Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State

DATE: 13:30 – 14:30, Thursday 7th June 2018
VENUE: Committee Room 4A, House of Lords, London, SW1A 0PW
SPEAKER: Ali Soufan, Chief Executive Officer of The Soufan Group and Founder of The Soufan Center
EVENT CHAIR: Dr Andrew Foxall, Director of Research and Director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre

Good afternoon everybody. Welcome to today’s Henry Jackson Society event. Many of you will be aware that I am in fact not Adam Holloway MP. He will be hosting- he’s delayed coming into London but will be joining us at some point in the not too distant future. Instead, my name’s Dr Andrew Foxall. I’m head of the Russia-Eurasia Programme at Henry Jackson Society and I’m delighted that we have with us to speak today Ali Soufan who will be known to many of you. For those of you who’re perhaps not aware of his biography as others, he is CEO of the Soufan group and Founder of the Soufan Centre. The former FBI supervisory agent who investigated and supervised highly sensitive and complex international terrorist cases. He’s a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council and author of several- I think it would be better to say- best-selling books including recently, Anatomy of Terror: from the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State. And it’s the themes of that book, some of the themes he wrote throughout that book that he’ll be speaking to us about today. I’m acutely aware that we started late and Ali needs to leave at 14.20 on the dot so I won’t speak any longer. First of all though, please join with me in welcoming Ali to today’s event. Thank you.

Thank you Andrew and thank you everyone for attending. If I make any mistakes today, I blame it on the jetlag, so I’m usually better than that. I’m going to jump into it and talk about Anatomy of Terror and the reason I actually write that book, Anatomy of Terror, 16-17 years after 9/11. If you look at the world that we live in today, in so many different ways it is way more dangerous than it used to be before 9/11. On the eve of 9/11, bin Laden had 400 members- 400 members, 19 of them died on that day. Today, the people who adhere to the narrative of Osama bin Laden are in the thousands. If you look at what’s happening in Afghanistan or in Pakistan or in Yemen or in Syria, if you look at what’s happening in Nigeria, you have people all over the place who adhere to the ideology or the philosophy- not philosophy, I don’t call it a philosophy- to the narrative of Osama bin Laden. So when we talk about the threat, the threat is always being hijacked. The moment we talk about the threat, people start talking about Islam as if Islam has anything to do with this. If bin Laden tried to terrorize a religion, it doesn’t mean that we say he was right and we start focusing on combatting Islam when we’re trying to combat people who hijack terminology from the beautiful religion in order to conduct terrorist attacks and in order to conduct evil.

More than 95% of the victims of the Salafi Jihadi movement have been Muslims. How many times you turn the TV and you see a suicide bomber goes to a mosque where everybody is praying on a Friday, and blow himself up. Just last Ramadan, one suicide bomber actually from the so-called Islamic State Daesh- he went to the Mosque of the Prophet (Peace be upon him) in Medina and blew himself up, during Ramadan. You want to tell me that this is Islam? They claim they have monopoly of the piousness of the religion but they are so far away from it and there are people who are fighting them, not only in the West. They call us every name in the book when we’re fighting them in the West, but what about all the peple who are fighting them in the Muslim world? All the victories against ISIS and al Qaeda did not come because of Western soldiers, it came because of people on the ground who are fighting in Iraq and in Syria and in other places, fighting for their homes, fighting for their culture, fighting for their honour.

So why 400 members became a movement of thousands? You have to think about it. Actually, we are mostly to blame and that’s what I talk about in the book. Why are we mostly to blame? After 9/11, we swiftly responded and al Qaeda was disseminated, the Taliban regime was destroyed, we got a lot of sympathy around the world for the evil act of 9/11. However, by 2003, we lost all this goodwill by invading Iraq on false premises. That created a catastrophe that we are actually still- you can make the argument- dealing with until today. Secretive jails, Guantanamo Bay, drones- a lot of these policies were just reaction to an event without thinking about the overall strategy. So the narrative that says that the West and the United States especially, is in a war against Islam, found a lot of listening ears and a lot of open hearts. That gives me something about I was thinking about when we were seeing all these thing developing.

