Al-Qaeda’s Call To Assassinate Egyptian Author Ibrahim Eissa Highlights Dilemma Of Anti-Islamist Voices

On August 12, 2022 in western New York, Salman Rushdie was brutally stabbed by a radicalized Muslim of American upbringing as he was getting ready to deliver a lecture on artistic freedom at the Chautauqua Institution. The motive, though not yet publicly declared, will undoubtedly have to do with the power of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s critique of religious fanaticism. The terrorist assault on the seventy-five-year-old Indian-born author, who for years was the target of death threats from the Islamist Iranian regime, is a reminder of the power of Islamist fanaticism and how it can move Muslims and convert them into terrorists. 

In Egypt, a similar scenario could repeat itself. The terrorist Al-Qaeda group has recently called for the assassination of Ibrahim Eissa, an Egyptian luminary author, journalist, novelist, scriptwriter, and talk show host known for being a staunch anti-Islamism voice and bravely critiquing the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Islam.  

In a July 16, 2022 bulletin, released by Al-Qaeda’s official media As-Sahab, an Al-Qaeda cleric made the case for killing Eissa for allegedly denigrating Khalid Ibn al-Walid, an influential Arab Muslim military commander who spearheaded early Islamic conquests which helped the inception and spread of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Syria. The assassination threat against Eissa highlights the dilemma of anti-Islamist voices that are now a key target of radical Islamist groups. It also shows that these fearless voices continue to stand as a strong barrier in the way of Islamist groups as they bravely combat their religious extremist narratives and ideologies. 

Al-Qaeda, which has failed to redirect the popular uprisings against the autocratic governments of Muslim-majority states to serve its global Islamist project, is now trying to skillfully engage and proliferate throughout Muslim communities by reaching out to Muslims, mainly the youth, even if it has no ideological relationships with them. To achieve this aim, the global Islamist jihadi group has two objectives: firstly, exploit controversial issues with enough media-frenzy to engage with Muslim communities in order to Islamize them; and secondly, silence anti-Islamist voices, accusing them of being recruited by the West to fight Islam and subvert the Muslim ummah (nation). 

Al-Qaeda’s death threat against Eissa came in response to a February 13, 2022 episode titled “Khalid Ibn al-Walid: Commander Or Butcher?” aired on the US-funded Alhurra TV Debatable, a talk show that delves into thorny ideological issues, especially those related to political Islam, Salafism, and jihadism. In the episode, Eissa critically discussed with Muslim experts the biography of Khalid Ibn al-Walid, who is widely revered by both many Muslims in the Arab region and jihadi groups like the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) and Al-Qaeda.  

He argued Khalid Ibn al-Walid’s brutal killings during the early Islamic conquests are incoherent with Islamic teachings, and said he wished to avoid “distorting history by invoking their examples for every time and place as if they are immortals.” He also suggested that some of ISIS’s executions were an emulation Khalid Ibn al-Walid’s executions during the Battle of Ullais, also known as the Blood River Battle, which resulted in thousands of deaths. 

Al-Qaeda’s call to kill Eissa was released in the form of a 16-page bulletin, presented as the first installment in a series titled “Bridling Media Heretics.” The bulletin, titled “In Support And Defense Of Allah’s Unsheathed Sword: Abu Sulayman Khalid Ibn al-Walid, From the Slander of Alhurra Channel’s Fool Ibrahim Eissa,” was penned by an Al-Qaeda jurist under the nom de guerre Abu ‘Awab al-Hasani. In it, al-Hasani lauded the Muslim military commander for being “the dissipator of the darkness of infidelity, polytheism, and apostasy” and “the conqueror of Iraq and Syria.” He also boasted of Khalid’s conquests and jihad which caused “two million Muslims” to enjoy Islam, “either by force or by charm.” He accused Eissa as “a modern heretic of the media that fights Allah, His messenger and his honorable companions” and “a sinful slanderer.” 

Al-Hasani then attacked what he called “the cold apostasy” of the modern time demonstrated in what is being prompted by the “debauched media,” which incessantly seeks to “question the tenants of Islam” and “spread atheism, promiscuity, and heresy.” “And this unbridled apostasy that is rampant in our time is today in urgent need for the heat of an unsheathed jihadi sword like Allah’s sword Khalid Ibn al-Walid…that is why the slanderers and haters aimed their arrows at this hero and mujahid,” he wrote.  

