The Family tree of islamist extremism

In the modern era, acts of violent extremism and terrorism have become seemingly decentralized. In this purported “fifth wave of terrorism,” lone wolves and isolated actors have taken center stage. Highly coordinated, large-scale plots have been few and far between. However, in the years prior, one can find direct connections and associations between many individuals. When one examines the “family tree” of Islamist extremism, one can find a direct lineage of individuals working and collaborating with each other for over a century. In this two-part series, Edwin Tran examines the roots of Islamist extremism and Jihadism by assessing individual, direct connections. Through this, Tran illuminates a clear pathway from the late Ottoman era to the modern day and shows how terrorism has changed from a more concentrated effort to a decentralized one.

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The intellectual history of jihadist political thought, when untangled, presents itself as an unbroken chain of writers and ideologues, that can be traced back from today to 1838, with each individual in the chain having direct contact with and influence on both their predecessor and successor:

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani: 1838-1897
Muhammad Abduh: 1849-1905
Rashid Rida: 1863-1935
Hassan al-Banna: 1906-1949
Sayyid Qutb: 1906-1966
Muhammad Qutb: 1919-2014
Abdullah Azzam: 1941-1989
Omar Abdel-Rahman: 1938-2017
Ramzi Youssef: 1968-1995
Khalid Sheikh Muhammad: 1964-Present
Hani Hanjour: 1972-2001
Anwar al-Awlaki: 1971-2011
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: 1986-Present

The Colonial Context

To begin, our discussion opens somewhat arbitrarily with the figure of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. Born in Asadabad, Afghanistan in 1838, al-Afghani would go on to pioneer the ideology of Islamic Modernism, an antecedent to the later ideologies of Islamic secularism and Salafism. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani emerged amid a tenuous period for the Islamic world. Afghanistan was in the midst of the Great Game between the Russian and British empires. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Abdulmejid I was seeing significant geopolitical decline, despite the best efforts of the Tanzimat reforms. 

As such, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s work would be contextualized by the colonial machinations of his era. Throughout the 1850s, al-Afghani journeyed throughout British India and Iran. He reportedly studied at major religious centers in Tehran and Herat. After undertaking the Hajj pilgrimage, al-Afghani returned to Afghanistan sometime in 1866 where he worked as a counselor for Dost Mohammad Khan, emir of Afghanistan. This would not be a long-term position. In 1868, Sher Ali Khan took over the emirate, and al-Afghani fled the country as a result. 

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani would arrive in Egypt later that year, acting as the first in a series of falling dominoes. From 1871-1879, al-Afghani spent much of his time preaching in Cairo, where he focused his efforts on advocating for a pan-Islamic unity against European colonial powers. In this time, al-Afghani would influence a young student named Muhammad ‘Abduh. ‘Abduh would go on to become one of al-Afghani’s most ardent supporters. By 1878, Muhammad ‘Abduh would become a renowned scholar in his own right, ascertaining a professorship at Dar al-Ulum college and later at Cairo University. 

However, the works of these two scholars drew ire from political entities. In 1879, Egyptian authorities, possibly under British command, expelled al-Afghani out of the country and forced Muhammad ‘Abduh to return to his home village. During his exile, al-Afghani travelled throughout Europe and the Ottoman Empire, visiting London, Istanbul, and Moscow. In 1882, Muhammad ‘Abduh was forced out of Egypt due to his actions in the 1879 uprising of Egyptian army officer Ahmed ‘Urabi. After his own exile, ‘Abduh travelled around Europe before reuniting with his mentor al-Afghani in Paris in 1884. 

In Paris, al-Afghani and ‘Abduh published the newsletter al-Urwah al-Wuthqa, which espoused anti-British sentiments and advocated for Islamic revolutionism. The publication of al-Urwah al-Wuthqa would have a sizeable impact on the development of Islamism and Islamic modernism. Although the publication only ran for around seven months, it would inspire thousands of scholars and ideologues. One person on whom al-Afghani and ‘Abduh’s literature had a particularly profound impact was Rashid Rida, a Lebanese scholar who would play a leading role in the ideological formation of Salafism. 

