Everywhere Abu Musab al-Zarqawi went, Abu al-Qassam was with him. Even to prison. Abu al-Qassam was al-Zarqawi’s childhood friend, later his companion and finally his deputy. After spending more than 10 years in Iranian captivity, he was released in March 2015, but despite the Islamic State claiming to be the heirs of al-Zarqawi, it is now with al-Qaida that Abu al-Qassam’s loyalty lies.

Originally from Ramallah, Abu al-Qassam grew up in Zarqa, just north of Jordan’s capital Amman. It was here, in one of the city’s mosques – most likely al-Hussein bin Ali Mosque – that he one day as a young man met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who eventually would become the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor. The two would go on to become close, even family.

He was born as Khalid Mustafa Khalifa al-Aruri in 1967, but it was as Abu al-Qassam or Abu Ashraf that he eventually became known in Jihadi circles. Little is known about his early years and the information available is conflicting. One story is that he worked for a Saudi organization, the IIRO, in 1991 before returning to Zarqa a year later. Perhaps it was then that he stumbled upon al-Zarqawi, one year his senior and who was back from Afghanistan after his first battlefield experience. Another account is that he in fact joined al-Zarqawi in Afghanistan. In any case, from 1993 the two were inseparable.

Like al-Zarqawi, Abu al-Qassam was imprisoned in Jordan on 29 March 1994 until March 1999 (another account is that Abu al-Qassam was released early as there was not enough evidence against him) in the ‘Bay‘at al-Imam’ case, referring to the group al-Zarqawi had established upon his return together with his mentor Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. As soon as they were released, however, it was not long before the two young Jordanians left for Afghanistan for a second time.

Zarqawi’s companion, deputy and brother-in-law

Upon arrival in Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi was approached by the senior al-Qaida member Saif al-Adl, who saw a great potential in the Jordanian. Al-Adl immediately wanted to start cooperation with al-Zarqawi, through logistical assistance and funding, but al-Zarqawi needed time to think it over. He had to consult with Abu al-Qassam. Some days later, Abu al-Qassam and Abdul Hadi Daghlas, Zarqawi’s other close companion, gave their blessing to Saif al-Adl’s proposal and from then on al-Qaida started to finance and support al-Zarqawi’s camp in Herat in western Afghanistan.

It was in Afghanistan at the camp in Herat that Abu al-Qassam married al-Zarqawi’s sister and assisted his emir in establishing a small Jihadi community, a mini society, that would lay the foundation for what is today known as the Islamic State. Abu al-Qassam not only acted as al-Zarqawi’s deputy but was also a commander at the camp. The two were so close that al-Maqdisi allegedly described Abu al-Qassam as al-Zarqawi’s shadow – everywhere he went, Abu al-Qassam went too.

The strikes against the US on 9/11 would eventually change that, however. In the aftermath of the attack, al-Zarqawi and his entourage were forced to flee in November 2001 as it became impossible to remain at the camp after the US invasion. But first the Jordanians had to go on a strenuous three-day trip to Kandahar to attend a meeting of high-ranking Jihadis that nearly cost their lives as the Americans bombed the building where the meeting was taking place. After intense battle in Kandahar and later in Tora Bora, al-Zarqawi’s group was forced to leave for Iran and it is likely that Abu al-Qassam was part of the group traveling to Iran at this point.

Whether Abu al-Qassam stayed on in Iran or followed al-Zarqawi to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2002 remains unknown, but it has been reported that he served as al-Zarqawi’s key liaison with Ansar al-Islam, the al-Qaida-affiliated group in Kurdistan that assisted with the relocation of al-Zarqawi’s group to Iraq. This work, however, probably took place in Iran and not in Kurdistan. Reportedly, Abu al-Qassam participated in an important meeting with people close to Mullah Krekar in August 2003 in Tehran, where it was agreed to set up training camps in Kurdistan. Interestingly, a Moroccan investigation into the March 2003 bombings in Casablanca claimed that Abu al-Qassam had helped finance the attack, thus indicating a role in the Iraq-based group’s external operations as well.

Abu Al Qassam

As is now well-known, the Iranian authorities were rather accommodating of Jihadi activities in their country and this was also the case with al-Zarqawi’s group, but for some reason this would suddenly change. Iranian police entered several hotels in Tehran, where al-Zarqawi’s people were known to reside, and it is likely that Abu al-Qassam was arrested as part of this crack down.

In Iranian prison, or house arrest, Abu al-Qassam would meet several familiar faces, among them Saif al-Adl, who had been responsible for the liaison between al-Qaida and al-Zarqawi’s group in Afghanistan. Several other senior al-Qaida figures and members of Usama bin Laden’s family were also in Iranian captivity.

Relocating to Syria

Abu al-Qassam spent approximately 12 years in prison before being released in March 2015 as part of a prisoner exchange deal. Besides Abu al-Qassam, four senior al-Qaida members were released, namely Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, Saif al-Adl and Sari Shihab. Initially there was doubt over the location of the five senior figures and even over how engaged they remained after so many years in prison. Al-Zarqawi’s death in 2006, while Abu al-Qassam was imprisoned, only raised questions regarding his dedication to Jihad. On several occasions, it was reported that the released al-Qaida senior members had relocated to Syria at the directive of Ayman al-Zawahiri to support Jabhat al-Nusra and the so-called Khorasan group. We now know that these reports were only partly true.

The first rumours surrounding Abu al-Qassam emerged in September 2015, saying that he had been chosen to lead a new al-Qaida group in Iraq (see here and here). This, however, was not correct and it is unlikely that Abu al-Qassam stayed long in Iraq if at all. Instead, we know that Abu al-Qassam relocated to northern Syria, but when exactly is unclear. A Jabhat al-Nusra supporter disclosed in September 2015 that a senior member released from Iranian house arrest had arrived in Syria on the orders to al-Zawahiri, but whether it was Abu al-Qassam or Abu al-Khayr is still a mystery.

Abu al-Qassam’s first appearance in Syria was reported in December 2015. This was at the same time as high-ranking Jabhat al-Nusra leaders Sami al-Uraydi and Iyad al-Tubaysi (aka Abu Julaybib) relocated from southern Syria to the north, possibly to meet up with Abu al-Qassam. According to al-Maqdisi, Abu al-Qassam joined the Coordination Committee in Syria (lajnat al-mutaba’a fi-l-Sham), which allegedly was responsible for the link between al-Qaida and its Syrian affiliate, although not under direct supervision of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

It would take some time before Abu al-Qassam himself would confirm his presence in Syria, but that he did in early 2017 in an eulogy for Abu al-Khayr, al-Qaida’s deputy and his longtime friend from their time in Iran. In his statement, Abu al-Qassam praises his fallen friend, extends his blessings to al-Zawahiri and promises to work to keep the Syrian Jihad on the right path.

