctrine. They said, for instance, that they had a problem before they started the jihad in Afghanistan. The problem they had was that the people they were due to fight -- that is, the Afghan Communist regime -- still these guys were Muslims. So are you allowed to fight?

The prophet said so many things that you shouldn't fight between Muslims. Is there a rationale, is there a reason why you should fight another Muslim, even if he's allied with a heathen country and with pagans and with unbelievers and with apostates? What should you do with them?

These Salafi writers, the ones who wrote in the '60s or in the '50s the Salafi doctrine, gave them a way to comprehend their past and to find a way to fight other Muslims, as they were. They found in the words of Ibn Taymiyya, who was a scholar in the 13th century, and at that time they had a similar problem: The Huns attacked the Middle East, and they had converted to Islam before.

So what should you do at that time? In the 14th century, fight other Muslims -- even Attila and others converted to Islam -- and they had to find a doctrine for it. So people like Sayyid Qutb and Abdullah Assam unearthed this Ibn Taymiyya doctrine, and they founded a corpus of text that allowed afterwards Muslim to fight in Afghanistan and then fight against the Americans.

You should understand that it's very important for them. If you die fighting a jihad and you're a believer, you go to paradise. If the fight that you are fighting, the war in which you are [fighting] is not a good jihad, you go to hell. So for [these] people, it's not only a side problem; it's essential.

And you have a doctrine, you have people, doctors of the faith, Salafi muftis that should be able to explain and prove that you are fighting a good jihad.

So you have Ibn Taymiyya; then you have Sayyid Qutb; then you have Abdullah Assam in the '70s; and now you have people like [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi and bin Laden using the same arguments all the time.

So this is an ideological movement, a movement that has an intellectual rationale to it?

Of course. It is something like on the other side and in most ancient times, what became the Crusades against the Middle East has little to [do] with Catholicism per se. It was a political doctrine to fight for the faith, but it was not the faith by itself.

Islam is something, and Salafiyya is something else. And also one should remember that all the Salafists are not jihadi. Some of them believe that the world would be better if things were run like the prophet run them in the two holy cities of Medina and Mecca in the sixth century of the Christian era, but still they don't want to kill you for that. And only part of the Salafists are violent. What we call the jihadi are the violent Salafists.

So it's a sect within a group of religious believers within a larger religion?

Exactly. It's a problem that is going smaller and smaller, and the fanatics are not so many. I talked with several important muftis in Britain, for instance, and they told me that among the people coming into their mosques, the real fanatics, the violent Salafists, the jihadi people who actually participate in the jihad or pay for it are maybe 1 or 2 percent of the population of the Muslims going to the mosques.

And still this population of Muslims actually going to the mosques in Britain on Friday, the holy day, is maybe 30 percent of all the Muslim community. It should be about the same in France and in other European countries, but in Britain we have the proper figures because they did a poll, so to say. So you have 100 Muslims; then you have 30 of them going to the mosque, and among the 30 percent going to the mosque, the real fanatics are maybe 1 or 2 percent, not more.

But what is the real problem now is, what with the Iraqi situation and the occupied territory/Palestine situation, you've got a lot of people in the Muslim world that are indignant. They are mad at what is going [on]. And when you add these indignant or furious people, or humiliated people, to the 1 or 2 percent of fanatics, it makes a big crowd. This is the problem now.

There is, in a sense, an ideological sympathy in the population for people to take violent retribution?

Of course. If you go and when you go to the Arab Peninsula, all the countries -- Kuwait, Arabia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen -- everywhere you've got television screens with [Al] Arabiya or Al Jazeera. Day after day, hour after hour, you've got the tanks going in the cities in the Occupied Territories. You've got tanks and bombs flying over Fallujah, mothers crying, children crying. And this is going on for years now.

So a lot of young people -- don't forget that maybe half of the Saudi population is less than 25 years old -- when you're young and you see that, you revolt; you want to do something. And part of these people joined the jihadi who, without these screens and images all day long, would be maybe less than 5 percent of the population, even in the Arabian Peninsula.

But why is it that we hear in the work that we're doing that many Muslims who come to Europe, if they go through England in particular, they wind up becoming radicalized, not from where they came from -- Morocco or Tunisia or Algeria -- but when they get to London? It seems to be the place where they become radicalized.

It is really. From what we see in France, what we see in Britain, the two countries having the most important Muslim populations in Europe, and Germany, too, with the Turks, it is not such a huge problem. That is, if by a magic wand everything stopped and became peaceful in Iraq and in the Occupied Territories, maybe 70 percent or 80 percent of the support that these guys, the real jihadi, are having would vanish at that time.

But people say: "Why the double standard? Why are some people in the Middle East allowed to keep nuclear weapons, and we, if even we don't have anything dangerous, they bombard us?" So people are indignant.