Every time we do something in the West- in the United Kingdom, you guys have the same- in the United States, we have public hearings where you have politicians coming and saying, ‘Oh we could not imagine this. We could not imagine planes flying into buildings. We could not imagine it would take more troops to secure Iraq than it would take to take down Saddam. We could not imagine that can happen.’ Yes, because our imagination is very limited- it’s limited by our experience by our perspectives, by our- sometimes- ignorance, by our fears. So it’s very limited. So instead of imagination, we should add a new thing, a new formula- we should supplement imagination with empathy. Yes, I said empathy. And I don’t mean empathy in a colloquial sense. I mean empathy in a clinical sense- in understanding the enemy you are fighting, understanding what makes them strong, understanding what makes them weak, understanding how they see the world, understanding the lenses that they understand and see the world through. And that’s why I decided to write this book very differently than many of the terrorism books that are already in the market. I decided to write a novel with real characters. I decided to go down on a personal level of these men who’re doing a lot of harms in the world. I decided to walk in the shoes of Osama bin Laden, explain his relationships with his commanders, explain his true beliefs, explain his relationship with his family, explain the narrative and the ideology that he was trying to promote from the early years until the bullets of the Navy SEALS stuck him down.

And the person who took after him was Seif al Adel for a short period of time as interim leader. Seif al Adel has been with bin Laden from the beginning- he’s an Egyptian, he’s the security chief of al Qaeda, he’s a very complicated character- very ruthless but very smart. That’s why he was one of the few who has been able to survive. He was involved, literally, with every terrorist attack al Qaeda conducted. Interestingly enough, he’s a member of the Shura Council but voted against 9/11- he begged bin Laden not to do 9/11 because he thought it will be disastrous on the Taliban and on them. And he was right. But bin Laden didn’t listen to his Shura Council who actually voted against the operation- he went with it anyway. Then, through Seif al Adel, when he was trying to get the allegiances to Ayman al Zawahiri, the number two, you get all the different branches of al Qaeda. And al Qaeda after 9/11 changed- it was not the same organisation that we had before 9/11- the same command and control and structure that was so focused in doing operations and they only worked with people who pledged by oath to them. It became a message, it became an idea- and because of the message, because of the idea, they were able to sign up other entities from places like Algeria, for example- people who were fighting the union civil war. They made them operate under al Qaeda’s banner. Al Zarqawi himself was an al Qaeda member when he was in Afghanistan but later on, al Qaeda needed somebody on the biggest jihadi theatre in the world- Iraq- and Zarqawi needed funding and needed support so it was a marriage made in hell between both of them. He and his followers were not really truly believers of the idea of the global jihad, but they were happy to fight the war in Iraq and these kind of differences between the top leadership festered until the war in Syria, where we have a division between the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda and al Qaeda central. And this is where ISIS came to be.

From there you go to Ayman al Zawahiri- a very fascinating character who has been involved with the jihadist- and every time I say jihadist, think like a million parentheses around it because I don’t think they are jihadis in any way, shape or form- movement from the very beginning. He formed his first covert cell in Egypt when he was fifteen years old, with his brother. He comes from a very prominent family. He went to medical school, he became a surgeon, he was involved in the Sadat assassination. In jail, he gave up everyone else, he was released, he was sent to Afghanistan to help in the war against the Soviets as a doctor and over there he met Osama bin Laden and the rest is history. Zawahiri is smart, Zawahiri is a great technician. But also at the same time, he has no charisma like Osama bin Laden. And then we’ve seen the divisions that happened after that. He didn’t have the loyalty that bin Laden had from all his commanders. You can hate bin Laden, you can like bin Laden but bin Laden was really a true believer. That’s something that we have to admire about him- he was a true believer who truly believed in what he was doing. He was a multi-millionaire who did not need to live in a cave or live a poor man’s life, and he put his money where his mouth is. Ayman Zawahiri was the person who was living off bin Laden. He was his ‘Golden Goose’. So, you know, a lot of people realise that and a lot of people thought that was happening and that’s why, when Seif al Adel was taking the [inaudible] from all the different affiliates, Haroon- who is the head of al Qaeda in the Horn of Africa, Somalia’s al Shabaab- refused to give [inaudible] to Ayman Zawahiri and he said there is many other people in the leadership of al Qaeda who deserve to be leaders but not that guy, he’s not one of us anyway. Interestingly enough, a week later Haroon was assassinated- he was killed supposedly at a security checkpoint but interestingly enough also, we have been following Haroon for I don’t know how many years since the East African Embassy bombing because he was directly involved in the bombings in Nairobi and Daresalaam. And suddenly, he was found at a security checkpoint in Somalia and he was killed there.