Abu al-Qassam is arguably a man of action rather than of writing. His closeness to Zarqawi could testify to that, but we can also take Abu al-Qassam at his word. He begins several of his writings by saying that he is not at ease with a pen in his hand and unlike many of his Jihadi colleagues not a fan of writing on the internet. That said, since the beginning of 2017 – and corresponding with Abu al-Khayr’s death – Abu al-Qassam has become increasingly active.

In May, in a brief analysis of the situation in Syria authored together with his friend Sami al-Uraydi (who posts Abu al-Qassam’s statements on his Telegram channel), Abu al-Qassam outlined the role of Iran, Russia and Turkey in Syria, noting that Turkey is broadening its influence in Idlib and that the mujahideen needs to adapt to the situation. The best way of fighting the enemy, he claimed, is to initiate a guerilla war, which he defines as the next stage (al-marhala al-muqbila) in the struggle. Uraydi, also a Jordanian, added that the Jihadis in Syria are critically affected by the ongoing confusion, referring to the Jihadi infighting and the split with al-Qaida, and emphasizes that this has to be resolved immediately.

The following month, Abu al-Qassam was forced to his keyboard once again. The war of words between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra and Jabhat Fath al-Sham, and his good friend and senior ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi were threatening the bond with al-Qaida sympathizers in Syria. Abu al-Qassam’s intervention, in which he argued that problems should be solved and not allowed to escalate and that al-Maqdisi should be respected despite one’s disagreement with him, was – as he promised Abu al-Khayr – an effort to safeguard al-Qaida’s Jihadi project in Syria.

Loyalty to al-Qaida

In early 2014, Abu al-Qassam was still imprisoned in Iran and could only witness the split between al-Qaida and the Islamic State and the ensuing fragmentation within the Jihadi environment from a distance. Ever since the rupture, the Islamic State has emphasized its ‘lineage’ from al-Zarqawi as a way to capitalize on his authority and legacy. According to the Islamic State itself, it is different from al-Qaida as it continued in the footsteps of its founder al-Zarqawi (and Usama bin Laden) while al-Qaida deviated after al-Zawahiri assumed control. Thus the Islamic State, and not al-Qaida, is the Zarqawist side in the intra-Jihadi civil war.

Is it surprising, then, that al-Zarqawi’s most loyal remaining companion chose to ally himself with al-Qaida and not the Islamic State after his release from prison? Initially it could be questioned whether Abu al-Qassam was still devoted to Jihad, and if so what group he remained loyal. This is no longer the case, however, as his recent involvement in the debate over the split between al-Qaida and its Syrian affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham attests.

Both Abu al-Qassam’s own testimony and that of Sami al-Uraydi give the impression that he is indeed an active player on the Jihadi scene and that this loyalty is unequivocally with al-Qaida and Ayman al-Zawahiri. In his statement, Abu al-Qassam explains how he initially sanctioned Jabhat al-Nusra’s desire to split from al-Qaida, but later reversed after he became familiar with the position of two of al-Zawahiri’s deputies (Abu Muhammad al-Masri and Saif al-Adl). As is now well-known, Jabhat al-Nusra went ahead and separated from al-Qaida against the will of the group’s senior leaders. The testimonies provide valuable insights into the dealings with such issues within Jihadi groups and not least the role played by Abu al-Qassam, who participated in several of the meetings that were held prior to the decision.

Peace initiative

Of course, Abu al-Qassam’s closeness to al-Zarqawi and his later opposition to the Islamic State are not unique. Other people, such as Abu Julaybib, spent time in al-Zarqawi’s Herat camp and married one of al-Zarqawi’s sisters before eventually siding with Jabhat al-Nusra in its contest with the Islamic State. But the fact that Abu al-Qassam was Zarqawi’s very close friend and deputy, and now ranks as a senior al-Qaida member, can only be seen as a victory for al-Qaida.

While Abu al-Qassam’s exact role has not been revealed, it appears likely that he will try act as a unifying actor between the conflicting parties in the future. One recent example of such a role is his support to the scholarly peace initiative that was presented in late October, though so far this has produced no results.

 

Tore tweets at @torerhamming

Uraydi testimony

Something is not right in the relationship between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and al-Qaida.

On 15 October, an announcement was posted on Sami al-Uraydi’s Telegram channel. “#Soon,” it said, “the series For God, then For History,” which was described as consisting of “testimonies on the split between Jabhat al-Nusra and Tanzim al-Qaida”. 50 minutes later the first such testimony was released and the war of words between al-Qaida and HTS had begun. In the coming six days, four further testimonies from Uraydi, and another from a close accomplice, followed and all with the same objective: to delegitimise leading HTS figures, namely Abu Abdullah al-Shami and Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani.

As readers of this site will know, this is not the first time that debate and controversy between HTS and al-Qaida-affiliated ideologues have disturbed the Jihadi scene. In late November last year, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi began his critique of what was then known as Jabhat Fath al-Shami (JFS) (see here and here). Al-Maqdisi critiqued the split from al-Qaida and argued that the JFS/HTS project had not achieved anything but the dilution of the Jihadi project in Sham (though he recently claimed that HTS is still the best group around in Syria). This quickly led al-Shami to respond to al-Maqdisi, asking him to stay quiet as his remarks did more harm than good. The feisty Jordanian ideologue, however, would not shut up. In the wake of al-Maqdisi’s criticism, his friend and loyal supporter, Sami al-Uraydi, continued along the same lines with several damaging statements from March onwards (see here), these coming shortly after he left HTS on 8 February 2017. (Note that, relative to the July 2016 JFS-al-Qaida split, this was rather late.)

The criticism in Uraydi’s new testimonies is thus not unprecedented. In fact, he has raised some of the same issues before. But for two reasons they are particularly noteworthy. The first is that the debate was set off by claims made in a personal conversation between al-Shami and an unknown person, apparently in response to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s latest speech, “We Shall Fight You Until There Is No More Persecution,” released on 4 October. In the speech, Zawahiri criticised the breaking of ties and called for unity (implicitly under the al-Qaida banner). Al-Shami’s conversation was not intended to reach the ‘public’ but for some reason it did—or at least it was read by a large enough number of people that al-Shami deemed it to be out in the open. However, the leaked conversation has not been easy to track down and thus it continues to be a mystery exactly what al-Shami said about al-Zawahiri. The second reason is that this is the first time Uraydi is writing openly and frankly about internal Jabhat al-Nusra-JFS-HTS affairs, and he brings a great deal of authority to bear when it comes to this. He was a leading shari’ in Nusra and a member of both the sharia and shura council in JFS. This implies that he is a person with critical insider knowledge of how the break between Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida actually occurred. Abu Abdullah al-Shami, a sharia council and possibly shura council member of HTS, is a heavyweight himself and thus the debate poses a risk to the cohesion of the al-Qaida-sympathetic community within and related to Syria.

