On May 22, a young soldier named Lee Rigby of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was in a street in the Woolwich area of London, near the Royal Artillery Barracks, when he was hit by a car that crushed him against a lamp post. Two men emerged and attacked Rigby with knives and machetes, then left his mutilated corpse in the middle of the road while spouting radical Islamic justifications for the murder they had committed.
The first attacker, Michael Olumide Adebolajo, had been born and raised in London. His family is Christian, but he converted to Islam in 2003, became increasingly radicalized, and eventually traveled to Kenya, allegedly to train with the al-Qaeda-linked militant group Al-Shabaab, whose ideology is said to be rooted in Wahhabism. The second, Michael Oluwatobi Adebowale, had been born in Nigeria, but raised in the United Kingdom. His descent into radical Islam is not yet fully understood, but like millions of other young men around the world, he believes that the teachings of the Wahhabi sect of Islam (sometimes called Salafism) justified the murder of Rigby in revenge for British military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. (There should be a distinction drawn between violent Salafi Islamists, sometimes called Jihadi Salafists, and the more peaceful, if ultraconservative, followers of traditional forms of Wahhabism.)
Wahhabism is a fundamentalist branch of Islam that gained prominence in the eighteenth century through a movement led by theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab from Saudi Arabia, who sought a return to a more fundamentalist approach. Today, Wahhabism is strongest on the Arab peninsula, where its institutionalization, chiefly among the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, has allowed its adherents to control vast oil reserves and their resultant cash flow, with a portion of those funds going to spreading the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam across the world. The latest example of this is discussed in a recent article in AllAfrica.com, which notes that Wahhabism is taking root in West and North Africa as African students who study in Islamic universities in the Middle East return to their homes in Mali, Niger, and Senegal. This is leading to conflicts between those adherents and the native Sufis.
At a presentation in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Inter-University Center for Legal Studies of the International Law Institute and the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Khawaja Farooq Renzu Shah, chair of the Kashmir Sufism Society, discussed how Wahhabism made inroads into the Indian province of Kashmir in the late 1980s, after the Mujahideen infiltrated the area by opening a pipeline of money to fund free schools that promoted Wahhabism over Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam that had been dominant in Kashmir for centuries. The school teaches Wahhabism’s conservative principles—often threatening violence for noncompliance. “Their strategy, in some cases, is to reduce a population to poverty and then introduce their extremist version of Islam, including hijacking the word ‘jihad’ and telling the young poor that they will go to heaven if they are suicide bombers,” Shah said.