Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Revolutionary Salafism: The Case of Ahrar Movement

Research Fellow, George Washington University's Program on Extremism
An Egyptian protester chants during a protest following midday prayers in Tahrir Square on September 14, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt. (Ed Giles/Getty Images)
An Egyptian protester chants during a protest following midday prayers in Tahrir Square on September 14, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt. (Ed Giles/Getty Images)

Deafening chants of “With our life and blood we defend you, O Prophet of God!” rang out in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on September 11, 2012. A hodgepodge of protesters had assembled at the behest of Islamists furious over the infamous anti-Islam YouTube video Innocence of Muslims. Salafists and soccer hooligans called Ultras filled the street.1 The black banner of Jihad seemed to be everywhere. As nightfall neared, some in the crowd were unsatisfied with letting the day pass without incident. The U.S. flag flying at half-mast to commemorate 9/11 was too attractive a target to pass over. Dozens of young men scaled the Embassy’s exterior wall, took down the flag, and burned it. Pictures of the incident were understandably confusing. One teen wearing shorts and flip-flops looked on as he rested on the wall. Next to him, another youth wore a Guy Fawkes mask, like others on top of the wall, and held a lit flare. In the middle of the mob atop the wall stood one of the few bearded men waiving the black banner now used by the Islamic State group.

The presence of Ultras and Salafists in front of the Embassy that day was no accident. Indeed, many of the Ultras were at the protest looking for another riot just as they’ve been involved in most of the protests since the January 2011 revolution. These excitable young men, some drugged up, others just plain angry, clashed often with the Egyptian Police. They had a distinct way of chanting during protests. It reflected the graffiti they spray painted that insulted the police, such as All Cops Are Bastards or ACAB. This was an art they fine-tuned back when they cheered for their favorite teams in soccer stadiums. They were organized and absolutely dedicated to their unit of Ultras, a rare combination in a country like Egypt.

With the revolution, the soccer hooligans turned political. They were simply against the state and anyone in uniform as many of them had started to get killed or detained as a result of numerous clashes. But just like most other Muslim youth in Egypt, some of them were susceptible to the populist and simplistic Islamist call. Some supported the charismatic Salafi presidential candidate Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who wanted to become President to implement Sharia. The Ultras were targeted by Islamists who saw in them an opportunity to reach youth and have muscle on the street, where much of Egypt’s post-revolutionary politics was being decided.

As a result, some of the Ultras, specifically those supporting Cairo’s Zamalek club called the White Knights, were Islamized. They were perfect recruits for a new strand of Islamism that emerged at the time in revolutionary Egypt, so-called Revolutionary Salafism.2 It stressed popular mobilization, eschewed the organized Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood, and rejected traditional Salafi scholars who opposed popular revolution. In this period, scholar Samuel Tadros writes in his seminal mapping of modern Egyptian Islamism, “Revolutionary Salafism’s appeal grew as a Salafism released from the shackles of scholarship, a Salafism for the masses, a Salafism mixed with a heavy dose of social justice, populism, and anti-Americanism.”3

The Presidential candidate Sheikh Abu Ismail had become the messiah for this new movement. Abu Ismail was hardly an intellectual or a theologian. A lawyer by trade, he buttressed his religious credentials by taking up televangelism and was popular only because his late father was a famous Azhari cleric and Islamist MP. Abu Ismail had both charisma and a simple populist platform to turn Egypt Islamic. This was enough to win him the support of young Salafists and other Egyptians sold on Sharia. Abu Ismail’s posters were everywhere in Egypt. Media figures begrudgingly started to take him seriously. The young Salafists were ecstatic. An Islamic Egypt was in reach, and if it meant holding their nose and engaging in democracy this once, it was well worth it. But Abu Ismail was disqualified from the race. His late mother had become a U.S. citizen, making him ineligible under new amendments in the Egyptian constitution that barred dual nationals or their children from the office. Islamists had ironically supported the amendments thinking they would more likely apply to a westernized secularist. Abu Ismail violently denied the claim, stating that it was all conveniently made up to disqualify him. For his supporters, it was as blatant as an American conspiracy could get.

After the demoralizing disqualification of Sheikh Abu Ismail, a group of enterprising young Salafis in mid-2012 began to dabble with the idea of spreading their brand of Revolutionary Salafism using the Ultras model of organization and street protest. The group called itself the Ahrar, or Freemen, Movement. They were the most committed group of Revolutionary Salafists yet, rejecting any form of democracy and openly opposing the then-ruling Muslim Brotherhood for not implementing Sharia. The Embassy protest, where some of them were present, was a successful test run for their first unofficial street deployment. Later authorities would accuse one of its leaders of helping instigate that riot and attempting to breach the embassy.4 Ahrar would go on to participate in numerous protests through the following year, many turning violent, and engage in acts of political intimidation such as surrounding embassies and government buildings.

