August 29, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Lasting Legacy of Sayyid Qutb

• August 29 marks the 50th anniversary of the execution of Sayyid Qutb, whose message of jihad inspired Usama bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri, among others. 

• Qutb’s call for violence has been echoed and answered on a scale he could not have imagined in 1966.

• As with bin Ladin, Qutb’s ideology spread widely after his death, from Iraq to Somalia.

• Groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda continue to use the writings of Qutb to frame their goals and justify their actions.


On August 29, 1966, one of the 20th century’s most influential Islamist ideologues was executed in Cairo, Egypt. Though his execution was in part an effort to silence him, Qutb’s teachings still resonate 50 years later, and played a key role in shaping the modern jihadist movement. The so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda have been directly inspired by Qutb’s ideology. The current global jihadist movement owes its beginnings, in large part, to Qutb, and his message will likely continue to play a fundamental role in Islamist ideology in the future.

The implications of Sayyid Qutb’s lasting influence run from the Afghan jihad, to the assassination of Anwar Sadat, to the September 11 attacks, to the announcement of a caliphate by the Islamic State. While there is debate as to whether Qutb would have called for indiscriminate killings and mass murder, there is little question that those influenced by his writings and speeches have embraced his message and used it as inspiration in what has become five decades of increasing violence.

The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan became the first global foreign fighter magnet when Abdullah Azzam issued a fatwa stating the war did not simply represent regional geopolitics, but an individual battle in which every capable Muslim had a duty to participate. Azzam, like many other influential Islamist leaders since, was directly inspired by Qutb. Azzam helped bring Usama bin Ladin to Afghanistan, where the foundation of al-Qaeda was laid. True to Qutb’s vision, al-Qaeda’s goals were not limited to the fighting in Afghanistan, but rather on toppling Western-supported governments in the Middle East. 

The current leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, began his decades-long path of terrorism in 1966, inspired by Qutb’s message and then outraged by his execution. The group Zawahiri helped form, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, would go on to assassinate Anwar Sadat in 1981. From there, Zawahiri would travel to Afghanistan where he would meet bin Ladin. While it has never been confirmed, there is widespread speculation Zawahiri helped orchestrate the 1989 assassination of Abdullah Azzam in Pakistan—an example of two students of Qutb’s teachings fighting each other, which has been repeated many times since.

Qutb’s influence has extended far beyond his own generation of followers. His ideology spread rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s, and helped fuel conflicts in the Balkans, Somalia, and elsewhere. By September 11, 2001, the ideology had taken root in hundreds of committed terrorists and fighters, many of whom were members of al-Qaeda under the leadership of bin Laden and Zawahiri. Just as the execution of Qutb failed to contain his message, the military campaign against al-Qaeda after September 11—though gravely hurting the group militarily—did little to stop its spread. While persistent conflict and poor governance play the largest role in the current level of terrorism worldwide, it is Qutb’s message, adapted by those like Azzam, bin Laden, Zawahiri, Anwar al-AwlakiAbu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that unite local and regional conflicts into a global movement.

The current scale of terrorism seen today is likely far beyond what even Qutb himself thought possible. Egypt continues to battle a persistent terror threat; Afghanistan continues to fight the latest iteration of a battle that has not ended since 1979; and the Islamic State continues to hold enough territory to maintain the facade of a self-proclaimed caliphate. The death of bin Ladin did nothing to stem the spread of bin Ladinism—which was directly influenced by the teachings of Qutb, whose own execution likewise only spread his message.


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