Cole Bunzel has already reported extensively on the debate between al-Shami and Uraydi, but Uraydi’s latest series deserves a bit more attention, not only because it is a scathing attack on former friends and allies but also because it offers insights into the process of breaking ties and identifies the actors involved.

Uraydi takes the stand

In Uraydi’s first testimony, released on 15 October, he begins by explaining that the reason why he has been silent until now is that he wanted to preserve the unity among the Jihadis. Yet the recent comments by Abdullah al-Shami regarding Zawahiri made it necessary for him to speak. According to Uraydi, al-Shami claimed that the break from al-Qaida was in fact legally authorised by al-Qaida itself, but for the former shari’ of Jabhat al-Nusra this was a plain lie.

For some reason, Uraydi begins the first episode by talking about the merger of several groups in late January 2017 that established HTS. Two weeks after its formation, Uraydi, accompanied by Abu al-Qassam al-Urduni (Khalid Mustafa Khalifa al-Aruri), among others, went to see Zawahiri’s deputy, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, to ask him about the new group. Abu al-Khayr told Uraydi and Abu al-Qassam that he did not know about this (Uraydi calls it “the complete breaking of ties”) except from the media and that he had not spoken to JFS/HTS officials for a month and a half. Uraydi goes on to ask rhetorically how the split from al-Qaida can be approved and legitimate if not even al-Zawahiri’s deputy knew about it beforehand.

One can be excused for being a bit confused at this point, as it is unclear exactly when Uraydi considers the break between the two groups to have happened. As will be seen in the second testimony, he does consider the establishment of JFS in July 2016 to be a split from al-Qaida, but apparently he saw this as the first step in a process in which the HTS merger of January 2017 was the final act. To conclude his first testimony, Uraydi asks another rhetorical question that will turn out to be a recurrent provocation: “What is the difference between what you have done and that which Baghdadi did, which we all rejected and denounced?”

The testimony put al-Shami in a delicate position. Shortly after Uraydi posted the first instalment on Telegram, al-Shami rushed to his keyboard, not to write his own words but to quote others’. In a cryptic manner he responded, quoting the late al-Qaida ideologue Abu Yahya al-Libi saying that Jihad is not about organisations or people. Such organisations are a means rather than an end.

Uraydi’s second testimony was released the day after, on 16 October. He relates that al-Zawahiri sent a letter to JFS leaders (meaning Jawlani) after the re-branding in July 2016 in which he ordered JFS to reverse its decision and re-establish ties with the al-Qaida organisation. Zawahiri informed Jawlani that a major decision such as breaking ones bay’ah (pledge) was not up to an amir (like Jawlani), Zawahiri’s deputy, or even Zawahiri himself. It was a matter for the al-Qaida shura council. After this letter, Zawahiri’s deputy Abu al-Khayr allegedly ceased giving his blessing to JFS after initially supporting the re-branding initiative (he had released an audio approving the re-branding before it took place).

It took only another day before Uraydi published his third testimony in the series. To shed more light on what happened he explains the initial attitude of Jawlani and al-Shami at the time of the break. On several occasions, according to Uraydi, the JFS leaders said that if Zawahiri were to reject the split, they would “listen and obey”. Abu al-Faraj al-Masri (Ahmad Salama Mabruk), an old friend of Zawahiri’s, agreed with them. Were al-Zawahiri not to approve the split, there would be “no debate”. After the arrival of Zawahiri’s letter calling the split a “sin” and “act of disobedience”, a meeting was organised on 3 October 2016, probably in Jisr al-Shughour. We know that al-Qassam and Mabruk were there, and likely also Abu al-Khayr, Jawlani and al-Shami. Back in July, Mabruk was seated next to Jawlani (with al-Shami being the third person) in the video announcing JFS, and so he was a central person in the process. But he was also loyal to his old comrade and leader and it seems certain that he would not have accepted defying al-Zawahiri’s order. Perhaps luckily for Jawlani and al-Shami, Mabruk was killed less than an hour later when leaving the meeting.

In his fourth testimony, released on 18 October, Uraydi goes on to provide more details about the actual content of Zawahiri’s private letter to the JFS leaders. According to Uraydi, Zawahiri reminded his correspondents of what he had said in public on the question of breaking ties, which was that the organizational link would never stand in the way of uniting the mujahidin in Syria, particularly in the event that they formed a “righteous Islamic government” in Syria (Uraydi emphasizes that Zawahiri said in Syria, not in Idlib). The breaking of ties could only happen after and not before the establishment of this righteous Islamic government, and even then it would be a matter for al-Qaida’s shura council to decide.

Abu al-Qassam intervenes

Uraydi’s fifth and last one came a bit later. He deliberately postponed it due to the release of another testimony, one by his friend Abu al-Qassam al-Urduni, whom Uraydi himself referred to in several of his own testimonies. Although his name may not sound familiar to many, Abu al-Qassam is certainly a Jihadi with pedigree. Like Uraydi, he is also Jordanian and he was a friend and companion of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s since growing up in Zarqa. Both men (Abu al-Qassam and Zarqawi) travelled to Afghanistan in 1989 and stayed there until 1993. In the years 1993 to 1999, both were incarcerated in a Jordanian prison, but after their release the two travelled once again to Afghanistan, where Abu al-Qassam became the commander of Zarqawi’s training camp near Herat. In fact, at some point Abu al-Qassam even married a sister of Zarqawi’s. When exactly this took place is unknown. Abu al-Qassam was later imprisoned in Iran until he being released in March 2015, relocating to Syria to join al-Qaida, not the Islamic State.

Abu al-Qassam begins his statement with a comment that probably resonates with many. Explaining that he does not like writing on the internet, he goes on to say that “the Sham arena makes people do what they hate”. Abu al-Qassam’s main objective is to lay out the position of Zawahiri’s three deputies Abu al-Khayr, Saif al-Adl and Abu Muhammad al-Masri, and since he spent several years with them imprisoned in Iran, no one is probably better situated to do just this. Abu al-Qassam confirms that both Saif al-Adl (former head of al-Qaida’s military council) and Abu Muhammad al-Masri (shura council member and senior operative) are living in Iran. However, contrary to al-Shami’s claim, they are no longer detained (since release in March 2015) but rather “they are forbidden from traveling … they move around and live their natural lives except for being allowed to travel”.

Al-Shami had apparently said, in his private conversation, that Abu al-Qassam originally accepted the breaking of ties between Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida when it was presented to him by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, but after discussing the matter with al-Adl and al-Masri changed his position and rejected the proposal. Abu al-Qassam confirms this and provides two reasons for his change of mind. The first was his view that Zawahiri should be consulted now that communication with the al-Qaeda leader was a realistic option. The second was that Zawahiri’s three deputies (Abu al-Khayr, Saif al-Adl and Abu Muhammad al-Masri) did not support the breaking of ties, and so neither would he. Extremely disappointed with al-Shami, Abu al-Qassam labels him a backstabber of his Jihadi brothers.

Uraydi resumes

Uraydi’s fifth instalment was finally released on 21 October. In it he offers his final attack on al-Shami. Quoting at length an interview that al-Shami had given in September 2015, he demonstrates that the pledge from Jabhat al-Nusra to al-Qaida was a shari’ contract, a legal pledge of allegiance that can only be dissolved when the group in Syria creates an actual Islamic state. Uraydi’s point here is that this stage was never reached, so to break ties with al-Qaida without the consent of al-Qaida’s leadership amounts to an act of disobedience (similar to Baghdadi’s disobedience to al-Qaida). Uraydi finishes his series by stressing the obligation of the Jihadis to ensure unity among their ranks. Al-Shami, if he gets the last word, would probably argue that Uraydi is causing more division than unity with his exhaustive attacks.

A risky undertaking

Like the split and ensuing conflict between al-Qaida and the Islamic State, the current conflict between leading HTS figures and senior AQ-affiliated ideologues risks having wider repercussions, dividing Jihadis who were previously on the same side. For instance, Uraydi’s testimonies have already infuriated several people on Telegram who are loyal to both al-Qaida and HTS, leading to further mutual recriminations.

On a more general note, Uraydi’s and Abu al-Qassam’s testimonies offer some interesting takeaways:

  • Relations between HTS and al-Qaida-loyal figures are certainly deteriorating, and Jihadis with a history of supporting al-Qaida but who have recently supported HTS now find themselves in a tricky situation. Should one support Jawlani or Zawahiri? The conflict has not escalated to a point where it is impossible to support both, but this could happen.
  • It seems there has been much more communication among senior Jihadi leaders in Syria than might be expected in this sensitive security context. Senior Jihadis seem to have been meeting on a regular basis as recently as early 2017.
  • Saif al-Adl and Abu Muhammad al-Masri are active and one of them (probably Masri) is now Zawahiri’s first deputy. It was previously unknown to what extent they were engaged in the Jihadi project after their release, but Abu al-Qassam’s testimony leaves no doubt concerning their current level of engagement. That is certainly a positive for al-Qaida.

 

The author would like to thank Cole Bunzel for his input to this article

On May 31 of this year, Turki al-Bin‘ali, one of the Islamic State’s foremost religious authorities, was killed in Mayadin, Syria in an airstrike carried out by the U.S.-led coalition. Three weeks later, U.S. Central Command confirmed the death of “Turki al-Bin’ali, the self-proclaimed ‘Grand Mufti,’ or chief cleric, of ISIS.” His supporters online bemoaned his loss, circulating his “last will and testament” from June 2015, and in some cases composing commemorative poems (see here and here). The international media also took an interest in his death, CNN, for instance, reporting that “[o]ne of ISIS’ most important figures has been killed by an airstrike.” The Islamic State’s own media outlets, however, were noticeably silent on the matter. There was to be no official statement regarding the demise of the 32-year-old cleric from Bahrain, let alone any kind of eulogy. The reasons, it now seems, are clear.

At the time of his death, al-Bin‘ali was involved in a highly contentious theological controversy that has been roiling the Islamic State for some time. The dispute concerns the group’s position on takfir, or excommunication—namely, the excommunication of fellow Muslims—and al-Bin‘ali was on the losing side. On May 17, 2017, the Islamic State’s Delegated Committee, its executive council, issued a memorandum setting out the official stance on takfir, and for al-Bin‘ali it was too extreme. Two days later, he refuted the memorandum in a letter to the Delegated Committee, and twelve days after that, he was killed. More such refutations by Islamic State scholars followed, and in at least one other case the result—death by airstrike—was the same. In mid-September, in a highly unusual move, the Delegated Committee rescinded its controversial memo on takfir; al-Bin‘ali seemed to be posthumously vindicated. But before this, the several refutations of the Delegated Committee, including al-Bin‘ali’s, as well as some additional statements of dissent, found their way online. Together, these form an extraordinary window onto the theological turmoil in the Islamic State.

The caliphate’s “mufti”?

The first thing that should be addressed is the question of what role Turki al-Bin‘ali actually played in the Islamic State. As I wrote more than two years ago, there were rumors in late 2014 that al-Bin‘ali had been elevated to the position of chief mufti, and the accounts of certain Islamic State defectors seemed to corroborate that report. In 2016, a U.S. Treasury designation described him as the Islamic State’s “chief religious advisor,” noting that he “provides literature and fatwas for ISIL training camps.” Similarly, the U.S. Central Command statement referred to him as the group’s “Grand Mufti” and “chief cleric.” Some Arabic newspapers had taken to calling him “the mufti of Da‘ish.”

Al-Bin‘ali, as it turns out, was the emir of a body known as the Office of Research and Studies (Maktab al-Buhuth wa’l-Dirasat), which was previously known as the Committee for Research and Fatwas (Hay’at al-Buhuth wa’l-Ifta’), and before that as the Department of Research and Fatwas (Diwan al-Buhuth wa’l-Ifta’). The office has been responsible for preparing the religious texts studied in the Islamic State’s training camps and published by its printing press. At one point, it was also responsible for issuing fatwas. In the summer of 2014, as the Department of Research and Fatwas, it put out the infamous monograph justifying the group’s practice of slavery; in late 2014 and early 2015, as the Committee for Research and Fatwas, it produced a set of fatwas on a range of issues, from foosball to immolation. By late 2015, it was signing its publications as the Office of Research and Studies.

As one can see, al-Bin‘ali’s scholarly unit was demoted from department to committee to office, and in the process stripped of its prerogative of giving fatwas. The fact that al-Bin‘ali was in charge of what was the fatwa-issuing body of the Islamic State did make him, in a sense, the “chief mufti,” but this was never his official title. He was the emir of an office whose name and responsibilities varied over time.

According to a 2016 Islamic State video on the “structure of the caliphate,” the Office of Research and Studies is “concerned with researching shar‘i issues and expounding on any matters referred to it by various bodies”; it is “supervised” by the the Delegated Committee (al-Lajna al-Mufawwada). The Delegated Committee, so named because its members are “delegated” by the caliph, is “a select group of knowledgeable, upright individuals with perception and leadership skills … a body of individuals that supports [the caliph] … communicating orders once they have been issued and ensuring their execution.” It supervises all the Islamic State’s provinces, departments, committees, and offices. The impression given by the documents reviewed below is that the Delegated Committee, increasingly dominated by the allies of uber-extremists in takfir, gradually sidelined al-Bin‘ali and his office—and possibly even had a hand in his death.

