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Jul 2, 2003 | 22:04 GMT

7 mins read

The Many Faces of Wahhabism

The FBI has arrested 11 men in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania who are suspected of ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a neo-Salafist/Wahhabi militant Islamist group fighting Indian rule in Kashmir. Differences between the charges contained in a federal indictment and STRATFOR's own research on the suspects underscore the complexity of the Wahhabi universe.
In several early morning raids on June 27, the FBI arrested 11 men in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia on suspicion of having links to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The LeT, which the U.S. State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2001, is the armed wing of the banned Markaz Dawat-o-Irshad, a Pakistan-based neo-Salafist (Wahhabi) group dedicated to fighting Indian rule in Kashmir. After the Musharraf government banned the group in late 2001, Markaz Dawat-o-Irshad reconstituted itself under the name Jamaatud Dawat. There are differences between the federal charges levied against the 11 suspects — which include weapons violations and conspiracy to carry out attacks against countries with which the United States is at peace — and information that STRATFOR has obtained about some of them. Perhaps most interesting is that most of the 11 are not of Kashmiri or Pakistani background — and it would be unusual for foreigners to join the LeT, a movement that operates in a limited area around Kashmir. STRATFOR's research indicates that these men are Americans who subscribe to the Wahhabi sect of Islam, which is not necessarily violent. Muhammad bin Abdel Wahhab founded Wahhabism as a puritanical movement in the mid-18th century in the Nejd region of the Arabian Peninsula. Wahhabism calls for the purification of Islam from the excesses of history and advocates a return to the original form of the religion as taught by the Prophet Mohammed and his companions. The followers of Muhammad bin Abdel Wahhab have never accepted the appellation "Wahhabi" but refer to themselves instead as "Salafi," which means predecessor — a reference to the Prophet and his companions as the predecessors of contemporary Muslims. Since the epistemic community uses this term to identify a different group of 20th century Islamic thinkers, Wahhabis are also referred to as neo-Salafists. While Wahhabism does not advocate violence as a modus operandi to achieve its goal of a return to the original Islam, jihadism — a violent offshoot of the Wahhabi sect — calls for the employment of jihad to re-establish an Islamic state (the caliphate). The discrepancy between the FBI's information and the public image the suspects have projected highlights the intricacies of Wahhabi Islam. Wahhabism is an extreme and rigid form of Islam, but it is not a monolith and not all of its factions are violent. Wahhabi ideology is by nature nebulous, and the contours between militancy and discursive radicalism are often blurred. Also, in Saudi Arabia — the seat of Wahhabism — there exist intra-Wahhabist links between the Saudi religious establishment, the moderate voices of opposition to the monarchy and the kingdom's radical or militant groups. Mainstream Wahhabism, which historically has been aligned with the Saudi state, always has confined Islamic discourse to matters of belief, ritual and social transactions. The House of Saud long has co-opted the Wahhabi school in an effort to curb potential opposition. And the absence of a defined Wahhabi political ideology — along with a Saudi ban on political discourse — over time has led to a significant radical cross-section of the movement. This, coupled with the absolute monarchy ruling the kingdom, has led to a reaction in which voices of dissent have opted for jihad. Also, emboldened by the success of the "Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union," this jihadist movement has matured over time into Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. In the federal case now pending in Virginia, one of the threads connecting all 11 suspects now in FBI custody is Ali Al-Tamimi. Al-Tamimi — who has not been indicted but is under investigation — allegedly has lectured before all 11 suspects at a northern Virginia Islamic center. He is not a formally trained cleric, but he has had close relations with senior scholars within the Saudi religious establishment as well those who constitute the moderate opposition to the Saudi royal family. He grew up in the United States; his parents are believed to have emigrated from Iraq. Judging from recordings of his speeches, which are available on Islamist Web sites, al-Tamimi appears to be a moderate scholar-cum-activist who, though concerned about U.S. policy toward the Muslim world, has expressed his opposition to the jihadist interpretations of Wahhabi Islam. While al-Tamimi was not included in this indictment, his 11 followers appear to have been involved with not just moderate Wahhabi groups but radical ones as well. The LeT, for example, is a jihadist offshoot of Wahhabism. Given the nature of the LeT, however, it is intriguing that only three of the suspects arrested June 27 — Mohammed Aatique, Khwaja Mahmood Hasan and Masoud Ahmad Khan — hail from South Asia. Of the remaining eight, three are of Arab origin: Sabri Benkhala, Caliph Basha ibn Abdur-Raheem and Ibrahim al-Hamdi. Several others — Randall Todd Royer (also known as Ismail Royer), Donald Thomas Surratt, Seifullah Chapman and Hammad Abdul Raheem — are American converts to Islam. They were arrested along with Yong Ki Kwon, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Korean descent. Such a range of backgrounds would not be unusual in a group like al Qaeda, which is truly transnational and contains Muslims from a wide range of ethnic and national backgrounds within its ranks. But it is odd that these suspects have been charged with membership in the LeT, whose activities do not extend beyond Pakistan, Kashmir and India. However, the Indian government has accused the LeT of working with another group —the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) — in carrying out two deadly attacks against the Kashmiri state legislature in Srinagar and the Parliament in New Delhi in 2001. The JeM is believed to be part of the global al Qaeda network, and one of its prominent members, Omar Saeed Sheikh, has been charged with the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. There also have been recent reports that the group has sent fighters to participate in the Iraqi guerrilla resistance against U.S. military forces. Thus, it would seem to make more sense if these men were involved with JeM than the LeT — if they are involved in any groups at all. The federal indictment accuses the men of using U.S. territory to collect and transport weapons to be used in jihad in Kashmir, to practice military tactics and to recruit conspirators for service with the LeT. Those charges conflict with the image that at least some of the suspects have created for themselves. STRATFOR has acquired information about Randall Todd "Ismail" Royer, who has been an active participant on public Muslim discussion lists. As far as we can determine, none of Royer's postings have indicated any involvement with or support for al Qaeda. Although it is possible that both Royer and al-Tamimi support what Muslims widely believe are legitimate jihads — or armed struggles — in the Muslim world against foreign occupation and oppression, they have given no outward signs of support for jihadism, the ideology of al Qaeda or its associated groups. The blurred lines between establishment Wahhabism, moderate Wahhabi opponents of the Saudi state and militant offshoots such as al Qaeda-type jihadists make it difficult to differentiate between the followers of each faction. This is an even bigger problem for U.S. law enforcement, which in essence is sifting through an ideological soup to find militants who might be masquerading as Muslims who are simply opposed to U.S. foreign policy. Further complicating an already complex situation are those who have ties to more than one faction. On July 2, The Associate Press reported that Saudi security forces captured one of the suspected masterminds behind the May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh, Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdi. Al-Ghamdi, who surrendered to authorities, did so as a result of mediation by a prominent Saudi scholar, Safar al-Hawali — who is a leading moderate Wahhabi opposition figure. Cases like these, in which militants are found to have ties to moderate factions, prove that Wahhabism and those who practice it cannot be easily lumped into strict categories.

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