In an unusual move, one of the suspects in the 2012-13 Via Railway terror plot has been allowed to give an interview to the Canadian National Post. That interview is remarkable because it explains the jihadist motivations behind the plot in clear and unambiguous language that leaves no room for doubt about “why they hate us.” Those who would confront and defeat this hate and the terror plots it inspires would do well to listen to the words of Chiheb Esseghaier.
Esseghaier was a Tunisian doctoral student at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, a branch of the Université de Quebec and a landed immigrant who’d come to Canada in 2008. His travel to Zahedan, in eastern Iran, caught the attention of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which launched a complex investigation that eventually led to the unraveling of a joint al-Qa’eda-Iran plot to blow up a passenger train over the Niagara River gorge. Esseghaier and fellow suspect, Raed Jaser (from the United Arab Emirates), were arrested in the conspiracy and now face terror charges in Canadian court. Over the months since their April 2013 arrest, Esseghaier has made a number of court appearances as well as public statements, of which the recent National Post interview includes just the latest.
Although thanks to good intelligence and police work, Canada to date has been spared the kind of horrific terror attacks that have made headlines elsewhere in the West (Burgas, London, Madrid, U.S.), there have been jihadist attempts, including the August 2010 Ottawa Parliament plot and the earlier 2006 Toronto 18 plot. National Post coverage of the Via Railway terror plot has been extensive and its multiple reports quoting the very vocal Esseghaier are revealing, even though it is clear the Post itself doesn’t understand what he’s been trying to tell them. Faced with the reality that their country, too, is a target, Canadians have been struggling to make sense out of Esseghaier’s simple pronouncement: “I am a Muslim.” The so-called “experts on extremism” consulted by the National Post weren’t much help: Prof. Lorne Dawson, ex-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, opined that Esseghaier’s views were “very comparable to what one might hear from a strident anti-abortion activist coming from a Christian perspective.”
In fact, Esseghaier is nothing like a Christian pro-life activist. In his own words, he has explained that he sees himself as a faithful member of the global Islamic ummah. He calls Muslim Afghans his “brothers and sisters,” because according to Islamic doctrine, national borders and the world order that Canadian and other NATO members seek to defend in Afghanistan are meaningless. He believes it is his duty to follow the commands of Islam, which obligate every Muslim to wage jihad as an individual duty (fard ‘ayn) whenever non-believers (kufar) invade Islamic lands. In his court appearances, Esseghaier repeatedly has asserted his allegiance to Islamic Law (shariah) and rejected the authority of Canadian law. Challenged by the National Post to explain why he plotted to kill Canadian and American rail passengers, Esseghaier accused Canada of “[making] lawful what God made unlawful…”], which is an explicit reference to Qur’anic verse 9:29, which says
Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, from among the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.
It is critical that national security experts and leadership grasp what Esseghaier is trying to tell us. Pretending that authoritative Islamic law and scripture are not the doctrinal source of justification for Islamic jihad (terrorism), as does A Guide to Refuting Jihadism, just out from the Henry Jackson Society, only serves to blind and neutralize our ability to confront the shariah threat. Likewise, getting hung up on group names and affiliations misses the point that Esseghaier describes so clearly: Islamic terrorism is conducted not just to kill people but to establish the pre-conditions for the ultimate objective which is the universal enforcement of Islamic Law. The 5 February 2014 War on Error from Foreign Policy offers another good illustration. Starting out by making a valiant effort at sorting out the many off-shoot franchises of Usama bin-Laden’s original al-Qa’eda, this piece unfortunately winds up taking an already muddled topic and compounding the muddling. Terming Islamic jihadis “violent extremists” or al-Qa’eda “nihilistic” with “an outlier interpretation of Islamic Law” is to miss the point entirely. Esseghaier is obviously both well-educated and well-versed in the doctrine of his faith; he is also representative of jihadis the world over who are indeed violent, but neither extremists nor nihilists within the parameters of authoritative Islam. They seek well-defined objectives based on widely-available Islamic scriptures and do not hesitate to declare them and pursue them both openly and by guile.
It is not often that a self-avowed Islamic jihadi like Esseghaier is given this sort of platform. It behooves us all to pay attention to what he says.