The group’s core ideology, found on its website and in its manifesto, Freemen’s Battle, revolves around rejecting Western hegemony, what they call “The American Caliphate,” an intentional turn of phrase to describe the so-called “New World Order” from an Islamist perspective. Defeating the “near enemy,” which is a mere puppet, is not sufficient. Another core tenet is that Ahrar is “the movement of the bare minimum,” which also shuns “elite” vanguards. This means that the way to attract the largest number of followers is for the group’s ideology to be intentionally vague and thus able to appeal to ordinary people who may be turned off by the typical image of rigid Islamist groups. They in fact state that they find the term “Islamist” appalling. This helps attract people who share the common belief that implementing Sharia is a noble endeavor, which in reality would be arguably a majority of Muslims. Finally, they believe that “borders are dust,” as modern national borders and the Westphalian system are imposed by the West to divide the Muslim nation.

Ahrar proposes a total popular revolution that Muslims must engage in to dismantle the Western order and its client states. Then Muslims would live in “freedom,” and Sharia would be established in society. What will come later, what shape the unified Islamic nation will take, its Caliph, and all matters related to state are intentionally left vague as they are divisive issues that can be resolved later. This “real” Muslim revolution ultimately will require “revolutionary” or “popular” violence to face the tyranny of the regimes. Only when Islamists truly harness the power of the Muslim masses, as opposed to simply focusing on coups or rallying the support of elites such as Hizb ut-Tahrir's attempts, can they achieve sustainable victory against the un-Islamic world order America stands behind, the movement contends. This is why other groups have failed and will fail. This includes the Islamic State group, which they view as an elitist warrior vanguard that futilely attempts top to bottom change.

These “revolutionary” views may be dismissed as musings of disenchanted Islamist youth. But if the history of Islamism has taught us one thing, it is not to dismiss their theoreticians easily, as absurd as they may seem to the rational mind. Nor is it wise to dismiss the powerful influence Islamism’s core ideas hold over men chasing after the myth of an Islamic utopia. As a result of the 2011 revolution, the military coup of July 2013, and subsequent massacres, Egyptian Islamism is going through a transformational existential phase no less significant than the moment that gave birth to the ideology in the first place and later its Jihadi mutations. For this reason, new ideas and interpretations of Islamism like that of Ahrar and others that may emerge will provide useful context as scholars and policymakers navigate the next decades in Islamism’s mutations.

Ahrar’s History

Ahrar was officially launched in October 2012 with a rally at the footsteps of Cairo’s Saladin Citadel. The group brought at least a hundred young supporters, mostly wearing black t-shirts and walking in typical Ultras formation. Rekindling the memory of Saladin’s conquests against Crusaders and Islam’s hegemony was the sought-after motif for the event. Any passerby would’ve assumed they were just like the other soccer hooligans. But if they had listened closely, they would’ve heard how familiar chants of “Ultras is a way of life” had been replaced with “Sharia is a way of life” and “Ahrar is a way of life.” The chants were not about soccer teams, but rather how “America will no longer rule us after today.” A thin, awkward young man with an excited smile named Ahmad Sameer was standing in the back during most of the event to coach members on what to say to media. Sameer would emerge as the group’s theoretician and later the author of its manifesto. On that day, he and other Salafis inside the group would feel the power of having control over a crowd of impressionable young men who could swap their fanaticism for the World Cup for the Caliphate.

For the next year, the group’s distinct black shirts would make appearances in various protests along with other Revolutionary Salafists such as Hazemon, the Salafi Front, and Students for Sharia. This included marching against the 2012 constitution, which like hardcore Salafists and Salafi Jihadists, they rejected because it did not implement Sharia. They also surrounded government buildings such as the High Court of Justice, sieged prosecutors questioning their members, and the Media Productions Company when Sheikh Abu Ismail called for a siege against the anti-Islamist television channels. They also encircled the Lebanese embassy to protest the siege of Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Al Assir by Lebanese forces. Other acts of political intimidation they are accused of participating in with others include the ransacking of the secular Wafd Party headquarters in December 2012 and a random attack on downtown Cairo cafes popular with activists.5 They also reached outside Cairo to flex their muscles. In early 2013, Islamist relatives of a student who was accidently run over by a professor in Mansura University asked the Ahrar black shirts to come protest. Ahrar proceeded to try to surround the administration building and siege it until the university President resigned. Violent clashes ensued, and authorities detained a few dozen of their members.

