Certain names recurring in the news are part and parcel of our daily life not only as news consumers but also, and especially, as members of the human species more or less involved in the history of the world. More often than not, these names do not match a clear definition in our minds. Worse, they do not match a clear definition in journalists’ minds. Worse, they do not match a clear definition in decision-makers’ minds.
From the point of view of mass communication, this entails that the message delivered goes from inaccurate (best scenario) through misleading to mystifying (worst scenario). From the point of view of policy and strategic decisions, it entails that the choices are ill-advised, counter-productive, unconsidered, even dangerous.
Islamic terrorism is a case in point. Navigating through Islamic denominations and terrorist groups is as hard as ever and that’s largely because the information we rely upon is incorrect (neutral adj) as when we read that IS is affiliated with al-Qaeda (!) I offer a number of synthetic entries with absolutely no claim of exhaustiveness. On the contrary, they are deliberately simplified.
Al-Nusra (Syria), born in January, 2012. Despite its affiliation with al-Qaeda, it focuses on the fight against Assad’s regime rather than on external objectives or global jihad. They strongly oppose any Western intrusion on the Syrian territory and they are willing to fight hand in hand with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) for the common goal of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. Although they might have had early contacts with the Islamic State (IS), they engaged IS fighters in fierce clashes. The leader of al-Nusra is Abu Muhammad al-Julani. At the core of al-Nusra are Syrian fighters returning from Iraq.
Al-Qaeda was established in the late 1980s by Osama bin Laden (Saudi, killed on May 1, 2011) and Abdullah Yusuf Azzam (Palestinian, died 1989) to support the mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It’s a franchising that counts various affiliates, cells and lone wolves. It’s not a cohesive group with central leadership. It’s a label. Hence, there’s no head to severe in order to extinguish the group. Its orientation is Salafi. They do not target ‘infidels’ alone. They also target other Islamic denominations (moderates, Shi’a, Sufi etc.). Perhaps, they target other denominations especially. When bin Laden was killed, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri became the leader of al-Qaeda. However, he appears to be far less charismatic and resolute. It’s clear that al-Qaeda has changed conspicuously since its foundation (in terms of objectives, strategies and so forth.)
Al-Shabāb (Somalia) we don’t know much about its genesis. Apparently, al-Shabāb (which means Youth or Youngsters) started as the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union (a rival administration contending with the Somali Transitional Federal Government.) It’s an al-Qaeda affiliate since 2012. They persecute the Christian minority (accused of conspiring with the Ethiopian government) along with the Sufi minority. Al-Shabāb co-operates with some humanitarian agencies within their territories gaining material and economic benefit (those agencies usually deny this collaboration.)
Alawi they belong to the Twelver Shi’a branch. However, their main characteristic is syncretism (they incorporate in their doctrine Gnostic, Neo-Platonic, Christian and other elements.) They live mainly in Syria. In fact, the al-Assad family is Alawi. The main feature of their doctrine is the divine triad composed by the gate (bab); the name (ism); the meaning (maᶜna.) This triad cyclically take human form. Last cycle saw Ali as meaning, Muhammad as name and Salman the Persian as gate. A rather peculiar aspect of Alawi doctrine is reincarnation.
Boko Haram (Nigeria), born in 2002. Its real name is ‘group of the people of the Sunna for preaching and Jihad’. Since 2009, they launch military actions with the aim of ousting the Nigerian government – charged with being un-Islamic – in order to replace it with a Caliphate. They pledged allegiance to the IS. They frequently overflow in neighbouring countries.
Islamic State (IS) focus on the word ‘state’. In fact, it is a territorial entity. The Caliphate is not a remote objective as in the case of al-Qaeda but a constitutive element. IS aims at winning more territory and is under the leadership of a Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is a descendant of the Prophet’s Qurayshi tribe. As for the most radical Salafism, the adherents wish to live in conformity with the very first and glorious era of Islām, following the example of the Prophet and his companions. A gruesome revival. Their interpretation of the Quran is literal as they dig out elements such as takfir (charge of apostasy) or jyzia (a tax that Christians and Jews had to pay under Muslim rule.) Another rather interesting – and sinister – element is apocalyptic: according to IS scholars, the apocalypse is coming soon. It will be preceded by a victorious clash against Rome. (Warning: by Rome they do not mean Italy, nor the Vatican – you may have noticed the Vatican hasn’t had an army in quite some years. Rome might be indeed the other capital of the Roman empire, Istanbul, thus the Republic of Turkey, or any infidel army, like the ever-present Americans. See What ISIS really wants.) After that, the Caliphate will expand until the advent of the anti-Messiah (dajjal) who’ll be fought and defeated by Jesus (he is, in fact, the second most important prophet in Islām after Muhammad.) Doctrines set aside, it is paramount to focus on the territorial nature of IS which is both its strength and its weakness. Territorial conquests have gained IS access to valuable resources, first and foremost oil. This is how IS became one of the rentier states of the region (See Charles Tripp.) As any rentier state, IS is vulnerable to sudden cuts in its rents which would limit its capability of governing: at the end of the day, IS has the same mundane necessities as any other state (namely, providing to its population and maintaining its infrastructures.) Add to this the considerable amount of resources spent on the military machine.
Salafi/Wahhabi conservatives, they hold that Islām has degenerated after the first generations of believers who dutifully followed the letter of the teachings of the Prophet and his companions. They’re against any change or ‘modernisation’ of Islām. They anachronistically adhere to an unchanging Islām faithfully reproducing the example of those first believers. Although IS followers are Salafi, we should distinguish between their version and quietist Salafism that shuns political struggle and holds contrary to Quranic law the very act of bringing discord among and dividing the community of believers (Umma.) Wahhabism is the Saudi version of Salafism.
Shi’a when the Prophet Muhammad died, four Caliphs succeeded him, those who were called the rashidun (rightly guided). They were: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali (he married Muhammad’s daughter Fatima.) When Ali died, a dispute for succession arose between his sons, Hasan and Husayn, and Damascus governor, Muawiya. They confronted in Kerbala. The split that resulted was political more than religious, although at the time the distinction was irrelevant. On the one hand, there were Muawiya (he founded the Omayyad dynasty) and his supporters. On the other, there were the supporters of Muhammad’s family (ahl al-bayt.) Shiites believe in the Imamate of Muhammad’s lineage. The Twelvers – the most widespread denomination – believe in the infallibility of the Imam and in the occultation of the twelfth Imam who will return one day as the Messiah (mahdi,) bringing justice on Earth. In Shi’a – as it’s all too apparent in the case of Iran – the cleric has a very important role.
Sufi adhere to a sort of Islamic mysticism. They belong to different orders (turuq) devoted to spiritual purification. They bring the adoration of Allah to the point of perceiving his divine presence. Each order is led by a master whose chain of teaching goes back as far as Muhammad himself.
Sunni (ahl al-Sunna) it’s the orthodox Islām, or perhaps just the most widespread. It was born from the split of Ali’s partisans (see Shi’a.) Sunni believe in the teachings of the Quran and the Sunna (the Prophet’s words and deeds) as transmitted by the hadith (oral traditions.) Sunni Muslim observe five pillars of faith: shahada (creed declaration: ‘There is no God but God and Muhammad is God’s Prophet’); prayer; charity; fasting (Ramadan;) and pilgrimage to Mecca.
Zaydi belong to Shi’a Islām yet their denomination is the closest to Sunni Islām. They are widespread in Yemen. Contrary to other Shi’a denominations, they do not believe in the infallibility of Imams after Husayn nor in the occultation of the twelfth Imam.