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A Profile of Syrian Jihadist Omar Bakri Muhammad

Publisher Jamestown Foundation
Publication Date 21 December 2012
Citation / Document Symbol Volume: 3 Issue: 12
Cite as Jamestown Foundation, A Profile of Syrian Jihadist Omar Bakri Muhammad, 21 December 2012, Volume: 3 Issue: 12, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/50ee8ff12.html [accessed 22 August 2014]
Comments Elie Issa
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Omar Bakri Muhammad (a.k.a. the "Tottenham Ayatollah") is a self-proclaimed advocate of jihadism who has recently called for jihad in Syria against the Assad regime. Bakri, who was expelled from the UK in 2005 for "glorifying terrorism," said that al-Qaeda plans to wage war against the Syrian regime (As-Safir, January 26). Such statements from self-described al-Qaeda and jihadism laureates do not fit within the international war on terrorism and Islamic extremism. 

Bakri was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1958 into a supposedly wealthy family. Like other prominent hardline Islamic clerics, Bakri was enrolled at the age of five in an Islamic boarding school where he learned how to recite the Quran by heart. Years later, Bakri joined the Shari'a Institute at Damascus University where he studied advanced Islamic sciences. He then joined the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood but left the country in 1977 after getting his Bachelor degree in Shari'a and Usul al-Fiqh (legal theory). Bakri fled to Beirut fearing prosecution by Syrian authorities for his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In Lebanon, he obtained his Masters degree in Islamic studies from Imam Uzaie University before leaving for Cairo in 1979 to attend al-Azhar University. Prior to earning his degree, Bakri left al-Azhar for Saudi Arabia due to disagreements with his teachers. 

In 1984, the Saudis arrested Bakri in Jeddah and released him on bail. Bakri was again held by the Saudis in December 1985 before moving to the United Kingdom on January 14, 1986, where he eventually assumed the leadership of Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) and became their spiritual leader. In 1996, Bakri deserted Hizb ut-Tahrir and initiated al-Muhajiroun (The Immigrants), remaining its Amir until 2003. 

Bakri described the 9/11 attacks as "magnificent" and eventually altered his preaching toward the theology and philosophy of al-Qaeda. He explained, "When I first heard about the September 11, 2001 attacks there was some initial delight about such an attack. I received a phone call and said, ‘Oh, wow, the United States has come under attack.' It was exciting" (al-Arabiya, September 13, 2001).  

Bakri said that hardline Salafi Muslim groups, including al-Qaeda and his own al-Ghuraba group, were ready to help their "Muslim brothers" with a campaign of suicide attacks against President Bashar al-Assad. "Al-Qaeda are so clever, they can make so many weapons from nothing. They can go to any kitchen, make a very nice pizza bomb and deliver it fresh," Bakri claimed. He described the regional uprisings that rocked the Middle East as "al-Qaeda's victory." The Arab Spring and "the dismantling of authoritarian regimes and ruthless intelligence services have given Salafist groups room to breathe; and the thousands of jailed Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, released as the dictatorships crumbled, have been perfect for recruiting," he added (As-Safir, January 25). 

Echoing the rhetoric of other jihadists, Bakri warned the West against staying in the Middle East. "In the future if anybody puts a finger on our nations we will fight back, we have our own men, our own power" (As-Safir, January 25). 

In a recent interview with the Bulgaria-based Center for Middle East Studies, Bakri claimed that the suicide bomber who blew himself up near a civilian bus transporting Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria on July 18 was one of his "disciples." [1] Bakri claimed that the suspect, identified as Mehdi Ghezali, was a Swedish citizen who was previously a Guantanamo inmate. [2] Both the Bulgarian and the Swedish governments refuted Bakri's allegations. Bakri also claimed that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack. "They have not taken responsibility because sometimes ‘freelance' organizations carry out the attacks on their behalf. The same goes for the attack in Toulouse [June 20]. In both of these attacks my name came up as a spiritual teacher. I also had a student who exploded in Tel Aviv," Bakri told the Center for Middle East Studies. [4] 

Bakri's statements imply a developing trend of radical jihadism that is rapidly gaining momentum among younger generations. "The head of the snake is America, so al-Qaeda is looking for big targets in the United States, but smaller organizations settle for smaller targets." [3] Such rhetoric unfortunately continues to rally young followers in rural Pakistan, Afghanistan and other underprivileged areas in the Arab Peninsula. 

Elie Issa is a Lebanese analyst focusing on the Middle East and North Africa regions for the past eight years. His interests include geopolitical, security and macroeconomic topics. 

Notes

1. Omar Bakri, interview by the Center for Middle East Studies, October 3, Available at: http://www.24chasa.bg/Article.asp?ArticleId=1571847.

2. "Names of the Detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba," Washington Post, Available at: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/guantanamo_names.html.

3. Omar Bakri, interview by the Center for Middle East Studies, October 3, Available at: http://www.24chasa.bg/Article.asp?ArticleId=1571847.

4. Ibid.

Copyright notice: © 2010 The Jamestown Foundation

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