They also held many non-violent rallies with an Islamist twist, such as commemorating the fall of Muslim Andalusia. They held public talks that hosted other well-known Revolutionary Salafists such as Sheikh Hossam Abu El Boukhari,6 a well-spoken and educated sectarian Salafi who was a feature of Egyptian political talk shows of the time debating secularists. He was one of the founders of an organization called the Coalition for the Defense of New Muslims, which instigated sectarian strife by claiming that the Coptic Church detained women who converted to Islam.

Ahrar’s various activities had soon put them on the Ministry of Interior’s radar during former President Mohamed Morsi’s reign. Sheikh Abu Ismail, and Ahrar specifically, were a challenge and a headache for both the police and the Muslim Brotherhood. Things came to a head in late 2012 when police arrested one of Ahrar’s founders, a computer programmer in his late twenties by the name of Ahmad Arafah. They charged him with owning an unlicensed automatic weapon, which was likely a pretext to search his home and detain him. If Ahmad Sameer was the brains, Arafah, his childhood best friend, was the muscle. In 2007, he was arrested on allegations of enforcing Hisba by hand. Following the arrest, Ahrar and many other Abu Ismail supporters quickly flocked to the prosecutor’s office where Arafah was being held. They vowed to surround the building until he was released. The situation quickly escalated and threats became so intense that the authorities buckled under pressure and released him--something unusual even for the chaotic post-revolutionary period in Egypt. Many of those who surrounded the prosecutor’s office that day are now standing trial themselves. Authorities would later reveal that the infamous Islamic State group recruit by the name of Islam Yekin was among the crowd and faces charges with others for intimidating the prosecution.7

Ahrar would continue to have run-ins with the law and create disturbances during Morsi’s reign. The group refused to participate in protests supporting Morsi’s rule in June 2013. They were committed to their principles because they believed the Brotherhood failed to deliver on the revolution’s demands and implement Sharia. But things changed when Sheikh Abu Ismail was arrested. Shortly after that, many of the group’s leaders were arrested, chief among them Arafah, on charges of attempting to jailbreak Abu Ismail and commit other acts of terror.8 The group would go on to have other rallies in an attempt to set itself apart and exploit the moment by declaring that it was against the rule of both the military and the Brotherhood. They were a “third square.” Naturally media outlets were duped into thinking that these were typical revolutionary activists, and secular activists who opposed both Islamists and the military were curious. This was exactly how Ahrar envisioned that the intentional vagueness on positions could work in its favor. But in those post-coup rallies, the clashes with police grew more intense. Authorities detained scores of Ahrar members. Others went into hiding. At least seven members were killed.

Ahrar no longer had a presence as a force on the ground after the July 2013 coup like most other anti-state Islamist groups. Ahrar’s only remaining significance is in the ideas it has put forward, which continue to be shared by thousands of supporters online. This support base even extends to the Jordanian pro-Al Qaeda preacher Eyad al-Qunaibi, who has urged his online followers multiple times to read the group’s manifesto and check out its ideas,9 and to Tunisia, where an Ahrar Tunisia was founded.10

The Freemen’s Battle

Ahrar’s logo is that of a lion looking up to the east. It is a symbol of strength and steadfastness also associated with Sheikh Abu Ismail. He delivered his sermons at the Assad ibn al-Furat Mosque in Giza, Egypt, named after the early Muslim theologian and warrior who initiated the Muslim conquest of Sicily in 827 AD.

An excerpt from the group’s mission statement describes it as:

A youth movement that includes diverse youth who share a love for freedom. If, however, freedom is tied for many to the right to vote and freedom of expression, then it has a different meaning for us. We mean by freedom the liberation from the slavery that makes us gears inside a huge machine that produces only what the owners of this world desire. It is the slavery that is imposed on us by the global and local regimes in exchange for scraps for us to live by! Our view towards freedom stems from the values of our religion…

Its slogan: “An Ummah revolts, dignity restored, a homeland liberated.”11

What sets Ahrar apart from other Revolutionary Salafist groups is its focus on fine-tuning a new ideological framing to guide the new current. Although Ahrar supported Abu Ismail, it refused to join the political party he helped establish due to Ahrar’s absolute rejection of organized politics and any semblance of democracy. In the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution, zealous Salafi youth were in open revolt against traditional Islamism. As Tadros writes, “The revolutionary moment had managed to revolutionize Sunni Islam in ways similar to what was done to Shi’a Islam under Ali Shariati and Ruhollah Khomeini.”12

