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Salafi/Takfiri Micro-Theology:
The Non Illusive And Motivational Ideology Behind Jihadist Attacks In The 21st Century

By Brig Barker

Given the increased media exposure to ISIS and its activities in Western countries, the question of motive continues to plague society. Why would an individual attack others in such a diabolical and barbaric way? Society is now well past accepting that ISIS and those inspired by their ideology will continue to kill others, but the question remains why. The media displays or denotes that another individual has been beheaded, crucified, or deliberately run over by a tank and society rightfully asks the question as to why. The truth is, the attack itself albeit horrific in nature, is only the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface lies the deeply rooted cause that has led to the ostensibly unexplainable action. Understanding the hidden body of this iceberg provides the full explanation for all Jihadist attacks in western society since the 1998 Embassy Bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

Ideological Motives

What is the cause behind these attacks and why does Western society re-question the motive after each attack. The cause however is already known and understood by those in the Middle East. It is talked about on Arab television on a daily basis. It is regularly discussed in the streets amongst those that live in the Middle East. In fact, the majority of those living in the Islamic world know exactly what the motive is behind the ongoing attacks and further understand its ideology. This purportedly illusive ideology by western standards is well known and well understood in many other regions of the world. At its baseline, this ideology is deeply rooted in Islamic doctrine and the subjectivity of scholars and non-scholars. This ideology sits on a shelf as an extra-denominational belief system that is followed by a small percentage of Muslim followers.

Yet this small percentage has greatly impacted the world of terrorism in recent history. This small percentage has in fact shut down economies, terrorized and scarred individuals and families, and changed the world forever. This deeply rooted ideology has established itself as a force to be reckoned with all around the world. On a practical level this ideology as promulgated by ISIS is now entering the lymph nodes of western society through the stream of returning foreign fighters.

This new bleak reality is here to stay and must be understood. The good news is that once western society understands this ideology, then plans and strategies can be developed and implemented to engage and disrupt its effects. This article will clearly define this otherwise illusive ideology and further identify well known indicators for those with a potential predisposition towards Jihad.

What is this ideology? It's an ideology that lives just outside the moderate and majority Muslim world. It steps away from the four standard Sunni schools of jurisprudence (hereinafter referred to denominations) identified as Hannafi, Shafi'i, Maliki, and Hanbali. This ideology of concern which also is in fact the root cause of Islamic terrorism today is known as the Salafi/Takfiri belief system. Those that follow this ideology believe that the mainstream denominations were touched and influenced by man and as such are "innovations" (Bida) not pure in nature.

As depicted in this example once one converts to Islam the majority (85%) choose to follow the Sunni sect. Within Sunni Islam there are four mainstream denominations also known as Usul al Fiqh or Mathahabs (Schools of Jurisprudence). The majority of Sunni Muslims follow and practice one of these denominations and as such have no connection nor inclination towards Jihad. The color coding represents the inherent moderation of these denominations except for Hanbali that can sometimes be a stepping off point towards the Salafi/Takfiri realms.

Overall, these denominations are generally aligned geographically and sometimes are historically country specific. For example, the Hanafi school is followed by the majority of Sunni Muslims and is deeply rooted in the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia. The Shafi'i school is followed by many in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and coastal parts of Asia. The Maliki school is found most predominantly in North Africa and the Gulf region of the Middle East.

The Hanbali school is the smallest, most strict school, and is mainly followed by Saudi Arabia. It was greatly propagated by Ibn Abd Al Wahab and the Al Saud family in the 18th to the 20th century. Again, although Hanbali is a forerunner towards the Salafi/Takfiri ideology, it is separate in and of itself. In regards to Islamic terrorism today, the majority of attacks take place by those within the Salafi/Takfiri realm and more specifically of the Takfiri bent. Can one move between the various denominations? Certainly. However, the majority of the Islamic world remains in one of the more moderate schools identified as Hanafi, Shafi'i, or the Maliki Fiqh. Hanbali in particular remains a denomination but can be a precursor towards the redline Salafi/Takfiri ideology.

Departure from Moderation

So what is the definition of Salafiism? Salafiism is the ideology or movement wherein one follows the Way of the Salaf. The Way of the Salaf essentially indicates that one follows the teachings of the first three generations of Islam. This belief system is derived from a Hadith wherein the Prophet Mohammad stated, ""The best of people is my generation, then those who come after them, then those who come after them (i.e. the first three generations of Muslims)." Further, followers of the Salaf are known internally as followers of the "Pious Predecessors".

Salafiism in and of itself is the ideology that has found itself as the label for all things Jihad. In the Middle East, those that are radical are considered Salafis by the moderate Muslims. The Salafi belief system (Manhaj) is an ideology but without an attached action arm. The action arm is where the teetering point of Jihad actually lies. If the Salafi never commits to carrying out action in furtherance of Jihad then it remains a low grade fever of radicalization. If the Salafi actually takes action based on his belief system then he becomes a Takfiri.

The Takfiris are those with a Salafi belief system and commit to action. Al Takfir as a concept is defined as excommunication wherein Takfiris declare others non-believers or indifels. Examples of Takfiris are members of ISIS, Al Qa'ida, Boko Haram, and Al Shabaab. These groups and those that follow the Salafi-Takfiri mindset believe in a very strict circle of micro-theology. They further believe that those outside the circle are infidels. The Takfiris in particular not only believe those outside the circle are infidels but further believe action must be taken to resolve the situation.

Infidels must be targeted for Jihad if they don't convert to this ideology or pay a tax identified as Jizya. The Takfiris find their origins in the teachings of those such as Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Abd Al Wahab, Maulana Maududi, and Sayed Qutub. Although the ideology is a deep ocean, much of the thought system is rooted in an exclusive belief system about Sharia law and the definition of those that are non-believers. Further, the Salafi-Takfiris believed they are the "Saved Sect", escape judgment, and are the true followers. They additionally believe that Islam is a way of life and that it must be lived under the concept of Al Wala Wal Bara (loyalty to the true followers and disavowal of the nonbelievers).


In the end, the radical ideology of Islamic terrorists must be identified and better understood. The majority of the Muslim world does not follow this strict belief system but yet in fact can recognize this departure from mainstream Islam. Further, indicators are almost always present and recognizable in an individual prior to an attack. Remaining aware and cognizant of these potential indicators is critical and assist society as well as law enforcement authorities in preempting or thwarting Jihadist attacks.

About the Author

Brig Barker is a retired FBI Special Agent who worked counterterrorism for the majority of his career. He completed numerous tours in Africa and the Middle East and is considered a subject matter expert in the area of Islamic radicalization. Prior to the FBI he spent five years as an Army officer. He now works in the area of global security, assessment, and training.


This is only a partial version of the article published in the latest Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security Int'l.
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