Review, Top Stories

“Jihadists”—A Review

Jihadists (dir. François Margolin and Lemine Ould Salem, Cinema Libre Studio 2018, 75m)

Some years ago, when assessments of the Arab Spring were at their most optimistic, it became common to hear it suggested that al-Qaeda was, if not defeated entirely, then virtually irrelevant. And yet, with all eyes on the Middle East, towns and cities in Mali would soon be falling like dominoes to al-Qaeda and its Islamist allies. This was the context in which two French filmmakers, François Margolin and Lemine Ould Salem, boldly journeyed to North Africa to document life in territory now governed by sharia law. The result of that trip is an extraordinary documentary entitled Jihadists, an unprecedented, unflinching, and unsettling glimpse into life under Islamist control.

While it is increasingly hard to miss the existence of this totalitarian ideology, the same cannot be said for Margolin and Salem’s film. Worried that Jihadists offered no dissenting voices to counter the extremists featured in the film, France’s National Center of Cinematography expressed concern that, rather than repel people, the film’s stark portrait of Islamic rule might instead serve as Islamist propaganda. The French government agreed, and the film was subsequently handed an “18” certificate—a classification both rare and prohibitive in France. According to Margolin, no documentary has been rated “18” in decades. As a result, Jihadists opened in only three theatres rather than the initially slated 30. It will have a belated American premier on January 25 in New York, followed shortly thereafter by a limited run in Los Angeles. That the film continues to struggle to draw widespread coverage is hardly surprising. Its topic and conclusions run contrary to the prevailing zeitgeist. This is a pity, because Jihadists is a powerful and important document that deserves a bigger audience.

The film begins in Mali, where roadside signs declare that “APPLICATION OF SHARIA IS THE PATHWAY TO HAPPINESS; THE PATHWAY TO PARADISE.” Gun-toting “Islamic police” roam ravaged marketplaces on motorbikes, ensuring that women are dressed with sufficient modesty. Omar Ould Hamaha, a key figure within the al-Qaeda-aligned cabal then running northern Mali, reassures us that “since we started stoning, cutting off thieves’ hands…there’s no more theft.” To his evident relief, he declares that even “little girls” are now veiled. (Such moments reveal much about the Islamist mindset.) Abou Mohamad Toure, chief of the Islamic police in Gao and a commander with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, concurs. Apparently unburdened by self-awareness, he points out that “[f]or a long time, we preached in the mosques, went out in the streets, talked to the people and nothing was put in place. But thanks to God, when we took up arms to apply religion, God rewarded us.” It seems He does not move in particularly mysterious ways after all.

The locals, however, do not seem to have got the memo about how much better their lives have become under sharia law. One exasperated Malian Muslim who the filmmakers managed to interview complains that the things that once made life worth living—dancing, cigarettes, music, girlfriends—have now all been outlawed. “The old ways are finished,” he warns. “Everything there was, is over,” another remarks. Thankfully, shortly after the cameras stopped rolling, things improved for the besieged Malians when the French military intervened and pushed the Islamists back. “Force,” Hamaha had told the filmmakers, “is necessary for people to yield to Allah’s will and carry out his orders.” He then discovered that sometimes force is also necessary to reverse these unwelcome developments: in March 2014, he was killed in a French air strike.

The footage from Mali provides the film with its strongest moments. But when ISIS declared its Caliphate while the film was in production, Margolin and Salem naturally felt compelled to refer to events in Iraq and Syria. The brutality of what was happening there dovetails neatly with the Mali footage, but it is also (understandably) sourced from ISIS propaganda videos rather than shot in Caliphate itself. More rewarding is the filmmakers’ journey to Tunisia, which provides a frequently punishing film with some moments of surreal levity. They interview Abou Hamza Attounissi, a member of the al-Qaeda-linked Asnar al-Sharia, who runs an online lifestyle magazine called the Modern Salafist. This is a one-stop shop for advice on fashion, travel destinations (unsurprisingly, Afghanistan and Syria feature prominently), and how to avoid looking at girls. Hamza perfectly typifies the Salafist who despises Western modernity and is also addicted to it. He longs to travel to Syria to join the Caliphate, yet he uses a Mac and readily admits that “we all want the latest iPhone.” He sees no contradiction in “go[ing] to jihad in Syria wearing Nike.”

