By Ahmed Atta
What is Takfirism?
Takfir is an Arabic word used to describe a Muslim as infidel or non-believer. The practice of accusing another Muslim of apostasy or declaring another Muslim as infidel is called Takfir. According to Pakistani religious scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, “A Muslim or a Muslim group is Takfiri if it declares another Muslim or a Muslim sect as apostate.”
How is the term Takfiri used in the Muslim World?
The term Takfiri is used by some extremist groups that see Islam through a narrow keyhole of self-righteousness and consider other Muslims or certain groups of Muslims as apostate. They use the term against those who may not agree with their ideology or refrain from pledging allegiance to them. Takfiris prescribe the death penalty to the apostates.
A number of Sunni extremist outfits in Pakistan, including the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi group, have used the term to describe Muslim Shi’ites as being out of Islam or apostate. Similarly, certain Shi’ite groups such the Tehrik-e-Jafaria Pakistan have used the term for Sunnis or certain Sunni groups in the country.
Mainstream Sunni and Shi’ite leaders often refer to armed extremist groups as Takfiris. The number of Takfiri groups in the Muslim world, however, is very small.
Who are Takfiris?
Pakistan-based Fulbright scholar in religious studies, Qibla Ayaz, traces Takfiris’ history to the creation of the Khawarij group in the very first century of Islam.
According to Ayaz, the Khawarij, who were outcasts and not considered mainstream Muslims, launched a revolt against Caliph Ali. A cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, Ali was the fourth caliph of Islam. The Khawarij later assassinated him, as he did not agree with their war-mongering against another group of Muslims.
Are there Takfiri Groups in Shi’ite Islam?
There have been a number of Shi’ite groups that branded their rivals as infidels. “If declaring other Muslims apostates is Takfirism, then religious literature in Shi’ite Islam provides materials that call its ideological opponents as apostates,” Ghamidi told Voice of America. He added that the followers of the top Shi’ite Takfiri leader, Hasan bin Sabbah, employed tactics including suicide attacks against their rivals.
Who has the authority to declare others as apostates?
Despite the fact that Islam does not grant religious groups the authority to label other Muslim groups as infidels, certain Muslim religious bodies in Pakistan have done so. Ghamidi believes that only states should have such an authority to declare which Muslim groups are considered outcasts. Most Muslim states have official religious bodies “Darul Ifta” that are responsible for issuing final decrees pertaining to major religious issues that may arise in the country. Decrees are made based on deep knowledge of Islam and taking socio-economic and scientific evidence and logical, historic and comparative perspectives, and contemporary conditions surrounding an issue into consideration.
Isis in France
On 20 April 2017, three French National Police officers were shot by Karim Cheurfi, a French national wielding an AK-47 rifle on the Champs-Élysées, a shopping boulevard in Paris, France. One officer, French National Police Captain Xavier Jugelé, was killed while two other French National Police officers and a female German tourist, were seriously wounded. Cheurfi was subsequently shot dead by police. Amaq News Agency, which is linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), claimed the attacker was an Isis fighter. French police and prosecutors are investigating the attack as terrorism, and have launched a counter-terrorism prosecution.
Cheurfi had an extensive criminal record that included a conviction and a 12-year prison sentence for an earlier attempt to murder two police officers. Police found a note praising Isis, along with addresses of police stations, on his body. Because the attack took place immediately before the country’s 2017 presidential election, media reports commented on its possible influence in the election’s outcome.
At the time of the shooting, France had been on high alert in the wake of the attacks in Paris in November 2015 and in Nice in July 2016, as well as in anticipation of the first round of the 2017 presidential election, which had been scheduled to take place in three days. Since 2015, there had been a spate of Islamist terrorist attacks on French police officers, soldiers and civilians, resulting in the deaths of more than 230 people. Two men had been arrested in Marseille two days before the shooting, for allegedly planning a terrorist attack.
The attack is understood to have been part of a shift in Isis strategy towards encouraging untrained Isis sympathisers to carry out attacks with crude weapons. This change in modus operandi was caused by improved security in EU countries and by the loss of capacity to direct attacks from and train operatives in the Middle East as Isis steadily lost territory in Syria.
At about 9:00 pm, Cheurfi pulled up next to a French National Police van. The French National Police officers were guarding the entrance of the Centre Culturel Anatolie, a Turkish cultural centre located at 102 Avenue des Champs-Elysées near the Franklin D. Roosevelt metro station and the Marks & Spencer store. Cheurfi quickly got out of his car and opened fire with an AK-47 rifle into the van. Three officers were struck, one fatally. Cheurfi then attempted to flee on foot, firing at other people as he did, but was shot and killed by other responding officers. A female German tourist was also injured by “fragments from the shooting”.
