Extremism does not emerge in a vacuum

Manuel Almeida

Published: Updated:

The current wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence and reprisals has already been dismissed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as only the latest upsurge of terror the Israelis have had to contend with. Sadly, as in previous cases, this ongoing tragedy is unlikely to generate the kind of scrutiny the problem warrants.

Israeli-Palestinian tensions, the plight of the Palestinians’ and the radicalization of many of its youth is treated today by many governments the world over as either an unsolvable and thus unworthy issue or a negligible, local security one. The rise of ISIS, the most threatening breed of transnational militant jihadism the region has ever witnessed, contributes to that perspective.

After al-Qaeda, ISIS has brought back the focus of experts and analysts on the root causes of extremism and militant jihadism and how al-Qaeda is in many ways a precursor of ISIS. However, practically absent from most discussions on the origins of transnational jihadism is the role Palestinian refugees played in the development of that ideology.

It is evident Netanyahu and his cabinet are determined to deny Palestinians their own state and at the very least turn a blind eye to settlement expansion.

Manuel al-Meida

Before Afghanistan

Most accounts about the rise of transnational jihadism trace it back mainly to the 1980s and the flow of jihadists (and would-be jihadists) from across the Muslim world to Afghanistan to fight the invading Soviet Union troops.

The so-called Afghan Arabs were an almost insignificant reinforcement to the fearless Afghan Mujahedeen, backed logistically and financially by several governments.

Although many of the Afghan Arabs never took their defensive jihad beyond that particular fight, after the conflict a few of them did shift their focus to the “infidel” governments across the Arab and Muslim worlds and their supporter, the United States. One of these jihadists was Osama Bin Laden, who founded al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

A more comprehensive reading of the origins of transnational jihadism has been provided a few years ago by Hazim Al-Amin, a Lebanese journalist, with the book Al-Salafi Al-Itim (“The Orphaned Salafist”).

Rather than focusing on Afghanistan, Al-Amin’s book shows how the militant extremist ideology al-Qaeda came to embody finds its roots in the Palestinian refugee communities scattered across the Arab world. Uprooted from their homeland between 1948 and 1967 and stripped of a national identity, these refugees found in radical interpretations of Islam an inclusive transnational identity and a vehicle to take their battle beyond the borders of Palestine.

The Palestinian ideologues

It was due to Saleh Abdallah Sarryia, a Palestinian born on the outskirts of Haifa, that a militant jihadist group would first set foot in Egypt. After moving to Baghdad in 1948, where he was arrested after the group he founded reportedly targeted Iraqi Jews and sought the overthrow of the Iraqi government, he went on to Cairo. There, in his meetings with local leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sarryia often expressed his disappointment with the Brotherhood’s conciliatory position toward the Egyptian government.

In 1974, Sarryia and his followers in Egypt were responsible for the failed take-over of the Egyptian Technical Military Academy located in a Cairo suburb. His manifesto, Risalat Al-Iman (Message of Faith), placed a far greater emphasis on the mission to topple infidel Arab regimes than on the liberation of Palestine.

Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the former emir of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and current leader of al-Qaeda, remembered hearing one of Sarryia’s sermons: “As soon as I heard the speech by this visitor I realized that his words carried weight and meaning on the need to support Islam.”

The sermons and texts of another stateless Palestinian from the West Bank and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdallah Azzam, were a key influence on the volunteers joining the jihad in Afghanistan. Azzam, Bin Laden’s mentor, moved from the Palestinian military camps run by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Jordan to Saudi Arabia, where he taught in university for a year. In 1981, he applied for a position at the Islamic University in Islamabad, with the intention of being closer to the jihadists fighting the Soviets next door in Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, he established the Maktab Al-Khadamat (Services Office), tasked with welcoming the jihadists heading to Afghanistan and collecting donations coming in from Arab and Muslim countries.
It was in the summer of 1984that an alleged meeting between Azzam and Bin Laden created Jihad magazine to promote the activities of the Office. Roughly a decade later, their collaboration would give birth to al-Qaeda.

Another Palestinian, Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi (also known as Isam Al-Barqawi), was a scholar originally from Nablus. Maqdisi’s books and fatwas made him one of the most influential militant Salafist preachers in the Gulf. For a while in the late 1980s, he moved from Kuwait to the capital of Pakistan’s northwestern frontier province of Peshawar, where he met a young thuggish jihadist, known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

After the Gulf War, Maqdisi moved to Zarqa, the city home to the largest Palestinian community in Jordan and that was gradually transforming into a center of Salafist jihadism. Both Maqdisi and Zarqawi would be arrested in Jordan and spend time in prison together, where Maqdisi became Zarqawi’s teacher.

From Zarqawi to ISIS

Originally from eastern Jordan, young Zarqawi had also spent his teenage years in the 1970s in Zarqa. Once the emir of Jordan’s Palestinian Salafist community, Zarqawi was the leader of Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad, a group that would later become the Iraq-based al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. He was responsible for the brutal bombings of three hotels in Amman in 2005 and, most infamously, for a savage campaign of indiscriminate attacks in Iraq that only ended when he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2006.

Zarqawi’s thirst for blood provoked tensions in his relationship with al-Qaeda’s leadership. Zarqawi’s organization would carry the title of the most brutal jihadist group that ever existed until the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, which sprang in part from the remnants of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

In The Orphaned Salafist, there are many other examples of Palestinian refugees who were either pioneers in the ideology of transnational Salafist jihadism or lured into its claws in its early stages, including Abu Qatada. Another Jordanian national of Palestinian origin, Abu Qatada would become one of the most influential preachers of today’s radical Salafist ideology.

It is evident Netanyahu and his cabinet are determined to deny Palestinians their own state and at the very least turn a blind eye to settlement expansion. But they should be reminded the extremism that plagues the Arab world does not emerge in a vacuum. The grievances arising from injustices such as the Palestinians’ plight are the lifeline of radical organizations, which in turn provide a cover for the brutalities committed by tyrants such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. It is a vicious circle.

Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending