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In 2016, the two scholars Haroro Ingram and Craig Whiteside argued in an article on War on the Rocksthat we should not try too hard to kill the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In fact, they said, it would be better to leave him alive. Their view was that it would be wiser to leave al-Baghdadi as the caliph in charge of the demise of the group’s territorial caliphate, essentially positioning him as the authority in charge of its collapse and hopefully leaving him as an unpopular figure with little sway among group members and little ability to lead its resurgence. Well aware that this is an entirely theoretical discussion—if we obtain knowledge of al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts there is no chance that he will not be killed—I agreed with the authors at the time the article was published. But as the context has now changed I am increasingly convinced that we now have a strategic moment where indeed it would make sense to kill the caliph.
From an integrated to a fragmented group
In his book Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse, Paul Staniland introduces a four-pronged typology of network structures within rebel groups: integrated, parochial, vanguard, andfragmented. Integrated groups are characterized by strong horizontal and vertical networks ensuring strong internal cohesion. Strong unity among senior figures materializes in effective central institutions while the group enjoys a high level of local compliance. In parochial groups there is no strong unity between senior figures, but the group has strong local control despite the absence of effective institutions. A vanguard group is the opposite of a parochial group with strong unity among senior figures but little to no local control. Finally, a fragmented group suffers from a lack of unity between senior figures, an absence of effective central institutions, and little local control.
In the heyday of the Islamic State’s territorial control, the group could legitimately be considered an integrated group with unity among its leadership and with strong local embeddedness and compliance in most areas under its control. While it may be a stretch to claim that the Islamic State has already turned into a fragmented group, it is certainly on its way to doing so. This comes as a result of its rapidly decreasing local control and factionalization among figures on the highest organizational level. In addition, the linkages between senior figures on a global scale appear weak compared to those of al-Qaida, whose leaders have a shared history from Afghanistan or other battlefields. In groups where trust is essential, this is no minor issue.
Already in the early days of the caliphate, the Islamic State suffered from internal criticism and dissidence, but at the time it was mainly among fringe elements of the group and did not pose an immediate danger to group cohesion. In 2017, when the group’s decline was already well on its way, internal criticism intensified and eventually escalated to involve imprisonment and assassination of opposing figures. The ideological aspect of this division between what we can call a ‘moderate’ wing and an ‘extremist’ wing is already well-documented through the works in particular of Cole Bunzel (see here, here and here), Aymenn al-Tamimi (see here, here, here and here) and this author (see here and here). The actual impact of this internal conflict has received less thought though.
Divisions and fratricide: fighting the wrong enemy
Since 2017 the internal conflict has been building up and positions on each side have hardened. At the heart of the conflict lie differences regarding specific theological issues such as who should be considered apostates, but criticism has also concerned how the Islamic State handled its territorial demise. Both factions have attacked one another through their respective channels on the IT-platform Telegram, authored publications with the sole purpose of delegitimizing the opposing faction, leaked material from inside the group, and fought for control over central institutions and the support of their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. More recently, senior figures of the ‘moderate’ wing have been imprisoned and, on some occasions, killed by coalition bombings during imprisonment. Unsurprisingly, supporters of the ‘moderate’ wing claim that the opposing faction is leaking the locations of these prisons to the coalition.
Whether such claims are true is hard to confirm, but in any case the internal conflict between the two factions has left deep wounds inside an already troubled organization. Instead of focusing on its main enemies, the Islamic State has wasted energy on an internal war, losing personnel and fueling group fragmentation at a time when cohesion is more important than ever. Questions are also being asked about the leadership of al-Baghdadi. Is he the one actually leading the group? And should he continue to do so?
In his latest video, al-Baghdadi the fighterattempts to cement his role as the leader of the group—a leader who is up-to-date on the situation in the Islamic State’s global provinces and who is indeed pulling the strings. Almost five years earlier, in his first appearance, al-Baghdadi the caliph said from the top of the al-Nuri mosque’s pulpit that “I was chosen to lead you, but I am not better than you. So if you find me to be right then help me, and if you find me to be wrong then advise me and make me right and obey me in what I obey Allah. If I disobey Him then there is no obedience to me”. Now, in 2019, it appears that at least two factions in the Islamic State consider al-Baghdadi ill-suited to be caliph. This was the message in a recent bookpublished by a senior figure in the ‘moderate’ wing, Abu Muhammad al-Hashimi, in which he urges supporters to revoke their pledge of allegiance to al-Baghdadi (it should be stated that al-Hashimi’s book received a lot of criticism from ordinary supporters of the Islamic State who initiated a campaign to renew bayah to al-Baghdadi (see examples here and here) and also from the extremists who despite sharing al-Hashimi’s disappointment with al-Baghdadi are more at odds with the ‘moderates’ (see here)).
Fragmentation and shifting power balances
Despite the question marks surrounding his leadership, al-Baghdadi for now remains the glue keeping the group together. If he were killed, a symbolic power vacuum would emerge and it is likely that the group would once and for all fracture and that tensions and infighting would escalate. Unlike in al-Qaida where Ayman al-Zawahiri was an easy pick as Bin Laden’s successor, there is no clear succession plan in the Islamic State. This is partly due to the death of most of the experienced senior leaders, but also a result of the internal tensions among those remaining. Hence it is hard to identify any existing leader to take over and immediately heal the wounds.
In fact, it could be speculated that the death of al-Baghdadi would result in a critical geographical shift in power balance within the group. Despite its origin in the Levant, a case could be made that a new caliph, or amir, should be found outside Syria and Iraq where certain provinces have intensified their military campaigns and thereby raised their global standing. While such a scenario remains unlikely, albeit not impossible, it would not only shift the group’s center of authority but also further aggravate its diminishing global cohesion.
According to Ingram and Whiteside, a splintering Islamic State group is not something we should wish for, however, as it could make the group even more ‘volatile and dangerous’. While it is true that splintering into several groups could result in new strategies and operational priorities, not to speak of increased irrational and undisciplined behavior, it will likely weaken the threat these actors pose. Such weakening will result from a combination of decreased capacity, the necessity to reconfigure the group, and the distraction that group splinters always entail. Just ask al-Qaida or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
There is always the risk that leadership decapitation offers the group a fresh start, and perhaps that is precisely what the Islamic State currently needs. But given the fragmented nature of its current network and authority structures, there is a much greater chance that the death of the caliph will lead to internal implosion and defections.
Since it began losing territory in Iraq and Syria in 2016, the Islamic State’s official line for explaining its losses has been that God is subjecting the believers to a test or trial (tamhis, ibtila’). The theme was introduced in May 2016 by Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, the Islamic State’s official spokesman until his death later that year, in an audio address recalling the struggles of the Islamic State of Iraq between 2006 and 2012. Al-‘Adnani reminded listeners of “God’s practice of testing and trying the mujahidin,” hinting that more of the same lay in store. In October 2016, an editorial in the Islamic State’s official Arabic weekly, al-Naba’, spoke similarly of God’s habit of “trying the believers with misfortune and hardship … before God’s victory will descend upon them.”
In other words, so the message goes, take heart and despair not, for the divine tribulation will surely pass and the triumphant march toward final victory will resume. As Abu al-Hasan al-Muhajir, al-‘Adnani’s successor as speaker, put it in a speech in April 2017: “If we are dispossessed of a city or an area or a village, this is only the testing and trying of the Muslim community, in order that the ranks may be purified and the filth expunged.” Thereafter, he said, God will give victory to the believers and, as prophesied, they will go on to conquer the world.
To most members and supporters of the Islamic State, this message might be persuasive enough. But not all are on board. Indeed, a large number have pushed back spiritedly against the notion that their suffering is somehow a divine test, accusing the Islamic State of being responsible for the present travails. According to them, what we are witnessing is not a divine test so much as a divine punishment. The Islamic State’s leadership, in this view, erred badly, indulging ideological extremism, corruption, and oppression, thus incurring God’s wrath. The two explanations for the Islamic State’s losses are thus the trial thesis and the oppression thesis. As the Islamic State prepares to cede its final pocket of territory in eastern Syria, the adherents of the latter may be growing.
The oppression thesis takes form
The oppression thesis dates back to at least summer 2017, when two Islamic State scholars composed letters setting out a litany of complaints against the caliphate’s leadership. The two letters, by Abu Muhammad al-Husayni al-Hashimi and Abu ‘Abd al-Malik al-Shami, respectively, were described in an earlier post, and since have been translated by Aymenn Al-Tamimi (see here and here). As will be recalled, these men were reacting to a series of developments involving the promulgation of a memorandum on takfir (excommunication) seen by the scholarly class as too extreme and the subsequent death of several scholars who objected to it. Yet their concerns went beyond the immediate context of the takfir dispute.
Al-Hashimi questioned the Islamic State’s very claim to be following “the prophetic methodology,” arguing that “oppressors, ignoramuses, and innovators” had taken over the caliphate while Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was nowhere to be seen. Al-Shami complained similarly of “oppressive, errant, deficient, and extremist commanders” who had seized the reins of power in the caliph’s absence. Both claimed that these leaders were advancing a Kharijite ideology, referring to the early Islamic sect famous for its extremism in takfir. In al-Shami’s words, the Islamic State was “exchanging its religion for the religion of the Kharijites,” while dissenters were being imprisoned or killed.
As a result, according to the two letter-writers, the Islamic State’s worldly fortunes were being affected. God was punishing the pseudo-caliphate. “Do you not have a reminder and an admonition in all these dreadful events and calamities that are befalling the Islamic State?” al-Hashimi asked al-Baghdadi, quoting Qur’an 6:42: “Indeed, We sent to nations before thee, and We seized them with misery and hardship that haply they might be humble.” Al-Shami was equally strident on this score. “Indeed,” he wrote, “what the Islamic State is going through today is not a test, as the misleading media lead us to believe. Rather it is a substitution”—a reference to God’s threats in the Qur’an (9:39, 47:38) to “substitute another people instead of you.”
For both writers, a key piece of evidence was a statement made by Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani back in April 2014, in a speech defending what was then the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. In the speech, al-‘Adnani beseeched God to punish the Islamic State if it veered toward extremism. “O God,” he exclaimed,
O God, if this state be a state of Kharijites, then break its back, kill its leaders, bring down its flag, and guide its soldiers to the truth. O God, and if it be a state of Islam, ruling by Your book and the practice of Your prophet and waging jihad against your enemies, then fortify it, empower it, make it victorious, establish it in the land, and make it a caliphate on the prophetic methodology.
In the eyes of al-Hashimi and al-Shami, God’s reply to al-‘Adnani was abundantly clear. The signs of His disfavor were everywhere and irrefutable. “Indeed, I see the confirmation of this entreaty being realized before us,” al-Hashimi commented. “We have seen clearly how al-‘Adnani’s entreaty … was answered,” wrote al-Shami. The extremist and oppressive functionaries appointed by al-Baghdadi were getting their comeuppance. And yet, as is God’s way, all were paying the price. Al-Shami quoted verse 8:25 of the Qur’an: “And fear a trial which shall surely not smite in particular the oppressors among you; and know that God is terrible in retribution.”
The oppression thesis gains steam
Even though al-Baghdadi retracted the controversial takfir memorandum in September 2017, in a sign of support for the scholars and their somewhat more nuanced position on takfir, the concerns voiced by al-Hashimi and al-Shami lingered among the scholars, unconvinced as they were that the leadership had truly changed. Over the next year and more, the scholars continued to air grievances of the same kind, and they continued to be imprisoned and killed. That the Islamic State was inviting punishment was a recurring theme in their remarks.