So, it takes you to the personalities of these individuals, it takes you to the ideas, where they come from and what they feel the world ought to be, what they believe in and what they don’t believe in. You know, you talk about the war in Iraq but I don’t want to say the war in Iraq. I wanted to have a chapter on Abu Musab Zarqawi and I want to show the reader, when they’re reading about Abu Musab Zarqawi and about his followers and about the reason he ordered the assassination of 250 Sunni scholars because they wanted to evacuate the Sunni part of Iraq from any scholarship, from any religious leadership that can stand up. They called it a- in Mosul, a very Sunni scholar there, he called it a thaqafat al hawatin- culture of silencers- because they used silencers to assassinate all these imams. Why Zarqawi did that, what was his plan, what was his plan in creating that sectarian division in Iraq? When you finish reading about Zarqawi, you don’t need anyone to tell you that the Iraq War was a disaster. You don’t need anyone to tell you we went to Iraq for the wrong reasons. When you see that al Qaeda early on, after 9/11- literally, when we were picking up from the field in Afghanistan, they used to say ‘So when are you going to invade Iraq?’ And at the time, we had no idea that there was an invasion- we were still here when Bush wanted to invade Iraq from August, even before September 11. But we said, ‘Why do you think we’re going to invade Iraq?’, they said ‘Because it’s written. The Prophet (Peace be upon him) said that you guys are going to invade Iraq and the nations will fight over the Rivers of Black Gold under Iraq and that will be the beginning of basically, the end.’- the Islamic version of Armageddon. So what did we do? We really invaded Iraq and we fed into that narrative.

But other things now changed, the threat mutated, we noticed how al Qaeda mutated. But now with ISIS- and I won’t bore you with a lot of details- the whole ideology, the whole narrative mutated. So today, if you look, you see these groups have been very resilient. Bin Laden, for example, when he lost the battle of Jalalabad after the Soviets left, and he lost many Arab mujahideen over there, he left Afghanistan in disgrace and people thought that he would never come back and that was the end of this Saudi millionaire who came to help jihad in Afghanistan. He ended up in Sudan. In Sudan, he started to establish a network- an Islamic army- to support other Islamic causes around the world. And the West, in the United States, we used to call him financier of terrorism, not an active terrorist. After he was kicked out of Sudan and he went to Afghanistan, he established an alliance with the Taliban movement. They needed him as much as he needed them. He established a very strict organization with command and control and training camps and guest houses. They only worked with people who were loyal and were members of the organization. And they conducted terrorist attacks to include the East Africa embassy bombings, to include the US’s call, to include 9/11. And many plots in between mostly were disrupted. After 9/11, he realised the organization is done. So he switched the organization from being an organization to being a message. But eve when he was sitting in his hideout in Afghanistan, there’s a lot of stories about what was happening over there. Even when he was sitting there, he was always ordering his commanders- ‘do not focus on local fights, always focus on the far enemy’. And the far enemy to him was the United States. He actually said, ‘Think about America as a wicked tree. That tree has a big trunk and it has so many different branches. Some branches are bigger and stronger than others. The branches are NATO, the Muslim world, Muslim regimes and so forth. So you’re cutting the tree and you’re 50 centimetres in-‘ and I say 50 centimetres because that’s the number that he used. Anyway, ‘-and then suddenly =, you have an opportunity to cut down one of the branches.’ Then he told them, ‘okay, do you stop and cut that branch, or you keep cutting the tree until the tree falls?’ So every time they come up with an operational plan for him about something, he hesitated and he told them- ‘Focus on America. This is the main enemy.’

