Nageh Ibrahim, an ex-jihadist and one of the founders of Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya, talks about ISIS, its ideology and evolution, and gives his analysis of the phenomenon of Islamist extremism that is currently plaguing the region.
Ahram Hebdo: What is the main defect in ISIS’ ideology?
Nageh Ibrahim: ISIS has a dangerous ideological defect which is the origin of all the faults and crimes it commits. They understand Islam in a backwards way. As the Quran says, “And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds," and they understand it, “We have only sent you to blow away and slaughter the people.” The Quran also says, “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion,” and they apply compulsion in religion.
And the Quran says, “And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you,” and they are characterized by cruelty and harshness.
Islam also calls for saving lives, for making people happy and for human dignity. “And We have certainly honoured the children of Adam,” and “whoever saves one [a soul] – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely,”* and they humiliate human beings, kill them and do not save them. They make them miserable instead of making them happy.
AH: ISIS consists of many nationalities, some of which are European. How did that happen?
NI: ISIS includes British, Americans, French, Moroccans, Tunisians, Spanish, Belgians. These huge numbers of people who left their countries in broad daylight and travelled to Turkey, then to Syria, did not travel without those countries’ governments not knowing. This happened with their knowledge and under their sight, because the West wanted to remove Bashar from power in Syria and hence undermine Hezbollah and Iran. So the West supported the travelling of those people in order to oust Bashar, and this was originally an American — Western-Turkish-Gulf plan. This was aimed mainly at curtailing Iran’s power in the region, and the West did not know it was creating a monster that would eat it in the end. In fact, Bashar is a dictatorial ruler, just as ISIS is, and the Shiite militias too.
The United States was the reason for the birth of ISIS in Iraq because it dissolved the Iraqi army, tore down Iraq and divided it for Israel’s interest. This is reminiscent of what happened in Afghanistan [in the 1980s], when the United States formed an alliance with Al-Qaeda to hit the Soviet Union. Then Al-Qaeda became its enemy after 11 September 2001. The idea of destroying Arab states and dissolving their armies is the source of all this evil.
AH: What are the main reasons behind the creation of armed terrorist groups?
NI: There is a golden rule which goes, “When there isn’t a strong state that abides by justice politically and socially, terrorist groups will form in its ruins.” You can constantly apply this rule to check its credibility.
When the state in Afghanistan was absent, Al-Qaeda was created. When the state was absent in Somalia, Al-Qaeda was there. When the state was missing in Iraq and Al-Maliki came in with his injustice and repugnant discrimination, ISIS appeared and the Shiites militias appeared, which kill by name and by sect. Both are two bad faces of the same coin. When the state became absent in Syria, ISIS appeared. When the Libyan state disappeared, and its army was dissolved, the extremist groups emerged, including ISIS and others. This is a golden rule. The Arab world and its populations have been for a long time torn between the hammer of dictatorial rulers and the anvil of ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Shiite militias.
AH: How are the 11 September attacks in the US and the attacks on 13 November in France similar?
NI: There are many similarities. Al-Qaeda was a previous US ally in Afghanistan, then each turned against the other. ISIS was also an ally of the West in the beginning in Iraq and Syria, then it turned against the West after the West started launching strikes against it.
Another similarity is the inability of US intelligence agencies to predict the 11 September attacks, and the complete inattention of French security apparatuses regarding the executers of the 13 November attacks. Both are great inadequacies for which someone deserves to be held accountable. Also no attention was paid by the US and France regarding intelligence that was offered to them from Arab and Western states before the 11 September and 13 November attacks.
Americans cannot differentiate between Al-Qaeda and Islam, and the US exploitated the incident to unjustly invade Iraq. There is also no differentiation between Islam and ISIS for the French and European peoples.
The aftermath of the attacks also involved the harming of some Muslims in the West and the burning of mosques that are neither closely nor remotely related to ISIS.
The 11 September and 13 November attacks put Islam and Muslims in a fight with the West, a fight that Muslims do not want, and have nothing to do with. ISIS has harmed Islam and Muslims more than the west.
The attacks also resulted in convulsive and undisciplined reactions from the US and Europe against anything Islamic, and some are using the incident and the pain of the families of the victims to cultivate extremism against anything Islamic even if it is moderate, or to kick Muslims out of Europe.
AH: Has the West helped extremist groups such as ISIS in any way?
NI: The US helped ISIS in the beginning in an indirect way until they [ISIS] attacked the Kurds, then the US started to fight them.
The US and the West have double standards. If extremism is in their interest, they support it, and if they suffer from it, they fight it and call upon everyone to fight it. I consider the occupation of Iraq as the starting point of the collapse of the region. Everything the US promoted before occupying Iraq, like Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, was nothing but lies that the US have admitted to. The US occupied Iraq, divided it, dissolved its army and gave it as a cold capture to Iran. All this was in the interest of Israel and Iran only. It was not in the interest of the US, the West or Iraq.
