How an unlikely American ideologue is inspiring Egypt’s new generation of Islamic militants.
It must have seemed like a perfectly normal day for 18-year-old Boula Fawzy as he was wrapping up his shift in the KFC branch in the Egyptian town of Quesna. Fresh from high school, he had been forced to work like many young Egyptians in order to help his family. As Fawzy was finishing up in the restaurant in the early hours of Feb. 5, a motorcycle stopped on the street outside and opened fire at the facade. The gunshots were soon followed by Molotov cocktails hurled through the front window. Trapped on the second floor, Boula didn’t have a chance. He burned to death.
Since the start of the year, multinational corporations, foreign-owned banks, and cell-phone companies have become the latest targets in the ongoing battle between Islamists and the Egyptian regime. Credit for the KFC attacks and others — including a multiple coordinated bombing this week in downtown Cairo that killed one passerby — has been claimed by hitherto little-known groups that call themselves “the Popular Resistance Movement” and “Revolutionary Punishment.” Formed by disgruntled Islamist youth who are unwilling to tolerate the status quo but decline to join traditional jihadi organizations, these groups have endorsed low-level violence as a means to bring down the Egyptian regime. For months, similar young militants have targeted police vehicles and policemen with Molotov attacks, cheered on by Muslim Brothers and fellow travelers.
But why have these groups focused on attacking multinational corporations? Why do Islamists think burning down a KFC would help topple the military regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi? Much of the answer lies with an unlikely new theoretician of Egypt’s burgeoning Islamist insurrection, a 43-year-old American (and convicted murderer) named Shahid King Bolsen. When the Popular Resistance Movement took credit for the bombings, it used slogans first popularized by Bolsen.
Bolsen’s influence stems from his innovative efforts to fuse early-21st-century anti-capitalist ideology with the tenets of ultra-conservative Salafi Islam. Islamist infatuation with radical left ideas is not new; neither is the tactic of targeting economic interests. (The jihadi insurgency of the ’90s targeted the Egyptian tourism sector.) But Bolsen’s message — widely disseminated on social media throughout the Arabic-speaking world — aims to go much further. He has succeeded in Islamifying a far-left discourse about the evils of global “neo-liberalism,” singling out nefarious multinational corporations, rather than governments, as the real enemies of Muslims. “Egypt is today being invaded and occupied by a neoliberal crusade,” he writes.
Born Shannon Morris in Boulder, Colorado in 1971, he was raised as a Catholic by his mother after their father abandoned the family in 1983 to pursue a screenwriting career in California. His family would later recall that, even as a young man, Shannon was deeply troubled by social injustice and the gap between America’s rich and poor. He spent long hours in the local library reading about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Finishing high school, he attended Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he studied political science and became involved in various social projects. The story of the political and religious journey of Malcolm X awakened Bolsen’s interest in Islam, and in early 1997 he converted, later attributing this to Islam’s generosity towards the poor.
A Pakistani from Bolsen’s local mosque suggested a new name: “Shahid” is the Arabic word for “martyr,” “King” stands for Martin Luther King, and “Bolsen” is his mother’s maiden name. Interestingly, he has now stopped using “King,” since his former idol’s emphasis on non-violence stands in obvious contradiction to his new persona. At the time he was working as a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, a local newspaper no longer in print. It was there that he met his wife, Asya. Eight years his elder, Asya was a Palestinian from Gaza who had won a fellowship to the United States and was interning for the newspaper. The two quickly fell in love. They were married in a ceremony in Gaza in June 1997.
Bolsen now began to fuse his anti-capitalist views with his new religious faith. His writings from this period range from a 1999 article on how the IMF controls Pakistan to an April 2001 anti-Israeli rant. In 2001 he took his family to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to live among the city’s Muslim community. He found employment with the now defunct Islamic Association of North America, where he oversaw outreach efforts to non-Muslims and led Friday prayers in local prisons. He also ran IANARadio, an Islamic news and information website. In June 2001, Bolsen traveled to London, where he gave talks on Palestine.
By 2003, Bolsen was feeling frustrated with his life in America. He would later claim that he was being pursued by the FBI (though there is no evidence to support the claim). At the time he only indicated that he wanted to live and raise his children in a Muslim country. In March 2003, Bolsen took his wife and three children and moved to the United Arab Emirates. Life was good at first. He opened an internet café and rented a villa. Soon, however, his business failed, and the money began to run out. Bolsen was unable to find employment himself, so his wife took a job as a translator to help pay the bills, the kids were sent to public schools, and the family was forced to move to a small apartment. As his financial problems grew, so did Bolsen’s disenchantment with life in the UAE. Cosmopolitan Dubai was far from the Islamic utopia he had imagined. Increasingly frustrated, he turned to his personal blog (now defunct), where he ranted about Middle East politics and neo-imperialism. The mounting disillusionment took its toll on his health as he began suffering from headaches, depression, and insomnia.
