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Terrorism, the evolution of Isis and Al Qaeda: the clash between Wahhabism and Muslim Brotherhood

Isis and Al Qaeda are two sides of the same coin, minted at different times but with a common goal: to recreate the Caliphate abolished by Ataturk. This represents not only a concrete danger for global security, but also risks triggering a war of religion with uncertain outcomes

The terrorism of Isis and Al Qaeda and its possible developments. This is the title of a study, now in its sixth part, carried out by the group “Indomitables,” which traces the history of the two formations and the phenomena that led to their rise and fall, as well as the “rebirth of the Phoenix”. A new formation, which builds on the peculiarities of each of the two sides of the same coin: leadership, operational and logistical skills, and technology. This in order to recreate with every means, violent in the first place, the Caliphate abolished by Ataturk. The analysis, divided into chapters, intends to be a useful tool to understand the new terrorist form and to look for suitable instruments to contain and/or mediate the disruptive dynamics of Jihadism, covering various geopolitical areas and historical periods. Such developments represent a concrete danger for global security, in the West and elsewhere, and could unleash – as recently happened in New Zealand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka – a full-fledged religious war with uncertain outcomes, and potential chain reactions leading to a spiral of violence of uncontrollable magnitude and difficult containment.

The death of bin Laden breaks the balance between the two souls of the Caliphate: Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood

The death of Osama bin Laden ruled off the architect of the global jihad that was holding together the two souls of the Caliphate, Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which claim its paternity. Hence, the metaphor of the two sides of the same coin – Al Qaeda and ISIS – initially sponsored by both Islamist movements and then turned into “competitors”. The ideological strategic coexistence between Wahhabism and the Brotherhood holds out until 2006, time of the death of al-Zarqawi, the natural father of the Islamic State, and is definitively fragmented in 2011 with bin Laden’s death. Ayman Al Zawahiri, the new leader of Al Qaeda, tries to force al Baghdadi to operate with his organization only in Iraq and to let the al-Nusra Front (a subsidiary of Al Qaeda in Syria, formed in January 2012 to fight against Bashar al-Assad’s government forces in the Civil War) develop the jihadist activity in Syria. Al Baghdadi tried to include the Front in his organization, but the Front resisted and kept fighting against Syrian troops supported by Qatar.

How did the clash between Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood come about?

The synchronization of the events highlights the various phases through which the clash between the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabism was reached:

  1. On September 23, 2014, the United States formed a coalition of 11 Western and Arab countries to fight ISIS, in which – pro forma – Saudi Arabia (but not Pakistan) was included. It was the first wake-up call for the occult masterminds of ISIS, which, in January 2015 – in anticipation of the withdrawal of its wealthy sponsors -, announced the constitution of the Khorasan wilayat. 
  2. The new system welcomed into its ranks former members and commanders of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban – no Arabs – from the groups of Teherik-e taleban-e Pakistan (TTP), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (MIU), and Haqqani Network, the long arm of the Pakistani Intelligence Service (ISI), employed wherever it is required to fish in troubled waters. 

The wilayat, comparable to a Pakistani province (and in fact it is called “Khorasan Province”) was established, deliberately, in a tri- border area between Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, which was of a specific strategic interest to Pakistan. Furthermore, opium trafficking prospers in this area, with heroin production and trade for about $1 billion/year, in particular towards Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This is a useful resource to replenish the funding from the Persian Gulf area, close to its depletion. 

The Khorasan Province

The project of the “Khorasan Province” extended its influence also in the southern Asian area, towards India, where some jihadist groups decided to join it. It was precisely from India that a cargo of 24 million tramadol tablets (a synthetic opiate substance – together with the captagon – used especially by Jihadists in the theatres of war) came, the one seized on Friday, November 3, 2017, in the port of Gioia Tauro, by the Italian Guardia di Finanza of Reggio Calabria. The cargo was on its way to Misurata, in Libya, where ISIS’ militiamen had been operating since 2015. The drug was being shipped from India, which, together with Sri Lanka, is listed as the provenance of similar shipments of such drugs also seized in the ports of Genoa and in Greece. It is, therefore, quite clear that the Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath, (National Monotheistic Organization) indicated as responsible for the Easter Sunday bomb attacks of 21 April 2019 against Christian churches and hotels in Colombo (Sri Lanka) is almost certainly one of the Jihadist groups affiliated to the “Khorasan Province”. This is also because ISIS itself claimed responsibility for the attacks. On July 14, 2015, an agreement was concluded, placing strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program. In response to this, ISIS carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Europe, mainly against Great Britain, France and Germany, guarantors of the agreement. On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Muslim countries decided to sever their diplomatic relations with Qatar, accused of supporting terrorism. 