“Hazimis” and “Bin‘alis”

As is well known, the Islamic State and al-Qaida are divided over the question of takfir, the former being more takfir-prone than the latter. But within the Islamic State itself there has also been a division, one sometimes described as between the more extreme “Hazimis” and the more moderate “Bin‘alis.”

“The Hazimis” (al-Hazimiyya), or “the Hazimi current” (al-tayyar al-Hazimi), who have been discussed by Tore Hamming and Romain Caillet, among others, are named for the Meccan-born Ahmad ibn ‘Umar al-Hazimi, a Salafi scholar in Saudi Arabia believed to be in his fifties. Though imprisoned by the Saudis since 2015, al-Hazimi is not known for his jihadi leanings, and there is some debate among jihadis as to whether he in fact belongs to the movement. A relatively obscure scholar, al-Hazimi earned a reputation in the jihadi universe only after the 2011 revolution in Tunisia, traveling there to preach on several occasions. In his lectures, he espoused a controversial doctrine known as takfir al-‘adhir, or “the excommunication of the excuser,” which became something of the watchword of the Hazimis.

The notion of takfir al-‘adhir is derived from two concepts in Wahhabi theology. The first is the requirement of takfir; the second is the inadmissibility of al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl, or “excusing on the basis of ignorance.” According to the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), it is incumbent upon all true believers to excommunicate—that is, to make takfir of—those deemed unbelievers, as well as to excommunicate those who fail to excommunicate them. As Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab stated—and this is the line around which the Hazimi-Bin‘ali debate revolves—“Whoso fails to make takfir of the polytheists, or has doubts concerning their unbelief, or deems their doctrine to be sound, has [himself] disbelieved.” The duty of takfir is generally accepted in Jihadi Salafism, but there is some debate over al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl, that is, over whether ignorance may serve as a legitimate excuse for holding errant beliefs, and so shield one from the charge of takfir. For al-Hazimi, who follows the traditional Wahhabi view, al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl is categorically invalid, meaning that the ignorant heretic is to be declared an unbeliever; moreover, as he says, anyone who regards ignorance as an excuse for the heretic’s unbelief is also to be declared an unbeliever. Hence the idea of “the excommunication of the excuser.”

When al-Hazimi elaborated this doctrine in a series of recorded lectures in late 2013, he met with a great deal of opposition from jihadis. In mid-2014, Turki al-Bin‘ali denounced al-Hazimi’s concept of takfir al-‘adhir in a strongly-worded tweet, calling the phrase an innovation. Not long after, Abu Sulayman al-Shami, a Syrian-American official in the Islamic State’s media department, authored a scathing critique of al-Hazimi and his ideas. The main criticism leveled against al-Hazimi by his detractors was that his doctrine amounted to takfir in infinite regress (al-takfir bi’l-tasalsul). Takfir al-‘adhir, they said, necessarily entails a sequence of excommunication in which there is seemingly no end. (To put this in terms of Tom, Dick, and Harry: If Tom is an unbeliever and Dick excuses Tom’s unbelief, then Dick becomes an unbeliever; and if Harry excuses Dick’s unbelief, then Harry becomes an unbeliever; and so on and so on ad infinitum.)

The danger of al-takfir bi’l-tasalsul was explicitly warned against in the creedal manuals prepared by al-Bin‘ali’s division (see, for example, here, pp. 30-32, and here, pp. 58-60). The approach taken in these works was to affirm that while ignorance cannot be an excuse for major unbelief, the one who excuses unbelief on account of ignorance should not be immediately declared an unbeliever. Thus the endless series of takfir is forestalled. It was al-Bin‘ali’s role in promoting this relatively more moderate position that led some to speak of “the Bin‘alis” (al-Bin‘aliyya) and “the Bin‘ali current” (al-tayyar al-Bin‘ali) in contrast to the Hazimis and the Hazimi current. The terminology goes back to at least 2014.

Competing statements

In later 2014, the Islamic State’s General Committee (al-Lajna al-‘Amma), presumably the forerunner of the Delegated Committee, issued a statement prohibiting any talk about “the secondary issues” pertaining to al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl, and threatening to prosecute anyone distributing related audio, visual, and written material. The implied target of this threat was of course the Hazimis and their doctrine of takfir al-‘adhir. Certain “ignorant people,” the statement read, have sought to “sow conflict and division among the soldiers of the Islamic State” by raising these issues.

Also in later 2014, the Islamic State rounded up a number of Hazimi activists within its borders. In September, it executed two well-known shari‘a officials, Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab and Abu ‘Umar al-Kuwaiti, accused of adopting the Hazimi view on takfir, and in December released a video highlighting the arrest of a cell of “extremists”; the video was accompanied by an article in English discussing the “disbanding” of this cell. Those rounded up were accused not only of espousing dangerous ideas about takfir but also of plotting a rebellion against the caliphate. This was not to be the end of the Hazimis, however.

The next official statement on takfir came from something called the Central Office for Overseeing the Shar‘ia Departments (al-Maktab al-Markazi li-Mutaba‘at al-Dawawin). Bearing the number 155 and dated May 29, 2016, this statement, like the first, prohibited discussion of the secondary issues related to al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl; it also explicitly warned against al-takfir bi’l-tasalsul and banned the use of the term takfir al-‘adhir. At the same time, in an attempt to compromise with the Hazimis, it affirmed that there is no excuse for hesitation in takfir, and said that this ought to be clear to anyone living in the Islamic State. For whatever reason, this statement was not put into circulation until April 2017, when it was shared online in both written and audio form and published in the Islamic State’s Arabic weekly, al-Naba’.

If the Central Office statement was a kind of overture to the Hazimis, the next statement, the memorandum by the Delegated Committee from May 17, 2017, was even more so. Titled “That Those Who Perish Might Perish by a Clear Sign, and [That Those Who] Live Might Live by a Clear Sign” (a quotation of Q. 8:42), it was addressed “to all the provinces, departments, and committees.” While the memorandum condemned “the extremists” who adopt the “innovative” idea of al-takfir bi’l-tasalsul, the bulk of its venom was reserved for “the postponers.” The latter are those who refuse to acknowledge takfir as “one of the unambiguous foundations of the religion” and so exhibit undue hesitation in excommunicating “the polytheists.” The final three pages of the memorandum counsel obedience to those in authority. The statement was styled “an important memorandum” in a summary published by al-Naba’ in late May and by Rumiyah in early June.

The Bin‘alis strike back—and are struck

Turki al-Bin‘ali and his allies wasted little time in responding. On May 19, al-Bin‘ali addressed a long letter to the Delegated Committee with his critical “observations” of the memorandum. The letter appeared online in late June. While maintaining a mostly respectful tone, al-Bin‘ali complained bitterly that the memorandum was issued in undue haste, not having been subjected to the scrutiny of “the scholars.” This was in stark contrast to the way in which the Central Office’s statement had been carefully crafted with the input of multiple scholars, including himself. The man who organized that earlier statement, he noted, was Abu Muhammad al-Furqan, the Islamic State’s media chief who was killed in an airstrike in September 2016.

Some of al-Bin‘ali’s criticisms were trivial or pedantic—the new statement contained typographical and grammatical errors, and it relied on a few weak hadith—but his main objections were substantial. Everyone is agreed, he said, that the memorandum was intended to appease “the extremists,” i.e., the Hazimis. The extremists were celebrating that “the Islamic State had repented and returned to the truth,” since the memorandum declared takfir to be “one of the unambiguous foundations of the religion.” For al-Bin‘ali, the implication of this phrase was without question takfir in infinite regress. Another concession to the extremists was a line to the effect that professed Muslims beyond the Islamic State’s territory are not necessarily to be regarded as Muslims. What “most people” have taken away from this line, al-Bin‘ali regretted, is that “the Islamic State excommunicates everyone outside its borders.” He then quoted several earlier speeches by Islamic State leaders seemingly contradicting this position. The letter closes with an appeal to the Delegated Committee to revise and correct what it has written. As noted above, al-Bin‘ali was killed on May 31.

On May 23, Abu ‘Abd al-Barr al-Salihi, a Kuwaiti-born Islamic State scholar of lesser renown, had written his own refutation of the memorandum, reiterating many of the points raised by al-Bin‘ali. He likewise lamented the fact that it “has pleased the extremists,” advising the Delegated Committee to withdraw the memo “in its entirety.” According to news reports, al-Salihi was imprisoned for his dissent, and ultimately died, like al-Bin‘ali, in an airstrike.

Next up was an even more obscure author, the Saudi Abu ‘Uthman al-Najdi, who denounced the memorandum in a brief essay. He urged the Delegated Committee to make a retraction, saying, “I am quit before God of this memorandum.” In late June, Khabbab al-Jazrawi, another Saudi describing himself as within borders of the Islamic State, wrote a refutation accusing the Delegated Committee of engaging in “ideological terrorism”: marginalizing, imprisoning, and threatening “the scholars.” He paid tribute to al-Bin‘ali and al-Salihi, whose blood, he said, had been spilt in defense of the truth.

“Shock therapy”

It was not until July and August that there appeared another batch of refutations by Islamic State scholars, these directed against not only the Delegated Committee’s memorandum but also the leadership of the caliphate more generally. The picture that they paint is of a group in utter disarray.

The first of these refutations was written in Mayadin, Syria by a shari‘a official named Abu Muhammad al-Husayni al-Hashimi, a Saudi of Syrian origin. Dated July 5 and titled “The Hashimi Advice to the Emir of the Islamic State,” it takes the form of a letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on whom the author pours out his anger and frustration. The caliphate, he says, “is being eaten up region by region … Those who once feared us are now raiding us, and those who used to flee us, our soldiers now flee them.” The Islamic State has become “an entity in which innovations and extremism have spread,” and in which “the most important positions” are occupied by oppressive and impious men allied to the “Kharijites,” meaning the Hazimis. “O ‘caliph,’” he says, “you are looking on and you are powerless to do anything.” “O ‘caliph,’ where is ‘the prophetic methodology’ in the balance of what has gone before? If it is a caliphate, then certainly it is not a caliphate of the Muhammadan message; it is the farthest thing from the prophetic methodology.” If there is “harshness” in these words, he writes, it is because “the sick patient” is in need of “shock therapy.” Al-Hashimi does not shrink from naming names. There is, for example, ‘Abd al-Nasir (“may God damn him”), the one-time Iraqi head of the Delegated Committee (“may God damn it and curse it”), who put his stamp on the dreadful memorandum; and Abu Hafs al-Jazrawi, a Saudi in the security apparatus who is repeatedly condemned (“may God spread hellfire out for him as a resting place”).

Al-Hashimi reveals that he used to work in the Office of Research and Studies under al-Bin‘ali and his deputy, Abu Muhammad al-Azdi. There he witnessed first-hand its devaluation from department to council to office, and the corresponding decline of its influence in the face of the ever-greater concentration of power in the hands of the Delegated Committee. The latter was waging war on “the scholars,” which was to say al-Bin‘ali and his allies. Al-Bin‘ali’s death, he muses, was no accident: al-Bin‘ali and the other scholars who opposed the memorandum were arranged to die in airstrikes, their coordinates being leaked to “the crusaders.” “Perhaps [the Delegated Committee] has killed some of them and said, ‘the planes of the Crusaders.’” Al-Hashimi also speculates that al-Salihi, along with “more than sixty” of his supporters, perished in this way. Arrested in late June, they were confined to an old prison subsequently obliterated in an airstrike. All of these concerns, he says, are shared by a great many others in the Islamic State. “If you wish, I could name for you more than 30 scholars and judges, all of whom would speak in favor of what I have written or of part of it.”

One of al-Hashimi’s allies was the forenamed Khabbab al-Jazrawi, who in mid-August released a statement on the death of Abu Bakr al-Qahtani. Al-Qahtani, a Saudi scholar in the Islamic State known for his strong opposition to the Hazimis (see his hours-long debate with them on takfir), was himself reportedly killed in an airstrike on August 11. The “murky circumstances” of his death reminded al-Jazrawi of the way that al-Bin‘ali was killed.

Al-Jazrawi goes on in this statement to explain the rise of those he calls the Kharijites. While a few years ago they seemed to have been subdued, it was in reality only one group of them, that led by Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab, that had been put down, and this for excommunicating the caliph and attempting to rebel. It was not for their “extremism” that they were persecuted, but rather for the threat that they posed to the caliphate’s security. This episode notwithstanding, the Delegated Committee sensed that the Hazimis enjoyed considerable popular support, and so drew close to them as a means of protecting itself. “The [Islamic] State started to treat the Kharijites favorably … and [ultimately] adopted the Kharijites’ doctrine in order to hold on to power and out of fear that the Kharijites would turn on them.”

At the end of August, another Islamic State scholar gave voice to the concerns of al-Hashimi and al-Jazrawi in a lengthy statement. This was an open letter addressed by Abu ‘Abd al-Malik al-Shami, in Deir al-Zor, “to all those who care about the caliphate and the establishing of God’s law on earth.” The letter is titled “Sighs from the State of Oppression,” which sets the tone for what follows. Al-Shami, about whom no information seems to be available, describes the current state of affairs in the Islamic State as “a true nightmare threatening to annihilate us.” Events have moved quickly, with one city being lost after another, and now “all that we have left is a small piece of land encompassing Mayadin, al-Bukamal, and some of the villages between them.” The causes of all this misfortune are many, in his estimation, but three in particular: (1) an elite caste of traitorous evil-doers dominating the Islamic State’s leadership; (2) the “Hazimi extremists” protected and empowered by these evil-doers; and (3) a lying and deceitful media constantly reassuring us that all is well.

The caliph, he says, has been out of the picture for some time, the all-powerful Delegated Committee calling the shots in his absence. After Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani and then Abu Muhammad al-Furqan, its leader was the Iraqi ‘Abd al-Nasir, who gave even more support to the extremists than his predecessors. Al-Furqan, he claims, had set up the Central Office for Overseeing the Shar‘ia Departments “in order to please the extremists”; al-Bin‘ali had raised objections to its statement on takfir (no. 155), but al-Furqan had reassured him. Later, ‘Abd al-Nasir, during his tenure, established something called the Office for Methodological Inquiry (Maktab al-Tadqiq al-Manhaji)—al-Bin‘ali refers to this in his letter as the Council on Methodology (al-Lajna al-Manhajiyya)—the purpose of which was to enforce ideological purity by investigating those accused of holding moderate beliefs. It was a bastion of Hazimis. Then came “the great calamity,” the Delegated Committee’s memorandum, which was intended to affirm “some of the doctrines of the extremists,” and which rightly provoked a backlash.

Al-Shami mentions the refutations by al-Bin‘ali, al-Salihi, al-Najdi, and al-Jazrawi, all of whom, he says, were killed or persecuted after speaking out. The extremists, according to al-Shami, are primarily Tunisians and Egyptians, but also Saudis, Azerbaijanis, and Turks. Indulging in some conspiracy theories, he surmises that the Saudi government dispatched al-Hazimi to Tunisia in order to corrupt the minds of young jihadis who would later emigrate to Iraq and Syria. He also considers the leadership of the Islamic State to have been penetrated by the spies of regional intelligence services working on behalf of the Hazimis.

The media, meanwhile, “is hiding from [the mujahidin] news of losses and withdrawals,” all the while enchanting them with outrageous fantasies and illusions. One such illusion is the claim that we are living in end times, that “this state is the one that will conquer Istanbul and then Rome, and that one of its caliphs will be the one to hand over the banner to the mahdi or to Jesus.” Such talk, says al-Shami, is completely unwarranted. “The establishment of a caliphate does not necessarily mean that we are the ones who will fight in Dabiq, and that we are the ones who will conquer Rome, etc.” Two other illusions are the comparison between the Islamic State today and the early Muslims during the Battle of the Trench, in which the Prophet and his companions prevailed over an extend siege by their enemies, and the suggestion that the Islamic State can somehow “retreat to the desert,” recover its strength, and reconquer everything it has lost. There can be no “state” without territory, he insists.

Al-Shami ends his letter with an appeal to “my mujahidin brothers” to demand that the caliph step forward, state his views clearly on what has happened, and dissolve the corrupt Delegated Committee. “The only one who can put an end to this catastrophe is the caliph.” Yet al-Shami is not hopeful. Expecting to die soon, he writes that perhaps future generations of jihadis can learn from the experience that he has recorded here.

“Returning to the truth”

On September 15, the Delegated Committee put out a new memorandum addressed “to all the provinces, departments, and councils” rescinding the earlier one of May 17. “Observance of the content of the memorandum titled ‘That Those Who Perish Might Perish by a Clear Sign’ … has been annulled … on account of its containing errors of knowledge and misleading and unreliable statements that have given rise to disagreement and division in the ranks of the mujahidin in particular, and the Muslims in general.” The memorandum also reauthorized two books by al-Bin‘ali’s Office of Research and Studies that had been withdrawn by the Delegated Committee in early July. Finally, it reminded its readers of “the virtue of returning to the truth,” a phrase that would be the title of an article in the next issue of al-Naba’. The Bin‘alis seemed to be back on top. What had prompted the reversal?

In early September, there were rumors that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had returned to the scene after an extended absence; in doing so, he had come down hard on the Hazimis, detaining many of them, including two of their leaders, Abu Hafs al-Jazrawi and Abu Maram al-Jaza’iri. Following the September 15 memo, Arabic news outlets corroborated those rumors, telling of Baghdadi’s retaking the reins, his sacking of the Hazimis and their supporters, and his appointment of Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shami, a veteran Islamic State scholar, to the Delegated Committee (perhaps as its leader). Al-Shami was also assigned the role of clarifying the group’s official doctrine on issues of takfir, which he soon did in a series of audio statements (see here, here, here, and here). In the series, al-Shami denounces the Hazimis in all but name, rejecting takfir al-‘adhir on the grounds that takfir is not part of the “foundation of the religion” (asl al-din) but rather only one of “the requirements of the religion” (wajibat al-din). The general effect of this distinction is to diminish the primacy of takfir, creating room for disagreement on such matters as al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl.

For the Bin‘alis, there is poetic justice in Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shami’s selection for this role. Not only was he known as a major opponent of the Hazimis; he was, not long ago, investigated by the Office of Methodological Inquiry and imprisoned for his insufficiently extreme views. A three-hour recording of one of his sessions with the Office of Methodological Inquiry was recently made available on Telegram (see here and here). Throughout the interview, the investigators, led by Abu Maram al-Jaza’iri, rudely address al-Shami as Abu Fulan (i.e., “Abu Somebody,” “Abu So-and-So”), and al-Shami repeatedly corrects them, demanding respect: “I am not Abu Somebody. I am Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman … I am Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shami … I have been a judge with this community since 2005. I am not new.” Indeed, al-Shami is also known as Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Zarqawi, on account of his close ties to the former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. While he seems to have kept a mostly low profile in the organization, he is known as the author of a lengthy rejoinder to Abu Qadata al-Filastini’s criticism of the Islamic State back in 2015.

With Baghdadi having reasserted his authority and al-Shami in charge of religious affairs, the question now is whether the Bin‘ali-Hazimi divide has finally been overcome, or whether it has simply been swept under the rug. Whatever the case, it is clear from the foregoing that the discontent in the Islamic State goes well beyond the issue of takfir. There is frustration with a corrupt administration, a dishonest media, unmet prophecies, and, most of all, interminable territorial defeat. Whether the Islamic State can manage to keep its theological house in order may be the difference between survival and implosion.

