President Donald Trump’s appointment of former UN ambassador John Bolton to national security adviser has provoked criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. The concern is at least partially related to Bolton’s hawkish stance on Iran. But for those in the transnational Salafi jihadist movement, including al Qaeda and ISIS, Bolton’s appointment is likely conceived as divine intervention, for it feeds their eschatological framework and falls in line with their long-term goals of re-establishing the caliphate. Bolton, and the potential for a U.S. war with Iran, could be the gift they’ve been waiting for. While probably unlikely, such a war could even provide an ideological framework that could reunify ISIS and al Qaida.
There may have been no two greater supporters for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 than Bolton and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. While Bolton believed Iraqis would welcome American troops with open arms and then the U.S. could turn its attention to deal with threats from Syria, North Korea and Iran, bin Laden viewed the occupation as a new front for transnational jihad, part of his “bleed until bankruptcy plan.”
Bolton’s appointment, in other words, could feed into the jihadist’s reliance on ideology to maintain relevance. Scholars of jihadist strategic logic tend to portray ISIS as deriving its strategy from apocalyptic tradition and al Qaeda as a stricter, patient and more nuanced entity. As Will McCants described it in his book, “The ISIS Apocalypse,” “Bin Laden tramped down messianic fervor and sought popular Muslim support,” while ISIS members, “stir messianic fervor rather than suppress it.” Graeme Wood’s infamous piece in the Atlantic, What ISIS Really Wants, similarly explained that ISIS “follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior.” These assessments, while accurate, underemphasize an important point: al Qaeda’s policies are heavily influenced by prophetic scripture as well, while ISIS’ more direct millenarianism understates its capability as a fluid and rational organization.
To grasp just how jihadist beliefs and scripture translate into strategy, it is crucial to recognize the roots of a constantly mutating Salafi jihadist ideology, whose origins go back to what Islamists call the ‘Sahwa al-Islamiyya’, or Islamic Awakening. The ‘Sahwa al-Islamiyya’ was a religio-political movement in Saudi Arabia largely provoked in reaction to a controversial fatwa issued in 1990, which permitted the presence of American military forces on Saudi Arabian soil during the first Gulf War.
In a 1991 sermon, the influential ‘Sahwa’ cleric, Safar al-Hawali, described the event as, “part of a larger Western design to dominate the whole Arab and Muslim world.” A collective of ‘Sahwa’ clerics eventually signed a memorandum that addressed the House of Saud, the royal family of Saudi Arabia, and called for a larger role for the religious establishment in formulating the Saudi state’s political policy. At the founding of Saudi Arabia, there was agreement between the House of Saud and the followers of Abdul Wahhab that the clerics would promote the religion, while the House of Saud would deal with politics. The Sahwa challenged this as they tried to insert themselves into the country’s politics.
Seeing them as a threat to the ruling family, the Saudi government started to round up ‘Sahwa’ clerics. This prompted bin Laden to take the ‘Sahwa’ sentiment to its logical conclusion, declaring the House of Saud apostates in 1995, and then justifying his ‘far enemy’ doctrine, which emphasized fighting the United States versus regimes he opposed in the Middle East, on the grounds that, “The [Saudi] regime is fully responsible for what has been happening to this country. However, the occupying American enemy is the principal cause of this situation.”
Bin Laden’s rambling diatribe from 1996, in which he declared war on the U.S., couched socio-political grievances in a religious revolutionary discourse. It was a framework the Sahwa facilitated, and a methodology the Sahwa clerics labeled fiqh al-waqia, the jurisprudence of current affairs. Grasping this foundational history is key to understanding how jihadist propaganda translates into strategy and action.
Fiqh al-waqia is the name of a 1992 treatise authored by a Sahwa enthusiast, Nasir al-Umar. In it, al-Umar outlined just how current political policy is to be derived from an understanding of scripture by utilizing a series of verses from the 30th chapter of the Quran, Al-Rum, or the Romans. For al-Umar, the Roman-Persian war of 613 AD, which withered each superpower and paved the way for the Islamic conquest of parts of North Africa, Europe and Asia, was akin to the Cold War struggle between America and the Soviet Union. This idea that Islamists could benefit and take advantage of the two superpowers fighting each other laid a basis for the eschatological narrative the Salafi jihadi movement has adopted and advanced.
While, jihadists chose to shift the focus onto Shiite Iran and its feud with the United States in the context of the Quranic prophecy of the Roman-Persian war, there is worry among analysts that they may even attempt to provoke such a war. The invasion of Iraq prevented immediate U.S. conflict with Iran, which provided al Qaeda leaders sanctuary in exchange for not attacking Iran, but some jihadist leaders challenged this strategy. One of these was Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian Salafi jihadist heading the Iraqi insurgency, who pushed back, first when he merged a collection of unaligned jihadist groups in Iraq and formed al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers in 2005, and then later when his progeny officially broke from al Qaeda and rebranded as ISIS in 2014.
In 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then deputy to bin Laden, addressed Zarqawi in a letter that linked the struggle in Iraq to prophecies in the Quran and the Hadith, but Zawahiri framed the discourse to tell Zarqawi he should focus on expelling Americans from Iraq, as opposed to continued sectarian conflict with Shiites in Iraq and their Iranian backers. From the invasion’s onset, Zarqawi had been targeting Shiites on the grounds that they had assisted the American occupation and that American forces were hiding behind the shield of Shiite civilians.