Suddenly, Osama bin Laden starts to see the Arab Spring unfolding in front of him. On the TV screen, he saw people on the streets of Cairo, and people on the streets of Libya, and people on the streets of Tunisia, and he realised that this is a big opportunity for al Qaeda. So he immediately instructed his commanders and said- ‘Everything I told you before, forget about it. Leave Afghanistan, come close to me. We all move to the Peshawar area. We need to strategize and we need to take advantage of the situation that’s unfolding in front of us in the Muslim world.’ He said, ‘This opportunity did not present itself in the Muslim world since the time of Saladin, the 12th century sultan who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders. He said- ‘This is the opportunity now, that’s very similar to that opportunity. Forget everything I told you about America. We need to go back, we need to be in these areas, we need to guarantee that these regions will continue to be lawless and be chaotic because when there is a new leader coming and controlling these areas, this guy is going to be the new dictator, the new agent for the Americans. So we have to be sure that these regions remain chaotic and we build our networks in this region and eventually, we’ll bring the blessed Caliphate. And he continued this- I know what I’m telling you means many Muslims need to be killed. Bin Laden was very hesitant for the death of Muslims before. He said, ‘But we have to kill them to save them, we have to kill them to save them.’ And he repeated it twice. And al Qaeda shifted its plans just before the Navy SEAL killed Osama bin Laden. And this thing that we’ve seen now with how they’re operating in places like Yemen or places like Somalia or places like the [inaudible] region, Libya- they create the vacuum, create lawlessness, create chaos in order to be the only people who are controlling it so the population can depend on them. That is the plan of Osama bin Laden and that’s frankly the plan of management of savagery, which you start doing terrorism to weaken the state, you have to sate fall, you control the vacuum and only then, after you establish these big regions all under your control, you declare a state.

The war in Syria divided that movement- the division between Ayman al Zawahiri and between al Baghdadi, and we can go into a lot of details about that. But in a nutshell, al Baghdadi sent al Julani to represent al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Julani didn’t want to operate under al Baghdadi- he told him, ‘You are not my commander, al Zawahiri is my commander because he’s the leader of al Qaeda and we’re all under him.’ He said, ‘No, I am your Commander and the jihad in Syria and Iraq is one jihad.’ They said, ‘Okay, we’ll go to Zawahiri to be the judge.’ Zawahiri said, ‘No, I see Julani’s point. Syria is different from Iraq.’ Baghdadi said, ‘Yeah okay go. I don’t need you. I’m raising a new state. I’m establishing an Islamic state and now me, as head of the Islamic State and the Caliphate, you have to obey me. I’m not going to obey you.’ And that’s basically the division in a nutshell, between ISIS and al Qaeda. So when that division happened in Syria, ISIS jumped the phases immediately to Phase Three- the state. Al Qaeda told them, as bin Laden used to say a lot, and I have many instances where they told him, ‘Hey, let’s do this! We can do this! At one time [inaudible] Yemen so if you want Sana’a, I can deliver it today.’ He said, ‘Yes, definitely I want Sana’a, but I want us to be able to keep Sana’a.’ So al Qaeda said, ‘We experience these things in different places where we controlled an area. But eventually the West is going to come and they’re going to destroy it. So that’s not the time to establish a state.’ So the division is not really an ideological division- the division is the strategy where ISIS jumped over the phases because they really didn’t like leadership of a Qaeda.

However, al Qaeda has been playing it right because of the Arab Spring. Al Qaeda has been taking advantage of civil wars that are happening around the Middle East. You see al Qaeda in Idlib- it’s very well-to-do. You see al Qaeda in Yemen- before the Saudi coalition war in Yemen they were less than 1000, and now they’re about 6000. The control vast regions in Maghreb and in Shabwa and other places. You see al Qaeda doing very well in Sahel- the Pentagon in their assessment just a few weeks ago, they said that al Qaeda in Sahel region is way more dangerous than ISIS because they’re building a coherent network that will allow them to control the region down the road. The same thing with Somalia- al Shabaab now is more powerful than they used to be a few years ago and they are expanding their operation to the South and they are even expanding their operation to other countries in the Horn of Africa to include Kenya.

So, what are the incubating factors that are feeding extremism today? That also mutated. It’s not the same as it used to be in 1996 when Osama bin Laden declared jihad on the United States in his infamous declaration of jihad. The declaration as you have is expelled at the infidel, the Crusaders and the Jews from the Arabian Peninsula. He wanted it to liberate Saudi Arabia- that was his declaration of jihad. And then they always add the Arab-Israeli thing in the middle just to get sympathy even though they don’t do anything about it, and about stealing the Muslim world. This situation now is very different. The reason people go to these conflict zones is the conflict itself and over there, they might be radicalised. Sectarianism today is the central feature of the conflict- the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is further pushing people to the extreme, both on the Shia side and on the Sunni side. And that creates further chaos, further conflict, and the people who are directly and indirectly benefitting from this are the extremists.