A major spokesperson for the oppression thesis was the Jordanian-born Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi, for a time the head of the Islamic State’s Office of Research and Studies. In mid-March 2018, he addressed a letter to “those in authority” in which he elaborated his concerns and called on his correspondents to reform. Among other things, al-Maqdisi criticized them for imposing limits on the range of acceptable religious discourse, particularly as concerns takfir. In his view they had come “to equate themselves with God in commanding right and forbidding wrong,” which was to say they were usurping God’s sovereignty. Al-Maqdisi complained further of “the spread of innovations,” including “the throwing of accusations of unbelief and innovation without restriction,” and “the spread of oppression and violation of blood and property.” It was these transgressions, he submitted, that were to blame for the current troubles:
We are certain that the successive losses, defeats, and setbacks that have befallen this state are not the result of a shortage of numbers and materiel. Indeed, the cause of this is sin, which has drawn the wrath of the Almighty and the visitation of His retribution against us all.
Al-Maqdisi called on his correspondents to correct their errors, but the advice did not go over well. Repeatedly imprisoned in 2018, he was executed toward the end of the year on charges of apostasy.
Another Islamic State scholar who publicly espoused the oppression thesis was the Saudi Abu al-Mundhir al-Harbi. In a sermon during the siege of the Province of al-Raqqa (presumably late 2017), he said, “Indeed, this tribulation and this setback that we are passing through, we have no doubt that it is a punishment from God for what our hands have perpetrated … We have sinned and oppressed and grown arrogant.” It is necessary, al-Harbi continued, for us “to repent sincerely to God, to recognize that we have oppressed and transgressed and grown arrogant and haughty.”
Two other scholars to sing this tune were the North African Abu Mus‘ab al-Sahrawi and the blind Egyptian Abu ‘Isa al-Masri. In early summer 2018, al-Sahrawi delivered a sermon in eastern Syria excoriating the leadership for oppression and extremism. “What has befallen us,” he told his congregation, “what has broken our back, divided our authority, and empowered the enemies of God over us is oppression and extremism in religion.” According to the media group that uploaded the sermon online, al-Sahrawi was henceforward banned from preaching. Also speaking that summer, likely also in eastern Syria, al-Masri likened the Islamic State to a sinking ship. “Just as oppression and corruption sink the ship,” he said, “so extremism in religion sinks the ship as well.”
Distributing these works online is a collection of dissident media agencies comprising Mu’assasat al-Wafa’, Mu’assasat al-Turath al-‘Ilmi, and Mu’assasat Ma‘arij. The first of these has also published articles by pseudonymous scholars blaming the Islamic State for its failures. (See, for instance, this March 2018 essay by Abu Suraqa al-Hashimi.) Yet an even more critical outlet in this regard been a media group called al-Nasiha (“Advice”), launched in 2018 as a forum for giving advice to the caliph.
Since its founding, al-Nasiha has published some twenty essays by a small group of writers. The most prolific of them is a certain Ibn Jubayr, who has given the impression of being in the Islamic State’s last holdout in eastern Syria. While extremely harsh in tone, Ibn Jubayr has for the most part exhibited a begrudging loyalty to the caliphate. Echoing the concerns of al-Hashimi and al-Shami, he has complained of the marginalization of the scholars, the effective disappearance of al-Baghdadi, the spread of extremism, and the consolidation of power in the hands of a small group of unscrupulous and repressive men. In July 2018 he told the latter that “your soldiers see you as the cause behind the erosion of the [Islamic] State and its breakup.” And in October 2018 he said to them, “Your oppression and your arrogance toward God … have served the coalition and brought us to where we are today.”
Gradually, al-Nasiha veered in the direction of outright opposition. The starting point was a speech by al-Baghdadi in August 2018 in which he reiterated the trial thesis, came to the defense of his deputies, and decried division. Ibn Jubayr responded with a critical commentary, noting regretfully that the caliph was very much aware of the oppression being unleashed by his underlings. The breaking point for him seems to have come in December 2018, when a number of imprisoned scholars were killed in a coalition airstrike on a prison in the Syrian village of al-Kushma. In an essay on the event, published in February 2019, Ibn Jubayr claimed that the Islamic State was now in some ways worse than the infidel states of the Middle East. Mentioning al-Baghdadi, he remarked, “may God swiftly set him right or replace him,” and addressing his deputies, he said, “God has made you and your false caliphate a [warning] sign for all who see your oppression.”
It was not till early February 2019 that the Islamic State’s Central Media Department (Diwan al-I‘lam al-Markazi) finally took it upon itself to refute these arguments, devoting an article to them in al-Naba’. “One of the greatest crimes and greatest innovations that we are seeing today spreading among the people,” read the article, “is their plunging into some of God’s foreordainments and their attempt to explain God’s will by means of them.” This was al-Naba’s way of attacking the view that the Islamic State had invited God’s punishment. Those espousing this view, the article said, “deny categorically that what is befalling some of the believers today is the test by which [God] will raise them by degrees.” Rather, they claim that the cause is God’s anger at the “sin or oppression” of the Islamic State’s rulers and the “deviation of [its] creed and path.” And they argue that His anger will not be lifted until these supposed errors are corrected.
The problem with this argument, according to al-Naba’, is that it presumes knowledge of the unseen—namely, knowledge of God’s “foreordainments”—and to claim such knowledge is “manifest unbelief.” “The Muslim servant,” al-Naba’ says, “knows that what befalls him or others is by God’s wise decree, but he does not know God’s intention behind this decree.”
Two weeks later, an author for al-Nasiha wrote a refutation of the al-Naba’ article, disputing the idea that to judge the Islamic State negatively was to claim knowledge of the unseen. “It is known in the religion by necessity,” wrote the author,
that oppression does not please God, that unwarranted killing does not please God, that extremism in religion does not please God, that torturing Muslims does not please God, that imprisoning them and terrorizing them and wrongly seizing their property does not please God … The things that anger God were clarified and established by Him in His book and in the practice of His prophet.
Furthermore, he went on, there are numerous verses of the Qur’an that show that “sins incur God’s anger, His retribution, and His punishment.” As God says (Q. 40:21), “God seized them for their sins.”
“Injustice” in Baghouz
In light of the above, it is worth noting that several Islamic State members who have fled the last bastion of Islamic State rule in Syria, in Baghouz, seem to subscribe to some version of the oppression thesis as outlined by Ibn Jubayr and others. One of them is Shamima Begum, the British “ISIS bride” who recently explained to the Times of London why “[t]he caliphate is over.” “There was so much oppression and corruption that I don’t think they deserved victory,” she said. If her account is to be believed, her Dutch husband was imprisoned by the Islamic State for six months on charges of espionage, during which he was subjected to torture. “There was a lot of similar oppressions of innocent people. In some cases fighters who had fought for the caliphate were executed as spies even though they were innocent.” A similar complaint was voiced by the American Hoda Muthana, who mentioned the oppression of the Islamic State in an interview with the Guardian. “In the end,” she said, “I didn’t have many friends left, because the more I talked about the oppression of Isis the more I lost friends.”
Speaking with Agence France-Presse, a man named Abdul Monhem Najiyya offered a different kind of criticism: “There was an implementation of God’s law, but there was injustice … The leaders stole money … and fled.” As for al-Baghdadi, he complained, “He left us in the hands of people who let us down and left. He bears responsibility, because, in our view, he is our guide.”
Another harsh verdict came from one Um Rayyan, who told the Associated Press, “I think this is the reason for the failure of the Islamic State … God protected us (from the international coalition.) But when there was corruption inside us, God stopped making us victorious.” Her particular grievance was the elevation of Iraqis over non-Iraqis, a theme to which Ibn Jubayr devoted an essay.
Of course, some of these comments are self-serving and should be assessed skeptically. Yet they do suggest that the oppression thesis has its adherents among those fleeing the caliphate. As the al-Naba’ article indicated, objections of this kind have been “spreading” (muntashira). Whether they might erode the Islamic State’s base of support is hard to say, however, as the trial thesis has its devotees as well. As a woman in Syria recently told a CNN journalist, “God is testing us.” For the moment, this appears to be the dominant narrative among former residents of the caliphate. How dominant it remains will be a measure of the Islamic State’s strength in the years to come
On 1 February Abu al-Yaqzan al-Masri, a senior religious official (shar‘i) representing the hardliner wing within Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), announced his defection from the group. Al-Masri’s decision came as a direct response to a recent interview with Abu Muhammed al-Julani, the amir of HTS, in which he gave his support to Turkey’s planned operations against the Kurds in northeast Syria. HTS’s rapprochement with Turkey has long been a sensitive issue causing problems both within the group and between HTS and al-Qaida-aligned figures). In a speech published on 5 February 2019, al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri reiterated his criticisms of HTS, albeit not mentioning the group explicitly.
Al-Masri, who allegedly was arrested by HTS following his defection, has long been a critical voice within HTS. As recently as 30 December 2018, he said in a videotaped sermon in Idlib that Turkey’s battle against the Kurdish YPG is “between a secular army and a secular, atheist party; a battle that is one episode in a long struggle between Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, in which Islam has no stake, and God’s word has no part.”But tensions in HTS over the issue of Turkey were already brewing back in September last year, when it was reported that al-Masri was objecting to the party line. Initially there were rumours that two other senior sheikhs, namely Abu Malik al-Tali and Abu Malik al-Shami, had also resigned, but those claims have since been refuted (see here).
Al-Masri’s defection was long in the making, prompted as it was by al-Julani’s rapprochement with Turkey. The defection is in itself a serious matter since al-Masri was a senior and extremely vocal shar‘i in HTS and rumoured to be heading al-Asa’ib al-Hamra’ (the Red Bands), an elite military force within the group. After migrating to Syria in 2013, he joined Ahrar al-Sham but later switched sides to HTS in September 2016. In the summer and fall of 2018, he was seen travelling to the battlefronts and publishing regular videos including a series called “short words from the land of jihad.” While it has been claimed that he was forced to resign, it appears more likely that the Egyptian could no longer tolerate the warm feelings between his amir and the Turks, who are apostates in the eyes of al-Masri. Back in September 2018, he delivered a sermon equating secularism with apostacy from Islam and explaining how Turkey is very much secular. Further attesting to his hardline approach in theology, al-Masrihas also been one of the fiercest voices against rival Jihadi groups Nour al-Deen al-Zinki and Ahrar al-Sham for their close collaboration with Turkey.
The immediate reaction from HTS has been ambiguous. Al-Zubayr al-Ghazi, a senior HTS ideologue, called on al-Masri to remain in HTS despite his differences, saying that “the brotherhood of faith is greater than the brotherhood of groups and organizations” (fa-ukhuwwat al-iman a‘zam min ukhuwwat al-jama‘at wa-l-tanzimat). But for the group it was important to send a signal that going against the party line would not be tolerated. Hence, on the same day as al-Masri’s resignation, HTS published a ruling stating that no one is allowed to publish fatwas before they have been approved by the shariah council (also like to statement). Two days later, Abu Abdullah al-Shami, the head of HTS’s shariah council, sought to defend against al-Masri’s criticisms, writing that it is not HTS that is changing in shifting its position (meaning ideology), as the critics claim, but rather the strategic context is changing, requiring the group to navigate the changing environment. Reports of al-Masri’s detention notwithstanding, an HTS insider source told this author that the expectation inside HTS is that al-Masri will eventually return, although Hurras al-Deen might seem the logical choice on an ideological level as al-Masri’s future home.
Re-emergence of tensions between HTS and Hurras al-Deen
As if al-Masri’s defection and implicit criticism of HTS was not enough of a headache for the group, it came at a time when renewed debate between HTS and Hurras al-Deen was being kickstarted. To remind readers, Hurras al-Deen is mainly composed of former Jabhat al-Nusra members who defected either after al-Nusra rebranded to become Jabhat Fath al-Sham in July 2016 or after the creation of HTS in January 2017, which effectively completed the breaking of ties with al-Qaida. Since its establishment in February 2018, Hurras al-Deen has consistently been at odds with HTS, criticizing the group for breaking its pledge of allegiance (bay‘a) to al-Qaida, for diluting the religion and monotheism (tawhid), and for not handing over certain weapons of HTS to Hurras al-Deen that the latter claims are the property of al-Qaida.
The tensions between HTS and al-Qaida loyalists came to a head in spring 2017, when Sami al-Uraydi, a Syrian-based al-Qaida leader, published a series of extremely critical essays directed against his former comrades. The situation escalated further in the fall when HTS began to arrest some of the critics including senior figures like Uraydi, Abu Julaybib and Abu Khallad. But it was after the formal establishment of Hurras al-Deen in February 2018 as a new al-Qaida group in Syria that the tensions got out of control. On 5 May 2018, the first casualty was recorded when Abu Uqba al-Kurdi, a Hurras al-Deen shar‘i, was shot by HTS at a checkpoint in Abu Utba outside of Aleppo. The explanation coming from HTS’s Abu Malik al-Shami was that a car didn’t stop when it was asked to and thus was shot at. Only afterwards was it realized that the passenger was a member of Hurras al-Deen. The shooter was subsequently arrested. Hostilities would continue, however, and on 11 July Abu al-Miqdad al-Urduni was arrested by HTS on fraud accusations. Al-Urduni is not officially a member of Hurras al-Deen, but he is close to the group and a good friend of Uraydi’s. He remains imprisoned to this day. Around the same time, Hurras al-Deen started to complain that HTS was arresting its fighters and opposing its military attacks on the regime
The dispute re-emerged on 30 January when Hurras al-Deen amir Abu Hammam al-Shami and its chief shar‘i Sami al-Uraydi published a statement following a new round of meetings between HTS and the Hurras al-Deen leadership. Abu Hammam’s and Uraydi’s argument can be divided into two themes. First is that some of HTS’s weapons belong to al-Qaida, and since Hurras al-Deen now represents al-Qaida in Syria it is the rightful owner of the weapons. Second is the argument that HTS’s jihad is not on founded on correct aqida (creed) or manhaj (methodology). As a way to settle the issue, the two suggest that a group of ‘independent’ scholars of religion, namely Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada al-Filastini, Nail bin Ghazi, Tariq Abdelhaleem, Hani Sibai, and Sadiq al-Hashemi, review the case and issue a judgment.
As expected, HTS members wasted no time in responding. The first response came from al-Zubayr al-Ghazi, a shar‘i in HTS’s military wing, in an essay titled “Does the Hurras group have rights and arms with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham?” Al-Ghazi builds his argument around the case of Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, al-Zawahiri’s deceased deputy, who according to the author not only ruled that al-Nusra could cut ties with al-Qaida but also that everything in its possession (including weapons) should remain its property. Al-Ghazi threatens that HTS could at anytime publish al-Khayr’s written ruling. To prove that Abu al-Khayr was in fact al-Zawahiri’s deputy at the time, six letters from al-Qaida shura members were shared (here, here, here, here, here and here). HTS claims (through al-Ghazi) that in a meeting on 5 January 2018 between Abu Hammam and al-Julani with Sheikh Abu Abd al-Karim al-Masri (an al-Qaida shura council member) as the overseer, 16 clauses were decided upon, among them the ruling of Abu al-Khayr – before his death – that the possessions of Jabhat al-Nusra would become the possession of (first Jabhat Fath al-Sham and then) HTS. Al-Ghazi only mentions 10 of the clauses, of which Hurras al-Deen, he states, would eventually break six (1-4, 8 and 10). He goes on to explain that after the agreement was made between al-Julani and Abu Hamman, both went back to their respective groups for final approval, but Abu Hamman’s al-Qaida loyalists (this was before the formal establishment of Hurras al-Deen) would not accept it (according to Abu Abdullah al-Shami not a single of the 16 clauses were accepted) and as a result Abu Hammam even offered his resignation (which was not accepted). Abu Hammam then referred the issue to a group of scholars for them to decide the issue.
The scholars’ reaction
As soon as the statement by Abu Hammam and Uraydi was published, I reached out to al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada to ask how they would respond. Al-Maqdisi’s response left little doubt concerning his position on HTS. He answered that adjudication is not possible at the moment as HTS behaves like the Islamic State, and it is pointless since a potential judgement would never be implemented, whether it came from him or from Abu Qatada. Abu Qatada was more diplomatic in his response, saying that he awaited an invitation from both parties before he would intervene. In statements on their telegram channels, Abdelhaleem and Sibai conveyed similar arguments. Abdelhaleem wrote that ruling in this case is impossible because it would require both parties to accept the ruling, which could not be enforced, while Sibai was more diplomatic but essentially said the same.
Afterwards al-Maqdisi, Sibai, Abdelhaleem, al-Hashemi and Nail bin Ghazi all agreed to arbitration subject to acceptance by HTS. Abu Qatada, who recently has been perceived as moving closer to HTS, still has not responded directly to the invitation, but in typical Abu Qatada fashion he authored an ambiguous statement stressing that people should focus on good things rather than be sources of enmity. This aligns with his general efforts in the last two years to promote reconciliation rather than provoke conflict.
While the scholars nominated by Hurras al-Deen to judge appear overwhelmingly in favour of Abu Hammam and Uraydi, HTS has the support of the most important factions of foreign fighters (muhajireen) in Syria (see here and here). The fact that the Turkistani Islamic Party (TIP) continues to side with HTS is particularly important as there have been questions whether it would switch sides due to its historic relationship with al-Qaida.
On 4 February Abu al-Qassam (an al-Qaida shura council and Hurras al-Deen member who accompanied Abu al-Khayr from Iran to Syria in late 2015) and Abu Muhammed al-Sudani also weighed in. In a gentle tone they suggested that the issue should be solved through arbitration by the scholars. A similar suggestion was made by Abu Abdalrahman Mekki, who is affiliated with Hurras al-Deen.
Renewed debate between Abu Abdullah al-Shami and Sami al-Uraydi
Entering the fray next was Abu Abdullah al-Shami, the head of HTS’s shariah council and thus the highest religious authority in the group. Al-Shami is no stranger to verbal combat with al-Qaida and especially Sami al-Uraydi, whom he debated at length back in fall 2017 about the issue of allegiance to al-Qaida. As part of the latest controversy, he published a statement titled “Six Issues” in which he comments on six issues raised by Hurras al-Deen figures. On the matter of weapons, he makes the same argument as al-Ghazi, invoking the ruling of Abu al-Khayr to conclude that the weapons are the property of HTS and under no circumstance are to be given to Hurras al-Deen. Al-Shami concludes that the weapons issue has been settled from a legal (shar‘i) perspective, and thus HTS will not accept arbitration by the scholars of religion in the matter. Nonetheless, and almost comically, al-Shami notes that arbitration by the Salvation Government, the HTS-dominated government in Idlib, remains a possibility.
Another important point raised by al-Shami is the issue of a military council. In their statement from 30 January, Uraydi and Abu Hammam criticized HTS for proposing a multi-group military council to be led by a figure from Faylaq al-Sham, a Free Syrian Army- and Muslim Brotherhood-linked group. Al-Shami says that Hurras al-Deen makes a mistake in focusing too much on the proposed individual rather than considering the greater good that would be derived from such a military coalition. Interestingly, he draws a distinction between the Free Syrian Army and the National Army, consisting of Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Deen al-Zinki, arguing that the former is more legitimate than the latter (despite Ahrar and al-Zinki being jihadi groups). Al-Shami ends his statement by claiming that Hurras al-Deen is at fault for the conflict between the groups and that it should stop trying to recruit fighters from HTS.
As expected, al-Shami’s long-time foe Sami al-Uraydi could not let the former’s words pass without comment. In a response, Uraydi teases al-Shami for being inconsistent in his opinions from the days of al-Nusra to HTS, the ‘Six Issues’ being no exception. Uraydi even compares al-Shami to the Islamic State and its late spokesperson Abu Muhammed al-Adnani in that the Islamic State would not accept arbitration by an ‘independent’ group of scholars and instead al-Adnani challenged none other than al-Shami to a mubahala (mutual imprecation). Commenting on the specific issue of the rights to the weapons, Uraydi rejects the claims made by al-Shami and argues that Hurras al-Deen has evidence that refutes HTS’s argument that Abu al-Khayr had made a definitive judgement. HTS, it will be recalled, has said on several occasions (through al-Shami and al-Ghazi) that it has proof of Abu al-Khayr’s judgement. Uraydi rejects this. On the establishment of a group of scholars to arbitrate, Uraydi actually suggest combining the two proposals to satisfy both parties, meaning including judges from the Salvation Government and independent scholars.
On the matter of establishing a new military council, Uraydi shoots back saying that Hurras al-Deen already has a military coalition, namely ‘Incite the Believers’ which is made up of Hurras al-Deen, Ansar al-Islam and Jabhat Ansar al-Deen. Hence, there is no need for another military coalition especially not one against al-wala’ wa-l-bara’. Uraydi finishes his response with an implicit threat. The earlier position of the Islamic State on arbitration led to infighting between the mujahideen, and HTS should be extremely careful so that history does not repeat itself. Addressing the HTS fighters directly, Uraydi tells them that the disagreement is not with them but with the leadership of HTS, and that they simply want it to be resolved through legitimate arbitration.
De-escalation or infighting?
The exchanges between al-Shami and Uraydi left the relationship between the groups and their respective supporters in an extremely precarious state. Would the tensions be relaxed or would they escalate into infighting? On 7 February, Abu al-Qassam published a message aimed at deescalating tensions, urging the factions not to fight each other and to resolve their differences through legal judicial procedures (‘an tariq al-qada’ al-shar‘i). The same day, however, a fighter from HTS died from wounds resulting from an episode of infighting with Hurras al-Deen fighters in Aleppo countryside, bringing the tally of casualties from inter-group dispute to two. Hurras al-Deen quickly published its condolences and established a court to determine the fate of those who fired the bullet. One theory has it that it was HTS’s plan to manufacture a crisis between itself and Hurras al-Deen as part of al-Julani’s policy of rapprochement with Turkey and of establishing HTS as a moderate force. But this is probably to attribute too much cunning to the HTS leader.
As the infighting was beginning to become physical, on 10 February the two groups reached a deal concerning six issuesto deescalate the conflict. The agreement stipulated that provocations in the media should come to a halt and that the issue of personnel and weaponary going from one group to the other should be settled. A committee to supervise the implementation of the agreement was created, the statement notes, though the names of its members were not given. Although the situation appears to be under control for the moment, one can be sure that Hurras al-Deen stands ready to take advantage of any further attempt by al-Julani to get closer to Turkey. In the event of more movement in that direction, more conflict will likely follow.
