From Salafism to Jihadism

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18289108_sFrom all around the world, one can observe terrorist organizations and networks operating on behalf of various ideologies: beginning with the leftist, Marxist-Leninist terrorist organizations, such as the Red Brigade in Italy or FARC in Colombia; through secular organizations such as the People’s Front for the Liberation for Palestine-General Command, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka; and the Islamist organizations the likes of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, all the way to Islamic fundamentalist organizations, such as Jaish al-Islam in Gaza, Al-Jama’ah Al-Islamiya in Indonesia and others.

i-HLS Israel Homeland Security

The rise of worldwide terror driven by religious-fundamentalist ideology, Islamic in nature, indicates the importance of the Salafist – Jihadist doctrine within which these organizations and networks operate and from which their ideologies are drawn from. Jaish al-Islam and the umbrella framework from which they derive their ideology – The Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, among many others – represent only a fraction of a list of organizations and networks operating in recent years in the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula. Furthermore, such organizations and networks operate within, and can be identified by, the guidelines of the global Salafist-Jihadist ideology.

Picture14-e1358971966205-200x70Religious-fundamentalist terror in the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula manifests itself in a number of ways: through an increase in the number of organizations and networks operating throughout the years, the presence of foreign activists from all around the world and the rise of terror attacks combined with the increasing audacity in choice of targets. Israel’s challenge, like that of Egypt and Hamas, is the fact that no single, central enveloping organizational framework exists which can be addressed. Therefore, it can be assumed that increasing the cooperation between the parties concerned, even if indirectly; will contribute towards diminishing the influence of these organizations and networks on the one hand, all the while strengthening Hamas on the other hand.


The Salafists are Sunni Muslims who follow a literal reading of the Holy Scriptures (i.e. Koran) in an attempt to follow the path of the first three generations of Islam, also known as the Righteous Fathers. The meaning of the world “Salaf” is “Predecessor” or “Forebearer” – the first generation. Salafists wish to reshape modern-day Islam to the form that most closely resembles that of Muhammad’s era. The central principle of Salafism is that Islam was perfect in its early days, but throughout the centuries, new and undesirable innovations have seeped in due to external influences. As a concept, Salafism grew out of the Islam’s Modern Reform movements of the 18th century. Today, Salafism is characterized primarily by puritanical conservatism – refrain from violence and political involvement-and an emphasis on coming closer to religion through Dawa.


Literally, “Jihad” is an effort made to achieve something. In the religious context, Jihad is an individual obligation in defense, and a general obligation in offense. In the time of the prophet Mohammad, the Islamic community passed through three major phases with respect to Jihad as a holy war for Allah. In the first stage, between the years 610-622 AD, Allah commands the believers to limit their reactions and exercise restraint due to their being weak and few in number. Hence the declaration that there is no coercion in Islam, as Jihad in this first stage was designed specifically for internal struggles and not for war. During the second stage, between the years 623-626 AD, Allah permits the believers to fight. Yet, war is still limited to a war of defense only. In the third stage, spanning the years 626-632, Allah commands the believers to fight the infidels, including Jews and Christians, with every means at their disposal – a war of annihilation.

 Salafist Jihadism

Salafist Jihadism is the conviction of Islam that harkens back to the glory days of Islam in the beginning of its time through the use of violent measures. This radical faction calls for a return to the roots of Islam through a violent struggle; using Jihad against Israel, the West and against Islamic regimes failing to apply the Sharia law. It is worth noting that a distinction exists between organizations and networks acting as national liberation movements focusing on Palestine (e.g. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees), and the Salafist-Jihadist organizations and networks operating as part of the global jihad who are attempting to constitute themselves into a comprehensive Muslim liberation organization.

Salafist-Jihadist organizations and networks in the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula

 The traditional Salafists came to the Gaza Strip for the first time in the 1970s, although little is mentioned of the movement. Reports of a Salafist-Jihadist presence in the Gaza Strip emerged in December 2002, when former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, held Al-Qaeda as the principal suspect for the attack on the Paradise Hotel and for the attempt to shoot down an Israeli Arkia airplane during take-off from the airport in Mombasa, Kenya. In Salafist-Jihadist terms, Hamas is far from being the most hawkish movement in the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula. Eleven years later, groups such Al-Tawhid wal Jihad, Jaish Al-Islam, Jund Ansar Allah, and Ansar Bait al-Maqdis constitute only a fraction of a long list of organizations and networks more radical and violent than Hamas.

 In sum, Salafist-Jihadism is a radical religious faction pushing for a return to the Golden Age of Islam in its early days through violent measures against Israeli and Western targets alike. In recent years, the number of Salafist-Jihadist organizations and networks operating in the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula has grown, and this trend can be expected to continue. This growth is significant in a number of ways: the intensification in the number of such organizations and networks, the presence of foreign activists from around the world and the increase in terrorist attacks. Accordingly, the challenge for Israel with regards to the Israel-Egypt-Hamas triangle and the uncontrollable number and diversity of organizations and networks, will be to find the balance between identifying and strengthening a single, central organizational entity. In doing so, this would on one hand diminish Salafist-Jihadist influence, yet at the same time unreasonably strengthen Hamas at the expense of other organizations and networks. Israel for its part would have to consider choosing between bad and worse.

By Shlomi Yass, MA in Government – Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security and
Intern at the Military and Strategic Affairs Program, INSS