AH: What are the main factors that created ISIS in Iraq and helped in forming it?
NI: There are many factors, including the dissolving of the Iraqi army, the intelligence apparatuses and the Republican Guard, which represented a large number of people. If you imagine a general in the army who suddenly had no salary, no place, no profession, faced oppression and came under attack – despite being innocent – from Shiite militias or from Al-Maliki, who is Shia. What would he do? He has no solution but to join ISIS.
Another factor was Al-Maliki’s sectarianism and his injustice towards Sunnis, and his denial of their rights, marginalising them and humiliating them in all ways.
The savage massacres that the different Shiite militias committed in Sunni villages made the all Sunni families say in unity: ISIS’s hell and not the heaven of Shias and their militias. This is why the Sunni villages welcomed ISIS in the beginning before they discovered their cruelty and barbarity.
The meeting of different Islamist groups which belong to Al-Qaeda and others with officers from the Iraqi army in Iraqi prisons during the American occupation and their common feeling of injustice that fell upon Iraq in general and on Sunni people in specific, made them determined to form a Sunni power that protects them from the oppression and protects their rights. But they took the wrong path, so they fell into what is worse. They were very stupid, in contrast with Shiite militias who had their plans drawn by Iran.
AH: Why is ISIS, of all Islamist currents, the one that has managed to build a state for itself, even though other Islamist groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, could not build a state?
NI: Because the main component of ISIS and their main motive did not come from Islamists, but from the army, the Republican Guard and the Iraqi intelligence. The Islamist component is only the façade. The Islamist component has never had experience in leading or managing a state, and does not know the fiqh of the state well, and is usually indulged in the fiqh of da’wah or the fiqh of the Brotherhood, especially if it was in a state of opposition or oppression.
As for the men of the army, the Guard and the former Iraqi intelligence, they are state men originally and have wide experiences in managing states and they care in the first place about the characteristics of a state like currency, media, police, armies and the arrangements made for managing the state. These are all matters that the Islamists are not usually good at, and I believe that [ISIS leader] Abo-Bakr Al-Baghdadi does not own many keys to ISIS and its state. He is only an Iraqi scientist who has a doctorate degree and who is known in Iraq. He does not have Jewish origins as is rumoured by those who believe in conspiracy. He was imprisoned for some time during the American occupation of Iraq and his family is well-known in Iraq. Even Iraqi Shiites know them and admit to it. I believe that he has been suffering from a serious injury for a long time and that he does not know anything about ISIS.
AH: Does ISIS represent Islam?
NI: Neither ISIS nor Al-Qaeda nor the Shiite militias represent Islam. They are rather the furthest from having the right understanding of Islam. ISIS' ideology can be summarised with two things: making accusations of apostasy against individuals and blowing things up. ISIS belongs to the ideology of the Kharijites, who were killed by the ‘prince of believers’ Ali Ben Abi Taleb. All Muslims hate ISIS as much as they hate the extremist Shiite militias who kill, slaughter and bomb. ISIS does not only accuse Arab and Muslim rulers of apostasy, they accuse police, army and security apparatuses in all Arab countries, as well as all political parties, be they liberal or those with an Islamist basis, of apostasy.
AH: What is the difference between Al-Qaeda and ISIS?
NI: ISIS is considered more extravagant and extremist than the Al-Qaeda organisation. Al-Qaeda has not bombed the tombs of prophets, but ISIS did bomb the grave of the prophet Younes [Jonah] and the shrine of the prophet Shayth [Seth], peace be upon them. Also Al-Qaeda does not target women [as a group] and does not engage in mass slaughter, but ISIS does.
Al-Qaeda has also not accused of apostasy parties with an Islamist reference like Al-Nahda in Tunisia or Justice and Development in Turkey or El-Nour in Egypt, but ISIS has. ISIS even killed El-Nour’s candidate in Egypt’s North Sinai.
Also, Al-Qaeda has not asked all Muslims to pay allegiance to it and has not declared Osama Bin Laden or Ayman El-Zawahry as the ‘prince of believers’ to which all Muslims should pay allegiance just because he dominates a piece of land, unlike Al-Baghdadi and his aides who have unashamedly and naively asked made these demands.
Al-Qaeda also has not displayed dangerous sectarian bigotry against Shiites, but the circumstances that surrounded the creation of ISIS cultivated sectarian bigotry in the face of abominable Shiite bigotry.
* The translation of Quranic verses is courtesy of Sahih International
** This interview was first published by Ahram Hebdo