The Avenue des Champs-Elysées was closed down and civilians were evacuated. On social media, Paris police warned people to stay away from the area and said there was a “police intervention underway”. Investigators initially said the incident may have been related to a robbery, but an anti-terror investigation was later launched. A pump-action shotgun, ammunition, two kitchen knives, and shears were found in the gunman’s car. Amaq News Agency placed responsibility for the attack on the Islamic State.
The officer who was assassinated was 37-year-old Xavier Jugelé, who was killed instantly by two gunshot wounds to the head. He was one of the officers to respond to the Bataclan theatre massacre in November 2015. Jugelé had been a member of the Paris police force since 2010, and was known as a gay rights activist and member of FLAG, the French association for LGBT police officers. He had been interviewed by the BBC in November 2016 when he visited the Bataclan when it reopened. He also served twice in Frontex to assist in the European migrant crisis in Greece.
Jugelé was posthumously promoted to the rank of captain and awarded the knighthood of the Legion of Honour. He was eulogised by his civil partner Etienne Cardiles. Former president François Hollande, Emmanuel Macron and other dignitaries were at the national ceremony of honour which took place at the Paris Police Prefecture on 25 April 2017. Cardiles later attended the installation of President Emmanuel Macron at the latter’s invitation. Cardiles married Jugelé posthumously on 30 May. One of the two surviving officers was critically wounded and said to be recuperating. Both were made knights of the National Order of Merit.
Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Belgium. Attacks could happen anywhere, including on public transport and transport hubs and in other places visited by foreigners. You should be vigilant in public places and follow the advice of local Belgian authorities.
There have been a number of high profile terrorist attacks across Belgium. The main threat is from extremists linked to Daesh (formerly referred to as Isil).
- On 29 May 2018, two police officers and a passer-by were killed in a shooting in the city of Liège in a suspected terrorist incident.
- On 25 August 2017, a man attacked two soldiers with a knife in Brussels.
- On 20 June 2017, Belgian security forces helped prevent a suspected terrorist attack at Brussels central station.
- On 22 March 2016 co-ordinated terrorist attacks killed 32 and injured hundreds more at Brussels Zaventem airport and on the metro network.
Brussels is home to a number of international institutions (EU and Nato) including government and foreign embassy buildings which are sensitive locations.
There is considered to be a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time.
Tracing the Roots of European Terror: What Drove a Young Belgian to Become an Isis Terrorist?
Salah Abdeslam is the only surviving member of the Isis terror cell that unleashed lethal attacks on Paris in 2015. This is a closer look at what propelled him on his murderous mission, days before he faces trial.
Salah Abdeslam is the survivor of the 10-man Islamic State cell that terrorised Paris in November 2015, refusing all pleas to shed light on the attack that left 130 dead or the attacks that followed in Brussels just four days after his arrest.
After nearly three years jailed in isolation and silence, Abdeslam goes on trial Monday in his hometown of Brussels over an exchange of fire with the police that he himself fled. The man who covered for his getaway with a spray of automatic gunfire died. Abdeslam’s escape was however short-lived — he was captured on March 18, 2016, in the same Brussels neighbourhood where he and many of his Islamic State fighter colleagues had grown up.
Four days later, Islamic State suicide attackers struck again, this time at the Brussels airport and subway. In all, that network of Islamic State fighters killed 162 people in the two European capitals. Most of the extremists were French speakers, raised in one of the cities they struck. The plot’s execution depended upon Islamic State’s success in wedding crime and religion.
Abdeslam, who along with his brother was suspected of dealing drugs from the bar they ran, is the starkest example of that convergence. But in Paris, the trial of three men accused of giving safe haven to the attackers also provides a revealing look at the intersection that made the deadliest terror attacks in Europe since World War II possible.
The mastermind of the cell was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a petty criminal who used his home neighbourhood of Molenbeek in Brussels as a fertile recruiting ground for Islamic State. Abaaoud even recruited his younger brother, then 14. But many of the young men who followed him into Islamic State were small-time criminals themselves, part of the extremist organisation’s deliberate attempt to make use of “skills” that include accessing black market weapons, forging documents and handling covert logistics
When the night of carnage in Paris — November 13, 2015 — was finally over, seven attackers were dead and three were on the run; Abdeslam, Abaaoud and another Molenbeek resident named Chakib Akrouh. Abdeslam called friends in Brussels to drive through the night and pick him up. Abaaoud also called his cousin, Hasna Ait Belkacem, who lived in a suburb of Paris and vacillated between hard-line Islam and even harder drug use. She was happy to help.