In the ongoing debate over terrorism, Jihadists offers a timely reminder of why theology matters, and a sharp rejoinder to those academics and analysts determined to downplay its importance as the primary driver behind terrorism and extremism and overplay every other possible driver (economics, racism, historical and geopolitical grievance, and so on). Margolin is explicit on this point in a commentary delivered straight-to-camera at the  beginning of the film. While he acknowledges that jihadists are a minority within Islam, he says that it is nevertheless “important to listen to what these people say. They are not crazy. They have not escaped from psychiatric wards. They are not isolated people. They are people who have an ideology…words that we have a hard time hearing.”

It is unfortunate, to put it mildly, that in 2019 we still find ourselves subjected to denialist headlines such as this dismaying recent example in the Observer: “Brain Scans Show Social Exclusion Creates Jihadists, Say Researchers.” Inconveniently, Omar Ould Hamaha saw things quite differently to those University College London researchers. “I didn’t choose to be a jihadist,” he says. “It was a divine imposition, a revelation from Allah.” In his eyes, the sharia law he has helped to impose is not a “personal choice,” but a “divine obligation.” How convenient, you might say, but it is hard to quarrel with the sincerity of  Hamaha’s religious fanaticism or that of his colleagues.

A young Mauritanian sheikh, M. Salem, calmly frames ISIS’s position on beheadings as grounded in two separate hadith. “As regards the slitting of throats,” he says, “that comes from a quote from the Prophet: ‘When you kill, kill well, and when you slaughter, slaughter well’.” He also refers to the beheading of a Jewish satirical poet, Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf, by one of Mohammed’s followers. (Jihadists’ theological justification for beheadings is more commonly cited as surah 47, verse 4, of the Koran: “when you meet the unbelievers, smite at their necks.”) Salem’s interpretations may well be utter bunk (the first hadith he invokes deals with the slaughter of animals, not freelance photographers), but it’s virtually impossible to watch Jihadists and conclude that the interpretation is not authentically believed.

Throughout the film, religious fervour and a craving for power are entangled in the interviewees’ sadism, and this seeps out of the scenes of ISIS’s drive-by executions, of gunmen shooting cowering prisoners in the back of the head, and of hands being hacked off while an audience of goons ecstatically yell “Allahu Akbar!” And, predictably, the air is heavy with the stench of paranoid anti-Semitism. Amedy Coulibaly’s attack on a Jewish supermarket in Paris in January 2015 is justifiable, announces Salem, because “between Jews and Muslims it is an endless fight. We are at war.” Hamaha explains that he dyes his beard red because Mohammed warned in a hadith that (in Hamaha’s words) Muslims must not “be like the Jews who don’t dye their beards.” For Margolin, who reveals at the beginning of the film that members of his family were murdered in Nazi concentration camps, this is personal. In North Africa, he is confronted with the same genocidal hatred from those jihadists busily carving up the region and glorifying the assassination of Jews in his home country.

Hatred is the film’s stubbornly recurring theme, repeated like a mantra and directed at a plethora of targets. Hatred of Jews; hatred of women; hatred of homosexuals; hatred of the West and all its works, and in particular its foreign policy. “Man must be in charge,” instructs one Sheikh Hadrami Ould, “as he is more resistant and more reasonable, whereas women are too impulsive.” “Equality,” bellows Salem, “that requires us to treat a man like a woman – no!” Gays are “more like animals than humans,” and should be killed offers Ould, before reciting various hadith in justification of this view. Footage of ISIS pushing men accused of being homosexual from rooftops in Mosul demonstrates this is not just idle talk. And, of course, we hear the usual litany of complaints about Western misdeeds in Algeria, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and Palestine. Democracy’s unwillingness to adopt sharia makes it fatally flawed, says one Mauritanian imam, but it is expedient in one way: “We can use democracy to make ourselves heard.” If the imam had his way, democracy in Mauritania would clearly consist of one man, one vote, one time. Freedom of speech is also denounced and the (then recent) murders of the Charlie Hebdo journalists are universally applauded.

Much of this is profoundly depressing but will be unsurprising to anyone with a passing familiarity of Islamist doctrines. However, the mind-boggling intellectual contortions required by the conspiracy theories that mesmerise the interviewees throw some unexpected curveballs. Sheikh Salem, for example, believes that the puppet master behind the U.S. government’s supposed war on Islam is Robert Spencer (who runs the Jihad Watch website). Salem goes on to praise Mohamed Merah’s murder of French soldiers in 2012 but dismisses the idea that he killed Jewish children, because Islam does not allow for the murder of “infidels who have not fought us.” Merah’s crime, he explains, must have been fabricated by persons unknown “to make this young Muslim look like a person with no humanity.” In the same vein, he warns that we should not be so quick to believe that ISIS were beheading journalist hostages in Syria: “Perhaps,” Salem implausibly suggests, “they are spies who are pretending to be journalists.”

Jihadists performs a vital public service by exposing views like these, which offer a glimpse of how cruelty and sadism can be at once justified and indulged and then rationalised and denied. Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding the film will probably work to its disadvantage. To my British sensibility, the film fully warrants its “18+” rating. Parts of it are extremely graphic, including disturbing raw footage of executions, amputations, and lashings that embed themselves in the mind’s eye. Furthermore, the footage of Margolin speaking to camera and explaining why he made the film was shot and inserted at the behest of the U.S. studio in an attempt to head off controversy; it was not provided to French viewers.

Without this footage, the French authorities’ concerns that the film might unintentionally provide its subjects with propaganda are more defensible. It is worth recalling the response of one of Britain’s most notorious hate preachers, Omar Bakri Mohammed, to Geert Wilder’s anti-Islam film Fitna, which also explicitly tied images of Islamist violence to Koranic injunctions. “It could be a film by the mujahideen,” Bakri approvingly concluded.

Margolin has speculated that, “What has upset the French authorities is not the violence, but the subject itself.” He may be right about that. In July 2016, the Le Monde and La Croix newspapers announced that they would no longer publish the names and faces of terrorists, a decision that betrays the anxieties surrounding religious violence in a country still reeling from a series of harrowing terrorist attacks. Perhaps this precautionary approach makes more sense in cases where the drive for notoriety seems to inspire the act of violence (school shootings, for example). But with Islamist terrorists, it misunderstands what really motivates their atrocities. They are driven not by the desire for column inches, but by the promise of paradise.

And that is why Jihadists deserves and needs to be seen. By letting the Islamists speak for themselves, Margolin and Salem’s film enhances our understanding of why acts of terror keep occurring. It is effective precisely because no attempt is made to mediate or dilute the message with superfluous context, or experts explaining why the jihadists are wrong or cannot possibly mean what they say. Margolin and Salem’s film demonstrates quite plainly that they do mean it. They do believe it. And it is time that we believed them.


Robin Simcox is the Margaret Thatcher fellow in the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @RobinSimcox

Featured pic: Jihadists securing civilians to witness a public execution in Timbuktu, 2012, courtesy of Cinema Libre Studio. Jihadists will play at the Cinema Village in NYC, January 25–31 and at Laemmle’s Music Hall in LA, January 31-February 7.


  1. ga gamba says

    Thanks for the review.

    Furthermore, the footage of Margolin speaking to camera and explaining why he made the film was shot and inserted at the behest of the U.S. studio in an attempt to head off controversy; it was not provided to French viewers.

    Controversy by whom? I doubt Margolin’s words will sway a Jihadist or a wannabe. Better an imam or a former radical (and former SPLC hate criminal) such as Maajid Nawaz to advance that. No, it’s the head off protests by the woke. Is an outcome of this mean those who don’t have relatives killed in the Holocaust will be unable to make documentaries of similar topics?

    In July 2016, the Le Monde and La Croix newspapers announced that they would no longer publish the names and faces of terrorists, a decision that betrays the anxieties surrounding religious violence in a country still reeling from a series of harrowing terrorist attacks. Perhaps this precautionary approach makes more sense in cases where the drive for notoriety seems to inspire the act of violence (school shootings, for example). But with Islamist terrorists, it misunderstands what really motivates their atrocities. They are driven not by the desire for column inches, but by the promise of paradise. (Bold mine.)

    I think the author is spot on in this assessment. I recall when the appeal was made and accepted the fear was Marine Le Pen’s National Front was gaining a lot of political support from a public outraged by the outrages. Certainly, ISIS and others aren’t looking to Le Monde to carry its message. Their own propaganda skills are very professional and polished, and they have many ways to disseminate their videos. Nowadays Islamist terrorism continues in Europe yet the reporting of it is quite subdued. Terrorism has become “part and parcel” of life in the big city, as London mayor Sadiq Khan hoped. It’s normalised.

    • Morgan Foster says

      @ga gamba

      If you don’t mind my asking, how to you manage to italicize and bold some of your text?

      I’m using a MacBook and Safari, and if there is a way to do it, I can’t figure it out.

      • ga gamba says The closing tag requires the / after the < and before the first letter.

        I don't know whether this site allows all attributes to be used in the comments, but hyperlink, italics, bold, and strikethrough are permitted. The explanation of hyperlink's syntax at the previous page is poor, so this is clearer.

        A quick and dirty way to determine whether tags are < (HTML) or [ (BBcode) is by right clicking the page and viewing the source.

        Lastly, take care using three or more hyperlinks in a comment because this site eats them.

          • Lerendu says

            This documentary is forbidden in France ,
            But it can be viewed I am trying to wiew it in the USA on some cinema networks.
            Would you know some ways to view it on the net, in English, E.G by downloading it or in streaming.


  2. JonFrum says

    “Hamza perfectly typifies the Salafist who despises Western modernity and is also addicted to it.”

    V.S. Naipaul wrote about this in his 1982 book Among the Believers. He also pointed out – in his usual brilliant way – that Muslim immigrants to the West who enthusiastically demand their religious rights never even consider that Westerners in their home countries should be granted the same rights. Because being a Muslim is different.

    Read this book:

    • Morgan Foster says

      Related somewhat to the irony of Western feminists who are reluctant to question Muslim immigrants about their opinions regarding abortion.

      This is particularly glaring when Muslim politicians are running for public office on the Democratic ticket.

  3. Darwin T of BC Humanists says

    Hey, the real reason this film will not initially reach wide release is for the grave charge of not passing the Bechdel Test!!! Both clips have zero female voices. If only it were more inclusive and diverse the filmmakers would get their desired distribution.

    Was Sinead O’Connor offered a chance to participate? Was Linda Sarsour? Shame on these two male documentarians.

    • Men are reasonable, women are impulsive and not reliable, as the the film protagonist’s observation goes 🙂

  4. Farris says

    To best understand Jihadists one must understand the history that motivates them. Many in the United States believe the 9/11 attackers chose September 11th because the numerical sequence coincides with the emergency call telephone number 911. Untrue. September 11th is a significant date, Muslims wish to avenge. SEPTEMBER 11, 1683:
    Led by King Sobieski reinforcements begin the rout Mustafa’s forces laying siege to Vienna.
    Additionally October 7th is another date Muslims would like to avenge (see Oct. 7th “Feast of Mary, Queen of Victory”).
    Jihadists children know this history, Western children do not.

    • Another theory as to why that chosen date was very apt was because it aligns with Qur’an 9:111, often quoted by suicide attackers. “Verily, Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and their properties: for a price, for theirs shall be paradise. They fight in Allah’s cause, so they kill and are killed.” The preceding verses are also very interesting as discussed in this article by Dr Lawrence Franklin…

  5. I don’t disagree with the point the review is trying to make, but I don’t think it’s that important at this point either. While it is good to be aware that there are scumbags like this in the world, and aware of how they think, is this really a problem for anyone in the western hemisphere almost 20 years after 9/11? We have been constantly bombarded with the stuff from one venue or another for years.

    you would literally have to be living under a rock or someone who does not read anything at all to consider what this movie is teaching as “something new“

    File under “tell us something we dont know”?

  6. Stephanie says

    Thank you for the review, it sounds like an important film.

    Something that always strikes me as horribly ironic is that Europeans, in particular, are so hung up in guilt over colonization that they refuse to blame any of the malfeasance of Muslims on them. So apologetic about their past sense of superiority, they deny Muslims their essential humanity, and treat them like dogs. If they misbehave, it is the fault of Europeans for having abused them or failing to properly train them. There’s no room in their minds for the possibility that Muslims are competent adults with minds of their own and control of their own destinies.

    • Area Man says

      Refusing to condemn bad actors who belong to an “oppressed class” is variation of the “racism through lower expectations” phenomenon. It’s a form of paternalism that removes agency & self-determination that’s often seen in those who blame the US for everything that goes wrong in the world.

