Hungarian Conservative

Where Does the Fanaticism of Jihadists Come from? — Jihad Researcher Anthony Celso to Mandiner

Anthony Celso, professor at Angelo State University in Texas
Mandiner/Árpád Földházi
The Islamic faith has five pillars, and jihad is not among them—yet it is spreading as a devastating ideology in the Muslim world and its border areas. An interview with jihad researcher Anthony Celso.

The Islamic faith has five pillars, but Islamist groups added jihad as the sixth one in order to persecute Christians citing the Koran, a professor at Angelo State University in Texas told Mandiner. At the Danube Institute’s conference Anthony Celso, security policy expert and Islamist terrorism researcher spoke about the ultimate strategic plan of the jihadists, the current capabilities of terrorist groups and the ‘Axis of Evil’ 2.0.

According to the teaching of the Koran, is it the duty of all Muslims to wage a holy war, namely jihad, against Christians?

No. However, the text of the Koran has many different interpretations in Islam. The interpretation of jihadists waging an armed, real war against various dissident groups is one of the many. So far, there have been very few reliable studies on jihadist warfare against Christians: one of the reasons for this is that, due to political correctness, researchers somehow do not want to explore this topic in depth. Yet, in the past few years, this war has destroyed hundreds of churches and has killed thousands of Christians worldwide.

But are there any specific, direct commands or hints in the Surahs of the Koran or other sacred texts of Islam that true Muslims are obliged to wage war against Christians?

In fact, the text of the Koran was born from the experiences of the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca and Medina. In the so-called Medinan Surahs, we can find clauses that may refer to the oppression of Christians and Jews, as Muhammad suppressed the resistance of the representatives of both religions in Medina. But these Surahs are now merely used as a pretext for jihadists to use violence against Christian communities.

However, if we look at the entire context, we also find those parts in the Koran that call for temperance. Thus, a lot depends on the interpretation and explanation of the sacred texts—the radicals highlight the verses about war, and moderate Muslims consider the Meccan Surahs as guidelines that call for peaceful coexistence.

Can you give an example of how the jihadist interpretation distorts the sacred text?

Take, for example, the fact that the Islamic faith has five pillars, which were laid down by the Koran. Jihad is not among them. The jihadists thus added the obligation of holy war as a sixth holy requirement to supplement the original sacred text. Moreover,

the meaning of jihad is not precisely defined in the sacred texts, so its content is determined by the interpretation of the text.

According to one interpretation, jihad is about the inner struggles of Muslim believers as they take control of their bad desires, instincts, and ambitions. According to another interpretation, however, it also means an external fight, a holy war against the infidels.

For most Muslims, jihad means the battle they have to fight for their faith. For the jihadist minority, on the other hand, it means the obligation to engage in concrete combat with those of different faiths and to defeat them with weapons—since, according to their interpretation, it is the will of Allah that they should spread the Islamic faith throughout the world by peaceful or violent means.

What status can Christians have in the world defined by the Koran, in a Muslim state, or in a caliphate based on jihadist ideology?

There were periods in the history of the caliphates when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived peacefully side by side, but there were also times when the latter were persecuted. Spain, which lived under Muslim rule for hundreds of years, is a typical example of this: there was mostly a peaceful coexistence, but religious violence on the part of the Muslims flared up occasionally.

In the newly Islamist-ruled areas, Christians are usually tolerated and obliged to pay taxes. Are there jihadist groups for whom this is still not enough, and they only accept conversion to Islam or death?

The practice of the Islamic State (ISIS) was roughly that. If we look at how they acted in those few years in Iraq and Syria, we see that

they systematically expelled the Christian population from their territories.

Before the US military intervention in 2003, one million Christians lived in Iraq, but today their number has decreased to 200,000. The main reasons for their fleeing were ethnic cleansing and religious persecution using the instrument of terror; local Christians fled in large numbers primarily from ISIS. The jihadists destroyed churches and monasteries, and this was symbolic, as attacks on churches were carried out in several parts of the world. This is what the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram have done, but there were attacks on the respected Coptic communities in Egypt, and several similar actions in Pakistan as well. In my opinion, the main front line of jihadist attacks against Christians today is in Africa, and the relations between Muslim and Christian communities have historically been strained in the equatorial states. Historical events, such as the Western colonial past, the fall of the Ottoman Empire or the founding of Israel, also fuel jihadists’ hatred of the West.

Are most jihadist attacks born out of spontaneous rage, or are they planned, systematic actions with the strategic goal of expelling Christians?

Both occur, but obviously, the second phenomenon is predominant. There is a systematic, organised campaign of terror aimed at chasing Christian communities out of their lands. The main purpose of the actions of jihadist groups is indeed to force Christians to leave.

Which states are currently the most dangerous in this regard?

Mozambique, Congo, and Nigeria, and in the Middle East, Syria, which is a bunch of unsolved problems to this day. Religious clashes in the region are not subsiding.