Ahrar attempts to take the first step to do just that for Revolutionary Salafists. Others from their current such as the Salafi Front have attempted to participate in the political process only to fail miserably. The rest, such as the unintellectual Hazemon, seemed like a transient phenomenon tied to the fate of Sheikh Abu Ismail and were easily attacked because they conformed to the traditional image of angry bearded Salafists threatening violence left and right. For this reason, it was essential for Ahrar to integrate Ultras elements and adopt their look to confuse enemies and have street muscle of clean-shaven modern dressed youth who were far more presentable to the masses.

One of the earliest Islamist scholars to broach the issue of popular mobilization and focus on the masses was the late Sheikh Rifa’i Surour, who once was a theoretician for Egyptian Islamic Jihad.13 His dense book on Islamist political theory, The Political Conception of the Islamist Movement, argued that such terms as revolution can indeed be Islamic. He focused on the role of reaching and mobilizing the masses in achieving change.14 Although it is unclear if Ahrar’s theoretician Ahmad Sameer read him, Surour did have an outsized influence over Sheikh Abu Ismail and the current in general. Yet Surour himself still wrote in the manner of a traditional scholar without fully addressing the context of the modern world Islamists now have to challenge. He died well before the coup and Abu Ismail’s disqualification, and did not have to contend with the reality that the Salafists had failed to exploit the 2011 revolution. Instead, the status-quo Muslim Brothers took over and paved the way for the 2013 coup, the final stage in the counterrevolution.

The turbulence inside Egyptian Islamism has enabled Ahrar to present its ideas as an evolution of Islamism in a revolutionary age that once and for all would throw to the wayside archaic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. This idea extends even to Salafi Jihadi groups with a fundamental structure as closed, elite vanguards whose methodology of change revolves around seizing power and implementing the desired Islamist change from the top down.

Ahrar’s writings reveal a deep iconoclastic disposition simply directed at everything. For Ahrar, Islamists do not need to surrender to the modern political reality in the first place. Muslims must change by hand the modern world Westerners created. In short, Islamists cannot “play by the rules of a game designed to enslave [them].”15 This doesn’t simply extend to Muslim Brothers participating in elections but also to Salafi Jihadists such as the Islamic State group. Their victories in Syria and Iraq are likened to that of a hostage who managed to gain control of one room inside a house on a piece of land owned by his captors. The local regimes are part of a bigger regime, the so-called “New World Order,” which America has engineered. The young Revolutionary Salafists believe in the standard conspiracy theories shared by anti-capitalist socialists who rail against the global economic system. The Middle East is a special target, they believe, because it is rich in energy resources. The West also recognizes that Islam presents the only model that can challenge its hegemony and therefore must subjugate it. The West may thus dominate, but Ahrar believes that the “devil is not in the White House, but rather he is inside [Muslims],”16 because they choose to go along with this order.

Ahrar completely rejects the notion of “Political Islam,” because those who subscribe to it falsely believe that they can implement Sharia in the “degenerate”17 Western-imposed reality in which Muslims find themselves. The use of the word degenerate is a nod to the influential Indian Islamist theorist Abul Hassan Al Nadawi, who wrote the famous book, What the World Lost with the Degeneration of Muslims. He influenced theorists such as Sayyid Qutb, who wrote the forward to that book. Ahrar believes that there can be no reconciling with any one part of this global un-Islamic system. There can never truly be Islamic banks, not because they fail to adhere to Islamic principles, but rather because the global currency is the American dollar.

This corrupt reality, the “modern Jahiliyyah,”18 can never be Islamized. The Prophet Muhammad first spoke against the Jahiliyyah in his own time until he revolted against it completely with Jihad, something that all advocates of so-called gradual or non-violent political change must recognize, Ahrar argues. In other words, Muslims were masters of their own world then, a time when there could be a distinct Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Kufr. With globalization and Western hegemony, the lines are blurred, which is why you can’t have an Islamic State in this modern world without completely destroying the modern global order everyone is forced to buy into.

Although Ahrar classifies the enemy and his order as modern Jahiliyyah, it is against takfiri Salafi Jihadists who label the Muslim masses as Jahilyy or apostates. The reason is that doing so results in “alienating the masses completely from the battle”19 and labels them as the enemy. This anti-takfirism is a trend among new movements that rely on popular mobilization as an essential methodology for change and other armed groups that have learned from the mistakes of modern Salafi Jihadi groups that alienate local populations.

