Understanding the History of Secret Societies and Jihad

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE REAL HISTORY OF SECRET SOCIETIES

By Richard B. Spence, Ph.D.University of Idaho

The newest War on Terror is the one nominally against Islamic extremism. To the revolutionary, violence is defense against an oppressive state. To the jihadi, it’s the defense of Islam against infidel godless materialism. But how did this Islamic extremism find its footing?

The photo shows soldiers boarding a helicopter.
The War against Terror is generally now understood to be a war on Islamic extremism. This war has been led by the United States military across the world. (Image: US Army – Staff Sgt. Kyle Davis/ Public domain)

Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī

The notion that Islam was under attack by the West began with an obscure nineteenth century figure, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī. His birthplace and real name are uncertain. Born in 1838 or 1839, probably in today’s Iran, al-Afghani watched Islamic lands fall helplessly under the military, cultural, and financial dominance of the Europeans.

Al-Afghani believed that only the creation of a Pan-Islamic consciousness would reverse this domination. Yet personally, Al-Afghani didn’t reject Western material progress, and took almost no interest in theology. Some thought he seemed more at home in Europe than in the Middle East.

In 1868, al-Afghani was initiated into a Masonic lodge in Egypt. He later formed his own lodge with himself as master. Al-Afghani also belonged to at least one occult order called the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, which had connections to European Rosicrucians. Some also suspect al-Afghani was a British spy. The fact he settled in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople in 1892 under British diplomatic immunity is indeed curious.

Al-Afghani also argued that Muslims needed to overthrow corrupt rulers. In 1896, one of his followers assassinated the unpopular Shah of Persia, Nāṣer al-Dīn. Thus, some think al-Afghani’s real mission in Constantinople was instigating more instability throughout the Muslim East.

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret SocietiesWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Muslim Brotherhood Versus the Iron Guard

Jamal al-Afghani’s Pan-Islamic vision inspired a young Egyptian schoolteacher named Ḥasan al-Bannā, who was strictly religious, and believed the Holy Quran held the answers to everything. In 1928, al-Bannāʾ and a handful of followers formed the Muslim Brotherhood. By the late 1940s, it was an educational and charitable organization with some 500,000 members.

Outwardly, the Muslim Brotherhood preached peaceful reform. But al-Bannāʾ created a secret militant organization within the movement. In the late 1930s, that cell aided an anti-British and anti-Zionist uprising in Palestine with money and volunteers.

Al-Bannā also plotted to overthrow the Egyptian monarchy. This plot was discovered by King Farouk’s own secret society, the Iron Guard. In 1948, the prime minister, Maḥmūd al-Nuqrāshī, banned the Muslim Brotherhood, turning the it into a secret society. The brotherhood assassinated Nuqrashi, and the Iron Guard murdered al-Bannā as revenge.

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Sayyid Qutb and Islamic Radicalism

Qutb on trial in 1966 under the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime.
Sayyid Qutb was arrested and hanged for plotting the assassination of Col. Gamal Nasser. (Image: أحمد.غامدي.24/ Public domain)

The Muslim Brotherhood lived on underground. One new recruit was Sayyid Qutb, another Egyptian who also trained to be a teacher. That training brought him to Greeley, Colorado in 1948. Qutb came to see American society as soulless, materialistic, and depraved, and a mortal danger to Islam. Only by returning to strict adherence to the Quran, Qutb argued, could ruin be avoided.

Qutb became the inspiration for a new generation of Islamic radicals. Qutb also believed Islam needed a vanguard of holy warriors to lead the holy war against infidels and traitors. The result would be a universal Islamic state, or caliphate.

In 1952, Qutb first welcomed the overthrow of King Farouk, and the creation of a military dictatorship under Col. Gamal Nasser. Qutb’s enthusiasm for Nasser cooled when he proved to be just another strongman, and a pro-Soviet one at that. Qutb began plotting Nasser’s assassination. But Nasser arrested and hanged him in 1966.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda

Qutb had inspired another Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri set out to recruit a warrior vanguard that eventually called itself Islamic Jihad. Members took orders from a central leadership, but knew only the members of their own cell. If a cell was penetrated or destroyed, the overall organization remained intact.

Islamic Jihad infiltrated the Egyptian Army, and, in October 1981, it shocked the world by assassinating Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for making peace with Israel. Islamic Jihad soon allied itself with another Islamic secret society, al-Qaeda, which roughly translates as “The Foundation”.

The Origin and Development of al-Qaeda

During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Afghan Muslim rebels battling the Soviets got help from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the CIA. By 1988, they were also receiving aid from a coalition of nominally independent Islamic societies that banded together to become al-Qaeda.

Its key figure was Saudi businessman-turned-jihadist Osama bin Laden. Basically, al-Qaeda was an Islamic international: several organizations collaborating to help form a Pan-islamic caliphate under Islamic law.

When the war in Afghanistan wound down, al-Qaeda found new opportunity in Bosnia. Through fronts, al-Qaeda supplied the Bosnian Muslims with money, weapons, and soldiers. Al-Qaeda also stuck its nose into conflicts in Chechnya, Sudan, China, and the Philippines. Terrorist acts were seen as a way of taking the war to the unbelievers.

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Al-Qaeda and ISIS

USS Cole after the attack.
The bombing of the USS Cole in Aden was one of most violent terror attacks on US forces by Islamic terrorists. (Image: USN/Public domain)

The main target was the Great Satan: America. The attacks really started with a 1992 bombing of US troops in Yemen. The Americans were on their way to Somalia. Attacks continued through the 1990s, culminating in the deadly bombing of the US Navy ship Cole in Aden.

In 2001, the 9/11 terror attacks hit most Americans like a bolt out of the blue. What Americans didn’t realize was that a secret society had been at war with them for a decade.

Al-Qaeda still exists, but its thunder was stolen by a group that began as one of its vassals: the so-called Islamic State, better known as ISIS or Daesh.

ISIS took off after the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. The outbreak of civil war in neighboring Syria in 2011 really energized ISIS and turned it into al-Qaeda on steroids. In 2014, the Islamic State proclaimed itself the universal caliphate incarnate, and stunned the world by capturing the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Mosul.

ISIS’s military gains were later rolled back. The real strength of ISIS doesn’t lie in thousands of soldiers but rather in a stateless secret society that propagandizes, recruits, and directs them.

Common Questions about Islamic Extremism

Q: Where did the notion that Islam was under threat from the West originate?

The notion that Islam was under attack by the West began with an obscure nineteenth century figure, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī. Al-Afghani believed that only the creation of a Pan-Islamic consciousness would reverse this domination.

Q: How did the Muslim Brotherhood come into being?

Jamal al-Afghani’s Pan-Islamic vision inspired a young Egyptian schoolteacher named Ḥasan al-Bannā, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood with a few followers.

Q: How did al-Qaeda come into being?

A coalition of nominally independent Islamic societies had banded together to become al-Qaeda. Its key figure was Saudi businessman-turned- jihadist Osama bin Laden. Basically, al-Qaeda was several organizations collaborating to help form a universal caliphate under Islamic law.

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