In early 2006, Bolsen created a profile on a social networking site posing as his maid. The profile suggested that its owner was a Middle Eastern woman living in Dubai and looking for a sexual encounter with a Western man. Martin Herbert Steiner, a German engineer, had just moved to Dubai from Singapore. Feeling lonely, he contacted the profile owner. E-mails and phone messages were exchanged, and the two agreed to meet. Bolsen’s wife and children were visiting family in Gaza.
In his subsequent confessions to the police, Bolsen claimed that he merely wanted to shame Steiner out of his “sinful ways.” What exactly happened in the house remains unclear. Bolsen claimed that he didn’t intend to kill Steiner, and that he had used a cloth soaked in chloroform to subdue the other man only after he had tried to force himself on Bolsen’s housekeeper. The housekeeper later testified that, after killing Steiner, Bolsen had told her, “Don’t worry, but say ‘God is Great,’ for an infidel is dead.” In his current recounting of the episode, Bolsen says simply that Martin was a Jew and that “Allah killed him.”
The next day Bolsen used Steiner’s credit cards to buy $20,000 worth of electronics. Shortly thereafter he placed Steiner’s corpse in a suitcase and drove to Oman, hoping to escape using the dead man’s passport. Changing his mind on the way, he hid the body at the side of the road, covering it with dirt, then drove back to Sharjah. For the next 10 days nothing happened. But then video footage implicated Bolsen in the crime, and he was arrested. On June 25, he led police to the body. On Oct. 23, 2007, a local court sentenced him to death.
He attempted — unsuccessfully at first — to offer “blood money” (a form of compensation allowed under UAE law) to Steiner’s family to win his freedom. Reports on the trial in the local press included exaggerated stories of Bolsen posing as a gay man on social media, entering the UAE on a forged British passport, marrying a second wife (a British woman from Somalia), or attempting to use money from a sex business to finance Al Qaeda. In prison Bolsen became an imam and launched a Quran competition for other inmates on death row. His story was picked up by several Islamic forums, and sympathizers launched a website that pleaded for leniency in his case. (His wife and children have since moved back to Colorado, where they live today.)
In October 2013, Bolsen was released from prison and deported after paying $55,000 in blood money. He quickly made his way to Turkey, where he began posting his views, at first little noticed, on his personal Facebook page. His real breakthrough, however, came when Mahmoud Fathy, a well-known Egyptian Salafi, began promoting his views. It’s unclear how they met, but the two men shared an apartment together when they first came to Turkey.
Fathy, a revolutionary Salafi, was the founder of the Fadila (Virtue) Party, the first Salafi party to be established following the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, and was now a fugitive in Turkey following Egypt’s military coup. Initially backed by a Cairo sheikh, the party soon fell apart after he rejected it and denounced its ideas as “extremist.” In the two years following the revolution, Fadila gravitated to increasingly radical ideas. In the 2012 presidential election, the party supported the fiery Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an ultraconservative who railed against the interim military government and was later arrested in the summer of 2013.
In the wake of the 2013 military coup, Fathy managed to escape from Egypt. He began to call for violence against the new regime from Turkey, endorsing the killing of soldiers and police officers. He and Bolsen soon found they had many common views. Fathy had solid Salafi credentials and intimate knowledge of the Egyptian scene but, like most disgruntled Islamists, he lacked a strategy to bring down Sisi. Bolsen filled the gap with his invigorating, anarchist theory of opposition to globalization. More importantly, as time passed, Bolsen also came up with a corresponding strategy: he proposed attacking multinational companies, outlining specific tactics and even providing targeting information, including addresses.
Bolsen’s first major appearance came in a May 2014 video interview about the situation in Egypt. The video identified him as “chief analyst” of something called the “the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign.” The organization, launched in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq, was headed by radical Saudi cleric Safar Al Hawali, and its members included prominent Salafi activists such as Kuwait’s Hakem El Moteiry. But its main driving force was Abdel Rahman El Naimi, a Qatari designated as a financier of global terrorism by the United States government in 2013. Throughout the years of the Iraqi insurgency, the Campaign played an instrumental role in financing Iraqi Sunni firebrand Harith Al Dhari and Sunni extremists.
Bolsen’s message to Egypt’s Islamist revolutionaries is simple. “The neoliberal program is far more dangerous for Egypt, and for the Islamic movement, than [Egypt’s President] Abdel-Fatah el-Sisi,” he writes. The response, he says, should be a “campaign of targeted system disruption” against multi-national corporations that will slash profits and increase the cost of doing business, thus forcing them to withdraw their support to Sisi. He presents his model as one that is applicable not only to Egypt but also to the Islamist struggle elsewhere.
His growing following on social media has not only helped provide a strategy to groups like Popular Resistance and Revolutionary Punishment. Bolsen’s ideas have also inspired an online campaign called the “Losers Conference,” which aims to sabotage an upcoming investor summit, widely touted by the Sisi government, by encouraging targeting and intimidation of the companies scheduled to participate.