The Islamic State has lost, but has not ceased to exist,

as their cells which fled reconstitute in Africa.

Is it possible that the same will happen in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan?

They have got the capacity for it. However, we also know that although they are related in terms of the jihadist ideology, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are enemies. The Islamic State grew out of al-Qaeda, and then became its rival. Apart from constantly attacking Shiite targets, the Afghan wing of ISIS is currently instigating an insurrection against Taliban rule in order to seize power in the chaos, while the Taliban have built good relations with al-Qaeda through the Haqqani Network. There is nothing surprising in the fact that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had lived in Kabul until the successful attempt on his life, as the Taliban have always been in contact with al-Qaeda.

As you mentioned, the Sunni jihadists are attacking the Shiite communities that they consider to be heretics, and they are also organising assassinations against the Taliban imams. Who are those that make up the narrow circle of ‘true believers’ against whom they do not have to wage a holy war? Who are ‘pure’ in their eyes?

The ideology and way of thinking of the Islamic State is very special:

anyone who does not support them shall be put to death.

They are convinced that they represent true Islam, the way the religion existed during the time of Muhammad and his immediate successors. Anyone who does not share this perspective and belief is an apostate—and the fate of apostates is to be wiped off the face of the earth.

America’s worst nightmare is that Afghanistan once again becomes a hinterland for jihadist movements, from where terrorist attacks against the United States can be organised and carried out. The Taliban have signed an agreement, pledging that this will not happen again. Do you believe them?

No. Even the American negotiators were aware that the Taliban were lying. This scenario is way too realistic. The Americans wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan and therefore agreed to the deal, but it was already clear at the time of the signing that the Taliban would not keep their word. Al-Zawahiri lived in Kabul, and the Taliban knew about it.

Al-Zawahiri was killed by an American drone, which means that although the United States has pulled out, if its security interests are harmed, it can reach any targets in Afghanistan with precision, remote-guided attacks. Can US intelligence, surveillance, and military potential keep terrorist groups under control?

Losing Afghanistan also meant that the US military lost a bridgehead in the region. Some targeted attacks can be carried out, but in the meantime the operation of terrorist groups has also become complicated, so tracking them in space from a long distance is almost impossible. At the same time, once the target is found, an attack is immediately carried out—the experience is that if the target is not killed immediately, there will be serious consequences, as with the 2001 terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda is a central organisation, but it is not strong enough to carry out large-scale attacks on its own; its strength lies in the fact that

it cooperates with local jihadist groups on several continents, so it can rear its head on an ad hoc basis almost anywhere.

Al-Zawahiri had a comprehensive plan on how to create a large jihadist state in the territory of Iraq and Syria, but then came the Islamic State, which implemented its own ideas—eventually unsuccessfully—, and the other major group, the Al-Nusra Front also broke away from al-Qaeda. Thus, the great Levantine plan fell to pieces.

What, then, is now the grand strategic goal of these fragmented jihadist forces?

The establishment of a global caliphate and the unification of the Islamic world under the auspices of the caliphate. According to the most daring idea, this empire will ultimately

engage in a final battle with the Western powers and will win it, based on Islamic prophecies.

It was this vision that energised the movement behind the Islamic State, and that is why they proclaimed a caliphate in the territories they occupied—which was a large-scale act, by the way, since the last caliphate was the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago. That caliphate fell apart after World War I, and the jihadists believe that as long as there is not a new one, the Western infidels can dominate the world.

You and your colleague are working on a new book on the strategic relationship between North Korea and Iran. The Ukrainian war has changed the geopolitical situation, Russia is seeking an alliance with China and Iran, and North Korea is trying to join this emerging interest group, too. Could this be, in the words of George W. Bush, the ‘Axis of Evil’ 2.0?

North Korea, despite being the most internationally sanctioned regime in the world, has sent large quantities of missiles, firearms, and combat vehicles to Iran, and the Tehran regime has transferred these weapons to its allies to incite insurgencies in several Middle Eastern states. The Yemeni Houthis, Hezbollah in Lebanon, some paramilitary organisations in Iraq and some armed groups in Syria, together with Russian units that joined them later practically saved the Assad regime from collapsing.

I feel like that the term ‘Axis of Evil’ is a bit of an exaggeration; these states are anti-democratic, anti-liberal, authoritarian states that cooperate with each other out of mutual interest. This alliance enables the evasion of international sanctions:

for example, Iran supplies crude oil to North Korea so that it can continue its weapons production,

while Russia’s paramilitary units can be there and are in fact there in any number of conflicts. This alliance is a serious threat to the West—they strive to weaken Western dominance, and they want to undermine its stability.

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The Islamic faith has five pillars, and jihad is not among them—yet it is spreading as a devastating ideology in the Muslim world and its border areas. An interview with jihad researcher Anthony Celso.