It took a few days of sleeping under bushes, but for 150 euros ($187) wired from Belgium, they secured a room in the Paris neighbourhood of Saint-Denis, near the National Stadium they had attacked on November 13. In the pre-dawn hours of November 18, frantic French investigators tipped off by a friend of Ait Belkacem tracked them to the building and sealed off the neighbourhood. Abaaoud, Ait Belkacem and Akrouh all died when Akrouh detonated a suicide vest.
Just before his building crumbled to the ground, one of the drug dealers, Jawad Bendaoud, showed up to find out what was happening and explained on live television that he was just “doing a service” by renting out his room. With the cameras still rolling, Bendaoud was taken into custody.
Returning British Isis fighters to face justice
British nationals travelling to countries such as Syria and Iraq could face up to 10 years in jail upon return to the UK, according to a new law to deal with foreign fighters.
Britain’s Home Office will make it an offence to travel to designated countries where terror groups like Isis are prevalent without a “reasonable excuse”.
The measures, which will be introduced in the new Counter Terror Bill, are being brought in to address the inability to bring criminal charges against British fighters believed to have fought with Isis under the current set of rules.
It is thought that around 400 British Isis fighters have already returned to the UK but only 40 have been prosecuted so far because of lack of evidence in bringing criminal charges. Under the new legislation it will no longer be necessary to establish that a suspect has engaged in terrorist activity prior to the arrival in the UK. All individuals who travelled to a designated terror zone without a good motive will face prosecution.
Britain’s teachers of terror: How extremists infiltrated classrooms
Twenty-four hours after Khuram Butt led his last Quranic class for the young children of an English Islamic school in June 2017, he strapped on a fake suicide vest, pumped himself up with steroids and committed a terrorist atrocity.
The determined extremist led three men in a murderous rampage on the capital’s London Bridge, mowing down pedestrians and embarking on a stabbing frenzy that left eight dead and dozens injured before they were shot dead by police.
What was not known at the time was that for four months before the attack, the 27-year-old had been given the opportunity to mould the minds of young Muslims at the fee-paying Eton community school on the outskirts of London. He had no Arabic, no specialist knowledge and was unsupervised despite a conviction for violence.
The fallout from the murders and the scandal of the unsupervised sessions concluded this month with the school’s head receiving a life ban from teaching. But documents seen and interviews conducted by The National have revealed flaws within the British schooling system that allowed an extremist like Butt to flourish unchecked.
Even before the revelation of his involvement in lessons, the school had remained open despite its founder being exposed in the media as a key player in the now banned extremist group Al Muhajiroun.
His wife was the school’s former head teacher but she had tried to hide their relationship from the authorities. Sophie Rahman described laws that ensured schools play their part in identifying potential extremism as an attempt to “silence” Muslims speaking out against “state structured discrimination”.
And yet just months before the school was effectively closed by its landlord – a Muslim charity dedicated to countering radicalisation – officers for the English education inspection agency, Ofsted, found the school’s leaders had taken effective action to ensure a “far more robust” safeguarding culture in the school.
“Either the inspectors are not up to the job, they don’t ask the right questions or … they’re not probing deeply enough,” said Mike Gapes, the local member of parliament, who had previously raised concerns about the school in the House of Commons. “It’s either that, or they’re having the wool pulled over their eyes by a school who created a facade while the really extremist stuff was happening behind.”
The case follows another scandal earlier this year when it emerged that an administrator tried to recruit a 300-strong children’s army at a different independent Muslim school to act as a “death squad sent by Allah” and carry out terrorist attacks. Inspectors had once described the school as “outstanding”, despite such activity being at its height.
The cases have exposed the failings of an inspection regime that has been subject to constant financial cuts over more than a decade, resulted in a shortage of monitors and cut the quality of their work, the UK’s spending watchdog said in May. In the case involving Butt, the school in Ilford, Essex – initially named Ad-Deen Islamic Primary School – opened in September 2009, charging £2,040-a-year fees to provide “very high quality academic education alongside classical Islamic culturing,” according to the establishment’s website.