And then, today if you look at the narrative that we see from extremists to include here in the West, they always say, ‘We are living in a- there is a clash of civilization.’ They love ‘Clash of Civilization’- I don’t think any of them read the book of Sam Huntington but they love to say it- Clash of Civilization, it’s us versus them. And it’s not only them who say that- it’s not only terrorist apologists and terrorist groups and extremists who say it. It’s also the ultra-right, the anti-Semitic groups- they say the same thing: ‘Clash of Civilizations’. But if you look at real conflict, and you look at the factors that are feeding this conflict, it’s an anti-civilizational clash that’s happening. It’s stuff that used to happen before World War I, and the Cold War for some reason was kind of like a pause on human history, and now the play button is hit again. If you look at what’s happening in the Muslim world today, the biggest conflict is Arab versus Persian, Shia versus Sunni, Turks versus Kurds- it’s all conflicts that have existed before and now are coming back because it wasn’t solved before. And in order to fight extremism in our own society, we cannot do it without solving these conflicts overseas because these are the conflicts that are feeding into the monster of extremism around the world, feeding into the ‘Us versus Them’ mentality around the world on both sides- from a Western perspective and also from the Eastern perspective. We have the same thing here in the West too- we have a lot of conflict. A lot of people, when they see the economic situation now and the hate speech now, they tell you, ‘Oh it’s very similar to how it used to be in the thirties. We have conflicts that we did not solve yet. So in Anatomy of Terror, what I try to do is basically put the story in a way that cannot be hijacked. Make people understand the threat that we’re dealing with. Understand where the enemy, in this case, comes from. What they believe, Sun Tzu across the ages warned us, ‘Know your enemy and know yourself. You will win a hundred times in a hundred battles’. Unfortunately, we have no idea who the enemy is and we forget who we are. And that’s why 400 members of al Qaeda became a movement of thousands and thousands around the world.

So now, how can we solve the problem of- I don’t want to solve the world problem, I can’t- but I can give opinions about solving the problem with extremism, with this type of extremism. First, I think we have to approach it from to different perspectives. You have the network- now, that network can be an operational network. People who went together to Afghanistan- most of the people who came back weren’t terrorists. Only a small percentage were terrorists. And they didn’t conduct a terrorist attack immediately. The first terrorist attack did not happen until 1993 in the World Trade Centre bombing, 25 years ago. So it took years for them to build on the network that they established in Afghanistan. Most of these guys knew each other, fought with each other, were members of the same crew- they went back, they lived their life, many of them came to the United States actually. They were living freely in America because at that time, the mujahideens were our allies. We thought they are the biggest heroes in the world and then suddenly, they started blowing up stuff. It took years, it took years for them to get together and establish al Qaeda as an organisation. Al Qaeda was established early on in 1989 but it wasn’t really functioning on that level until later, way later. It took years to establish franchises in South East Asia for example, where many of the guys who were sent to fight in Afghanistan during the Soviet jihad- to include, for example, Ali Umran who was involved in the Bali bombing. He told me, you know, he said ‘When the JI sent me there, they told me- we don’t want you to be a monitor. We want you to train, we want you to know the art of war so when you come back you can train other brothers here because our focus is to establish a Caliphate in South East Asia. We don’t care about what’s happening over there. Use that opportunity to train’. And that’s exactly what he did, but it took them years to reach out to these guys and say ‘Hey, come on let’s do something!’

