Ibn Tamiyyah

He was born in Baghdad (1263), but most of his life was spent in Damascus, where he died (1328). He lived during the days when Mongols invaded the Middle East (1299-1303) and inflicted terrible suffering on Muslims. Influenced by ultra-conservatives, Tamiyyah concluded such things happened to them because they had forsaken Islam. The solution was that they return to Islam. They must be better Muslims. Thus, he adopted the principle of takfir, where the good guys denounce the bad guys as infidels (kafirs). This same theology later greatly impacted Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the Saudi Arabia-based Wahabbi movement, and ultimately Sayyid Qutb. It is the same principle that drives ISIS today.

Hasan al-Banna

He was born in Egypt (1906) and memorized the Qur’an by the age of 12. After teaching for a time, he began the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. As a promoter of extremism, this group spread rapidly in the Middle East and beyond. When al-Banna was assassinated in 1949, the Egyptian government assumed Islamic extremism was dead, but nothing could be further from the truth. Islamic fundamentalism can only be defeated when root causes are acknowledged and dealt with. What is worrisome is that as violence grows each generation will find it more difficult to deal with the problem. The Brotherhood was the foundation for al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda the foundation for ISIS.

Sayyid Qutb

He was in some ways similar to al-Banna. He was born the same year and mastered the Qur’an at age 12. But unlike al-Banna, he was not a practicing Muslim in the early years. He began as a teacher, then rose to the rank of government school inspector. In 1948, the Egyptian government sent him to the United States as an international student with two objectives. First, they wanted him to understand the American education system, and second they thought he should be westernized. Actually, it was the start of two journeys: one was to the US and the other was to find himself. He left Egypt as a secular Muslim, but during his time in the US, moved toward Islamic fundamentalism. Eventually he became a leader in the Brotherhood, resulting in his arrest, imprisonment and ultimately execution. Qutb’s views on takfir mirrored those of Ibn Tamiyyah. He wrote an exhaustive commentary on the Qur’an, but his most influential book was Milestones. It was banned shortly after release, and because he refused to recant, Qutb was hanged by President Nasser in 1966. Again, contrary to expectations, extremism was not eradicated. For many Muslims he became a martyr and his writings live on.

Osama bin Laden

He was born in 1957 in Jeddah, the son of Muhammad bin Laden’s fourth wife. His father began in Saudi Arabia as an illiterate immigrant from Yemen and became extremely wealthy. Thanks to connections with the royal family, he contracted to restore Islam’s three holiest sites–Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Learning about Osama bin Laden’s family, early education and years to follow, tells us much about him. His exposure to Qutb’s writing, life in Saudi Arabia and sojourn in Afghanistan and Sudan, plus associations with Egyptian Ayman Zawahiri, produced al-Qaeda. After his demise in Pakistan (2011), al-Qaeda spread into Iraq, and there under new leadership, became more violent than ever.

Ayman Zawahiri

He was born in Cairo (1951) into a family that included 31 doctors and chemists/pharmacists. Besides, there was an ambassador, a judge and a member of parliament. His uncle became rector (papal status) at al-Azhar University in Cairo. Then, on his mother’s side, there was wealth and political clout. His grandfather was president of Cairo University, founder of King Saud University in Riyadh, and served as Egypt’s ambassador in Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Zawahiri himself graduated from medical school and temporarily served as a surgeon. His uncle was Qutb’s student, and later became his lawyer. Zawahiri used Milestones to disciple students. His years in Egypt, Afghanistan, Sudan and Afghanistan also helped to establish al-Qaeda. Although currently al-Qaeda’s leader, he lives in the shadow of al-Baghdadi. Where al-Qaeda achieved partial success, ISIS is thriving in terms of territory, fame, funds and recruiting power. Time will tell whether or not Zawahiri joins hands with al-Baghdadi and recognizes him as Caliph of the Islamic State.

Abu Mus’ab al-Suri

He was born in Aleppo, Syria (1958), and after that lived in various countries, including Jordan, England, Pakistan and Afghanistan. From there he went to Spain, and in 1987 joined forces in Afghanistan against the Soviets. At that point, he met bin Laden, and apparently became part of his inner circle, before returning to Spain in 1992. In 1997 he moved his family to Afghanistan, and one year later, left al-Qaeda. Arrested in Pakistan (2005) he was sent back to his home country (Syria) where he remains in prison. Again, his legacy was through writing. He published a 900-page paper critiquing the Muslim Brotherhood in 1991 and this became part of the intellectual foundation of al-Qaeda. But his most important work was a 1600-page book via the Internet in 1994: The Global Islamic Resistance Call. Here, he uncovered the weaknesses of jihadist movements (including al-Qaeda) and formulated a plan for the future. He thought 9/11 was a mistake and said terrorism should be carried out by individuals, or small autonomous groups, in order to wear down the enemy. The goal, he said, was to gain territory. He made this startling statement: “The American occupation of Iraq inaugurated a historical new period that almost single-handedly rescued the Jihad movement just when many of its critics thought that it was finished.”