Terrorist operations in Britain
British Islamist terrorists “are a diverse collection of individuals, fitting no single demographic profile, nor do they all follow a typical pathway to violent extremism”. Around half were born in the United Kingdom, the majority are British nationals and the remainder, with a few exceptions, are in the country legally. Most UK terrorists are male, but women are sometimes aware of their husbands’, brothers’ or sons’ activities. While the majority are in their early to mid-20s when they become radicalised, a small but not insignificant minority first become involved in violent extremism over the age of 30. Those over 30 are just as likely to have a wife and children as to be loners with no ties.
MI5 says this challenges the idea that terrorists are young Muslim men driven by sexual frustration and lured to “martyrdom” by the promise of beautiful virgins waiting for them in paradise. Those involved in Islamist terrorism have educational achievement ranging from total lack of qualifications to degree-level education. However, they are almost all employed in low-grade jobs. Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in devout households, and there is a higher than average proportion of converts.
Some are drug addicts, consume alcohol and visit prostitutes. The report claims a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation, while the influence of clerics in radicalising Islamist terrorists has reduced in recent years. On 29 August 2014, the British government launched a raft of counter-terrorism measures as the terrorist threat level was raised to “severe”. Former prime minister David Cameron and erstwhile Home Secretary Theresa May warned a terrorist attack was “highly likely”, following the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
On 22 May 2017, at least 22 were killed after a bombing occurred following a concert by Ariana Grande in the most deadly terrorist attack on British soil since 2005. After a COBRA meeting, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the UK’s terror threat level was being raised to ‘critical’, its highest level. Operation Temperer was triggered, allowing 5,000 soldiers to replace armed police in protecting parts of the country. BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner said the first deployment of troops was expected to be in the hundreds.
There have been calls for the publication of a report into the finance of terrorism which the government said it left unpublished for security reasons. Tim Farron said: “Theresa May should be ashamed of the way she has dragged her heels on this issue, first as home secretary and now as prime minister. No amount of trade with dodgy regimes such as Saudi Arabia is worth putting the safety of the British public at risk, and if May is serious about our security, she would publish the report in full, immediately.”
From June 2016 to June 2017, 379 people in the UK had been arrested for terrorism-linked offences with 123 of them being charged, 105 for terrorism offences. This was a 68% increase from the previous year which was partly due to various Islamist terror attacks on UK soil such as the Manchester bombing, London Bridge attack and the Westminster attack. The report also said that 19 terrorist plots had been foiled by British police since June 2013.
Jihadist material including bomb making instructions and execution videos get more clicks in the UK than in any other European nation and is spread among a wide range of different domains. Internet companies are not preventing this and new measures are being considered including fines for internet companies that do not remove jihadist material. David Petraeus said the Parsons Green bomb could have been made from online instructions. Petraeus noted the technical and other skill of the terrorist websites and added, “It is clear that our counter-extremism efforts and other initiatives to combat extremism online have, until now, been inadequate. There is no doubting the urgency of this matter. The status quo clearly is unacceptable.”
Is the Internet Fuelling Terrorism?
Policymakers and scholars fear that the Internet has boosted the capabilities of transnational terrorists, like al Qaeda, to attack targets in the West, even in the face of increased policing and military efforts. Although access to the Internet has increased across the globe, there has been no corresponding increase in completed transnational terrorist attacks. This analysis examines the causal logics—which have led to the conventional wisdom—and demonstrates both theoretically and empirically that the internet is not a force multiplier for transnational terrorist organisations. Far from being at a disadvantage on the Internet, state security organs actually gain at least as much utility from the Internet as terrorist groups do, meaning that at worst the Internet leaves the state in the same position vis-à-vis terrorist campaigns as it was prior to the internet age.
Tweeting the Jihad: Social Media Networks of Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq
Social media has played an essential role in the jihadists’ operational strategy in Syria and Iraq, and beyond. Twitter in particular has been used to drive communications over other social media platforms. Twitter streams from the insurgency may give the illusion of authenticity, as a spontaneous activity of a generation accustomed to using their cell phones for self-promotion, but to what extent is access and content controlled?
Over a period of three months, from January through March 2014, information was collected from the Twitter accounts of 59 Western-origin fighters known to be in Syria. Using a snowball method, the 59 starter accounts were used to collect data about the most popular accounts in the network-at-large. Social network analysis on the data collated about Twitter users in the Western Syria-based fighters points to the controlling role played by feeder accounts belonging to terrorist organisations in the insurgency zone, and by Europe-based organisational accounts associated with the banned British group, Al Muhajiroun, and in particular the London-based preacher, Anjem Choudary.