The Doha Ultimatum

A 13-point ultimatum was drawn up against Doha, including the following demands: to break all diplomatic and economic relations with Iran; to immediately close the Turkish military base near Doha and, in any case, to put an end to the military collaboration between the Emirate and Ankara; to immediately close Al Jazeera; to block the financing of groups or individuals reported as terrorists by Saudi Arabia, which, in 2014, had included the Muslim Brotherhood among the terrorist groups. On June 7, 2017, two attacks, claimed by ISIS, struck the Parliament and the mausoleum of Khomeini in Tehran – a clear warning to Iran – causing 12 victims and several wounded. The Iranian reaction against Saudi Arabia and the USA, indicated as inspirers of the attacks, was harsh. In December, the “end of the war against Daesh” was announced.

The advent of the Muslim Brotherhood to the leadership of Al Qaeda generated a rift between the al-Nusra Front and Isis. The first group was supported by Qatar, the second by the other countries of the Persian Gulf. Zawahiri came to disown the Caliphate

After the death of bin Laden, the Muslim Brotherhood (Zawahiri) took over the leadership of Al Qaeda, and the divergence between the al-Nusra Front and ISIS developed. The first was financed and supported by Qatar (also through Yasir Abu Hilala, Salafist jihadist), strictly connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, while Daesh was financed and supported by the other countries of the Persian Gulf area. To the Shiites, a further factor of division was added, represented by the competition between Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood. An evident proof of this was the disallowance of the Caliphate by the Muslim brother Al-Zawahiri (“The Caliphate is not an evolution of our movement and we do not recognize its legitimacy and objectives in Iraq”), a context in which the “long shadow” of the rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia emerged.

The divergences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar date back to the 1990s

The “long shadow” of the divergences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar dates back to the 1990s, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, born in Doha in 1952, Emir of Qatar from 1995 to 2013, strengthened his relations with the Saudi Arabs over disagreements during the Gulf War of 1991. Both the al-Thani family and the Saud come from within the peninsula (Neged), from where the austere Wahhabism was born, and both seek to claim their version of this doctrine as orthodoxy. In essence, Qatar claims a wahhabism of the sea, a more open and flexible model than that of the desert, practiced by the Saud. Another factor of conflict is represented by the public support to democracy declared in 2003 by Hamad al-Thani: “Whoever wants to develop their own countries … must practice democracy. That is what I believe”. A thought not shared by the Saudis. (See R. Ramesh “The long-running family rivalries behind the Qatar crisis”, The Guardian, 21 July 2017).

The Emirate has fuelled the differences with the Kingdom

Since then, Qatar has persisted in its disagreements with the ruling house of the

Saud through:

  1. The creation, in 1996, of Al Jazeera, which – together with other social media – influenced public opinion in the area in a way that was not appreciated by the Arab governments, in particular the Saudis;
  2. Qatar’s support both to the Libyan rebels – who ousted Muhammar Gaddafi in 2011 – and to the al Nusra Front in the so-called “Syrian Spring”;
  3. The profession of a moderate Wahhabism in competition with Saudi Arabia. A competition that the new Saudi king, Mohamed Salman, aspires to recover by modernizing the customs and traditions of his people;
  4. A dynamism in the Qatari investments, bestowed to finance Islamic organizations and mosques in France, United Kingdom, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Denmark, as well as the al-Salam Mosque of Nantes, the Mosque of Mulhouse (France), the great Mosque of Marseille and 43 mosques in Italy.

