President Trump walks with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on March 14, 2017, along the Colonnade at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

PERSPECTIVE: To Truly Fight Terror, Counter Salafist Jihadist Ideology First

Now that the Islamic State has fallen and lost the battle on the ground, it is time to seriously consider the next steps to win the fight against terrorism in the long run. A recent report by the Soufan Center has traced back 5,600 ISIS foreign fighters who returned home[1]. While the returning foreign fighters may not try to carry out attacks immediately, there is no doubt that many of them will certainly be the seeds of future recruits or act as organizers and facilitators in the name of ISIS.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, during his testimony at a congressional hearing on the worldwide threat assessment of the U.S. intelligence community on March 6, stated that “ISIS almost certainly will continue to give priority to transnational terrorist attacks. Its leadership probably assesses that, if ISIS-linked attacks continue to dominate public discourse, the group’s narrative will be buoyed.[2]

Yes, it is almost impossible to counter every terrorist attack, particularly if carried out by the terrorists with no direct connections to known terrorist members. However, it is essential we understand that if we cannot neutralize or counter the ideology behind these attacks, which is Salafist jihadism stemming from Wahhabism, there will always be new attacks regardless of the security precautions we take.

ISIS and al-Qaeda, whether directed or inspired, will continue to prey on the minds of radicalized Salafists to spread their terror without distinguishing their targets. Salafist jihadi ideology not only considers the Christians, Jews, and the Shia as their enemies but also other Muslims who do not believe in their version of corrupted ideology. In fact, Sunni Muslims in Syria and Iraq were among the victims who suffered the most at the hands of ISIS[3].

The world, particularly Muslim communities, must counter the ideology behind these atrocities to ensure a complete and long-term defeat of terrorism. Note that al-Qaeda, a group defeated militarily years ago, its founder executed, swelled into a larger and more effective umbrella organization chiefly because the world failed to address its seductive ideology.

As both al-Qaeda and ISIS share the same root, Salafist jihadism, it is high time to counter it at its source. My interviews with more than 40 Islamic State defectors in Turkey during the past four years confirm that terror groups first rely on ideologies and secondly cult-like mental conditioning[4]. This typically involves physical isolation from the outside world by limiting interactions and obliging the terrorists to read only in-house literature to ensure loyalty.

Salafism is usually described as an ultraconservative, puritanical, grim and fundamentalist branch within Sunni Islam established on the teachings of the 13th-century scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, whose ideas were introduced by puritanical scholar Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the Arabian Peninsula during the mid-18th Century. Wahhab advocated a return to the traditions of the first generations of Muslims (the salaf).

ISIS and al-Qaeda appropriate foundational texts of al-Wahhab, including The Book of Monotheism (Kitab at-Tawhid), in their curriculum, in their Sharia (ideological) training in military camps[5], online training and the school systems they control[6].

Additionally, several ISIS defectors I interviewed specifically told me how al-Wahhab’s Kitab at-Tawhid was the chief and the most important part of their training, a book also widely and historically adopted by today’s Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, I observed that Salafist literature and books were adopted by terrorists including al-Qaeda for their indoctrination and training during the investigations I carried out as a counterterrorism police chief in Turkey.

This is the reason Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani, the former Imam of Kaaba, the Grand Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca, and a Salafi himself, openly and sincerely admitted that “ISIS is a true product of Salafism, and we must deal with it with full transparency.[7]

The fact is, some Saudi princes, clerics, and charities for decades have been pouring out billions of dollars to promote their understanding of Islam, Wahhabism. They have found willing partners among the vulnerable populations in the Central Asian and Afghan-Pakistani regions, Africa, the Balkans and even in Europe. These funders indirectly assist ISIS and al-Qaeda-friendly organizations to fast-track their recruitments process on their behalf. In the leaked U.S. embassy cables, it was openly addressed that Saudi Arabia was “a critical source of terrorist funding[8]” where the money is mostly spent on training of Wahhabi clerics, production and distribution of Wahhabi textbooks, media outreach and donations to local schools or cultural centers[9].

Thanks to the Saudis spreading Salafism all over the world, these terrorists reach ideologically ripe people among their targeted groups who are already educated by the Wahhabis.

For a more comprehensive and effective long-term counterterrorism policy, the world should understand that regardless of the political costs and outcomes there is no true dealing of jihadi terrorism without countering the Salafist jihadist ideology. The majority of the ISIS shaykhs (imams and teachers) who were preaching in ISIS-controlled territories and schools were from Saudi Arabia and hence had the kunya of “al- Jazrawi.[10]” Wahhabi teachings around the world with Saudi-supported Imams have established the grounds for easier jihadist terrorism recruitments.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has signaled to the hardline, intolerant Wahabbist clerics that a new sheriff is in town, cutting back the influence of the clerics in the weeks prior to jailing alleged princes at the beginning of November. The prince dramatically reduced the arrest powers of the religious police, as well. However, only time will tell whether his new policies will rein in the religious-hate industry.

The Islamic world must immediately produce practical and creative approaches to counter the rampant spread of Salafism under the umbrella of Wahhabi teachings. Sheiks, imams or teachers from abroad should carefully be vetted before they’re hired. The literature and textbooks, particularly schoolbooks, should be free of the radical and harsh Salafist interpretations of Islam openly denying the violence and extremism. After a million lives have been lost in the religious wars in Iraq and Syria during the last 14 years, perhaps the Crown Prince has made a start.[11]

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/world/isis-returning-fighters/?utm_term=.ae01a854a82b
[2] https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/Final-2018-ATA—Unclassified—SASC.pdf
[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/world/2016/11/23/isis-a-catastrophe-for-sunnis/?utm_term=.bd1795a37d3e
[4] http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/475
[5] https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01I1Z9NVC/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
[6] http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/a-closer-look-at-isis-s-educational-system
[7] https://www.memri.org/reports/senior-saudi-salafi-cleric-isis-true-product-salafism
[8] https://www.theguardian.com/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/242073
[9] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-saudi-uae/saudi-arabia-uae-funded-jihadi-networks-in-idUSTRE74L0ER20110522
[10] http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/475
[11] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/05/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-wahhabism-salafism-mohammed-bin-salman.html

Ahmet S. Yayla is an assistant professor at the DeSales University Homeland Security Department and faculty member at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. He is also a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University. Dr. Yayla previously served as a full professor and the chair of the Department of Sociology at Harran University in Turkey. Dr. Yayla is a 20-year veteran of the counterterrorism and operations department in the Turkish National Police and served as the chief of counterterrorism in Sanliurfa, Turkey between 2010 and 2013. He is an experienced practitioner in counterterrorism and has advised senior government officials around the world during his career in law enforcement and academia. Dr. Yayla has published both scholarly works and written or co-written numerous articles on mainstream news platforms related to counterterrorism and homeland security.

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