The jihadist insurgents in Syria and Iraq use all manner of social media apps and file-sharing platforms, most prominently Ask.fm, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, PalTalk, kik, viper, JustPaste.it, and Tumblr. Encryption software like TOR is also used in communications with journalists to obscure locational information. But circumstances conspire to make Twitter the most popular platform. Specifically engineered for cellphones, it is easy and inexpensive to use. Posts (tweets) may contain images or text, links to other platforms can be embedded, and an incoming tweet can effortlessly be forwarded to everyone in an address list. Some types of social media require either 3G or Wi-Fi access but Twitter can be used in the absence of either.
Website managers in back offices integrate the Twitter feeds of frontline fighters with YouTube uploads and disseminate them to wider audiences. These back-office managers are often wives and young female supporters. It makes little difference if they are working from Raqqa or from Nice. It may be that as phone and internet access deteriorate on the ground, the insurgents are relying on disseminators outside the war zone to spread their messages.
Journalists, scholars, and militants communicate and follow each other on Twitter. Traditional media—TV, newspapers, and radio—routinely quote Twitter as an authoritative source of information about the progress of the insurgency. Yet while Twitter may give the illusion of authenticity, as a spontaneous activity of a generation accustomed to using cell phones, the online streaming of images and information is managed more tightly than is generally recognised. Evidence exists that the communications of the fighters are restricted and only trusted militants maintain high volume social media activities. A few militants compulsively update their Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds from the battlefield but many more do not communicate at all.
New recruits turn over their cell phones upon arrival to training camps. Unauthorised contact with family members is punished, allegedly even with execution. Clearly, unmonitored communications by the foreign fighters may inadvertently disclose information that could be exploited by law enforcement and rival combatants. Our working hypothesis, therefore, was that what appears to be a spontaneous stream of self-publication using social media is, in fact, controlled communications.
The Use of Twitter in Isil’s Spring 2014 Offensive
Once in the combat zone, the fighters assume aliases. Many take names incorporating Muhajir (emigrant) or in reference to their national origin. On video, men going by the names of “Abu Muhajir” (“the immigrant”) or Al-Britani (“the Briton”), read their wills in European accents, and declare their burning desire to die.
After the insurgents moved into Iraq, the content became increasingly gruesome. In April “Abu Daighum al-Britani,” a British fighter with Isil, used Twitter to circulate a screenshot made using Instagram of himself holding a severed head. By August, Twitter had served up stills from videos of ongoing beheadings, severed heads on fence posts, rows of crucified men hung on crosses on a platform in a dusty town like an image from an apocalyptic movie, and even a picture of a seven-year-old Australian boy holding a severed head offered to him by his father.
The execution of James W. Foley provoked the American public and dragged the United States into the conflict. The pictures of violence starkly highlighted the role played by social media in contemporary terrorist tactics. But it is not all brutal horror on Twitter. Tweets of cats and images of camaraderie bridge the real-life gap between Strasbourg, Cardiff, or suburban Denver, and being in a war zone. They may even make it seem more desirable to be in war-torn Raqqa and Aleppo than comfortably, and boringly, in the family home: “It’s actually quite fun. It’s really really fun. It’s better than that game, Call of Duty. It’s like that but it’s in 3D where everything is happening in front of you,” tweeted Abu Sumayyah Al-Britani, a British foreign fighter with Isil.
Prior to the civil war, the Syrian telecommunications system was among the most poorly developed in the region. Only about one-fifth of the population was estimated to have access to the internet but about 60% of the population had cell coverage. In November 2012, the Syrian government shut down internet and cell phone communication cartels under its control. Repeated black-outs have occurred in 2014, generally shutting down most of internet traffic. Iraq ordered a shutdown of the internet in June after Isil’s takeover of several cities in the north and the declaration of the “Islamic State.” More specific orders were later added to shut down access to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and other apps. Complaints over poor Internet access emerged on jihadist social media but generally the jihadists appear to have been able to overcome the practical impediments to internet access.
The insurgents may be providing their own satellite-linked networks. Satellite modems are used to create hotspots and temporary pop-up wi-fi networks in areas where state networks are disabled. A number of private companies advertise bundled telephone and Internet VSAT (satellite) services from Syria. The Islamic State moved fast to secure electricity and communication infrastructures in Raqqa and its other strongholds. Electricity is also a prerequisite for working phones and pop-up satellite networks. A tweet from “Abu Fulan” from September 2013 shows how much the fighters rely on this basic utility.
- Martin Rudner
- Studies in Conflict & Terrorism
- Volume 40, 2017 – Issue 1
- Published online: 30 Mar 2016
- Woodrow Wilson International Center
- Home land security report for 2015