In June 2017, there was a reckoning between Riyadh and Doha on the pretext of supporting terrorism, but neither country is actually immune to it

The confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was inevitable. It arose in June 2017, with the accusation of support for terrorism addressed to the Emirate within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in particular by Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Even more eloquent was the halt to the cash flows after the house arrest for corruption, in November 2017, of 11 princes of the Saudi family and 35 senior officials of that kingdom, and the freezing of their assets. However, not even Riyadh can be said to be immune from a similar complicity with terrorism, and not only with the Qaedist one. A report by the Institute for Gulf Affairs (IGA), a think tank in opposition to Riyadh based in Washington, clearly shows the ambiguity in the relationship between the Kingdom and Isis. According to it, since 2014, about 400 young Saudis and Kuwaitis have left the United States to join Daesh or Al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq.

On the religious level, the Muslim Brotherhood supports the return to the Qur’an, while on the social level, it calls upon all Muslims (both Shiites and Sunnis) to show solidarity and active commitment, theorizing the constitution of the global Islamic State. That is, the Caliphate

On the religious level, the Muslim Brotherhood supports the return to the Qur’an, while on the social level, it calls upon all Muslims (both Shiites and Sunnis) to show solidarity and active commitment, theorizing – on the political level – the constitution of the global Islamic State. That is, the Caliphate. In order to achieve this objective, it relies on various Islamic organizations to spread its political beliefs, among which the international pan-Islamic organization called Hizb ut Tahrir -HuT (Liberation Party) stands out. This organization was founded in 1953 in Jerusalem – as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – by Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, an Islamic scholar and judge of the Court of Appeal (Qadi) of Palestine. While The group did not succeed in establishing itself in the Middle East, it gained consensus and took root in Central-Southern Asia, where it became popular, above all, among the young generations of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. It consists of a network of secret units with branches in Europe and in Central, South and South-East Asia, stretching as far as Indonesia, as well as a support point in India. The areas in which it operates are called wilayats – which the new Caliphate will unify into a single country made up of Muslim-majority countries: from Morocco in North Africa, to the southern Philippines in Southeast Asia.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) is the international pan-Islamic organization most used by the Muslim Brotherhood to spread its political beliefs. In parallel, it recruits senior officers and young people trained to take over the reins of the future Caliphate. It also has a military wing

Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) operates in the social sphere in a slow and constant way, skillfully avoiding any contact with jihadist groups while spreading its ideology. Its target audience is composed of senior officers, bureaucrats and professionals, including doctors, engineers, accountants, corporate managers and other categories of highly educated young people. HuT, from the outset, has focused on recruiting highly educated senior officers and young people with the aim of taking over the reins of the future Caliphate. To this end, it is said to have formed an armed wing to train his cadres for war operations. Its ideological creed is centered on: 

  1. Re-establishing the Khilafah Islam, that is, the Caliphate as an “Islamic State”;
  2. Recruiting senior officials and civilian administrators;
  3. Indoctrinating and recruiting young people from universities;
  4. Reconstituting the Caliphate and spreading it through an offensive and aggressive jihad, in order to recover the lost lands – from Spain, to Russia, to China – as well as invade and conquer the “lands of the infidels”.

The organization devotes particular attention to Pakistan, which it considers a suitable country for the headquarters of a future Caliphate (or Khilafat), for both its geo-strategic position and its rich natural and human resources. To this end, it envisages the creation of a strong “Islamic army” capable of extending the borders of the Caliphate from Pakistan to India and Central Asia. Pakistan reportedly banned HuT in 2003, after uncovering its connections with various terrorist conspiracies.

The ideology of HuT

The ideology of Hizb ut-Tahrir – a particularly difficult instrument for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which this organization considers “agents” of a non-Muslim power – rejects assimilation and preaches the association for the establishment of the universal or global Caliphate. The objective of the association itself is summarized in the words of its founder, who stated: “The fierce struggle between the Islamic thoughts and the infidels’ thoughts will continue with a bloody struggle alongside the intellectual struggle, until the Hour comes when Allah inherits the Earth and those on it”.