Bolsen’s Facebook status updates and his articles — some of which have been published by the Qatari-funded Arabi21 news website — are scrupulously translated into perfect Arabic by supporters determined to disseminate and popularize his message. It comes as little surprise that his radical, conspiracy-ridden worldview finds a welcoming audience among Egyptian Islamists, particularly among impressionable members of the younger generation who are shopping in a marketplace of ideas crowded with extremist ideologies. Bolsen’s radical rhetoric and techniques have been implicitly endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which hosted him twice on its Misr Al Aan TV channel. The Brotherhood has conspicuously neglected to condemn any of the attacks he has championed.
Bolsen insists that his campaign transcends opposition to the military coup in Egypt, casting it as crucial to the global Islamist project. “Egypt has the opportunity to pioneer a new path in the Islamic struggle,” he writes. “The whole world needs this new model of confrontation against the global power structure.” Islam, Bolsen asserts, is the real enemy of this devilish imperial neo-liberal power structure, which seeks to conquer the resource-rich Muslim lands. “If you have any interest in establishing an Islamic system, the prerequisite for that is independence [from the neo-liberal order],” instructs Bolsen. He explains that this capitalist model is the conspiracy of the insidious forces of “idolatry,” which spreads a religion of “infidel-based capitalism” that must be resisted by the believers in Islamic monotheism — a twist on familiar Salafi vocabulary. “Egypt is today being invaded and occupied by a neoliberal crusade,” writes Bolsen.
Bolsen packages his alternative jihad as a less violent yet more effective form of “resistance” than traditional terrorism campaigns. He discourages targeting the security forces, since, as he says, that is “what they are prepared for.” His specific instructions, such as throwing spiked obstacles under delivery trucks to paralyze supply chains, posting the addresses and telephone numbers of companies, and calling in fake bomb threats to decrease efficiency, seem comparatively innocuous. Yet he has also made a point of giving his blessing to bombings and terrorist attacks (though he also takes care to express regret if innocents happen to die and urges “precautionary” steps when attacking businesses and burning them down).
At the same time, Bolsen’s message is in fact quite explicit in its insistence on uncompromising confrontation. “If the slaves on a plantation rebel and burn down the house of the slave master, the slaves who stay in the house will have to find somewhere else to live, but the action frees them all. It is a small price for a great benefit, but yes, a price does have to be paid,” he explained to followers. For him, Muslims can find inspiration for their war against the corporations in their own traditions. He gives the example of a Jewish tribe fought by early Muslims in the seventh century: “Burning the date trees of Banu Nadir accomplished what swords and arrows could not.” And Muslims, who are justified by sharia to carry out armed struggle, may do so against “Western corporate domination in their own country.”
And so, attacking franchises like KFC — a company he has repeatedly singled out — is the frontline of this battle. “When you strike KFC, or any of their companies, your message goes directly to the top of the pyramid,” writes Bolsen, in a reference to the investment groups that hold shares in KFC’s parent company, Yum! Brands. A particularly popular post on his Facebook wall showed a burning KFC emblazoned with the words “Your business, our blood.” While the idea of Islamists targeting fast-food franchises might seem absurd, this new form of terrorism heralds on ominous trend that is likely to lead to more civilian deaths.
Bolsen’s recent emergence as a thinker is not a coincidence. His ideas mesh with the newest current to emerge within Islamism, known as “Revolutionary Salafism.” Long before Egypt’s 2011 Revolution, one of the earliest members of the first jihadi group to emerge in Egypt, Rifai Sorour, began to tout a forceful version of a new form of Islamism that merged Salafi tenets, jihadi tenets, and a revolutionary methodology. His ideas took root among young Salafis who were eager for action but frustrated with their traditional religious leaders; during the revolution many of them coalesced around the charismatic leadership of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who became the leader of a group that rejected any cooperation with the military during the post-revolutionary transitional period and called for the implementation of sharia. Ismail’s trademark was a Salafism released from the shackles of scholarship; a Salafism for the masses; a Salafism mixed with a heavy dose of social justice, populism, and anti-Americanism. The revolutionary moment in Egypt, the July 2013 military coup, and the Rabaa massacre (when hundreds of Brotherhood sympathizers were gunned down on the streets of Cairo) managed to do what might have seemed impossible — to inject revolutionary, anti-capitalist thought into Sunni Islam. In a way, the thinkers of Revolutionary Salafism are following in the footsteps of Ali Shariati, the Iranian thinker who combined 1970s neo-Marxist anti-colonial rhetoric with activist notions of an intensely politicized Islam.
Sorour’s death of natural causes in 2012 left Revolutionary Salafism without a theoretician, while Abu Ismail’s imprisonment following the coup has deprived it of a leader. The gap left by their absence is enormous, and dozens of groups and individuals are now attempting to fill the void. Revolutionary Salafism, a transformative ideology that has the potential to revitalize Islamist movements, awaits its Lenin. Yet it’s just possible it may have already found one in the person of Bolsen, whose amalgam of Islamism and anti-capitalism is already proving surprisingly resonant. That the Islamist Lenin happens to be a murderer, and bordering on insane, testifies to the depth of the crisis in which Egyptian Islamists find themselves, and their willingness to accept any radical deliverance — even if it comes in the form of a man who speaks no Arabic.