Wasiq Wasiq, a journalist specialising in defence and terrorism. You can follow him on Twitter: @WasiqUK
London-born Ali Harbi Ali of Somali decent has been found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment for carrying out the terrorist murder of Sir David Amess, a Conservative Member of Parliament, at his constituency surgery in Leigh on Sea in October 2021. Ali is reported to have told the court: “For one, he can’t vote again. So hopefully, he won’t be able to harm Muslims in that regard.” It seems Ali had determined and rationalised who his target was and what he needed to do to neutralise him. This shows all the hallmarks of Salafi-jihadist ideology.
What is Salafi-jihadist ideology and how does this drive someone to commit acts of terror? Shiraz Maher—director of the International Centre for the study of Radicalisation (ICSR)—considers this question in sufficient detail in his book: Salafi Jihadism: The History of an Idea. Maher establishes the roots of the Salafi movement and traces it back to the first three generations from the Prophet Muhammed—known collectively as the Salaf or in classical Arabic: as-Salaf as Salih. This generation of Muslims are considered the most pious predecessors and the example of who Muslims should emulate. Whilst the Salaf are considered a group of Muslims, they are not, however, a homogenous one.
The Salafi movement can be broken down into three categories: quietest, activists, and jihadists.
The first group, quietists, reject political activism. Instead, they seek to use non-violent methods to propagate Islam, educate the masses—both Muslim and non-Muslim—and seek to purify the faith. Furthermore, the quietest strand of Salafis warn against excommunicating Muslim rulers as this could lead to fitna (chaos) and, therefore, would prefer to rely almost solely on achieving their aims through da’wa (proselytism).
The second group of Salafists are activist (haraki), sometimes referred to as “the politicos”. This group are actively engaged in politics to transform society and implement their interpretation of the sharia (Islamic law). Indeed, it is their belief that Islam is the foundation of the state and the framework of governance is achieved through the sharia. Thus, the logic of the activist Salafists is that Islam and politics cannot be separated.
The final group of Salafis are the jihadists. Simply put, they share the vision of the activist Salafists but believe it can only happen through jihad (holy war). According to Islamist political violence expert, Professor Mohammed M. Hafez, in his research on suicide bombers in Iraq, the Salafi-jihadi ideology is relatively new and came about in the last century. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the caliphate in 1924 marks the foundation point in Salafi-jihadist ideology. Many Muslim scholars and thinkers felt that since rulers in Muslim-majority lands had failed to re-establish a caliphate, an alternative means had to be found and the Salafi-jihadists claim to be the only viable way of achieving this.
This view gained currency in subsequent years and Muslims began to assemble themselves into groups to plan a course of action that could see this vision through to reality. Indeed, Senior Fellow at Brookings Daniel Byman in his research on Salafi-jihadist insurgencies is of the view that the militant aspect of this ideology is what helped form groups such as Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and the Islamic State (IS). It was the Islamic State that Ali Harbi Ali wanted to join because he shared their vision for a global caliphate.
It is not difficult to determine this. Ali stated in his police interview that he wanted to travel to Syria—also known as making hijra—to join IS. However, he found that this was too difficult. So as a consolation, Ali sought to do what he wanted to achieve in Syria here in the United Kingdom. Ali Harbi Ali brought jihad home.
To do this Ali needed to believe that his actions would have a demonstrable positive impact on the ummah (community of Muslims)—and so he fully bought into the Salafi-jihadist messaging that Muslims are under attack from the West. This messaging of “strike them wherever you find them”, which is also a quote from the Qur’an, is not, however, the preserve of Salafi-jihadists. Indeed, it would not take long to find this within the “non-violent” strand of Islamists and Salafists alike. Therefore, it seems quite clear: Ali had both a reason and enough religious, ideological, and communal support to justify what he planned to do. All he needed now was a target.
Members of Parliament (MPs) are prime targets for terrorists. During “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, where the British government was challenged by the irredentists of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), a number of attempts were made to kill British MPs. Within the terrorist framework this makes perfect sense: a key aim of terrorism is to achieve political concessions through the use of violence, and reliable targets towards that end are the civilians of the state being targeted, their political elite or establishment, and even infrastructure. The Islamic State are no different in that regard, so when Ali Harbi Ali decided that it was politicians he wanted to target, he was already down the path of radicalization, with terrorism being the final destination.
Ali Harbi Ali had a number of politicians in mind: then-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, leader of the Labour Opposition Kier Starmer, then-Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove, a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury Mike Freer, and Sir David Amess. These members of Parliament were chosen because they were seen by Ali as enemies of Muslims. Ali didn’t just believe this; he researched each one of them and their voting records in regards to air strikes against the Islamic state during 2014-2015. Initially Michael Gove was Ali’s target, but the plan to murder him was abandoned because Gove had split with his wife and moved from the family home. Mike Freer was also seen as a viable target after Ali had visited where his constituency office was. But it was Sir David Amess whom Ali would settle on.
Ali used the internet, and in particular Twitter, to find out where Sir David Amess would hold his surgery and when. This information was crucial to planning and preparing his murder. Ali then proceeded to set up an appointment with the MP and use that as an opportunity to kill him and “avenge the death of Muslims” Sir David was apparently responsible for. In essence, what Ali had done here is set the blueprint for other would-be jihadists to follow. Ali has shown how relatively simple it is to kill an MP by simply using the internet and purchasing a knife.
Sir David was stabbed over twenty times and died at the scene of the murder. Two police officers—armed only with a baton—managed to apprehend Ali Harbi Ali and arrest him. This was to the disappointment of Ali, who had wanted to be “martyred” instead. Again, what this demonstrates is that Ali was of the view that martyrdom in the service of “protecting Muslims” because the ummah are at war with the enemies of Islam is a recruiting messaging of Salafi-jihadist ideology that has purchase, as is the promise of heaven (Jannah) for sacrificing your life for the ummah.
Sir David Amess was targeted by Salafi-jihadists because he was a Member of Parliament who had supported the military means of rolling back the Islamic State’s caliphate. Sir David, in short, stood for everything that the Islamic State hates and that is freedom.
The British Government takes the threat of Salafi-jihadism seriously, at least since 9/11. But there are areas where London continues to fall short. Those who act violently in the Salafi-jihadi cause are only a fraction of the problem. There is a need to crack down on all those that give political cover to them and to engage positively with moderate Muslims, who are leading the fight against the ideology that leads to acts of terrorism. Turning a blind eye to the threat of Salafi-jihadism could cost more lives and this cannot be allowed to happen.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.