Despite the failings of Salafi-jihadist groups in the Arab Revolutions, the contest over ideology continues


It has been a frequent habit for the head of Al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri to show up discussing the recent developments in the Islamic world following the death of the former leader, Osama Bin Laden, in May 2011. This time, however, al-Zawahiri has been vocal about the flaws of jihadist and Muslim groups in the Middle East and particularly those operating in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. In his recent 45 minutes video titled “The Way to Salvation”, the Amir of al-Qaeda discusses the reasons behind the failure of Islamist groups to achieve their goals. Moreover, he outlines what he considers a recipe of success through which Muslims can achieve their objectives. For him, the lack of application of essential theological Salafi-Jihadi concepts such as al-Hakimiyya (applying God’s rule) and al Wala Wal Bara (loyalty to Muslims and disavowal of infidels), combined with the absence of jihad (struggle against the enemies of Islam) are the reasons behind the collapse of Muslims’ ambitions and aspirations. 

Al-Zawahiri begins his critique by lashing out at the Ennahda Islamic party in Tunisia, which participated in democratic elections in 2011 and has shifted from its original Islamist ideology to become part of the Tunisian government. Democracy, as perceived by Salafi-Jihadism, has never been compatible with its interpretation of Islam. Salafi-Jihadis believe that Al-Hakimiyya must be the sole source of political governance instead of democracy, as the former comes from God while the latter is created by human being. The concept was first theorised by the Indian Islamist thinker Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979) as a reaction to the British colonialism of the Indian subcontinent. It then found its way into the writings of the prominent Egyptian theorist and member of the Muslim Brotherhood Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), whose ideas have subsequently influenced radical groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Additionally, al-Hakimiyya does not only stand as the main source of political governance but extends to include all aspect of a Muslim’s life, such as marriage and inheritance. As the Iraqi scholar Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi (972-1058) described it “it is the right of Allah … for legislation, judging, and executing the judgment.”  Al-Zawahiri’s video features a short clip of the current Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi, who was elected in 2014 during the time Ennahda party was part of the government, announcing a unique amendment equalising the rights of men and women in inheritance law in Tunisia. The decision faced outcry from the majority of the Islamic institutions in the Islamic world, like al-Azhar University in Egypt, and has been particularly opposed by Salafi-Jihadis since it challenges a clear-cut Islamic law imposed by the Quran, and shifts legislative authority from a religious base towards more secular and civil base.

 Another field where the concept of al-Hakimiyya has been challenged is the front of al-Sham, according to al-Zawahiri. Although the Amir does not mention Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, by name, it was clear that the group is the target of his critique. The revolution of Muslims in Syria, according to al-Zawahiri, drifted away from its original trajectory which was driven by the slogan “our leader for ever is our prophet Muhammad”, and is now controlled by the Turkish secular regime. Referring to the recent developments in Idlib, which has recently witnessed unprecedented tacit cooperation between Turkey and HTS, Al-Zawahiri views the latter as a subordinate group which abandoned al-Hakimiyya and deviated from the “right” path to follow the “secular Ottoman regime.” Through this cooperation, HTS controlled almost the entire city of Idlib, wiping out other local factions supported by Turkey. Al-Zawahiri sees this infighting as war for fake influence which would lead to a dead end for jihadist groups.

For the Amir, Egypt was no exception where his former group, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), participated in the democratic process in 2012 and was toppled by a coup after one year in power. He argues that even when Muslims neglected al-Hakimiyya and accepted the game of infidels (democracy), they were ousted from the power which was supposedly their democratic right. Al-Zawahiri presents this failure to maintain power as a result of peaceful political activism. He argues that jihad against Taghut, the infidel rulers, in Egypt and other countries should be applied because peaceful activism is futile. To confirm his theory, footage from Egypt show bearded men (probably from the MB) shot by the Egyptian military and a sheikh standing beside them holding al-Quran shouting “if they shoot at you, do not shoot at them, just die as a martyr… our religion is peaceful.” This is exactly where Al-Zawahiri’s argument lies, peaceful activism against corrupt regimes would only leave Muslims defeated. Lastly in this part, the video features a man reading a short text from ‘The Conflict and the Winds of Change’, a book by Saif al-Adel, who is one of the most prominent military leaders of al-Qaeda. In this, he argues that most revolutions start with peaceful demonstrations and end up heavy-handedly squashed by the regimes, and in order to flourish they need to be fed by blood of jihad.  

Al-Zawahiri elaborates more on the results of abandoning jihad and relying on peaceful activism and connects it to the inability to achieve al-Hakimiyya, which aims to protect and secure the right of Allah. The Amir cites one verse from the Quran which urges Muslims to “fight until there is no fitna[1]” and “there prevail justice and faith in Allah together everywhere.” This is a commonly cited verse by Salafi-Jihadi ulama[2] where they interpret fitna as disbelief and polytheism and as the opposite to al-Hakimiyya, creating an either-or situation. Muslims, according to their interpretation, shall keep fighting until disbelief and polytheism are defeated and al-Hakimiyya is applied. Another commonly used verse by Salafi-Jihadi ulama says that “Nor will they cease fighting you until they turn you back from your faith if they can.” Al-Zawahiri brings this verse to stress what he sees as an ongoing, endless battle between Muslims and infidels.

Last but not least Al-Zawahiri introduces the concept of al-Wala Wal Bara which urges Muslims to be loyal to other Muslims and to disavow non-Muslims. Drawing from the Wahabbi[3] interpretation of the concept, the prominent scholar Joas Wagemaker divides it into two notions “al-wala refers to the loyalty that all Muslims should show to God, Islam, and their co-religionists in every sphere of life, while bara denotes the notion that Muslims should disavow all other things so as to stay away from anything considered un-Islamic.”[4] The current Emir of Al-Qaeda tries to stigmatise the Arab regimes for cooperating with infidel states such as the United States. He gives the Egyptian president and the Haftar government of Libya as examples, for “those leaders who claim to be Muslims” yet who are loyal to the US rather than fighting it.

In addition to the idea that al-Wala Wal Bara includes all aspects of life in which Muslims are required to support their fellow Muslims and stand against their enemies, the concept has been highly politicised by jihadist groups’ ulama who argue that the decision of former head of Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar (1960-2013), not to renounce Osama Bin Laden or hand him to the Americans was a clear manifestation of al-Wala Wal Bara. On the same note, Al-Zawahiri chides Salafi clerics who justify the decisions of their “infidel” rulers. His critique is heavily based on al-Wala Wal Bara through which he recognises these leaders as infidels whose regimes should be denounced and fought against. Al-Zawahiri’s emphasis on this concept is likely to be an attempt to reconnect Jihadi groups with their sympathisers, as many of them have not been in accord recently.

Finally, a set of recommendations are provided by the al-Zawahiri to put Muslims on the right track. First, al-Wala Wal Bara should light the path for Muslims who must apply Jihad instead of “useless” peaceful activism in order to achieve al-Hakimiyya as an end goal. Since 2013, Al-Qaeda’s religious authority has significantly receded, particularly after both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra severed their ties with the group in 2013 and 2016 respectively. Therefore, al-Zawahiri concludes his video by reminding his audience about the authority of the ulama and the significant position Jihadis enjoy by stating that “Jihadis are the shield of the umma and the ulama are its leaders and guides.” The video reflects al-Qaeda leadership’s discontent about the conduct of Jihadi groups, attributing their failure to the lack of application of Hakimiyya, al Wala Wal Bara, and jihad.

[1] Fitna: in Arabic means dispute, strife and sedition

[2] Ulamma: religious scholars

[3] Umma: the nation of Islam


Orwa Ajjoub is an affiliated researcher at the center for Middle Eastern Studies in Lund university. In 2018, Orwa graduated from the same institution where he defended his Master’s thesis which looks at the theological aspect of the split between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in 2013. Although his interest has been mainly focused on Salafi-Jihadi groups in the Middle East, Orwa wrote some articles about the Syrian society during the war and particularly about Syrian LGBTQ in Europe. His work was published on different media websites such as Syria Deeply, Huffington Post and World Policy. During the last two years, Orwa has participated in two academic conferences where he discussed al-Qaeda presence in Syria. In addition to writing journalistic articles, Orwa is currently working on an academic report discussing the future menace of the Islamic state and other Salafi-Jihadi groups such al-Qaeda.