There is an important poll made by the Pew Center, an important center and respected -- the people are not partisan. They made a poll in the Muslim world and said, "Who do you trust more, Bush or bin Laden?"

And they said that when they did this poll in the Muslim countries, about one billion people in the countries where they were authorized to ask the two questions to the people, more than 200 million Muslims said they trusted bin Laden more than Bush -- 200 million people, from Mauritania to Mindanao in the big Muslim arc of the planet.

And why did they say that? Do you have 200 million fanatics? No. They said that because they were mad at what is going on in Iraq, always the Muslim getting the bombs and those who are in the Occupied Territories. So if you add up the indignant and the fanatics, you have a big problem. This is what is happening now.

France has had a history of being involved in combating terrorism. What is there to learn from that history?

We have a totally different approach. Basically, the United States waited and waited and waited and didn't figure out that they were the target for a long time. You had the first World Trade Center [attack], and then everyone got back to sleep, and then you have the big shock of 9/11.

In France, we were the first ones to have terrorists out of the Middle East on our soil, because at that time, we were with the Christians in Lebanon in the '80s. So we had our first wave of bombs in Paris with quite a lot of people killed, maybe 18 or 20, in 1985. So this is a long time ago.

You have good antiterrorist police, and you have good antiterrorist magistrates when they are constantly facing problems. So they are good; they are sharp, because they are constantly facing terrorism threats. ...

Our experience is you should always watch out, never feel confident that "Oof, it's over, and we have turned the corner," and what we hear now in the United States. So we always watch, and we never let the terrorists settle down. Always, each day, day after day, you've got a small group of individuals, two, three arrested. Then we have their telephone books and address. Then we have new names, new telephones and constantly harass them.

It's not something that touches the Muslim community in France. They don't see it; they don't feel it [when] two, three individuals are arrested. We've got maybe five million Muslims in France. They don't even feel it.

But it's always pinpricks, you know, microsurgery. We point the finger at one guy; he's arrested; [we track] his car, follow him, trail him, bug his phone and then arrest the second one and the third. But that never stops.

Have the French been successful in infiltrating these groups?

Yes. Not only in France, but in other countries. I can vouch for it because I saw some of the guys that had been flipped over. ... Part of my former students in the Criminology Institute are now at high-ranking levels in the Algerian and Moroccan and Tunisian police, and we have constant exchanges. Everybody works together with our former colonies, the police and intelligence from our former colonies.

So the Americans are blind? The Americans say that they can't infiltrate.

What I can tell you is that the very day where the land attack occurred in Iraq in 2003, one of the heads of the Algerian intelligence was in Paris, and he's one of my former students, and he said, "[You] know the Americans -- this is what will happen first, second, third, fourth, fifth."

And this is exactly what happened in the next six months. He said, "You will not have the Shi'as against the Sunnis; you will not have the Americans greeted like Normandy in '44. "

And this has nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. Even if they arrested [him], insurrection will continue and everything that will happen. And I said: "Look, sometimes we have a good laugh about them, but still they are our friends. Did you tell this to the American officials at the American Embassy in Algiers?"

He said, "Yes, of course, but they never listen to us." And Algeria is important. They had these huge insurrections in the '90s in Algeria. At one moment, in 1994 or 1995, in a circle of 100 kilometers ... you had 30,000 jihadi in the mountains.

It was a war, and they won it. And they know about Salafiyya and jihadi, higher echelons of the police in Algeria and the army and the commandos, the special forces and the intelligence that maybe [had] the biggest knowledge about how to fight, who are the jihadis, how do they react, what do they do if, what do they do when. And nobody listened to them, apparently. ...

The jihad, the jihadists, the Salafi movement -- how is it organized?

It is not organized. We are astonished when we see, when we hear, when we read what the present American administration describes as Al Qaeda. For God's sake, they describe this as some kind of an Irish Republican Army except that, instead of being Catholics, they are Muslims.

And if you even see the official document, the "How to Fight Terrorists" White House document, you see there is the party line: A terrorist group is like a pyramid. You have the top and then the bottom, and you even have, in case one shouldn't understand, a drawing of a pyramid on page six of this document that was published in 2002 by the White House. It's on the White House Web site. It's the official document for combating terrorism. I don't remember the precise title. And it's a pyramid.

This is the year of 1980s terrorism. It's the Red Army faction; it's the IRA; it's even Abu Nidal group in the Middle East. It has nothing to do with what terrorism is today. It's an idea of terrorism, a concept of terrorism that is old and outdated. It doesn't work this [way] anymore.

Now it's much more fuzzy. You don't have a central committee and a political bureau of Al Qaeda. This is stupid. It doesn't work this way. The only power in bin Laden is the power to issue fatwas, to give religious orders. Then the religious orders are followed around the world by people who believe that this is the right thing to do: "We should do it, and we will do it."