It reminds me, when I talk about network, the easiest example that people can comprehend is what happened in Camp Bucca in Iraq. We went to Iraq falsely claiming that al Qaeda and Saddam were working together. We put a lot of the nationalists, Baathists in jail in south of Iraq in a camp called Camp Bucca, and we put the jihadis there. These nationalists looked at the jihadis, mostly former Iraqi officials and leaders in the military. They said ‘Wow, these jihadi guys. They’re crazy. We don’t have people who blow themselves up and fight to the death. We can use their passion.’ The jihadis looked at the nationalists and said, ‘Wow those guys are strategists and smart, and we need people like them.’ So they met each other. When they were leaving Camp Bucca, they used to write each other’s phone numbers in their underwear so they can call each other when they go out. We, in Camp Bucca, created a monster, a Frankenstein. That’s how Saddam had bin Laden and this is Daesh. So it happened. So the network is extremely important- a lot of these guys went. We had more than 800 from the UK, we had 5000 from Western Europe, we had more than 45000 from about a hundred different countries who went to the conflict zone in Iraq and Syria. Many of them were killed, many of them decided to come back, many of them decided to go to third countries to participate in the jihad. And don’t be fooled just because the so-called Islamic State, the so-called Caliphate lost its territorial land. It does not mean it lost the power to inspire. So we’re going to be dealing with this for a long time. I think what we need to do is to work together and that’s not a job of government as much as it is a job of community and private sector. Everyone together- it’s a whole society approach to identify these networks and prevent these networks from becoming violent and causing violence down the road.

But also at the same time, on the other hand, we need to counter the narrative. We need to expose these entities. People who claim that they are real Muslims and they lie and they cheat and they kill and they behead people and they blow up mosques. And then they challenge you as a Muslim just because you don’t agree with what they believe in. They need to be challenged and this is not about challenging a religion again because that feeds into their narrative. This is challenging a conspiratorial narrative that makes things up- a conspiratorial narrative that people around the Muslim world are suffering as much as the Muslim communities in the West are suffering from. So that ideology, that narrative, is actually giving the environment for the network to survive. When you come back from a place like Iraq or Syria, and you try to stand up and say to your fellow members in your community that, ‘Yeah I went there and this is no utopia, that was no Caliphate’. You get intimidated, you get excommunicated. But if you behead someone, they call you an [inaudible] man. That’s a message that these groups and their supporters send to others in our societies. And in order to take the network, we have to have a holistic approach to the problem, and that holistic approach does not only mean focusing on one specific community. It has to focus on all the forms of hate that exist in society. We can focus on this community and forget what’s happening with any Nazi group or forget what’s happening with the Ultra-right, or forget what’s happening with groups that are actually soulmates for these groups on the other side. They depend on each other, they feed off each other. So extremism and this ideology and this threat is literally like a hydra.

And after I go through all stories- the stories of bin Laden and the stories of Seif al Adel and Zawahiri and Abu Musab Zarqawi and Abubakr Baghdadi and all the different leaders that appeared in the Syrian-Iraqi theatre in the last few years, I have a chapter called ‘Slaying the Hydra’. Because it seems to us every time you cut a head, a new head comes up. The way that the hydra was killed was by cutting the neck of the main head, and the neck of the main head is not an individual, it’s not an organization. The main head is a narrative. We need to combat that narrative and we need to prevent that narrative from hijacking beautiful ideas that were meant for good, not for evil, not for destruction and not for murder. Thank you very much.

Thank you Ali. We have 15 minutes or so for questions and as I said, the event does need to close at 2.30 sharpish. If you do have a question- I can see one or two hands going up- please first of all give your name and indicate if you’re from a particular organisation. There will be, I should imagine, quite a few questions so at the moment, I’ll take them in groups of two. So first of all, the lady and then the gentleman in the middle please. Thank you.

Okay, two points very quickly. If we look at the Crusaders and we look at Muslims, they’re very similar at this point because Roman Catholics-

Sorry, could you- if you do have a comment could you make it very brief please and then ask your question.

Okay, that comment was- will it take another 600 years for Islam to be as civilized as Christianity? The other second point is- in this country, Hezbollah have got the [inaudible]. Will it be their political- Because it’s political, it gives the government [inaudible]. Is it not disgusting?

Sorry, we’ll just take your question as well please.

Yeah hi, my name’s Will. I work with a human rights organisation called [inaudible]

My question is, within the counter-narrative that you’ve proposed, does that include the support for the Reformists of Islam, many of which have quite a low profile- [inaudible] in Canada and Majid Nawaaz here in the UK through the [inaudible]?