Since the early 1990s, al-Qaida has routinely vilified the Saudi royal family and its government for being un-Islamic and illegitimate, describing the monarchy and the princes as apostates who should be attacked and toppled from power. The gist of al-Qaida’s condemnation of the Saudi rulers is that they are lackeys of the West who only pretend to be Muslim and therefore need to be fought and deposed from power. The Saudi royals have consistently undermined Islam from within and are delivering Islam’s wealth to the West—Arabia’s vast oil and gas reserves—at well below market value. Because of this, the Saudi dynasty’s real nature has to be revealed and the Saudi state destroyed. Every al-Qaida leader has vilified the Saudis in this way, from Usama bin Ladin to his son and putative heir, Hamza. The latter, in 2016, launched a six-part audio series seeking t to expose the Saudi royal family’s history of “betrayal.” Anti-Saudi messaging is indeed a central element of al-Qaida’s propaganda, and al-Qaida does not conceal its ambition to seize control of Arabia’s spiritual and material resources.
The rise to power since 2015 in Saudi Arabia of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) has presented jihadis with a new target of opportunity and additional material with which to attack the kingdom. His social reforms, especially the relaxation of strict norms on women’s public behavior, the mixing of the sexes, and promoting live musical concerts have elicited the ire and condemnation of traditional elements in Saudi society, and the jihadis aim to capitalize on these sentiments.
Two recent messages from al-Qaida illustrate how the group is attempting to exploit the potential for disaffection occasioned by the rise of MBS. The first is a two-page issue of the group’s occasional newsletter, al-Nafir (“The Battle Call”), titled “al-Dir‘iyya from the Mission of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab to Formula E”; the second is a 23-minute audio address by al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called “The Zionists of the Arabian Peninsula.” Both were distributed on December 24, 2018 via Telegram by the media company al-Sahab, the same outlet that has produced most of al-Qaida’s messages since 9/11. The two adopt somewhat distinct arguments. The first message makes the case for a religious and theological condemnation of MBS, whereas the second, by al-Zawahiri, is more openly political and strategic in its analysis and prescriptions. Let us take each of the messages separately and offer an examination of their respective contents.
Dancing in al-Dir‘iyya
The December 2018 issue of al-Nafir—which claims to be a “consciousness awakening” publication (nashra taw‘awiyya)—is not the first to focus on MBS and Saudi Arabia. Previous issues have attacked the kingdom’s new counterterrorism initiatives as part of the “war on Islam” and ridiculed MBS’s pronouncements in favor of “moderate Islam” as tantamount to endorsing “American Islam.” The latest issue, however, is the most detailed in its condemnation of MBS’s social policies and the most exhortatory yet, concluding with an appeal for action.
The publication depicts MBS as the devil incarnate, labeling him the “Awaited Corrupter” (al-mufsid al-muntazar) and the Abraha of the Saudi family. The first name is a play on the name of the prophesied Islamic messianic figure, al-mahdi al-muntazar (“the awaited redeemer”), who will appear before the end times. The second moniker is a reference to the pre-Islamic Abyssinian Christian viceroy of Yemen who is alleged to have led a military expedition with elephants against Mecca in the year 570 with the aim of destroying the Ka‘ba (cf. Q. 105). (An earlier issue described him as “the Arabs’ Ataturk.”)
Interestingly, and not entirely in keeping with al-Qaida’s ideology, the tone of the piece is apocalyptic, warning that MBS’s liberalizing reforms, aimed at destroying Islam, are perhaps a harbinger of doomsday. MBS, according to the piece, is “spreading the symbols of Westernization, the rituals of secularism, and liberal values” in a conservative Muslim society in order to promote social corruption, deviance, and debauchery, especially among the young men and women who hail from the pure Arabian tribes of the Peninsula. In a reference to the dancing at several recent musical concerts in al-Dir‘iyya, the capital of the first Saudi-Wahhabi state, the author asks rhetorically whether the gyrations of the women’s backsides are indeed a sign of the imminence of Judgment Day, as predicted in one of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. This is the hadith narrated on the authority of Abu Hurayra in which the Prophet says, “[One of the signs of] Judgment Day is the jiggling of the backsides of the women of the tribe of Daws around the shrine of Dhu al-Khalasa.”
The piece goes on to criticize all of MBS’s social reforms, complaining of the appearance of uncovered women on Saudi television, mixed-sex singing parties, professional wrestling matches, and circus shows, as well as women’s driving and Formula E racing in al-Dir‘iyya, ground zero of the Wahhabi mission. All this is said to be intended by the government to spread depravity and vice and to cause people to abandon God’s religion. The public appearance and assertiveness of women are particularly galling for the author, as these echo the habits and practices of idolatrous and polytheistic pre-Islamic Arabia, the Jahiliyya. The document clearly intends to provoke the patriarchal and ultra-conservative attitudes of Arabian society in the hope of delegitimizing MBS’s regime, which is also described, for good measure, as inclined toward Zionism (mutasahyin). And while all this merriment and debauchery is taking place in Arabia, the piece adds, the innocent Muslims, whether in Syria, Myanmar, Xinjiang, or Gaza, are either being bombed by the Americans or Russians or being brutalized by autocrats like the Chinese or Burmese rulers.
The Saudi regime is also condemned for unjustly imprisoning and torturing Muslim scholars and preachers, a theme that al-Nafir has touched on before. In the September 2017 issue, for instance, which appeared shortly after the arrest of several high-profile Islamist scholars including Salman al-‘Awda, al-Qaida announced its support for the recently detained. Without mentioning any of them by name, it praised those scholars and preachers who have long operated in the “grey zones” of support for Islam. Similarly, a year later, al-Nafir would laud the efforts of the Islamist scholar Safar al-Hawali, who was arrested in September 2018 following the release of his 3,000-page book that included stinging criticism of the Al Saud.
The prescription offered to al-Nafir’s readers is for the young men of belief to gather, plan, and organize to stop MBS’s “westernizing and liberalizing project,” which has established roots in the “land of faith and divine revelation.” They must also seek and engage the truthful scholars, who have not been imprisoned, as well as communicate with and solicit the advice of the global jihadi leadership. The recommendations are vague and most likely to be ineffectual, but at any rate the piece demonstrates a concerted effort by al-Qaida to stir the emotions of a religiously conservative society against MBS’s socially liberalizing policies, in particular those that accord greater agency to women as well as promote their increased visibility in public.
Zionists in Arabia
The second al-Qaida message, al-Zawahiri’s audio statement, aims to provide a more developed political and historical framing of MBS’s reforms, as well as to instruct Muslims in Arabia as to how to resist the Saudi government. In keeping with his roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Zawahiri offers a conspiratorial narrative to explain regional and global politics over the last century. His argument is that there is an unholy alliance that unites Crusaders (Britain and the United States), Zionists (Israel), and Safavid-Rejectionists (Iranians and Shiites) to destroy true Islam, by which he means Sunni Islam. This three-pronged alliance plots ceaselessly to weaken and attack Muslims and to pilfer their material resources. The Saudi ruling family, along with every other leader of a Sunni majority country (Egypt, the UAE, Yemen, etc.), are agents and enablers of this alliance. The message itself takes the form of a video featuring al-Zawahiri’s still image, with documentary-like clips that cut to highlight the points al-Zawahiri is making.
As the title of the message suggests, al-Zawahiri asserts that the Saudi ruling family, from the time of its founder King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud (r. 1902-1953) until MBS today, are concealed Zionists who pretend to be Muslims. They have ceaselessly plotted to destroy Islam in alliance, first with the British, and since WWII with the United States. Ibn Saud helped the British defeat the Ottoman caliphate, he says, which paved the way for the Zionists to establish the state of Israel in Palestine. Later, Ibn Saud’s children, as kings of Saudi Arabia, persisted in their betrayal by allowing America to steal Arabia’s wealth (i.e., the oil), establish military bases, and impose non-Islamic laws and rules. The late King Fahd, whom al-Zawahiri derisively nicknames Abu Rughal—an infamous traitor of pre-Islamic Arabia—not only offered Israel recognition with the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, but was also the one who invited the U.S. military into Arabia, where it remains t0 this day.
Al-Zawahiri’s condemnation of the Saudi rulers continues unabated and reaches a crescendo with his treatment of MBS, whom he accuses of fully revealing the “Zionist face” of the government in Riyadh. MBS, according to al-Zawahiri, not only spreads sin and debauchery, but also executes and imprisons religious scholars, whether they be openly sympathetic to al-Qaida or sycophants of his rule. More pernicious yet, MBS openly avers that Israel has the right to exist and that cooperation with it is necessary. Al-Zawahiri’s conspiratorial narrative, however, stretches credulity when he then asserts, without adducing any evidence, that the Americans have plotted with the Houthi rebels to achieve control over the government in Sanaa. This plotting, which also includes the United States conspiring with Iran, now means that Arabia has become completely dominated by America and “the Muslims in Arabia are besieged by the Shiites (al-hisar al-Rafidi) from the north, east and south.”
Given this parlous state of affairs, al-Zawahiri turns to his recommendations for the Muslims of Arabia. They must, according to him, do three things: emigrate (hijra), conduct jihad, and unite (ittihad). In terms of emigration, al-Zawahiri recommends that those who oppose the Saudi and American-Iranian conspiracy leave Arabia for the outposts of warfare (thughur al-jihad), likely meaning the areas under the control of al-Qaida, such as the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. (In an earlier address, Hamza mentioned Yemen as an ideal destination for hijra.) It is only in such “free” regions that Muslims can properly confer, plan, and organize, whereas this is not possible under the tyrannical pressure of autocratic “idols” (tawaghit) such as MBS in Arabia, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayid in the UAE, and President Sisi in Egypt. Emigration furnishes the Muslim with the ability to imagine, the practical experience to learn, and the mobility to wage proper resistance, all of which are otherwise impossible. Al-Zawahiri proudly asserts that it was such advantages that permitted the “high state” of planning for the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaida. As for jihad, it begins with educating and speaking the truth about the battle that the Muslim community is waging and the threats it faces. Jihad, however, must ultimately lead to warfare and martyrdom operations against God’s enemies: the Americans and the Zionists. Such attacks will be the downfall of the Saudis and the Emiratis. Unity, the final recommendation, is briefly mentioned as being necessary because all Muslims are being targeted and only if they are united can they hope to repel the aggression.
Al-Zawahiri ends his message with an aesthetically second-rate poem that recapitulates some of his main points and aims to spur his followers to action in defense of Islam. He appears to add this flourish to keep up with the tradition followed by Usama bin Ladin and other jihadis who often embellish their oratory with verse. Yet, as with so many of al-Zawahiri’s other messages, the effect is diminished by his lack of personal charisma and rhetorical skill.
It appears that there are two different audiences being addressed by al-Qaida’s recent releases. The first message seems to be aimed at Saudi Arabia’s conservative Salafis, or Wahhabis. The references to hadith, ritual purity, and the violation of Islamic morality, particularly in al-Dir‘iyya, are all intended to raise the ire of devout Wahhabis by highlighting the chasm that now separates MBS’s policies from the message of principled enmity toward practices of unbelief that characterized original Wahhabism. This is an audience that the propaganda of the Islamic State has often sought to target. Al-Zawahiri’s speech, by contrast, does not invoke creedal matters that would necessarily arouse the sentiments of Wahhabis. His conspiratorial analysis about global affairs, rooted in a view of the United States and Israel as the eternal enemies of the Islamic world, is meant to have pan-Islamic appeal.
