Why Islamic State is obsessed with targeting Muslims

The Islamic State insists on slaughtering innocent worshipers, even Muslims, as they pray. The horrific massacre on Friday at a mosque in Northern Sinai was a stark reminder of this reality and prompts the question: why and to what end?

While no one as of Saturday night had claimed the deadly massacre that killed 305 worshipers, Egyptian officials said the terrorists were waving the black Islamic State banner as they fired into the mosque. The main suspects are Islamic State’s Sinai Province, the group formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Its leader, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Osama (his real name is Muhammad al-Isawi), took over when his predecessor, Abu Du’a al-Ansari, was assassinated in August 2016.

Friday’s attack was perpetrated against a mosque for Sufis, followers of a mystical stream of Islam that once flourished throughout the region, and whose message is generally one of tolerance, peace and a love of God and humanity.

That the attack took place at a mosque was no mistake. Yes, it is a convenient place to target a large gathering, but, more importantly for the killers, it also conveys a message to Sufis to stop practicing their religion.

This is not due to a unique hatred for Sufis. It’s much bigger than that: a hatred for anyone not conforming to Salafi Islam — a puritanical version of the religion that emerged from Saudi Arabia in the 18th century. Anyone, be they Christians, Jews, Hindus, Yazidis, Shiites, or Sufis, or even Sunnis deemed too lax in their practice. All are targeted.

By definition, the Salafist ideology — derived from the Arabic for “forefathers” — is backward-looking. The earliest generations of Muslims who were close to Muhammad lived correctly, according to the creed, the Salafis say, and society should strive to emulate them, eschewing anything considered an innovation.

The Islamic State is a Salafist jihadist group and its members believe Salafist Islam should be spread by the sword.

But what makes the Islamic State different from the original Salafist jihadist group, al-Qaeda, is that it has no qualms about killing other Muslims.

In 2005, then al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, now the group’s leader, sent a letter to the godfather of the Islamic State, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led the al-Qaeda’s wing in Iraq.

Zarqawi, a Jordanian thug who found God while in prison, led a ruthless campaign against Shiites in Iraq, including targeting mosques.

Zawahiri urged Zarqawi to stop targeting anyone who was not a Salafi Sunni, end the graphic violence and beheadings, and stop imposing Salafi law wherever al-Qaeda gained territory.

Zawahiri argued that the jihadist needed broad support across Muslim society to achieve the success of building a caliphate.

He also urged Zarqawi to think reasonably.

“Can the mujahedeen kill all of the Shiites in Iraq? Has any Islamic state in history ever tried that?” Zawahiri asked.

Zawahiri believed a war with Shiites would eventually occur, but much further down the line.

But perhaps the most distinct ideological difference between Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda brothers was his belief that the main battlefield wasn’t the West, but right at home in the Middle East. He didn’t want to play the long game; he wanted to shoot and slaughter, to ignite sectarian tension and set up a Salafist caliphate as soon as possible.Zarqawi didn’t listen. He continued to bomb, behead, and impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law wherever he could.

Zarqawi, who was killed in a targeted strike by US forces in Iraq in 2006, didn’t just make other Muslims fair game; he made killing other Muslims the primary goal.

Hence the reality that Muslims are the primary and most frequent victim of Islamist terrorism.

Today’s Arab leaders understand that terrorism in their countries stems from a form of radical Islamic ideology that has become more mainstream in recent decades. This is why leaders of Sunni Arab countries like Egypt’s current head Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Jordan’s King Abdullah and even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas often talk about “moderate Islam” and moderating Islam.

Zarqawi’s gruesome ideology is a branch of the Salafist tree. The question facing Arab leaders today: Can this branch simply be lopped off, or must the whole trunk be uprooted?

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