“Do the brothers forget that both we and the Iranians need to refrain from harming each other at this time?” Zawahiri wrote. He was referencing al Qaeda in Iraq’s bombing of the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf carried out on August 29, 2003, where Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, an Iraqi-cleric exiled in Iran since the Iran-Iraq war of 1979, had delivered a sermon that called for Shia unity and cooperation with the Americans. Hakim, along with 94 others, were killed in the car bombing.
The Way Forward
From this history, many perceive the current seeming irreconcilability of ISIS and al Qaeda as the result of the two having different strategies, one derived from prophecy versus another based, at least in part, on strategic rationale. Yet, there remains an ideological glue that may help to re-establish unity between them, particularly if the U.S. shifts its focus to Iran.
By the time Zarqawi was killed in an American attack on June 8, 2006, his strategy had clearly failed. Iraqi “Awakening” councils, made up of Sunni tribesmen, had rallied against Zarqawism and slowly depleted al Qaeda in Iraq’s influence. Documents found in his safe house after his death revealed that Zarqawi acknowledged a “gloomy” situation, postulating that “the best solution in order to get out of this crisis is to involve the U.S. forces in waging a war against another country or any hostile groups…We mean specifically attempting to escalate the tension between America and Iran.”
In February 2007, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi announced that he welcomed the increase of troops in Iraq and elaborated that, “our battle with the Persians has started as it has with the Romans, but the matter of the Persians is easier and more banal than that of the Romans, and it will especially be so after the impending limited American nuclear strike against Iranian military and nuclear facilities.” Abu Umar was basically implying that a US war with Iran was imminent.
In May 2007, George Tenet, the former CIA director, published a memoir that described how the Bush administration threatened Iranian diplomats that Iran would be held accountable in the event an al Qaeda terrorist attack in the United States was planned in Iran. At the same time, Vice President Dick Cheney proposed taking advantage of a high-casualty event in Iraq, thinking it could be blamed on Iran. Bolton was then leading Cheney’s diplomacy in Israel. As Bruce Reidel opined in 2007, “The biggest danger is that Al-Qaeda will deliberately provoke a war with a ‘false-flag’ operation, say, a terrorist attack carried out in a way that would make it appear as though it were Iran’s doing.” After this month’s announcement of Bolton’s appointment, Shaul Mofaz, an Israeli Defense Force chief at the time, claimed that Bolton, “tried to convince me that Israel should attack Iran.” This caused a flurry of concern.
In their eschatological analyses, today’s jihadists rely on millenarian narrations attributed to Muhammad, many discussing the Romans. According to their analysis, before global domination, the Muslim masses must enter into a period of trial centered around dramatic events occurring in and around Syria.
Jihadist interpretations portray the West as modern-day Rome, and its allegiance with Syrian rebels, Saudi Arabia and other allies, fighting against a ‘common enemy,’ depicted as the Russian, Iranian, Syrian alliance. Thus, the Surah Rum framework originally proposed by the Sahwa clerics, could regain pertinence and document just how jihadists derive strategy that is at once, apocalyptic, rational and persuasive.
That prospect becomes evident when looking at the way ISIS changed the title of its English-language magazine from Dabiq to Rumiyah. Each edition of Dabiq included a prophetic quote from Zarqawi related to Dabiq, a small town in eastern Syria that Muslims believe will host Jesus’s return to fight the antichrist at the time of Armageddon. Once ISIS lost territorial control over Dabiq, the name change to Rumiyah was accompanied with a new prophetic quote attributed to Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, Zaraqawi’s successor: “Oh muwahidin (monotheist), rejoice, for by Allah, we will not rest from our jihad except beneath the olive trees of Rumiyah (Rome).” The modification meant to portray weakness as strength and helped to alter the group’s strategy from a focus on maintaining territorial control to inciting attacks in Western countries.
More recently, Hamza bin Laden has called for a new ‘Sahwa’ in reaction to the moderate reforms proposed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Saudi Arabia, while Zawahiri has called for unity in Syria amongst all jihadist factions and reemphasized that al Qaeda originally proposed to work in tandem with ISIS to dispel Assad. This while Nafir, an al Qaeda bulletin, calls on Saudi scholars to stand up to “westernizing reforms,” and as ISIS fighters fleeing the caliphate are defecting to join al Qaeda-aligned outlets.
In a July 2017 speech to the Grand Gathering of Iranians for Free Iran, an annual gathering of pro-democracy Iranian diaspora members, Bolton summed up the current dilemma facing the United States: “The fact is that the Tehran regime is the central problem in the Middle East…As the campaign to destroy the ISIS Caliphate nears its ultimately successful conclusion, we must avoid allowing the regime in Tehran to achieve its long-sought objective of an arc of control from Iran, through the Baghdad government in Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, and the Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.” He emphasized, “The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change, and therefore the only solution is to change the regime itself. And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!”
There could be no greater gift to the Salafi jihadi movement than the U.S. getting bogged down in a war with Iran. Just as Bolton and bin Laden applauded the invasion of Iraq from divergent hallways, a military conflict with Iran could prove a victory not only for al Qaeda, but also for ISIS. A victory that could also lead to jihadi reunification and pave a way to the Salafi jihadi movement’s own “Islamic” conquest.