The expansionism of the Salafi threat in Europe

The emergence of extremist groups that supported jihad was overshadowed by Islamic movements that advocated for similar causes, but through social and political activism instead.

 Demonstrators gesture to protest cartoon publications of the Prophet Muhammad in France and comments by French President Emmanuel Macron, in Karachi, Pakistan, on Sunday. (photo credit: AKHTAR SOOMRO / REUTERS)
Demonstrators gesture to protest cartoon publications of the Prophet Muhammad in France and comments by French President Emmanuel Macron, in Karachi, Pakistan, on Sunday.
(photo credit: AKHTAR SOOMRO / REUTERS)
France has suffered from two terrorist attacks, and another potential terror attack, in less than two weeks. On October 16, an educator was beheaded, on October 29, three worshipers were killed in a church and on Saturday, a Greek Orthodox priest was shot. The aftermath of these acts of Islamic terrorism have led to a discussion over the French concepts of secularism and freedom of speech. But the focus should be on what external influences are leading to this kind of environment.
The first two attacks were committed by two migrants, one from Chechnya, and the other from Tunisia, two places that have been affected by both jihadi terrorism and by an influx of Saudi-funded mosques and religious schools. But since the 1980s, Europe has suffered from an infiltration of Salafi thought and movements when fighters from the war in Afghanistan emigrated and began an intensive labor of proselytizing the European Muslim youth. Hamza al Masri and Omar Bakri are some of the many extremists whose messages were diffused from the United Kingdom to Italy, the Netherlands, France and Belgium.
Initially, the aim of these extremists was to overthrow the autocratic governments in their countries of origin and install regimes in conformance with Salafi doctrine instead. Europe was their refuge and a strategic region from where they could support the armed insurrections abroad. While these networks were weak, they enjoyed great visibility by local Muslim communities, especially in the areas where they worked in propaganda, funds and recruitment.
The emergence of extremist groups that supported jihad was overshadowed by Islamic movements that advocated for similar causes, but through social and political activism instead. Nevertheless, the line between those advocating for peaceful or violent means was not clear. Erroneously, the security and intelligence services of Europe at the time did not consider them to be threats to national security.
But Osama Bin Laden’s activities in Sudan started to endanger Europe, first against American interests and later against European locals. In the meantime, our national security agencies placed too much attention on tangible organizations they could identify, label and count. Regrettably, as many attacks have demonstrated, the nature of Islamic terrorism is more pervasive. It is not the organizations themselves that should keep us up at night – after all, we can identify al Qaeda or ISIS and target them with military action, but rather the ideology that breathes oxygen into people who have no physical associations with armed groups.
This hateful and sectarian ideology originates from Saudi Arabia. The nature of jihad is part of the national consciousness of Saudi Arabia. In both the foundational and early movement of Wahhabism, violence was used to spread the faith and the leadership of the House of Saud. Thus, in contemporary times, Saudi Arabia uses modern means to aggressively proselytism its religious views and to continue its expansionism.
Each year, it spends around eight billion dollars in religious diplomacy. In the early 1960s, Saudi Arabia established both the Islamic University of Madinah and the Muslim World League to act as vehicles for spreading the hateful ideology of Wahabbism. The Islamic University of Madinah entices Muslims around the world with full scholarships and it has educated thousands of students.
The Saudi government finances Salafism in Europe through mosques, imams, religious schools, scholarships, trips and education. These organizations teach the concept of Takfir, meaning the expulsion of the “other” and the rejection of others who do not practice their religion. Dutch imam Fewaz Jneid accused the Mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, of being an apostate Muslim and an enemy of Islam. In the Netherlands, 10% of mosques received funds from Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia. Most of the radicalization does not occur in prominent mosques under known imams, although the discourse is still divisive, but rather in smaller mosques and Islamic centers, which also benefit from Saudi money. German intelligence estimates that there are at least 11,000 Islamists in Germany, and at least half of them are a threat to national security. Making matters worse, the Salafi movement of Ansar al Asrir proselytizes among imprisoned Muslims, enabling prisons to be recruitment grounds.
Catalonia is the epicenter of the penetration of Salafism in Europe. At least 80% of Salafi mosques in Spain are in Catalonia. In Catalonia, numerous imams have been expelled, detained or arrested in connection with the incitement of violence or a terrorism. Imam Abdelbaki Es Satty was implicated in the 2017 Barcelona terror attack where 14 people were killed. Saleh al Moghamsy, who traveled from Saudi Arabia to preach at the Cultural Center of Cornella had defended the sanctity of Osama Bin Laden. Mohamed Attaouil, the imam of the Mosque in Girona, underwent deportation proceedings after he had contacts with the Islamic Heritage Society, sanctioned by the US for financing al Qaeda. Some imams use certain locales, without certifying them. For example, one imam was using an area of the plantations where other Muslims worked to preach his messages. Already in Spain half of the individuals radicalized and recruited by terrorist networks are second-generation nationals.
In the Netherlands, there are more than 50 Salafi schools, responsible for more than 1,000 children. At those schools, the Islamic School Board Organization distributes a textbook authored by a Dutch Salafi convert, teaching the segregation of children, the proper dress of girls, and that apostates, homosexuals and adulterers deserved the death penalty. Ironically, these schools can receive state funding according to Dutch law but are left out of government control.
Salafi preachers teach their followers to reject contact wit
h other Europeans and their values, entrench themselves in their communities, and spread their message to others. For them, democracy is incompatible with Islam. In the UK, Haitham al Haddad, who moved from Saudi Arabia, teaches that to label Salafism an extreme interpretation is to commit blasphemy because it is the word of God. His advice to Muslims is that Islam is in an eternal battle with infidels and real Muslims need to reject assimilation to Western culture. While he has rejected al Qaeda, this type of discourse creates an alternative social order from the legal order established by Western democracy.
After each terrorist attack, European officials announce they will fight the expansion of Islamic extremism. But so far no effective measures have been implemented to stop the expansion of Saudi-funded Salafi thought in Europe, a radical and medieval interpretation, and the ideological foundation for ISIS and al Qaeda. Some scholars and commentators also place the responsibility for extremism on failed Western policies of integration, socioeconomic conditions or psychological factors. While these factors can contribute to extremism, these individuals ignore the influence of Salafism in enabling and keeping all of these extremist networks alive.
This attempt at political correctness and placing the responsibility on the West for the perpetration of acts of terrorism or the incitement of violence is unwise and will serve for the deterioration of the security of our societies and our values.
The writer is a researcher on US foreign relations and terrorism. He holds postgraduate degrees in security studies and Islamic studies from Columbia University.