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The ISIS plot to assassinate former President George W. Bush

There’s more to the story than most media will report

Shihab Ahmed Shihab Shihab Associated Press/Franklin County Sheriff's Office

The ISIS plot to assassinate former President George W. Bush
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On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed a plot by an alleged ISIS soldier to assassinate former President George W. Bush in Dallas.

U.S. authorities arrested the alleged plotter, Shihab Ahmed Shihab Shihab, 52, early Tuesday. The Iraqi, according to Forbes, “had been in the U.S. since 2020 and had an asylum application pending.” Because of his asylum request, Shihab was able to live in Columbus, Ohio. He planned to get four Iraqi nationals into the United States to help him carry out the assassination. One of these four, the FBI tells us, is “the secretary of an ISIS financial minister.” This suggests a strong tie between the plot and the terrorist Islamist group. The connection is also evident in Shihab’s admission, according to an FBI informant, that he is the cousin of former Islamic State head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. More importantly, according to his arrest warrant, Shihab revealed his tactic: He planned to get the ISIS soldiers tourist visas to Mexico before getting them across the border.

Thankfully, the plot failed. By using confidential informants and surveillance of Shihab’s WhatsApp account, the FBI thwarted his plans. When asked about his reasons for the assassination, Shihab said he wanted to kill Bush because of his role in the 2003 Iraq War.

The report reveals the outstanding and sophisticated work of U.S. counterterrorism intelligence and reflects that ISIS has indeed been weakened militarily in recent years. Still, it is hardly obsolete. This development also highlights the truth that terrorists are aware of the vulnerability of our southern border and know how to manipulate U.S. asylum programs.

While Shihab has openly declared his motivation behind assassinating the former president, there is more to the story.

What does it mean for ISIS to kill a U.S. president? What is the significance?

The answer begins with understanding ISIS ideology.

ISIS operates within the worldview of political Islam. In this, Islam covers all spheres of life and must rule comprehensively. Therefore, ISIS’s members adhere closely to the theological belief that Islam is both religion and state—it is worship and leadership.

Shihab likely believed he was serving Allah by taking revenge against a Christian infidel—a former American president—who had dared to invade a Muslim land.

Since they operate within this paradigm, members of ISIS do not see America as merely a state, let alone a secular state. For them, America is a Christian state.

For ISIS and its members, when the United States led the Iraq War, it was not a political operation, it was a religious invasion—a Christian war against Islam. No matter how repeatedly we may insist that the United States was not operating as a Christian power in that war, Muslims operating within this political Islam paradigm will not believe it.

This is evident in the strong theological appeal ISIS advances in recruiting Muslim fighters. Consider the first recorded public sermon by al-Baghdadi in 2014. The ISIS founder not only declared the establishment of the long-awaited Islamic caliphate but also, as The Telegraph reported, “vowed to lead the conquest of Rome as he called on Muslims to immigrate to his new land to fight under its banner around the globe.”

For Westerners, these words are mere propaganda, but not for Muslims who read and study the sacred texts of Islam, such as the Quran and Muhammad’s biography. Every word al-Baghdadi chose meant a great deal to the future recruits.

A caliphate reflects Islam’s hegemony and rule for many Muslims. It reminds them of the golden days of Islam when Muhammad’s companions led the successful conquest of the heart of the Christian world. When he used the word “immigrate,” he knew that Muslims would pine for the days of Muhammad, remembering when he emigrated from Mecca to Medina and became a victorious commander within 10 years.

Nothing occurs within the ISIS realm without a theological significance. Shihab likely believed he was serving Allah by taking revenge against a Christian infidel—a former American president—who had dared to invade a Muslim land. In his plotting, he was likely ecstatic to fulfill Allah’s command, “Make ready against them the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah and your enemies.”

While modernist and progressive Muslims would tend to denounce any such assassination attempt, many Muslims still operate within a paradigm of political Islam and dream of reclaiming Islam’s rule, hegemony, and superiority.

We should all be grateful that U.S. intelligence thwarted the assassination attempt. While we should be welcoming as a nation, as we have always been, we should also be vigilant in protecting our borders against those who would exploit our vulnerabilities. Finally, we should all know that ISIS might have been weakened, but its ideology and religious appeal are not dead. Shihab Ahmed Shihab has made that truth absolutely clear.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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