One should understand what really is jihad for a Muslim, for any Muslim in the world. It's a totally personal thing. Nobody -- and read what bin Laden says. He never gives orders. [He's] not a general; it's not an army. He says, "The good Muslim should understand that one should fight the infidels," and so on. "I am happy to see that some infidel has been hit in Casablanca," whatever. He never gives orders.

Jihad is a purely personal matter. You stop smoking; it's jihad. You start a diet; it's something that ... you force yourself to do. It's either a personal thing like refraining from smoking, as I said, or the greater jihad is fighting the infidels. But it's something personal.

Nobody in the world, even if he were to resuscitate the prophet himself, could order a Muslim to fight a jihad. So you, after looking too much at Arabiya or Al Jazeera TV, you feel mad about what the Crusader or the Jews are doing to the Muslims, so you decide to join a jihadi group.

But it's personal. The day you want to get out of the game, nobody can force you to stay. And if a small cell is built up, created, and they decide that bin Laden is the right thing to do, then the mufti of this small group, the religious leader, two weeks later says, "No, no, he's not good; he's an apostate, and we should go to another leader," they can go there, and nobody can force them to stay. It's very volatile. ...

President Bush would disagree with you. He says it's under control, three-quarters of Al Qaeda has been wiped out.

It's an oxymoron. It is like to say we have destroyed two-thirds of the mosquitoes around a swamp. That is stupid. ... It's not like if you have a terrorist group that is like a football team or a soccer team with 11 members. [He] says okay, we've killed two of them, [there] remain nine, then three. It's absolutely stupid.

President Bush would disagree with what I'm saying, but I also, we also in the studies of terrorism and organized crime domain in France totally disagree with him, so it's no surprise. How can you - it's totally amorphous. It's like an amoeba, you know. ...

But there seems to be a development going on from Madrid to other factions where there seems to be a political intelligence connected to the actions, specific elections or other events that they are attempting to influence, along with what we see on videotape coming out of Iraq -- beheadings because you won't do this; you won't release people. There are specific things. There's no intelligence behind this? There's no guiding light behind this?

Of course there is, but all this is public; it's on the Internet sites. You have some reports that are published. And fighting a jihad is not "Soldier, you will take this mountain and report." It's not like that.

You have general lines. It was published in February 1998 when they constituted this group to fight the Jews and the Crusaders. And then they said Americans can be killed everywhere in the world because they are like fighters in an army.

Before they did that, and also before they attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, you have mufti who decide by writing a text, a fatwa, that it is legal or illegal in the Muslim doctrine, haram or halal. ... But these religious sanctions, they are not underground; they are not secret. You can find them on Internet.

I think it was in November 2003, there was like 40-pages-long text that was published on the Internet. It was on one of the Islamist Internet sites. It was about Iraq [and] said now the jihadis should do this and that, and it would be a good thing to attack the weakest links in the American coalition. Spain is one, and they said, "If we hit Spain, it will have good results."

Since November of 2003, each and every Islamist group in the world knew that there was one thing to do. Then you have in the slums of Casablanca a group of Salafists, jihadi, that say, "Hey, let's do it." And they do it. But they didn't have to receive a formal order that says, "General So-and-so, you will attack at 4:00 in the morning to reach and capture this hill." It doesn't work this way.

You have people -- they have their freedom of choice, but they choose to act with their own means and hit what's the closest to them. So people from Casablanca will hit in Spain because it's the next country, and so on and so forth.

But you obviously feel that the strength of this movement has increased since 9/11.

Let's be perfectly clear: What is happening now on the West Bank and more than that, even in Iraq, has created more jihadi than the ones that are being killed day after day in Iraq or on the left. Maybe you have now five times as many. It's a guess, of course. We don't have the roll calls of the jihad movement; such a thing doesn't exist. But we have many more jihadis than in 2001, of course. ...

You've got sleeping cells all over already. That one we discovered after the bomb exploded in Madrid -- they did a very thorough inquiry and discovered a lot of things and a lot of individuals, and we could follow them by the mobile phones and electronic devices to the suburbs of Paris because of the information that Spanish intelligence gave us.

But still, you have already this type of cell in Europe and all the more that those cells are not permanent and eternal. But each day, what happens in Iraq and in the Middle East and on the West Bank creates new potential for jihad and new jihadis. ...

[Iraq] is a huge problem for us because if today this president of the United States or a future president says: "OK, we've had it, we'll take the boys home and leave them do their thing" and the chaos spreads - you don't have any ground continuity between Iraq and the United States.

But if you drive a car today out of Iraq, and you drive it through Turkey, you can reach France without two or three days.

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posted jan. 25, 2005

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