Abu Bakr Naji

He may be Jordanian or Tunisian. In 2004 he wrote,The Management of Savagery, on the Internet. Inspiration came from Ibn Tamiyyah, and also Western thinkers, like Paul Kennedy’s book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. Kennedy claimed that imperial overreach leads to the downfall of empires. Naji said jihadists should attack key economic centers, forcing nations to become failed states. In this way, people will lose confidence in their governments, and savagery (anarchy and chaos) will ensue. This will be the golden opportunity for jihadists to win popular support. After this, they can impose security, provide food, medical aid, and implement Islamic courts of justice. People will soon forget that jihadists caused the anarchy in the first place. This is the strategy ISIS is following.

Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi

He was from Zarqa in Jordan. He was neither an intellectual, nor a strategist, but a reckless warrior who won admiration when arriving in Pakistan to fight the Soviets. There, he met a Palestinian Sheikh, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who taught him leadership skills. In 1993, Zarqawi and Maqdisi were jailed when returning to Jordan. Later, when Jordan granted an amnesty to prisoners, both were released. Zarqawi then traveled to Afghanistan and established a training camp. After 9/11 he went to Iran, then Northern Iraq, and finally to Baghdad. He hated Americans for their support of Israel and bitterly opposed Shiites. He bombed a Shiite mosque, killing 125 people, including a popular Shiite leader, Ayatollah Muhammad Baker al-Hakim. He wanted Sunnis to see the danger of Shiite power and ultimately convinced bin Laden to fight against them. After becoming al-Qaeda leader of Iraq in 2004, he beheaded Nicholas Berg, a young American contractor. Thanks to him murders in Iraq by al-Qaeda doubled. His objectives were clear: expel the Americans, establish an Islamic authority (caliphate), extend jihad to the entire region–and most importantly–deal with Israel. In June 2006, Zarqawi was killed in an air raid in Iraq, but before that, he managed to mentor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, current leader of ISIS.

Fouad Hussein

A radical political journalist who was imprisoned in Jordan along with Zarqawi, and Zarqawi’s mentor, al-Maqdisi. In 2005, Hussein wrote Zarqawi: The Second Generation of al-Qaeda. Therein he laid out al-Qaeda’s “grand strategy” for the next 20 years. First, was 9/11, and it served its main purpose of luring Americans into military conflict in the Middle East. Second, al-Qaeda was to progress from simply being an organization to an inspiring idea around the globe. Third, al-Qaeda was to increase attacks in the region, resulting in a gradual weakening of Middle East governments. Dragging Iran into conflict with the U.S. would overextend her forces. Syria was next in line, bringing al-Qaeda closer to its ultimate goal of punishing Israel. Fourth, America was to be gradually worn down. Fifth, he believed the balance of power would shift in the Middle East, with increased hatred for America and Israel. Sixth, the stage was to be set for an Islamic army and caliphate. At that point, al-Qaeda would launch electronic attacks to undermine the U.S. economy and defeat the dollar. In the end, a caliphate would be consolidated, and “nonbelievers” killed in a global conflict.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Baghdadi is a mysterious figure of whom little is known. What we do know is he leads the most violent jihadist group in the world. Allegedly, he was born in Iraq (1971) as Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri. According to jihadist Internet forums, he obtained a BA, MA and a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. It is said he was a cleric in a mosque in Baghdad during the US-led invasion in 2003. Some think he was already a militant during Saddam’s rule, but others claim he became radicalized in two ways: the American-led invasion to topple Saddam and the Abu Gharib prison scandal. Shortly after the 2003 invasion, Iraq descended into anarchy, Saddam went into hiding and Baghdadi was captured in Fallujah by U.S. forces. It is believed al-Zarqawi, the mastermind of al-Qaeda in Iraq (killed in 2006), mentored Baghdadi after the invasion began. Very likely, Baghdadi was further radicalized during his imprisonment at Camp Bucca. This was the American facility in southern Iraq where many radical jihadists were detained. In that camp, prisoners discussed battle tactics and made important contacts for the future. Former Baathists were radicalized as well, and the camp is still referred to as “The Academy,” because it was somewhat of a training ground for radical Islamists, jihadists and battle-hardened soldiers.

Following his release, Baghdadi resumed activities, and in May 2010 was appointed leader of IS in Iraq. Three years later, the Islamic State of Iraq expanded into Syria and ISIS was formed. In June of 2014, ISIS announced the establishment of a caliphate and Baghdadi was named “Caliph Ibrahim.” In an audiotaped message, he said ISIS would march on “Rome” and take over Europe. Dabiq (a town north west of Syria where a war took place between Muslims and Christendom in early Islamic history) was the name chosen for its periodical, launched in 2014. The name and contents of the magazine reveal an Islamic view of eschatology and an Armageddon-like confrontation between ISIS and the West. Fundamental is the idea that growth and purifying defiled Islam through the sword are inseparable. The “close” enemy that must be purified is the Middle East, including Iran. The “distant” enemy (Israel and its patrons) will then be defeated. There is a firm belief that ISIS must keep growing (as Islam did during its first hundred years), otherwise it will die. Similar to multi-level marketing, its strength depends on growth and expansion.

A Christian Response

In February 2015 by the Mediterranean Sea in Libya, 21 Egyptian Christians dressed in orange suits marched alongside 21 ISIS men dressed in black. Which group was in fear? Those who refused to renounce their faith in Christ and walked bravely to their deaths, or those who hoped this demonic act would get them to paradise? “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Revelation 12:11). Let us never forget that Paul used to be one of those dressed in black. “And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him” (Acts 22:20). Stephen paved the way for many Christians who have followed, and will follow, in his footsteps.