In 1888, Muhammad ‘Abduh left Europe and returned to Egypt, where he managed to find work in the Egyptian state, becoming a judge in 1891. Meanwhile, al-Afghani was offered a court position with Naser al-Din Shah Qajar in Iran, but disagreement erupted between the two shortly afterwards and the position was short-lived. In 1895, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, now based in Istanbul, met with a follower named Mirza Reza Kermani. The two discussed an assassination plot against the Shah, which came to fruition on May 1, 1896 when Kermani approached him whilst he prayed Shah Abdol-Azim Shrine in the city of Rey and shot him at point-blank range with a rusty revolver. Kermani was arrested shortly after the attack and executed, while Jamal al-Din al-Afghani would pass away from cancer in 1897. 

In 1899, Muhammad ‘Abduh had become the Grand Mufti of Egypt. Meanwhile, in 1897, Rashid Rida left Syria and headed to Cairo to study under ‘Abduh. A year later, Rashid Rida began publishing the magazine al-Manar, which spread Islamic reformist ideas and spoke about Islamist action in politics. Interestingly, although Rida was inspired by and studied under the tutelage of Muhammad ‘Abduh, his own ideological development veered in a different direction. He argued in support of a more literalist interpretation of the Quran and actively argued for greater Islamic participation in politics. Both individuals also diverged over matters such as the rise of the al-Saud dynasty in the Najd region of the Arabian Peninsula. ‘Abduh had supported the Ottoman Empire as an anti-colonial vehicle and thus saw the actions of Abdulaziz as harmful to the Ottoman cause. Meanwhile, Rida greatly supported Abdulaziz’s consolidation of power and viewed the Saudi leader as a strong individual in the fight against western imperialism. Muhammad ‘Abduh would die on July 11, 1905 in Alexandria. Over subsequent decades, Rashid Rida continued the development of the ideas of Salafism, working on the teachings of his mentor ‘Abduh, and, most importantly, would continue to publish editions of al-Manar.

The Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood

One particular individual was greatly influenced by the work of al-Manar. This was Hassan al-Banna, future founder and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Born just one year after Muhammad ‘Abduh’s death, much of his early life was dominated by his father, Sheikh Ahmed ‘abd al-Rahman al-Banna. This meant that Hassan al-Banna would become familiar with the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence. In 1923, Hassan al-Banna would head to Cairo to attend the Dar al-Ulum college, a move which would prove a significant experience in his ideological development. According to Jung and Zalaf, “in Cairo, Hassan al-Banna was faced with features of social life he did not know from his provincial hometown. He noticed a defection of the educated youth from what he considered to be the Islamic way of life.” Perhaps even more pressing was the fact that “Hassan al-Banna observed and increasingly opposed the fruitless struggle of Egypt’s liberal political class in achieving the country’s independence from Great Britain.” It was around this time that al-Banna became exposed to the works of Rashid Rida, which seemed to provide ideological guidance for the faults he was witnessing in Egypt. 

As the years passed, Hassan al-Banna became acquainted with many important thinkers in Cairo, and he had personal correspondence with Rashid Rida. Here, the synthesis of the previous Islamic thinkers converged onto the ideological framework being developed by Hassan al-Banna. Indeed, Jung and Zalaf recount that: “the original reform ideas of Muhammad ‘Abduh entered Hassan al-Banna’s world of ideas in Rashid Rida’s interpretation.” Put another way, “Hassan al-Banna developed further a line of thought already known for the reform agenda of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh.” One of the most significant ideas presented by Rida was the formation of an Islamic state that would govern on the basis of Islamic law. This idea of revolutionary struggle on the basis of Islamic precepts would guide Hassan al-Banna’s own activist struggle. According to al-Banna, Egypt’s many problems could only be solved by a return to a society modelled after the time of Muhammad and his followers. This manifested in the development of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

When Rashid Rida died on August 22 1935 travelling back to Cairo from Suez following a visit with King Abdulaziz al-Saud, al-Manar perished with him. However, one can see the direct connections between Rida and al-Banna in what transpired shortly thereafter. Sometime in 1939, Hassan al-Banna resurrected al-Manar in order to further promote the activist ideology being pioneered by the Muslim Brotherhood. 

It is perhaps around then that a certain Sayyid Qutb first developed a fascination with the works of Hassan al-Banna. In 1929, Qutb left his rural home village of Musha for the city of Cairo, where he trained at the Dar al-Ulum college to become a teacher. In 1933 Qutb joined the Egyptian Ministry of Education as a teacher. It was during his teaching career that he became acquainted with several literary circles in the city, assisting the novelist Naguib Mahfouz for instance. From 1948 to 1950, Qutb embarked on his infamous trip to the United States, which hardened his own resolve towards Islamism. In February 1953, Qutb officially joined the Muslim Brotherhood.

Before long, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nasser regime began to splinter, culminating in an attempted assassination against Nasser in 1954. Many members of the Brotherhood were imprisoned as a result. Qutb himself received a sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment, though he was ultimately hanged on August 29, 1966. Qutb’s work during this period proved to be incredibly influential for future developments. Building on the ideas of al-Banna, Rida, ‘Abduh, and al-Afghani, Qutb’s ideology moved further toward extremism due to his direct experiences in the United States. Milestones is a particularly significant work in this regard. The book is said to have inspired many Islamist Jihadist groups from the 1970s to the present day, including Islamic Jihad, the assassins of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. 

As such, Sayyid Qutb’s death did not augur the end of his ideology, Qutbism. Much of Qutb’s work would continue to be disseminated via passionate followers, taking on a life of its own. Qutb’s direct intellectual descendants include figures such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and, more interestingly, his brother Muhammad Qutb. 

Muhammad Qutb had spent much of his life following and supporting his brother Sayyid. Muhammad joined the Muslim Brotherhood and was also arrested by the Nasserist regime for the 1954 assassination attempt. However, unlike his brother Sayyid, Muhammad was spared and freed on October 17, 1971. After this, Muhammad fled to Saudi Arabia where he would take up a professorship position at the Umm al-Qura University in Mecca. Starting in the early 1970s, Saudi Arabia began to push initiatives for greater development in internal education. For many scholars affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, this government policy gave many individuals an opportunity to find refuge and even patronage. 

For Muhammad Qutb, this opportunity enabled him to further spread the ideology espoused by his late-brother. At Umm al-Qura University and later at King Abdulaziz University, Muhammad offered guidance to several students who would go on to play significant roles in the development of Islamist extremism. At Umm al-Qura University, Muhammad Qutb would act as a thesis adviser for a student named Safar al-Hawali, a future founder of the Saudi Arabian Sahwa movement. At King Abdulaziz University, meanwhile, Qutb would also educate a certain Osama Bin Laden

As Saudi Arabia continued to call for more teachers, Muhammad Qutb would play another pivotal role by reaching out to a former colleague, Abdullah Azzam. In 1969, Azzam joined the Muslim Brotherhood. By the early 1970s, he was studying at al-Azhar University in Cairo and became versed in the works of Ibn Taymiyyah and Sayyid Qutb. According to researcher Thomas Hegghammer, Abdullah Azzam would develop strong relationships with the Qutb family in this time and became personally acquainted with Muhammad Qutb following his release from prison in 1971. After graduating from al-Azhar University in 1973, Abdullah Azzam secured a professorship in Saudi Arabia, with some scholars believing that “Muhammad Qutb personally helped Azzam’s job search” and that Qutb personally put Azzam into contact with Bin Laden

In the wake of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Abdullah Azzam would launch a new era of Islamist activity by issuing a fatwa calling for mujahedeen fighters to head to Afghanistan. The Saudi Arabian Grand Mufti acknowledged the fatwa as legitimate, lighting a major spark in the movement. In 1981, Saudi Arabia agreed to release Abdullah Azzam from his teaching position at King Abdulaziz University. He would head to Islamabad to teach at the Islamic University, but only shortly after, he would move to Peshawar. 

With his former student Osama Bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam would establish the Maktab Khadamat al-Mujahideen (MKM). The MKM would be responsible for organizing and fundraising for the foreign resistance against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. With a base of operations established in Afghanistan, the foundation for al-Qaeda was laid. The future of the Islamist Jihadist movement was at hand, and, in the next part of this series, we will examine the next set of connections. This will chronicle how Abdullah Azzam would collaborate with Omar Abdel-Rahman “the Blind Sheikh,” the myriad of figures involved in the 1990s and the September 11 attacks, and then conclude with an overview of the figures associated with Anwar al-Awlaki which heralded the beginnings of the lone-wolf era.

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Edwin Tran is an independent writer focusing on geopolitics and the Levantine region. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno with degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant region, and specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.

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Cover Image: A sketch for Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, author unknown, Scanned from a book entitled Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī : tārīkhuhu wa-risālatuhu (جمال الدين الأفغاني: تاريخه ورسالته), published in Egypt in 1958 (Source, Wikimedia Commons:āl_al-Dīn_al-Afghānī_Sketch.jpg)