In the final analysis, these messages should be seen as part of al-Qaida’s attempt to recapture a constituency for itself in Saudi Arabia, where it has not carried out an attack in years, as well as to stake its claim as the standard bearer of the Jihadi Salafi movement in light of the Islamic State’s rapid decline. That al-Qaida can project its message on multiple registers, creedal as well as geopolitical, is a testament to the protean nature of its ideology.
 The Dhu al-Khalasa was a Ka‘ba-like structure in which an idol was worshipped in pre-Islamic times, and is located in the region of Tabala in Asir in southwest Arabia. The Wahhabis are alleged to have destroyed what remained of this structure during the reign of King Abdulaziz (r. 1902-1953).
For the October 2018 issue of the CTC Sentinel, I wrote about the case of Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi, a senior religious scholar in the Islamic State accused of treason and espionage by the group’s leadership in eastern Syria. According to Mu’assasat al-Turath al-‘Ilmi (“The Scholarly Heritage Foundation”), a dissident Islamic State media outlet, Abu Ya‘qub was arrested by the Security Department (Diwan al-Amn) back in July 2018; the next month, on August 30, 2018, the charges against him were read aloud in parts of eastern Syria controlled by the Islamic State, a stunt seen as portending his execution.
Since then, two things have changed. The first is that Abu Ya‘qub, a Jordanian whose real name is Yusuf ibn Ahmad Simrin, has been killed—according to Mu’assasat al-Turath, executed. On December 4, 2018, the dissident media outlet confirmed his death at the hands of the Security Department, stating that the latter was giving the impression that he had died in an airstrike when in fact he had been killed earlier. The airstrike in question occurred on November 28. As Mu’assasat al-Turath then reported, it took the lives of several of Abu Ya‘qub’s scholarly allies—Abu Hafs al-Hamdani, Abu Mus‘ab al-Sahrawi, and Abu Usama al-Gharib—who were being “imprisoned unjustly in the prisons of the Security Department,” or “the department of the oppressors at war with the allies of God.” On December 5, 2018, Mu’assasat al-Turath confirmed the death of another scholar, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, in the same airstrike.
The significance of these deaths lies in the fact that these men were party to a serious ideological dispute that has riven the Islamic State for some time. Abu Ya‘qub and his allies have represented the relatively moderate side of this dispute—moderate in the sense of being somewhat more cautious in approach to takfir, or excommunication—as against those they have labeled extremists—extremist in the sense of embracing a more expansive approach to takfir—who are concentrated in the Security Department, the Central Media Department (Diwan al-I‘lam al-Markazi), and to some extent the Delegated Committee (al-Lajna al-Mufawwada). Even though these scholars succeeded, in September 2017, in having their theological views formally adopted by the Islamic State in an audio series on takfir, which was written by Abu Ya‘qub and al-Masri, their influence declined quickly thereafter. Beginning in December 2017, according to Mu’assasat al-Turath, the scholars were subjected to periodic incarceration. The death of these five men may well be a knockout blow to this scholarly faction advocating a more nuanced approach to takfir, though others of their ilk remain.
The second thing that has changed in the intervening period is that the full charge sheet against Abu Ya‘qub that was read out in late August 2018 has been leaked online. On December 8, 2018, the Telegram account “And Rouse the Believers,” which is associated with the most takfir-prone elements of the Islamic State, uploaded an audio recording of a man reading a document with the charges. As the speaker indicates, the document is titled “Clarifying the Case of Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi.” Its purpose is to disabuse Abu Ya‘qub’s supporters of the notion that he is an embattled and persecuted scholar á la Ibn Taymiyya. Previously, only some of the content of the charge sheet was available. In early September 2018, two written defenses of Abu Ya‘qub appeared online that referred to it. The first, an open letter by a number of unnamed Islamic State scholars, took up some of the charges leveled against him, refuting them one by one. (The scholars here repeatedly call Abu Ya‘qub the “mufti” of the Islamic State and the “author of its creed.” The mufti designation presumably refers to the fact that Abu Ya‘qub succeeded the Bahraini Turki al-Bin‘ali as emir of the Office of Research and Studies, following the latter’s demise in May 2017; the second description alludes to his co-authorship of the audio series on takfir from September 2017.) The second defense, penned by a certain Ghandar al-Mujahir, took the same approach, refuting some of the charges in turn, but was further valuable in quoting a few of them.
Below is my translation of “Clarifying the Case of Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi” as I have transcribed it from the audio recording. The author of this statement, according to Mu’assasat al-Turath, is the “governor of al-Sham,” whom Ghandar al-Muhajir identifies as a certain ‘Abd al-Qadir. (Previously, Mu’assasat al-Turath referred to the governor of al-Sham as Hajji Hamid, which could be another name for the same person.) The scene of the recording appears to be a small gathering of Islamic State members in eastern Syria, some of whom are sympathetic to Abu Ya‘qub. In several additional audio clips uploaded by “And Rouse the Believers” (see here, here, here, and here), these men can be heard pleading Abu Ya‘qub’s case, asking that he be allowed to repent. The response from the man in charge is that Abu Ya‘qub has committed apostasy, the implication being that he is to be put to death.
The veracity of the charges aside, the document forms a unique window onto the mindset of the men in control of the last bastion of Islamic State territory in eastern Syria. As one can see, they have been—or at least were at the time of the document—worried about the possibility of dissent spiraling out of control. Since dissent was concentrated in the personage of Abu Ya‘qub, cutting him down to size was necessary to stifling it and maintaining their grip on power. So also, it would seem, was cutting him down.
Clarifying the Case of Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi
Praise belongs to God, Empowerer of Islam by His help, Abaser of polytheism by His mastery, Manager of affairs by His command, Lurer to destruction of the unbelievers by His plot, Who decreed the days to turn by His justice. And prayers and peace be upon him by whose sword God raised high the lighthouse of Islam. To proceed:
To all of our mujahid brothers and sons in the Province of al-Baraka,1 may God protect them. Peace be upon you, and the mercy of God and His blessings.
We are writing you today to settle the dispute and put an end to the rumors concerning a matter that has been the subject of much back and forth, to the point that it has nearly lit the fuse of dissension (fitna) between the brothers. In this state of affairs, we have found it necessary for us to intervene, though we regret the condition that we have reached in terms of the loss of trust from your side in your commanders. Indeed, we see this as one of the reasons for the weakness and diminishment at which we have arrived today vis-à-vis the enemies of God, where an observer considers us to be a body but our hearts are disunited (cf. Q. 59:14). Where is your trust in your commanders? Where is your goodwill towards them? Where is your construal of their actions in the most favorable light? Where are your scruples about reviling them and their honor? O mujahidin, are we blood-shedders, whose only interest is the spilling of blood such that we will descend upon innocent blood, imprisoning this one or killing that one for no reason other than that we are displeased with their actions? Do you not fear God with regard to us, O sons and brothers of ours? By God, this has never been our way of interacting with our commanders. It has not been our practice to oppose them in any matter so long as they do not command us to sin, God forbid. Rather, we have learned to construe their actions in the most favorable light, to treat them with reverence and respect, and to accord them the greatest possible goodwill. Nonetheless, we spared them no counsel, but rather we would advise and criticize, though within the boundaries of right conduct for advising and criticizing. And we did not rouse anyone against them, or inform against them to a soldier, or publicly condemn any one of them with epithets far from their proper meaning. All this has caused one person to bear advice and another to rouse the believers, though all we see him doing is rousing the soldiers against their commanders. The names have been many but their objectives have been one, namely, to split the ranks of the monotheists and sow division among the mujahidin. In this they have succeeded to a certain degree, and there is no power and no might save in God.
O mujahidin, is it to this extent that you see us as unscrupulous with God’s servants that some have begun to popularize Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi as Ahmad ibn Hanbal and the Ibn Taymiyya of this age, for no reason other than that we imprisoned him for something that he committed? Were any of you in our position, you would have done far worse to him than we.
Indeed, we are writing you about the case of Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi to clarify some of the matters that, because of their being obscure to many of the brothers, have led some of you to this condition of mistrust of us and what we have done with this man. So here is some of what has been proven against this man in the past and in the present:
 The shaykh, the commander of the believers [i.e., Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi], may God protect him, previously sat with him and with the Shari‘a officials (shar‘iyyin); he reached an agreement with them on a number of issues, and they made a pact with him concerning these. Among them was the agreement that no Shari‘a-related content was to be released without consulting the Department of the Caliph (Diwan al-Khalifa), and that whoever did otherwise was to be subject to the greatest of punishments. This was the request of Abu Ya‘qub himself at the time. However, Abu Ya‘qub did not abide by this. He released a number of books without the knowledge of the Department of the Caliph, knowing that he had asked the commander of the believers, may God protect him, to release some of the books and that the commander of the believers had put off his request until after the shaykh [i.e., Baghdadi] could read them himself. Abu Ya‘qub agreed to this; then he released the books without consulting the commander of the believers, may God protect him. Then the commander of the believers, may God protect him, asked Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Tamimi,2 may God accept him, to imprison al-Maqdisi, and he was placed in prison. Abu Ya‘qub lied to al-Tamimi, saying that the book had been released without his knowledge and that he had not even finished it. So al-Tamimi solicited an excuse for him, and Abu Ya‘qub left prison having been warned and pledging to him not to repeat this. Then he repeated this a number of times. Therefore, he is a liar and a stirrer of dissent against the Department of the Caliph (Diwan al-Khalifa).
 Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman, may God accept him, informed the Department of the Caliph that Abu Ya‘qub had not obeyed orders following his release from prison and had refused to go to the frontlines. Therefore, in our view, he is a weakling and a coward.
 Abu Ya‘qub lied during questioning concerning his spying on Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Furqan,3 may God accept him, on behalf of the wicked Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.4 At first he lied about this, while later he admitted that he had sent secrets of the [Islamic] State to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi indirectly. Therefore, he is a spy and a liar.
 Among the reasons for his detention recently is his collecting the archive of the distant provinces. This is one of the most serious matters of all, as it [i.e., the archive] contains all the information of the distant provinces of the Islamic State—Libya, Khurasan, Yemen, Somalia, and West Africa, among other provinces—including numbers, supplies, weapons, and distribution areas, among other things. During interrogation with him concerning the archive and how he obtained it, he related more than five stories, all of them untrue. Then, when he saw that there was no escaping the matter, he said that he stole it from the computer of Abu Ahmad al-‘Iraqi,5 may God accept him. This was his admission after lying five times about how he came into possession of this archive. The entirety of this interrogation is preserved in an audio recording. We do not know if he was truthful in the end or if he lied again as in the previous five instances.
 [Also among the reasons for his detention recently is] his possession of the archives of a number of departments and committees that we found with him. He has been collecting all of the internal and external secrets of the [Islamic] State, which do not concern him, knowing that the discovery of these with him would mean death. He admitted that he said this in his own words to one of the brothers, and nonetheless he continued to keep them [i.e., the archives]. This is one of the most serious matters, and we do not know what motivated him to do this. Likewise, we do not know if he leaked them to anyone, whether directly or indirectly, as he did previously in passing secrets of the [Islamic] State to al-Maqdisi.
 He is contributing to the creation of a fracture in the community of Muslims on the pretext of the commanders’ oppressiveness, taking advantage of the brothers’ ignorance. This is a serious matter, as he is undermining the security of the mujahidin and the stability of the community. It has not been long since the case of the [brothers in] the Media and their refraining from work,6 in which by his act he rendered a service on a golden platter to the intelligence RAND Corporation, which mentioned months before that it would demolish the media establishment of the Islamic State and work to bring it down.
 Abu Ya‘qub lied to the commander of the believers, may God protect him, that he had no ties connecting him to the heretical Abu Muhammad al-Hashimi.7 Then it was confirmed to us, by his own admission, that he was in contact with him and even knew his hiding place when he was wanted, before he fled the lands of the Islamic State. This he did not tell the shaykh [i.e., Baghdadi], knowing that the shaykh had informed all the Shari‘a officials, including al-Maqdisi, of the seriousness of what al-Hashimi had done and declared his blood licit before them. Therefore, he is a traitor, a supporter of the criminal Abu Muhammad al-Hashimi, and a provider of cover for him despite knowing the gravity of his crime and the harm that he did to the Muslims.
 His incitement against the community by saying that al-Hashimi was correct in his criticism of the [Islamic] State. This has been confirmed by the testimony of witnesses as well as by his own admission. This he said while being, in the eyes of the brothers, the scholar from whom fatwas are to be sought and who is close to the caliph, may God protect him. Therefore, we will not reprove the brothers in general after this, if that were the opinion of the elite and the commanders.
 He caused unrest in the ranks of the [Islamic] State when he gathered the Shari‘a officials together in a conference in order, in their words, to put pressure on the leadership to submit to their demands and to urge them not to go to the frontlines.
 It has not been proven to us that he went to the frontlines or participated in military operations. Rather, on the contrary, when Shaykh [Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman] al-Tamimi, may God accept him, appointed him to go to battle, he stayed behind and did not join up.
 It has been proven to us, and confirmed by his own admission, that he has been in communication with the heretical Abu Suhayb al-Najdi and sought funds from him. The heretical al-Najdi then undertook to transfer funds to him, and he obtained those funds.
 It has been proven that he is in possession of the stamp of the emir of the Office of Research and Studies, a red stamp with a logo. When he was asked about it, he claimed that he had kept it out of laziness and neglect. Perhaps it will be clear to anyone with reason that turning over one’s stamp upon going from one job to the next is an elementary part of the job. What, then, if it is an emir of a committee or a department or a central office and his stamp is red in color? In light of what we have related of his lying and treachery, which have been proven by his own admission and by evidence, can anyone blame us if we suspect that it was he who was leaking the files of Research and Fatwas [i.e., the Office of Research and Studies] to the media from time to time? Indeed, the writings may not be old ones, as the archive is with him and the stamp is with him. All he would have to do is backdate the text and publish it on the internet as if it were an old document.
 Issuing fatwas to the brothers in matters that contravene the methodology of the people of the sunna and the community. This is the least serious of what he has done, yet it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, coming as a coda to his previous acts of espionage, mendacity, and betrayal of what he had vowed and was entrusted with. It was after this that he was arrested, though it was not the principal cause of the arrest.8
In conclusion, by God, we did not desire to reveal all of these things and disseminate them among the brothers, yet when we saw that there were those trying to defend his case, feigning ignorance of his wrongdoing, and seeking to fashion a general opinion of support for him, it became necessary for us to give an explanation to our soldiers, as an excuse before our Lord (cf. Q. 7:164) and in order that there not remain for the admirer any particular specious argument. There are those who have begun mentioning him from the pulpits, saying that he is the scholar being tried [by God], and that he is like Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyya, implying that we are like their imprisoners. God forbid that we are those who would imprison a godly scholar for merely coming out with the truth as he sees it. When we saw all of this, it became incumbent upon us to relate what we have related, lest it lead to the dishonoring of a man from among the mujahidin, and in order that everyone bear responsibility for his words after this announcement, not talking about what he knows not and causing division in the ranks of the mujahidin.
And may God reward you.
1. As noted by the BBC in October 2018, the Province of al-Baraka (Wilayat al-Baraka) “previously used to describe the northeastern province of Hasaka,” but it “appears to have moved around 200 km south,” to the area of Deir al-Zour.
6. The reference here is to an episode in March 2018 when 40 or so Islamic State officials complained about the Media Department’s domination by extremists in takfir. Following their complaint, they were given a choice between continuing to work for the Media Department or heading to battle. Mu’assasat al-Turath has said that Abu Ya‘qub supported those who complained, but it denies that he issued a fatwa against working anywhere but the military.
7. Former official in the Office of Research and Studies who wrote a book highly critical of the Islamic State, al-Nasiha al-Hashimiyya (“The Hashimi Advice”).
8. This appears to refer to his arrest on July 11, 2018 for allegedly issuing a fatwa prohibiting those in the Islamic State from working in any part of the caliphate besides the military. It will be recalled that Mu’assasat al-Turath denies this charge.
In his recent article for The Atlantic, “The True Origins of ISIS,” Hassan Hassan makes two related claims concerning the provenance of the Islamic State. One is that analysts have overstated the role of Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of al-Qaida in Iraq who died in 2006, in crafting the group’s “dark vision”; the other is that the Iraqi religious scholar Abu ‘Ali al-Anbari (né ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Qaduli), who died in 2016, played the greater role in this regard. “It was Anbari, Zarqawi’s No. 2 in his al-Qaeda years, who defined the Islamic State’s radical approach more than any other person,” Hassan writes. “[H]is influence was more systematic, longer lasting, and deeper than that of Zarqawi.” What is more, he contends, “Zarqawi was likely influenced by Anbari, not the other way around.”
I am not convinced of these conclusions, primarily because the basis presented for them—a 96-page biography of Anbari written by his now-deceased son and published in July by Islamic State dissidents—does not bear them out. This biography is an important source for the history of the Islamic State, and Hassan is right to draw our attention to it. It details the hugely important role played by Anbari as a jihadi actor since the early 2000s, and particularly following his release from prison in 2012 when he became one of the Islamic State’s senior leaders. Yet the document says little about Zarqawi, and nothing about Anbari’s influence on him.
In February 2004, when Zarqawi wrote his famous missive to Osama bin Laden outlining a strategy for attacking the Shi‘a in Iraq, it would appear from the document that he had met Anbari once, in Baghdad in 2002. Hassan writes that Zarqawi’s “idea for targeting the Shiites probably came from native Iraqis like Anbari,” which could be true. But the biography does not tell us this; nor does it suggest that one of these Iraqis was “possibly even Anbari himself.” It does not impute ideological influence to Anbari over Zarqawi at all. It is not clear how close the two were before Anbari became Zarqawi’s deputy in late 2004 (or perhaps slightly thereafter). Apart from their one meeting in 2002—and the fact that Anbari unwittingly produced gun silencers for Zarqawi’s group before the U.S. invasion—what contact they may have had before this time is not discussed. When they did forge a partnership, Zarqawi was the senior partner. Anbari had been second-in-command of an insurgent group in northern Iraq called Ansar al-Sunna. The biography relates that Anbari wanted to join forces with Zarqawi and his group, which had been retitled al-Qaida in Iraq after Zarqawi pledged fealty to Bin Laden in October 2004. Anbari failed to strike a unity agreement, ultimately leaving Ansar al-Sunna to become Zarqawi’s subordinate.
In 2005, according to the biography, Anbari was imprisoned at Abu Ghraib for six months. Upon his release, he went on a mission for Zarqawi to Waziristan to meet with the al-Qaida leadership. Following this, in January 2006, he became head of a consortium of jihadi groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq, called the Mujahidin Shura Council. This leadership is significant as the council would gradually morph into the Islamic State of Iraq, which was declared in October 2006. The biography attributes the idea for the council mainly to Anbari. However, a June 2006 death notice for Zarqawi by al-Qaida in Iraq credits the Jordanian with “the beneficial influence on establishing this council to become the first stone of the Islamic state that will be erected, God willing, in the land of the two rivers.” And an August 2016 issue of the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter asserts that leadership of the council was to be rotational. In any event, neither Zarqawi nor Anbari was present at the creation. The former had been killed in June, the latter arrested in April. Anbari would remain in prison until 2012, his role during this period confined to indoctrinating his fellow inmates.
Significantly, the biography points to a shared ideological link between the two men. Anbari’s ideological formation was complete only after 9/11, when he read the works of Abu Basir al-Tartusi, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. The last of these was Zarqawi’s teacher and longtime prison companion. It would appear, then, that Zarqawi and Anbari were influenced by the same strain of Jihadi Salafi thought emanating from the pens of a number of radical clerics in the Middle East. But Zarqawi was influenced by it first. Both men would take a more extreme—more violent and sectarian—approach to this ideology than al-Maqdisi himself, and Iraqis were likely critical to shaping it. To be sure, Zarqawi was not acting alone, and many lesser-known jihadis from Iraq, such as Anbari, occupied key positions alongside him. Another was Abu Hamza al-Baghdadi, who served on al-Qaida in Iraq’s Shari‘a Council. I agree that “it is too simplistic to say that ISIS was Zarqawi’s brainchild.” But it is a stretch to infer, from the evidence at hand, that Anbari’s role was the more foundational.
Furthermore, the biography does not challenge the view that it was Zarqawi who introduced the extreme violence that would become the Islamic State’s hallmark. By all accounts, Zarqawi’s influence in this regard was the Egyptian scholar Abu ‘Abdallah al-Muhajir, with whom he affiliated in Afghanistan. As Brian Fishman writes in his book The Master Plan: ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory, “[I]t was Abu Abdallah who defined Zarqawi—and the Islamic State’s—embrace of sectarianism, brutality, and suicide tactics that have come to define Zarqawism’s adherents.” The first book published by the Islamic State’s printing press in 2014 was Abu ‘Abdallah al-Muhajir’s Issues in the Jurisprudence of Jihad, known commonly—and aptly—as The Jurisprudence of Blood. As Charlie Winter and Abdullah K. Al-Saud have pointed out, the book opens with a quote by Zarqawi acknowledging al-Muhajir’s role in convincing him of the validity of suicide operations.
It is worth recalling here just how celebrated Zarqawi is in the Islamic State, both as a religious thinker and as a dynamic leader. Far from being the semi-literate thug he is sometimes made out to be, Zarqawi spoke impeccable classical Arabic as evidenced by the dozens of hours of recorded speeches and lectures he left behind—nearly 700 pages in transcription. These are frequently quoted by the group. For instance, an Islamic State video filmed in Syria in 2015 shows a man telling the people of Saudi Arabia:
O people of the Land of the Two Holy Sanctuaries, listen to just three lectures by the mujahid shaykh, the heroic leader, “the commander of the martyrdom-seekers,” Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, may God have mercy on him, who ignited volcanoes in the face of the Rejectionists [i.e., the Shi‘a], who was martyred approximately ten years ago. Listen to these three lectures, titled “Has Word of the Rejectionists Reached You?” They shall bring every devoted Muslim to have as one of his greatest hopes and highest objectives the killing of the Rejectionists in particular among the enemies of God.
His legacy is also commonly invoked by the leaders of the Islamic State. In April 2013, for example, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq to Syria, recasting it as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, he reaffirmed his commitment to the “path” laid down by Zarqawi. “May Shaykh Zarqawi be delighted in his resting place,” he said, “for the path that he tread, whose waymarks he established and guided toward, those who came after him followed it. And we, God willing, are following it as well.” In the absence of further evidence, the path belongs to Zarqawi above all.