The most obnoxious accusation against Khalid, al-Hasani wrote, was Eissa’s claim that he murdered Malik Ibn Nuwayrah, an Arabian tribal leader, and raped his wife. In response, al-Hasani accused Eissa of seeking to smear Khalid, citing the opinion of late Egyptian Islamic scholar, Ahmad Shakir, which was that Khalid was convinced of the apostasy of Malik so he  slaughtered him and took his wife as a slave in accordance with the Sharia. 

Al-Hasani denounced Eissa and his guests’ accusation of Khalid as being the founder the khawarij, a group of deviants which emerged in the first century of Islam, and the creator of ISIS. He also condemned their claim that Khalid was not a symbol of bravery and compared his slaughter of “apostates” and Christians to ISIS’s slaughter of Muslim jihadis. He noted that second Muslim Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab’s dismissal of Khalid was meant to prevent Muslims from being infatuated by the commander, adding Umar later regretted removing Khalid from his position. 

Referring to Eissa’s closing call to his viewers to take early Arab influential figures like Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn al-Haytham, or Ibn Khaldun as examples, but not Khalid Ibn al-Walid, the Al-Qaeda jurist clarified the purpose of Eissa’s episode was not only to demean and incriminate Khalid, but also Prophet Muhammad who appointed him, two Caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar for looking the other way on the alleged murder and adultery, as well as, the Islamic ummah for failing to hold its leaders accountable.  

Al-Hasani asked Allah to help Muslim scholars and preachers to respond to the “sinful slanderers” of these TV shows which were designed to “spread atheism, heresy, promiscuity, and immorality in the whole world.” Furthermore, the jurist urged Muslims in general, and jihadis, in particular, to defend Islam in the media realm from the “American” Alburra TV, given how hesitant Islamic institutions such as Egypt’s Al-Azhar, Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Scholars and Muslim World League, and UAE’s Muslim Council of Elders have been to defend Islam. He concluded by describing this task as a top priority for scholars and preachers in order to combat the assaults of the media fighting Islam. 

In a clear call to kill Ibrahim Eissa, the last page of the bulletin included a sketch of Eissa showing a bullet traveling towards his heart, with the following caption: “Who is up [to kill] this malicious one?” 

Such a call to murder courageous voices like Eissa is nothing new for Al-Qaeda’s propaganda. However, it provides another reminder of how Al-Qaeda is strategically trying to capitalize on controversial religious issues to incite violence against free Muslim voices by portraying them as anti-Islam and deeming them kuffar (infidels) and murtadun (apostates). And, sadly, such ideas are positively received by ordinary Muslims and Salafis in light of the criticism of Eissa’s views from Egypt’s highest religious authority Al-Azhar. 

Eissa was harshly criticized and investigated by Al-Ahzar due to his unconventional views and creative writings. Furthermore, Al-Azhar scholar Ahmad Karimah went further, accusing Eissa of being an “apostate” which is understood by Salafis to be punishable by death. In this religiously-charged atmosphere, it is much more likely Al-Qaeda’s call to assassinate Eissa be heeded by an Al-Qaeda follower, Muslim Brotherhood member, Salafi, or a zealous ordinary Muslim, who is given implicit sanction.  

What is terrifying is that these threats requiring an appropriately vigorous response have been met with official silence. To date, the Egypt government has not acted to ensure the safety of free Muslim voices, like Eissa, despite repeated calls of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s for the reformation of Islamic discourse. Instead, the pro-state parliament attacked Eissa and its parliamentary committee on human rights, together with the religious affairs committee, moved to propose a draft law which bans “non-specialists” from discussing religious topics. Such actions create a serious predicament for Egypt in which these free and reformist voices that stand against Islamism and Salafi narratives of Islam are being threatened and silenced with no legal protection.  

The obvious reality is Egyptian journalists and intellectuals are fighting Islamism and Salafi Islam alone with renewed minds and open chests. Like Farag Fouda, the thinker who was killed in 1992 by the Al-Jama’ah Al-Islamiyyah (the Islamic Group), Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobel Prize-winning novelist who was stabbed in 1994 by the same, and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, the scholar who received death threats in 1995 from Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad militant group, Eissa, poet Fatima Naoot, TV host Islam Behery, and thinker Ahmad Abdou Maher, who are at the forefront of fighting extremist ideology and Islamist views, are left exposed to the bullets of Al-Qaeda, Islamists, and radicalized Muslims.  

Egypt, which is just standing on the sidelines watching, has a moral and constitutional obligation to seriously address Al-Qaeda’s threat against Eissa and create a safer environment for all those countering Islamist extremism. Failure to do so has and will continue to be exploited by Islamist groups trying to silence the men fighting extremist narratives and ideologies. And just like Salman Rushdie, brave voices like Eissa are likely to meet a similar fate in Egypt.