The Muslim Brotherhood also uses financial instruments to extend its influence

In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood uses financial instruments similar to the Al Takwa Bank, “the fear of God” (closed down for good in 2003). The latter had offices in Lugano, but conducted banking activities through an offshore entity located in the Bahamas. In 2001, it was the subject of an investigation for terrorism financing, in the course of which a document called the “Project” was found; it was dated December 1982, and drafted by persons unknown. The director of the bank, Youssef Nahda, refused to name names. The Project, written in Arabic, was aimed at establishing an “Islamic power over the whole earth” trough propaganda, preaching, and, if necessary, war. The document begins with these words: “In the name of God Report / 5/100 […] -This report presents a global vision of an international strategy for Islamic policy. According to its guidelines, and in compliance with them, local Islamic policies are elaborated in the different regions” (See Sylvain Besson, “La conquête de l’occident – Le projet secret des islamistes”, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 2005).

There are even clandestine methods, “borrowed from international communism” to infiltrate Islamic and non-Islamic societies in order to feed the global jihad

The training resorts to clandestine methods, similar to those used by international communism, in order to infiltrate Islamic and non-Islamic societies through the participation in parliamentary, municipal and trade union institutions, the establishment of social services and the establishment of economic, scientific and medical institutions to be in contact with people and influence them ideologically. This ideology also tends to support and study the centers of local and global power, seeking every opportunity to place them under its influence in an effort to raise funds to perpetuate the jihad.

The Muslim Brotherhood aims to assert itself everywhere as a moderate alternative to jihadist terrorism

With this methodology – based on an open, flexible and ever-expanding school of thought – the Muslim Brotherhood and its followers aim to assert themselves as a “moderate” alternative to Jihadist terrorism everywhere. Their elitist character – comparable to a sort of Islamic Freemasonry – favors their penetration into the highest levels of the social, political and economic order to propagate a school of thought aimed at “restoring and establishing Islam as the guiding principle of society”. A strategy well outlined in the following aphorism: “We will conquer Europe, we will conquer America, not through the sword but through our message” (Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, Qatari Sunni Muslim cleric, known for his television program on Al-Jazeera: al-Shariaa wal-ḥayat – “Sharia and life”).

Gli Indomabili

Translated by Andrea Di Nino

Chapter 5 – From the birth of Daesh to ISIS. Al-Baghdadi, Syria and the Islamic State

Chapter 4 – From the Islamic Legion to Zarqawi. Bin Laden, Anti-US Terrorism and the birth of AQI

Chapter 3 – From Somalia to Afghanistan. Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and the Taliban for the Global Jihad

Chapter 2 – The rise of bin Laden and Turabi up to AIM and Khomeini

The First Chapter – From the dawn of modern terrorism to bin Laden

The Authors

Luciano Piacentini – Commander of Operational Detachment and Company in the 9th Paratroopers Assault Regiment “Col Moschin” (SF-Tier 1) of the Italian Army with the rank of Lieutenant and Captain. Assigned to the Army General Staff, he subsequently commanded the “Col Moschin” Regiment. Later he held the position of Chief of Staff of the Paratroopers Brigade “Folgore”. Then he has worked in National Information and Security Bodies with assignments in different areas of the Asian continent. He is graduated in Strategic Sciences and Political Science.

Claudio Masci – Carabinieri Officer coming from the Military Academy of Modena. After having taken over the command of a territorial unit mainly engaged in the fight against organized crime, he passed through National Information and Security Bodies. He graduated in political science. Among his contributions, “Intelligence between conflicts and mediation” (Caucci Editore, Bari 2010), and “The future of intelligence” (April 15, 2012, Longitude, the monthly magazine of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

Pino Bianchi – Architect, expert in risk management, organization, process re-engineering and business management systems. For over twenty years he has conducted business, marketing, communication and organization activities in American and European multinational companies. Management consultant in ICT, marketing, communication, business planning and project financing.

Francesco Bussoletti

Claudio Masci and Luciano Piacentini – Authors of the article “The Future of Intelligence” (Longitude, April 15, 2012), and of the books “Intelligence between conflicts and mediation” (Caucci Editore, Bari 2010), and “Humint… this unknown (Function intelligence evergreen)”. Buy it from Amazon here.

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