It has become a commonplace to observe that Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini, the two late-fifties Jordanian-Palestinian scholars, are the leading ideologues of the Jihadi Salafi movement. Following the rise of the Islamic State in 2013-2014, which both men vehemently opposed upon its caliphate declaration, the two fell out of favor with the most radical jihadis, but among those sympathetic to al-Qaida they remained profoundly influential. Living freely in Jordan after many years of periodic incarceration, they have expanded their influence over the past several years, disseminating messages and communicating with their followers via social media, primarily Telegram, on a near-daily basis.
But al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada have never been the same person, and lately they have not seen eye-to-eye on many issues. Al-Maqdisi has long been the more doctrinaire scholar, promoting a strict understanding of Salafi theology that is inherently exclusionary of militant Islamists of different theological persuasions. Abu Qatada has throughout his career stood for a more inclusive jihadism, one more appreciative of reality and more accommodating of theological diversity. The rebellion in Syria has cast a light on these different visions of jihadism while effectively pitting the two men against each other.
Jihad nukhba vs. jihad umma
Al-Maqdisi’s vision is sometimes described in Arabic as jihad nukhba, or “the jihad of an elite.” This refers to the idea that only a select group of Muslim warriors can lead the global community of Islam, the umma, to the desired end-state of a pure Islamic system ruled by the shari‘a. Speaking of this idea, al-Maqdisi has emphasized “the necessity of the persistence of an elite representing the monotheist faction in word and in deed, whose measure is monotheism (tawhid) firstly and always, who will be atop those guiding the jihad, leading it, and controlling it, so that it will not go astray or be robbed of its fruits.” Jihad nukhba is reminiscent of and probably related to Sayyid Qutb’s notion of a “vanguard” of believers who must come together to face the forces of jahiliyya in a world in which Islam has practically ceased to exist.
The idea of jihad umma, or “the jihad of [the] umma,” by contrast, which is represented by Abu Qatada and his followers, starts from the premise that the era of jihad nukhba has in large measure failed and therefore must come to an end. What should emerge in its stead is a jihadi movement that seeks to mobilize the umma at large. Developing this idea, Abu Qatada wrote recently of “the necessity of opening our jihad and our hearts to every Muslim who desires the victory of the shari‘a and the implementation of the Qur’an and the sunna.” Relatedly, he underscored the importance of accepting and dealing with “reality,” meaning the world as it is as opposed to “the ideal world” that accords with “our dreamy thoughts.” In his eyes, he is a realist jihadi; by implication, al-Maqdisi is an idealist.
The debate over jihad nukhba and jihad umma seems to have been sparked off by a fatwa written by Abu Qatada back in March 2017 that criticized the state of the jihadi movement. The context was the continuing evolution of what was originally al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, into Jabhat Fath al-Sham in July 2016 and then Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in January 2017. By breaking ties with al-Qaida and allying itself with a diverse array of Islamist factions, HTS had alienated many jihadis, including al-Maqdisi, who saw it as diluting jihad and turning away from strict Salafi principles. In his fatwa, Abu Qatada reflected on the past and present of “the jihadi current” (al-tayyar al-jihadi), which, he lamented, had “succeeded with distinction in isolating itself” from the broader Islamic community. A crucial failing was the current’s embrace of an exclusionary “mindset” informed by the teachings of Wahhabism, focused as it is on enforcing pure monotheism (tawhid). This obsession with theological purity had led to such counterproductive opinions among jihadis as the excommunication of Hamas. Abu Qatada foresaw the obsolescence of “the ideological group” and its replacement by “the project of the umma.”
Al-Maqdisi has refrained from refuting Abu Qatada directly, but he has rebutted the jihad umma idea on multiple occasions. For instance, in a Telegram post in March 2017, he defended the concept of the “elite” in Islam, recalling the experience of the Prophet who, together with his early followers, formed a select group of warriors who overcame and ultimately absorbed the forces of unbelief. “This active elite,” he remarked, “are in every period the saddle-bearing camels who carry the religion and bring it to its objective.” It would be a “great mistake,” he warned, to put our trust in the umma, “the majority of which has forsaken the religion.” Rather, “it is necessary to preserve our distinctiveness in order that we be a good example for them and lead them to what is required by knowledge, God’s law, and reason.” Instead of “melting” into society, he said, the jihadis must bring society into the jihadi fold, so that they can “participate with the nukhba in leading the umma to its glories.”
To put things in more practical terms, jihad umma is associated with HTS and its more ecumenical form of jihadism, while jihad nukhba is linked to al-Qaida—particularly the al-Qaida remnant in Syria identified with Tanzim Hurras al-Din—and its more dogmatic version of jihadism. Thus one of HTS’s most prominent supporters online, the London-based Isma‘il Kalam (aka Abu Mahmud al-Filastini), has defended Abu Qatada’s idea of jihad umma at length, while one of HTS’s leading opponents, the al-Qaida leader Sami al-‘Uraydi, has refuted it on several occasions.
Another point of contention between al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada has been the issue of Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria, and particularly HTS’s willingness to engage in limited cooperation with the Turkish military in and around Idlib Province. In October 2017, as part of the Astana agreement, Turkish forces deployed on the outskirts of Idlib in coordination with HTS in a move that was deeply unpopular in jihadi circles. The reason for its unpopularity was that Jihad Salafi ideologues, including al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, have tended to view the Turkish government as a secular, infidel government, and President Erdogan as a secular, infidel ruler. Thus, collaborating with the Turks is potentially sinful or worse.
Abu Qatada made this point himself in a March 2017 fatwa, writing that “anyone who fights under the banner of the apostate Turkish army carries a judgment of apostasy and unbelief.” Later that year, however, in October, as HTS began coordinating with the Turkish military, his view became less categorical. In a video interview that month, he discussed the legitimacy of truces and agreements with unbelievers in Islamic law, saying of certain unnamed jihadi groups’ relationship with Turkey, “This matter should be left to its people.” Al-Maqdisi, by contrast, has exhibited no such tolerance of HTS’s cooperation with Turkey. In a post on the subject from last October, he described the Turkish military as an “invading enemy” that must be repelled by jihad.
The extent of the disagreement between Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi on this issue only came to the fore in summer 2018, as HTS was deliberating further cooperation with the Turks. On July 25, in a private Telegram chat with HTS leaders and other jihadis, Abu Qatada gave his opinion on HTS’s admission of the Turks into its territory, calling it a wise move in light of reality, the public interest, and the fact that the group was at risk of being rooted out. In his ruling—a copy of which was shared with me on a confidential basis—he acknowledged that his judgment on the matter had evolved over time as the strategic environment had changed, and that he was not alone in this regard. Indeed, he claimed, al-Maqdisi had reached the same conclusion, having told him that HTS’s admission of the Turks was good, wise, and unobjectionable.
Later that day, when word reached al-Maqdisi that this opinion had been attributed to him, he denied it in a strongly-worded Telegram post: “I have never said that admitting the secular Turkish military to the liberated areas is a good act! Or that it is a wise act! I have not even said the word unobjectionable about it! None of this has come from me, and I disclaim it before God. Whoever attributes any of this to me is a liar.” Al-Maqdisi had just called Abu Qatada a liar, if only indirectly. Indeed, it is likely that al-Maqdisi had seen exactly what Abu Qatada had attributed to him, since in the private Telegram chat Abu Qatada had put those exact words—“good,” “wise,” and “unobjectionable”—into al-Maqdisi’s mouth.
After this episode, the two men’s relationship seems to have been ice cold for about a month, after which they publicly made up. On August 23, al-Maqdisi wrote on Telegram that despite what people think he had not called Abu Qatada a liar. Rather, he had called the words attributed to him lies and had refrained from naming anyone. Al-Maqdisi then dismissed those “trying to spoil relations between myself and Shaykh Abu Qatada,” noting that the latter’s “honesty and probity are well-known.” Finally, he asked God to bring unity to the jihadis. The next day, Abu Qatada returned the compliment in a Telegram post of his own, praising al-Maqdisi for his contributions to jihad, downplaying “disputes among brothers,” and calling for unity. The truce seems to have been brokered by the Moroccan jihadi scholar ‘Umar al-Haddushi, who explained how he spoke to each man privately before they came out with their mutually laudatory posts.
The reconciliation between al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada was hailed by some of their supporters (see here and here), but some jihadis in the al-Qaida orbit have been unforgiving of Abu Qatada. For instance, Abu Hajir al-Shami, an al-Qaeda member in Syria, chastised him in a September post for providing cover for the “diluters” of HTS. Their pretense of friendship and unity notwithstanding, Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi remained deeply divided.
Mourning Jamal Khashoggi
The most recent sign of their division appeared in the aftermath of the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Five days after the event, the two scholars commented on his passing on Telegram.
Abu Qatada’s statement, which was posted first, comprised some reminiscences of his interactions with Khashaggi over the years. The two were not close or on good terms, but in the mid-2000s they saw each other almost daily as their children attended the same school in London. Despite their differences, Abu Qatada managed to say “may God have mercy on him,” indicating that he viewed Khashoggi as a Muslim.
Al-Maqdisi was not so charitable. In his remarks, as if responding to Abu Qatada, he wrote that “Jamal Khashoggi does not deserve that we speak about him at length, shed a tear for him, or ask God to have mercy on him … Not everyone who is killed or kidnapped or imprisoned by the [apostate] regimes becomes a hero or a martyr on whom we ask God to have mercy!” “Throughout his life,” al-Maqdisi continued, “he [Khashoggi] disgraced himself by supporting [apostate] regimes, giving loyalty to them, arguing on their behalf, and working in their sensitive establishments,” adding that he “was partial to the secularism of Erdogan.” Al-Maqdisi’s dislike for Khashoggi was also personal in nature. In 1995, Khashoggi had written a magazine article about him titled “The Ideological Theoretician of the Riyadh Bombing,” which linked him to a terrorist attack in Riyadh that year. Al-Maqdisi considered it defamatory.
The following day, in a response to a question about his asking God to have mercy on Khashoggi, Abu Qatada reaffirmed his view that Khashoggi was indeed a Muslim, highlighting his formation in the Muslim Brotherhood and his “strong ties” to that organization. It was another part of his answer, however, that caught most readers’ attention.
This was his opening declaration about his ideological identity. “First of all,” he said, “I am not a jihadi, or a Salafi, and those who wish to wrap me in their ideological robe in spite of me will not succeed. Perhaps they will succeed in expelling me from their current [i.e., the jihadi current], and that would please me greatly. I have two identities: Muslim against the unbelievers in their various forms, and Sunni against the heretics. And that is enough.” Presumably, the question put to Abu Qatada was how his mourning of Khashoggi fit with his status as a major ideologue of Jihadi Salafism. His response was to say that he did not affiliate with any such movement. “I am not the leader of a current,” he said. “Let those who wish to curse me curse me. And let them reprimand me as they like.”