Furthermore, to Ahrar there is no such thing as “seeking power to implement Sharia,” as all Islamists claim to desire. Seeking to implement Sharia by taking power in this global order is chasing a mirage at best. The very state they wish to implement Sharia in has become an “idol” itself. Sameer asks in Ahrar’s manifesto, “What is Egypt for instance? If the people are asked to die for it to live?”20 The Revolutionary Salafists of Egypt have of course been forced to contend with something as foundational as this after a century of failing to implement Sharia in their lands. Islamists had tried violence before and it failed. They had come to power and controlled the state, and yet they failed again. It may be understood then that the state must completely change and the world order destroyed, but perhaps also Sharia was being sought after in the completely wrong way.

This leads Ahrar to some interesting conclusions about concepts sacrosanct to Sunni orthodoxy, such as kingship and the domain of the ruler to implement God’s Sharia. To Ahrar, the Islamists’ original sin is believing that implementing Sharia is something that has to be connected to political rule or statehood. In fact, the very word “implementing” is problematic because it conjures up the belief that someone has to implement it. Islamists have fought among themselves and against the infidels to find that someone or group for deliverance. Sharia is instead “established” in society, just like when it was established during the Prophet’s Meccan years. No Muslim can say that there was no Islam before Muhammad became a ruler in Medina after all, they argue. Sharia is thus not something for the ruler to implement on the ruled, but rather it is something established by the entire society. Sharia is thus “established in [periods] of rule, and outside it, in periods of weakness and empowerment.”21 How this utopian popular ‘establishment’ of Sharia happens is of course left vague.

Interestingly, similar ideas on Sharia and kingship appeared in Islam’s early days when Mu’tazila and Kharajite factions became disillusioned with the transformation of the imamate to a kingship as Islam grew (although Ahrar’s members are highly unlikely to have studied this). Some among the Mu’tazila had put forward ideas on how exactly society can “establish” Sharia that Ahrar’s manifesto avoids, such as having local elders take temporary lead or through some other communal mechanism. Patricia Crone described these ideas as anarchist in nature,22 at least by Islamic standards, and it is perhaps a fitting label for Ahrar’s views on the post-revolution society that would emerge in the aftermath of the destruction of the global order they desire. They would need to have faith in the Muslim masses supposed predisposition to tap into God’s Sharia to keep the order in such an anarchic environment.

The Methodology of Revolutionary Change

Ahrar thus put forward a radical methodology for change that challenges all traditional Islamist solutions that proposed “within this reality, the same system.”23 Islamists simply haven’t been thinking outside the box. The goal of the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, was to gain legitimacy inside the system. Even when it was “kicked out,” meaning the coup, the Brotherhood “still begged to come back.”24 Ahrar concludes that the cumulative impact of all these actions by Islamists has “distorted the consciousness of the people and made them unable to think outside the boundaries of this reality."25 And so Ahrar proposes “destroying the values of the system and build new social, political, and economic values…[Ahrar is] calling for the creation of a new system on earth…the independence from the system of global oppression, the complete separation from its values and building a new [order] that flows out of [Islam].”26

The values of the modern reality that Ahrar rebels against are: subservience to the West, the trick of democracy, political secularism, and capitalism. It proposes building the new reality on three pillars influenced by Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones:
# Turning away from the worship of man (God’s slaves) to worshiping the God of the slaves. (This value demolishes the subservience to the West and democracy)
# Turn away from the narrowness of the [material] world to the abundance of this world and the hereafter (this value demolishes capitalism)
# Turn away from the inequities of religions and heretics and go toward the justice of Islam (this value demolishes political secularism)2728

Ahrar believes that “total revolution,” revolution of “consciousness and resistance,” is the only way to bring about Islamic change. The group argues that peaceful revolutions such as the Western-backed “colored revolutions” do not work and that it is “laughable” to think that democracy and revolution go hand in hand.29 Revolution, Ahrar argues, “is a word that since its inception has been solidly tied to guerrilla warfare or popular violence.”30 This has to be accompanied with spreading the vision and targeting the masses or else revolution will fail. Jihad, Ahrar claims, does not contradict the meaning of revolution it puts forward. Rather, Ahrar chooses to use the discourse of revolution and resistance instead, as the meaning of Jihad is implied. This is likely intentional to make it difficult for observers to label the group easily as Salafi Jihadists.

A revolutionary vanguard will spread awareness in society with a clear vision to mobilize the masses. And if the masses themselves do not have the requisite knowledge to understand the vanguard’s message, then the vanguard has to “manufacture consciousness” among the masses. But this is not done simply through propaganda or proselytization. Ahrar believes that “strength,” meaning violence, is what manufactures the consciousness. Ahrar likens revolutionary strength to a motor and the masses to the parts of a car. They need each other to propel forward.31 Ahrar’s manifesto states, “Violence for the revolutionary body is not behavior that is separated from its message and its reach to people.”32

This type of “revolutionary violence”33 is different from that of other groups such as Salafi Jihadists, Ahrar contends. The other militant groups have “secluded themselves, their message, goals, and vision from the masses.”34 They have come to adopt “violence that is without a message.”35 In other words, they have become closed and elitist vanguards unlike the revolutionary vanguard Ahrar proposes. A similar critique of the contemporary Salafi Jihadist movement was made by a late theoretician for the Syrian militant group “Ahrar al-Sham” (no relation), Abu Ayman Al Hamawi, in his treatise, Towards an Enlightened Creed. It highlights how even for new Salafi armed groups, the closed vanguard model of groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State group is unsustainable.36 Furthermore, Ahrar believes that this elitist vanguard model enables regimes to focus their energy on attacking the vanguard, and for that reason, the regimes must face a confrontation by the revolting masses.

America features front and center as the real enemy Ahrar urges Muslims to fight. Sameer writes in Freemen’s Battle, “America wages a war of ideas today against Islam that is no less brutal than the military war.”37 This is because Ahrar believes America and the West fight Islam because “Islam has and still holds the requisite components to remove and replace their civilization…and resist their hegemony.”38

The “American Caliphate,” Ahrar argues, rules this world with “idols” such as the false concept of “international legitimacy” and global organizations designed to subjugate Muslims.39 Rulers are to be looked at as Emirs in this false Caliphate. Bayt al-Mal is the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the Diwan for Grievances is the United Nations, and finally the Caliphate’s conquering army is NATO. The novel phrasing’s design makes the point to readers that there is no ignoring the world order by pretending that Muslims can truly establish the Islamic State in their locale, like the Islamic State group wants to.

However, the manifesto is unclear about what to do to counter this. Sameer writes, “I am intentionally in this book drawing the broad outline for this battle without getting into specifics.”40 But in a later online article describing his views on the Islamic State, he sees that it has managed only to “control a piece of land inside one of the prisons.”41 He stresses that the only way for Salafi Jihadists today to change the momentum to their favor is “the complete and immediate return to the idea of [hitting] ‘the head of the serpent,’ and to focus on directly targeting the interests of [the world order, i.e., America],”42 while making use of the land that Jihadists already control. This gives a glimpse into the developing mindset of pro-violence Revolutionary Salafists whose answer to the Jihadi dilemma on whether to focus on the near enemy or the far enemy first is by answering: both.


In this age of seismic transformation and change in the Middle East, the West should pay attention to the ideas emerging in reaction to these changes and not just to the groups currently dominating the scene. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group will continue to be formidable enemies thanks to their military prowess and wealth. But the Middle East continues to be a region animated by ideas just as much as by weapons and oil. Salafi Jihadism has found fertile ground where political vacuums existed and there were weak militaries. The model cannot be easily replicated everywhere. This is what has led Revolutionary Salafists such as Ahrar to put forward a model that they believe can. This model aims to use the power of mass mobilization to fight a long battle of attrition against the West and local leaders. Jihadists no longer would fight the battle on behalf of the Muslim masses, as they do today, but rather with them.

The idea is absurd. But then again, the same could’ve been said about mass uprisings rocking Arab capitals in 2011 or the notion that a rag tag group of seemingly delusional men in the mountains of Afghanistan would kill nearly 3000 Americans in one day. Samuel Tadros observes, “Revolutionary Salafism has the potential to transform Islamism in ways that other Islamist currents have consistently failed to achieve. Revolutionary Salafism is a transformative ideology waiting at the corner, awaiting its Lenin.”43 The question is not so much whether or not this particular idea will take root, but rather understanding the direction in which the young generation of Islamists is taking Islamism in the age of revolution and the Islamic State group. If Ahrar’s vision and theory, like so many others, yield little, the result may be a reinvigorated push for action. And that may mean more and more radicalized youth ripe for recruitment by existing Jihadi groups.

The author would like to thank journalist Mostafa Hashem for his assistance.