I’ll start with your question. Islam through its history, if you actually read about Islam in the early times- the early time of the Prophet, the early time of the Caliphate like the Umayyads or the Abbasids- was very open, it was a very open religion. You have people questioning the nature of God in front of the Caliph, he didn’t behead them. So the whole idea that we have a monopoly of the ideology, we have a monopoly of the religion- that is something of the last fifty years. That something did not exist when Islam was actually an amazing inclusive civilization where other religions and other sects actually flourished under it. So absolutely, I’m open-minded because I’m not the judge of what’s happening here. Nowhere in the Quran is it said that God told us, ‘You have to be the judge.’ He is the Judge, He will judge, He knows the intentions of people, He knows what’s in the hearts. So anybody who wanted to say something, they have the right to say it. In Islam, they had civil wars. The moment the Prophet died, they had a civil war. So yes, I’m open for people to say their opinion. This is what I believe the religion is all about. I might agree with them, I might disagree with them, we might have an argument- that’s fine. But that’s from understanding my religion in a Quranic way, in the way of the Prophet, I believe that everybody has the right to speak as long as they are not hurting others, they are not killing others, they are not damaging others, you have the right to speak. So I believe that this thing is definitely a part of Islam.

Now the other question ma’am, I think Islam, Muslims are civilised. I think you have problems in regions and these problems, as we talked about, there’s a lot of political, cultural, tribal and historical reasons that are creating problems but people are naturally civilised. I try to believe I’m civilised and I’m a Muslim and I’m proud of it.

And sorry, there’s the second question about Hezbollah’s presence in the UK as well. I can see other hands coming up now.

Well this is basically a dangerous situation, what we’re seeing. We’re seeing a lot of groups that are considered extremists or considered terrorists, being able to operate. And I think that’s exactly what I was talking about- giving and allowing individuals, giving them a platform to operate unchecked. Yes, absolutely, this is concerning. It’s going to be concerning for so many people.

Gentleman here and then you, sir.

Gavin Nichol, [inaudible] Intelligence. Going back to the point about just before the Iraq War, and how we ended up feeding into this narrative of a conflict of religions. It’s probably true that it’s designed, written and advocated for by [inaudible] so profound within our own societies and I’m very aware that it’s had more prevalence in the United States, in certain parts of the United States’ government that there were real millenarians around. And they are in government, I’ve met some people who actually think that way too. How can we counter the millenarians in our own political and military structures?

That’s why voting matters. You vote. That’s basically it- they do their own thing, we do our own thing. We try to hold them accountable, we try to speak up, don’t be silent and take advantage of that powerful right that we have that a lot of other people are killing each other because they really don’t have the power to vote and the power to change their government. One day they win, one day we win- that’s democracy.

Rod Austin from the Guardian. With so many conflicts ongoing and developing, about to start, not about to start etc, going back to the Islam hydra, you’ve got al Qaeda and ISIS. Al Qaeda’s growing once again. Where do you say the neck is? Because you’re saying we target the neck

The neck is the ideology and the narrative.

But how do you do that?

Well this is the stuff that we talked about. By exposing the hypocrisy of a narrative that claims the whole world is against Islam, that has a monopoly over religion that killed people and 95% of their victims are Muslim and yet they’re saying they’re defending Islam and they are the only people who are defending Islam. Expose a narrative that is actually really, hasn’t been until the last 50-60 years, part of mainstream Islam. Salafi Jihadism hasn’t been- well first of all, you need to speak up. As Muslims we need to speak up but also, the media need to basically be more active in exposing the networks instead of sometimes giving them platforms frankly.

My point was, how do you do that without making Islam feeling isolated? Because that’s one of the difficulties.