Abu Qatada’s repudiation of Jihadi Salafism naturally generated confusion among jihadis, who have long held him in high esteem. On October 10, he clarified his remarks in a fatwa analyzing the history of the jihadi movement since the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. In the early period of their history, he wrote, the jihadis, seeking to differentiate themselves, adopted the exclusivist Salafi theology and promoted a concept of jihad focused on the “near enemy,” that is, the “apostate” regimes in the Middle East. But these two components of the movement had failed, in his view, in rousing the Muslim masses to the cause of jihad. The events of 9/11, by focusing Muslim attention on the “far enemy,” succeeded to some extent in uniting the umma with the jihadis, but since the Arab Spring the jihadis had one again alienated the umma by indulging in organizational and ideological infighting. A broader message and a more inclusive movement were therefore needed, and this would require transcending the jihadis’ traditional emphasis on Salafi theology and near-enemy jihad. In that sense, he said, he is neither a Salafi nor a jihadi.
A Syrian Taliban?
Abu Qatada can appear despondent at times, but he is keen on projecting optimism about the future. “I believe that jihad will soon spread, God willing, and that states will fall,” he wrote in his October 10 fatwa. But how that will happen, and how soon exactly, he does not say. He pictures the organizational and ideological divisions among jihadis as ephemeral, but also anticipates that there will be more of them. Among other things, he expects that the Islamic State will reconstitute itself and that “extremism” will remain a problem.
As regards the Syrian theater, one scenario that he entertains is the emergence of a unifying Islamic movement on the model of the Afghan Taliban. “History does not repeat itself completely,” he said in the same fatwa, “but this would be similar to [the Taliban] in some senses.” Is HTS the nucleus of a Syrian Taliban that he sees on the horizon? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Abu Qatada is not known for the clarity of his language; he is often accused of being vague and imprecise. In a post last week, he wrote, “I don’t know why people don’t understand and insist that [my] speech is difficult and hard, unclear and general!!!!” But an element of obfuscation and equivocation does in fact pervade his writing. It is often unclear what Abu Qatada stands for. At least he has made it clear where he does not stand.
[Editor’s Note: Jihadica is pleased to welcome Lina Rafaat and Charles Lister. Lina is a research assistant for the Extremism & Counter-Terrorism Program at the Middle East Institute. Her research focuses on militant propaganda with a particular focus on foreign fighter mobilization and logics of martyrdom. Charles is a senior fellow and the director of the Extremism & Counter-Terrorism Program at the Middle East Institute.]
The fall of southwestern Syria to Bashar al-Assad’s regime marked a significant turning point in the Syrian conflict, effectively shifting attention to the northwestern province of Idlib, the last remaining opposition stronghold. Home to a wide array of armed resistance groups, including groups with former and current ties to al-Qaeda, as well as defeated opposition fighters recently exiled from elsewhere in Syria, Idlib’s dynamics are incredibly complex and warrant special consideration. As the threat of an impending regime offensive continues to develop, with both Russia and Turkey bolstering defenses, armed opposition groups find themselves under unprecedented pressure to adapt to the evolving dynamics, both on the ground and in surrounding geopolitics.
A prime example of such adaptation is Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS. Previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, this former al-Qaeda affiliate has rebranded itself twice—first as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) in July 2016, and later as HTS in January 2017—in a relentless effort to expand its power and present itself as a sustainable model capable of continuing the fight against the Assad regime. Today, HTS has asserted military dominance in the northwest, has established a “Salvation Government,” and is reportedly engaged in active political discussions with several regional states.
Central to the HTS model is its propaganda apparatus, which the group has employed effectively to achieve its broader strategic objectives. Faced by the impending threat of all-out hostilities, mainstream armed opposition groups have focused their propaganda on highlighting military operations and their willingness and plans to target regime forces. HTS, on the other hand, has substantially amplified its governance efforts, especially emphasizing three pillars: the provision of public goods and services; the maintenance of law and order, including through fighting terrorism (mainly ISIS); and delegitimizing any attempts of “reconciliation” with the regime.
Through a complete mapping of HTS’s entire propaganda output between June 18, 2018 and August 31, 2018, this article takes an in-depth look at how the explosion of hostilities in southwest Syria has propelled HTS to adapt its media strategy to gain (or regain) local support and to legitimize itself. The data implies that, at least when it comes to its online dissemination, HTS propaganda is geared overwhelmingly towards local messaging and aims to highlight steps taken by the group to tackle issues that are most pressing for its local constituents.
Our data set is comprised of every piece of propaganda published by HTS’s official media arm, Ebaa News Agency, during the period in question. This includes statements, video reports, photo reports, newsletters, infographics and opinion articles. Each of these individual data points was coded and analyzed to draw patterns on how the group’s strategy has been changing, and why. When examined closely, the data demonstrates a concerted attempt by HTS to expand its governance efforts and focus on issues that touch the daily lives of its people, or at least it is creating the illusion of doing so. According to the data, 57 percent of HTS propaganda focuses on governance and local grievances, while only 21 percent focuses on military activities. The remaining 22 percent is geared towards delegitimizing regime soldiers, militias, and opposition factions that have agreed to “reconcile” with the Assad government.
At this critical juncture in HTS’s trajectory, maintaining local support could be just as important a survival strategy as achieving battlefield dominance, if not more important. In a little over two months, HTS has released over 900 reports and statements highlighting the active steps taken by its officials to deal with issues critical to its perceived constituents. Those include: building roads, restoring water access, providing employment opportunities, diffusing explosives, arresting criminals, and restoring the rule of law. As the Assad regime continues to expand its grip on power and regain control of formerly “liberated” areas elsewhere in Syria, HTS appears to have re-examined its prioritization of anti-Assad military operations and pivoted to emphasizing its governance efforts in Idlib as “an exemplary model for contemporary revolutions.”
A key element of this model is, perhaps ironically, HTS’s campaign to combat terrorism. Though itself deemed a terrorist organization by many, including the United States, HTS has launched an extensive counterterrorism campaign targeting ISIS sleeper cells in Idlib. As figure 1.2 demonstrates, the group’s law-and-order campaign has predominantly focused on tracking down ISIS sleeper cells, with over 60 percent of its security operations explicitly aimed at arresting alleged ISIS members, confiscating their weapons, and in some cases publicly executing captured members and commanders. Since the beginning of the Dar’aa offensive, HTS has claimed responsibility for the capture of at least 97 ISIS fighters and commanders and the killing of another 23.
At first glance this may seem a departure from the group’s earlier strategy of steering away from public spectacles of violence, a technique which its foe—ISIS—has used to demonstrate supremacy and to attract recruits. However, this should come as no surprise, since the Assad regime has framed its war as a fight against “terrorists” and has used the presence of ISIS cells or groups linked to al-Qaeda as justification for launching large-scale offensives. By actively targeting and fighting one of the world’s most notorious terrorist organizations, HTS is attempting not only to strip away the regime’s credibility of using terrorism as an excuse to attack Idlib, but also to portray itself as a legitimate non-terrorist actor, especially in the eyes of local populations which have, on occasion, compared it to ISIS.
In addition to providing basic services and fighting terrorism, another important component of HTS’s recent propaganda effort is directed at the delegitimization of identified enemies of the group. Targets of this campaign include: the Assad regime along with its militias and allies; the international community for its perceived complicity in the war against innocent Syrian civilians; Syria’s exiled political opposition for failing to provide an effective political solution; and most importantly “reconciliation,” which HTS depicts as an existential threat to the people of Idlib.
As figure 1.3 indicates, 33 percent of HTS delegitimization campaigns since mid-June have been directed at “reconciliation”—the Assad regime’s chosen mechanism for regaining control of opposition-held areas. Such “reconciliation” scenarios have played out in each of Syria’s de-escalation zones, first in Eastern Ghouta in April 2018, then Homs in May and Dar’aa in June. Now, finally, the regime’s eyes are on Idlib as its next and perhaps final target. In truth, the regime’s “reconciliation” strategy represents an offer of surrender to avoid the prospect of a catastrophic, brutal attack from the air and ground. Frequently, “reconciliation” deals have followed long-drawn-out sieges, or bombing campaigns, or even chemical weapons attacks in the case of Eastern Ghouta in April.
However, both the regime and HTS understand that the situation in Idlib is far more complex than in previous cases. In a video statement released on August 21, 2018, HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani stressed that people in the “Liberated North” are well aware of regime plans and refuse to concede:
The phase through which the jihad in al-Sham is passing today needs us, as fighting factions, to pledge before God, Glorified and Sublime, then before our patient people, that the weapons of the revolution and jihad—that trust which the Muslims have bestowed on us—are a red line that will never be bargained with and will never be on the negotiating table. For our weapons are the source of our power and pride, and they are our bedrock. The very moment one of us thinks about negotiating his weapon, he has effectively lost it. Just thinking of surrendering to the enemy and turning over our weapons is a betrayal of God and His prophet, of the blood of the martyrs, and of the prisoners and the displaced—a betrayal of our people who have sacrificed and given so much, our people who have remained steadfast for seven years in the face of oppression and criminality. What happened in the south, the honorable sons of al-Sham will not allow to happen in the north.
Jolani’s statement comes at a critical time when HTS is under immense pressure to dissolve itself and merge with the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), which has become the largest armed actor in Idlib, comprising ten Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, the Syrian Liberation Front, or SLF (Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki), Jaysh al-Ahrar, and Suqour al-Sham. HTS has issued multiple statements refuting all rumors of any impending dissolution and reiterating its commitment to defend its people from the looming threat of a regime offensive as an independent group. On the contrary, a recent statement issued on August 28 indicated that dissolution remained “an internal matter” and that HTS was “working hard” to come to a workable solution that “spares our people from likely attack.”
Though adamant about maintaining its independence, HTS’s core leadership understands very well that it needs to cooperate with the other factions if it stands any chance of survival. This was made clear in Jolani’s remarks, where he emphasized the urgency of higher degrees of military coordination between different fighting factions on the battlefield and announced the establishment of a joint operations room in the north to defend and protect “the honorable people of al-Sham.” As with other components of its recent propaganda strategy, this talk of “unity” is clearly aimed at convincing local communities that HTS is their defender and an intrinsic part of the broader “revolutionary” movement. Jolani stressed:
Our sorrows and our hopes are one, and our fate is one. Our enemy is out for all of us and does not differentiate between us, and will observe toward none neither bond nor treaty. The best way to confront our enemy is to be a unified front, together in love and brotherhood. All of us must play our role in this crucial battle: fighters, civil society, clergy and scholars, tribes and families. Everyone is targeted.
Whether or not HTS’s propaganda accurately reflects realities on the ground remains unclear and hard to measure, but that should not be the focus of our attention. What HTS propaganda shows is that it is appealing to its local constituents by advertising such products as services and security, creating an image of a functioning society with happy kids, busy markets, and security checkpoints at a time when people are craving any sign of normalcy in the midst of chaos. Though local skepticism of HTS is commonplace in northwestern Syria, the threat of overwhelming attack by the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies may be the one chance for HTS to regain popular legitimacy. Its propaganda is aimed entirely at achieving that result.
The fate of Idlib appears to have been sealed. The chances of Turkey and Russia being able to negotiate a political solution seem increasingly remote. The eventual regime victory will certainly lead to unprecedented levels of death and destruction, which will in all likelihood be used to fuel extremist narratives like that espoused by HTS for years to come. As the regime tries to isolate armed opposition groups by driving a wedge between them and the people, HTS is fighting for its survival by actively seeking to embed itself within society. Whether or not it has been successful, the fact remains that once the fighting begins, HTS fighters will be the first ones on the frontlines, and this more than anything will give the group the chance to bolster its credibility and justify its narrative for years to come.