  7. My experience has been different. I am amazed by the number of people who know nothing about Islam except to jump to Muslims are discriminated against and that’s bad.

    Even many young Muslims know nothing about the origins of their religion any more than secular Christians know about the development of Christianity.

    For many Americans, especially young ones, the causes and events of 9/11 have become blurred into some version of “they were avenging perceived wrongs” done to their countries. At least, that’s what I hear.

    If you think that none of this is a problem for anyone in the western hemisphere, try you tube or reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or Sam Harris, or Gad Saad, and think about how Islam easily becomes political and expansive based on the religious dictates. The distinction between Islamic, Islamist and Jihadist is important to understand.

    I think most Muslims just want to live lives – work, have families, and be part of the community. It’s the roughly 5% worldwide that support Jihad, as well as a much larger Islamist % that pose a threat.

    • ga gamba says

      Five per cent. Sounds insignificant. But, to put it another way, 5% is also 90 million people. Roughly, the entire population of Germany and Austria combined.

    • Ikonoklaster says

      Most of my friends, lovely well meaning people, have the vague idea that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists had it coming because they were racist on some level.

      I think at least part of the reason for this as secular post Christian people, who barely understand that much of their worldview and certainly the societies we (still) live in are shaped by Christianity, cannot really comprehend that other peoples actions are motivated by faith – therefore the killers of the cartoonists must be motivated by something other than faith in their view, something like politics.

      Similarly they make the assumption, that fundamentally, all peoples want the same things, as is peoples motivations and actions are not ever shaped by belief and worldview.

      This is the multicultural dream, which I think probably comes from Hindu thinking, that all religions are just manifestations of the same underlying cosmic or spiritual truth, more or less just dressed in different clothes.

      One thing is for sure, the jihadis don’t believe this multicultural thinking, for them there is one truth, it is the truth if Islam, and for them it must reign superior.

      • Area Man says


        And the same people who perceive that those who make fun of a religion deserve to be murdered are the first to describe Isreal’s reaction to Hamas violence as “disproportionate”.

  8. Charlie says

    Modern day political Islam starts in the 1920s with the Muslim Brotherhood. It s a rejection of western culture and particularly the freedom of women to choose who they can marry. Islam is product of tribal society where the power of the tribe depends upon number of males. Women are controlled because their fertility must be controlled so that their sexual intercourse enables babies to be born in order to increase the size of the tribe.

    Abul Maududi in India starts to reject western culture in the 1930s and especially the emancipation of women. Qutb of Egypt travels to the USA and the freedom women horrifies him , resulting in the writing of Signposts. Other groups are Tablighi Jamaat and Hizb ut Tahir also reject modern western culture. Political Islam is influenced by Al Wahab of the 1750s and Ibn Taymiyyah of the 13th century.

    Defeat of the Arab countries in 1973 Yom Kippur War; Zia ul Haq coming to power in Pakistan; the large numbers of Muslims working in Saudi Arabia; the fall of the Shah; rise of Khomeini and defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan caused a shift in power. Western secular upper class Muslims who controlled Egypt ( Omar Shareef), Pakistan( Buttos, I Khan) and Lebanon( Sunni Muslims ) lost power to the more numerous lower middle Muslims who rejected the West and in particular, emancipation of women. Muslim women wore miniskirts in cities such as Cairo, Tehran and Kabul in the late 1960s.

    Bin Laden has said he was influenced by Ibn Taymiyyah who wished to return to the 7th century.

    Feeble self hating left wing middle atheistic types fail to realise that Jihadis despise and hate them.

    Political Islam fears the sexual power of free women. Jihadis want to live in the 7th century, have absolute control over women yet own Iphones and watch football on TV. It hates and fears the West in equal measures but it’s one trump card is that it knows that most middle and upper class westerners are terrified of physical violence. As the population grows in Muslim countries grow yet few are able to increase incomes accordingly. Consequently, there are vast numbers of men too poor to marry and have sex. which means women remain unmarried as well. In many ways it was the increasingly libertine lifestyles post 1960s and especially the allowance of women to have sex before marriage which has spurred some Muslims to reject The West and become Jihadis. The more libertine and dissolute a society becomes, the less capable it becomes of fighting and defending itself, for example the late Roman Empire and The Ancien Regime of France

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