Absolutely not, absolutely not. Because that has nothing to do with Islam. You look into the conflict as a political conflict. You look into what they’re doing when they’re blowing up mosques. Are they killing- who? They’re killing Muslims. But why are they doing it? In order to create chaos, in order to create instability, in order to create lawlessness. For example, if you look at Syria, it’s very sectarian in nature. Look at Iraq, very sectarian in nature- ‘Oh we’re going to kill you because you’re a Shia’, ‘We’re going to kill you because you’re a Sunni’, ‘We’re going to kill you because you’re Alawite.’ That’s how it is. You go to Libya- all of them are Sunnis, so you start talking about East versus West. You go to Sahel- no, al Fulani versus the Arabs versus the Touaregs. So it becomes a tribal. They only want to kill the other because they want to create lawlessness and chaos. And instead of giving them the credibility and the dignity in saying that they are Islamists, we should call them terrorists as they really are who are hijacking the terminology. I’m not saying it’s easy but it needs leadership, it needs courage, it needs commitment and it needs people to stand up. And we need people to be genuinely concerned in the West- when al Qaeda or ISIS put a car bomb in the middle of Baghdad killing 50 people, we need to get it at least the same coverage as when a crazy guy with a knife on the bridge here tried to do something. And this is a job not for me, not him, not anyone here but the media unfortunately.

Gentleman in the middle again.

Ali, do you not think it’s slightly problematic if it becomes the narrative to say that this has nothing to do with Islam. Because if you’ve read the Quran, read about the Prophet Mohammed which I have as an academic, it’s clear that he wasn’t the peaceful man-that’s a delusion. Now, not all religions are the same. Religion is rather like sports- if you have an extreme

And so to say that- when you say that that has nothing to do with Islam- I personally feel that way and I speak on behalf of a lot of people- that’s part of the problem because you have to acknowledge that there are elements within the Quran that, if carried out in a literal form are not in line with-

I get you. For the sake of time, I get you. Did you read the Bible? Did you read the Torah? Did you read about going to villages and raping everyone? Every religion has something because you have to look upon it within the context of history and what’s going on. Every religion has a Holy Book. God is not- God or whatever you want to call it- he was not a peaceful man. If somebody tries to hit you, hit him back. If somebody tries to kill you, kill them back. This is basically in the Quran, in the Torah, in all the books of the monolithic religions. So I never say that that has nothing to do with Islam. I’m saying these guys and what they do has nothing to do with the religion. Definitely, they hijack ideas from Islam, they hijack justifications from Islam. An old Muslim poet said at one time, he’s very well known to be drunk all the time and he was always saying his poetry in front of the Caliph and the Caliph never punished him. His name is Abu Nuwas and he said to people who talk about religion all the time- [inaudible]: you remember one thing, you forget so many different things. Those are exactly the guys- when they take a verse and focus on it, it’s exactly like somebody taking one verse of the Bible- another beautiful book and focusing on that, focusing on the killing. They’re not focusing on the Quran when God said [inaudible]: people on the book come to a common world between you and us. He didn’t think about [inaudible]: you have your religion, I have mine. They don’t focus on all these things.

So yes, I agree, in the book I give a lot of historical reasons why part of Islam has something to do with this. The Salafi Jihadi, before I mentioned something, this hasn’t been part of mainstream Islam. If you remember, just before your question this hasn’t been part of mainstream Islam until the last 50 years- the Salafi Jihadi movement. And the Salafi Jihadi movement interprets some of these ideas from Islam, from the religion, from the sayings of the Prophet- and the sayings of the Prophet can be very complicated because the Prophet was a Prophet from 40 to 63, so you’re talking about 20-23 years. There are more than if lived 63 years, didn’t eat, didn’t sleep except talk. So not all the hadiths are accurate Hadith, that’s why you have scholars whose speciality is Hadith- to know what Hadith is accurate and Hadith is not accurate. So it’s really easy to just look at, with all the respect to Sam Harris and others, to kind of look at the face of it without going deeper and understanding it in a comparative way with other religions, right. So yes, part of Islam has something to do with this. The Salafi Jihadi movement, we cannot say it’s not Islamic, we cannot say. But read this book and I won’t bore everyone but I’m sure the publisher will be happy by me saying read this book. And you will read a lot of chapters about this, but that does not mean that as a Muslim, I agree with blowing up people, killing innocent people, beheading innocent people is a form of Jihad, no. Somebody stole that terminology to cover up for their actions. That’s how I view it.

There are still hands going up. Unfortunately, we only have around thirty seconds left and Ali does need to leave at 14.30 on the dot so unfortunately I’m not going to have time to take those questions. By all means, try and catch him if you can as he exits. Just to say very quickly Ali, thank you very much indeed. I found that a fascinating and highly enlightening conversation as I’m sure did many of our guests. Please join with me in thanking Ali for comments.


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