The death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a major victory against Islamist extremism, but the group’s warped ideology — one that has “distorted and tried to hijack Islam” — remains very much alive and continues to prey on youths across the Mideast and beyond.
That’s the central message of Sheik Mohammed al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister who now heads one of the world’s most prominent Islamic organizations. The sheik warned on a visit to Washington this week that the U.S. cannot afford to ease up on the long-term battle against Islamic extremist ideology.
“If we believe the killing of Baghdadi is the end of ISIS, we are wrong,” said Sheik Issa, who has sought to position the Mecca-based World Muslim League as the leading opponent of extremist Islamic teachings since taking the helm of the organization in 2016.
“Baghdadi’s death is a huge loss for ISIS and an historical event for the United States and its endeavors in counterterrorism,” the sheik told The Washington Times. “But we now must be careful in our future steps in countering terrorism, because the risk now is that ISIS will intensify its ideological efforts to target the youth and recruit them — specifically youths who are deprived of any true religious teachings.”
It’s a sobering message that came in a wide-ranging interview just days after President Trump announced the U.S. Special Forces raid that resulted in the Islamic State founder and leader’s death, a development that has triggered debate over whether victory over the group known in counterterrorism circles as “Daesh” should be publicly declared.
With Pentagon officials warning this week that the fight is far from over, Sheikh Issa suggested that a more profound, likely decades-long battle against ISIS and other radical Islamist movements has only just begun.
‘Biggest threat to Islam’
The deeper ideological fight has been sidetracked in recent years by military-focused campaigns Islamic State’s once-extensive “caliphate,” said Sheikh Issa, who argues that the stakes in the battle against Islamic State’s extremist ideology are as high today as ever.
“Daesh has nothing to do with Islam. Daesh is against Islam. Daesh has distorted Islam. Daesh tried to hijack Islam. We as Muslims see it as an obligation to combat Daesh. We must eliminate it completely,” Sheik Issa told The Times. “This is the biggest threat to the reputation of Islam right now. We at the Muslim World League consider Daesh to be a terrorist organization, trying to combat true Islam.”
It may have lost its territorial “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, but the terror group’s ability to recruit and propagandize online remains intact, he said, noting that such efforts are “not held by any geographical boundaries.”
“The United States has, without a doubt, played a very big role and made a great contribution to the virtual side of combatting extremism,” Sheikh Issa said. “The U.S. is actually doing this right now, shutting down thousands of terrorist websites and this should continue.”
He sees the challenge moving forward as how to overcome the appeal of radical Islamist ideas to thousands of impressionable, often marginalized young people in the greater Muslim world.
The Islamic State’s success, he said, depended on the attractiveness of its propaganda sophistication on social media, while more moderate Islamic voices have not been effectively promoted or resonated with the same force in the post-9/11 era.
“Have there been any religious efforts to counter the ISIS propaganda online that are truly in proportion to the ISIS propaganda efforts?” the sheikh asked. “In the past years there have not, although recently, such efforts have started.”
“Education plays a big role,” he said. “Religious guidance also has a big role.”
Future U.S. role
The U.S. should back moderate Islamic organizations in combating extremism through the very counterterrorism alliances that successive administrations have already established in the Middle East, Sheikh Issa said, including more overt American support for groups like the World Muslim League.
“There should be a high-level meeting that should evaluate the requirements for this next period of this war,” the sheikh said. “There needs to be a stronger understanding of what support and what cooperation is needed.”
It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will heed that call, but Sheikh Issa insists he is optimistic.
“The United States has built the coalition against ISIS,” he said, citing President Trump’s participation in a 2017 ceremony in Riyadh for the inauguration of the Etidal Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology in the Saudi capital.
Sheikh Issa also offered guarded praise for the Obama administration, which in 2015 backed the establishment of a joint U.S.-United Arab Emirates operation known as the Sawab Center — a social media communications hub aimed at undermining extremist recruiting propaganda through “direct engagements” online.
U.S. officials have described the center in Abu Dhabi as a place where moderate Muslims wage online information warfare against extremism, establishing deep contacts with Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies to identify and scrub jihadi propaganda from the internet.
Sheikh Issa described such efforts as “constructive,” but stressed that the matter of counter-messaging against Islamic extremism “is a very sensitive thing.”
“Islam should only be explained to Muslims by other Muslims,” he said. “The Muslim world cannot accept from others around the world to explain their religion to them.”
Critics have said Mr. Trump’s policies, including critical comments on Islamic extremism and an administration travel ban that largely targeted Muslim-majority nations. But Sheikh Issa said in the interview that the president’s unorthodox rhetoric should not be seen as hostile to Islam.
“Mr. Trump never says he is against Islam,” the sheikh said. “He says he is against extremist Islam.”
Sheikh Issa praised the Trump administration’s recent movement of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia and said he would back a rumored push by the U.S. government to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
He claimed that the Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia’s government accuses rival Qatar are backing to foment unrest around the Middle East and North Africa, represents the “leadership of Islamic extremism in the world.”
The sheikh portrayed the World Muslim League as the polar opposite of the Muslim Brotherhood.
While the League was founded by the Saudi government in the early 1960s and has been accused of promoting the Sunni kingdom’s strict Wahhabi Islam, Sheikh Issa insisted the organization embraces the full range of Muslim beliefs and seeks to downplay sectarian divides — including that between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
He also touted the league’s efforts to promote peaceful coexistence between Islam and the world’s other major religions, including Christianity and Judaism.
Sheikh Issa made headlines last year for publicly decrying anyone who blames Jews for the Holocaust, a stance he took after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had come under international criticism for espousing such a view.
In addition to meeting with American political and religious leaders in Washington, Sheikh Issa’s current visit to the United States will include a visit next week to the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — popularly known as Mormons — in Salt Lake City.
“My responsibility is to bridge the gap between cultures and civilizations and it has to be a strong bridge,” he told The Times. “We are trying to take down fences and walls that are not real. The way to do that is through dialogue. Dialogue is what leads to better understanding and eventually better understanding to lead to more love and co-existence.”
“We are very keen to disseminate these values and cultures among the youths,” he added. “Differences and diversity are a very normal thing and should not lead to hatred or clashes among people.”
“We have made a lot of progress but we are still at the beginning of the road with this mission.”
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