Last month (on 17 July, to be precise), the Jordanian Jihadi-Salafi scholar Abu Qatada al-Filastini posted a brief obituary on his Facebook page about his fellow Jordanian Muhammad Ibrahim Shaqra, who had died that day. In his obituary, Abu Qatada called him “the father shaykh” and praised him for his qualities. This is not surprising, perhaps, since Shaqra had also appeared in a YouTube video in which he seemed to be quite chummy with another Jordanian Jihadi-Salafi scholar, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. When I interviewed Shaqra in his home in Amman a few years ago, he praised Abu Qatada, al-Maqdisi and the Syrian-British Jihadi-Salafi scholar Abu Basir al-Tartusi. All of this seems quite consistent. Yet when Shaqra died, his passing away was also lamented on the website of the Jordan Islamic Scholars League, a decidedly un-radical organisation of traditional scholars. This organisation praised Shaqra as having lived “a life filled with knowledge and calling [people] to God”. How could one man’s death be talked about in such terms by both radical Jihadi-Salafi shaykhs and traditional, mainstream Muslim scholars?

“The Father Shaykh”

The words “father shaykh” used for Shaqra by Abu Qatada were not new. This had been the title that many quietist Salafis – not the radical Jihadi-Salafis – in Jordan had long used for him. It was a fitting label, since – as I have described in more detail in my book on Salafism in Jordan – Shaqra was one of the founding fathers of Salafism in the Hashimite Kingdom. Although Salafism in Jordan is often associated with the famous scholar Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (1914-1999), who did indeed have a tremendous influence on that trend there, it was really Muhammad Ibrahim Shaqra who got things started.

Born in 1933 in the West Bank, he fled to Jordan as a child during the 1948 war for Palestine and, in 1952, went to study at the famous al-Azhar University in Cairo. By the time he graduated, however, he had become convinced – through books and contacts with like-minded others – that the traditional, mainstream Sunni Islam he had been taught at al-Azhar was not the way to go, but that Salafism was the true path. As such, he returned to Jordan and started preaching a quietist Salafi message in mosques in Amman. The trend that he started was later given a great boost by the presence of al-Albani, whose knowledge was unparalleled among Salafis in Jordan .

Conflicts

The above would explain why the Jordan Islamic Scholars League praised Shaqra, but it doesn’t tell us why such a man would also have good ties with Abu Qatada and others. Moreover, Shaqra had always been against Jihadi-Salafis and their radical, anti-regime message and, through his job as a senior civil servant, had established close personal ties with several of Jordan’s most prominent people, including King Husayn (r. 1953-1999). The explanation for this seemingly contradictory situation can be found in the conflicts that arose between Shaqra and his fellow quietist Salafis in Jordan.

After working as a professor of Arabic in Saudi Arabia for some time, Shaqra returned with certain theological ideas on what constitutes faith that did not entirely square with what other quietist Salafis in Jordan – most notably al-Albani – believed, thereby laying the groundwork for a theological dispute. This only turned into a full-blown conflict, however, when Shaqra was passed over for the leadership position of the quietist Salafi community in Jordan when al-Albani died in 1999. Shaqra – as one of the founders of Salafism in Jordan, a senior civil servant, advanced in age and with scholarly credentials from al-Azhar – felt entitled to this position, however, and was not happy when a younger generation of scholars, particularly the increasingly prominent ‘Ali al-Halabi (b. 1960), seemed to be calling the shots.

Resentment and recognition

Shaqra’s disappointment over not being picked as the quietist Salafi movement’s leader quickly seemed to turn to resentment and he began revising some of his books to bring them in line with his new theological views. This would not have been a problem in and of itself, were it not for the fact that he also began discrediting his former friends and allies among the quietist Salafi community, including al-Albani after the latter had already died, for their supposedly faulty theological ideas. Al-Albani’s students, who did not like their teacher and themselves being slandered, hit back at Shaqra by discrediting his views and blaming him for bad-mouthing al-Albani.

Shaqra, meanwhile, having lost his standing in the eyes of his former supporters, turned to Jihadi-Salafis, with whose views on faith he did agree, even if he differed with them on their radical ideas on takfir and jihad. They, unlike his former friends and allies, were willing to accept him and give him the recognition and respect that he felt he deserved. As such, Jihadi-Salafis welcomed him as someone who had “seen the light” and had abandoned the supposedly deviant quietists in order to join their side. This does not mean that Shaqra ever became a Jihadi-Salafi himself. It was clearly their recognition of him as a scholarly authority that he craved, not their radicalism. In fact, when I spoke to Shaqra, he was unapologetic about his ties with the Jordanian regime.

Shift

The story of Muhammad Ibrahim Shaqra shows how ideology, scholarly authority and personal ambitions can lead to a shift away from the quietist Salafi community to becoming close with various Jihadi-Salafi scholars and how, on the occasion of his death, people from various sides lament the same person for different reasons. It also shows that scholars who easily fit into one of the different categories of Salafism usually distinguished (quietist, political and jihadi) may actually grow closer to one they do not really belong to. This way, Jihadi-Salafis in Jordan embraced a man who actually remained a quietist till the day he died. The story above is far more complicated than a short blog post can convey, however, because it was part of a series of conflicts that plagued quietist Salafis after the death of al-Albani. To know more about those, you’re just going to have to read my book, I suppose…

The last few weeks have seen a widening of the rift in the jihadi world between proponents and critics of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the former al-Qaida affiliate in Syria originally known as Jabhat al-Nusra. As detailed in a previous post, this dispute centers on the group’s perceived deviation from the strict principles of jihadi salafism and its alleged abandonment of al-Qaida. Leading the charge has been Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the influential jihadi scholar in Jordan who has accused it of adopting a “diluted” methodology and of cutting ties with the parent group without the express permission of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Al-Maqdisi’s chief ideological ally in this venture has been the younger Sami al-‘Uraydi, a Jordanian ex-shari‘a official in Jabhat al-Nusra living somewhere in Syria. Unlike al-Maqdisi, al-‘Uraydi’ is a member of al-Qaida bound by a loyalty oath to Zawahiri, so naturally his critique has focused more on the purported betrayal of his master than has al-Maqdisi’s. His case lends further credence to the view that Zawahiri disapproved of Jabhat al-Nusra’s severing of links with al-Qaida back in July 2016.

Dr. Sami

According to a short biography and profile uploaded to his Telegram channel, Sami ibn Mahmud al-‘Uraydi was born in Amman, Jordan in 1973. He received a bachelor’s degree in shari‘a in 1994 and a master’s degree in hadith in 1997, both from the University of Jordan, then moved to Baghdad where he completed his Ph.D. in hadith in 2001 at the Islamic University in Baghdad. His dissertation was a study of the early Muslim scholar al-Nasa’i’s (d. 915) methodology for evaluating hadith transmitters. One of his teachers was the noted salafi scholar and hadith specialist Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999), who probably had something to do with this strong interest in hadith. His jihadi leanings seem to derive from an early association with the two senior jihadi scholars of Jordan, al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini.

Al-‘Uraydi’s activates between 2001 and the outbreak of the Syrian uprising are not covered, though it is known that he was arrested in 2006 on suspicion of belonging to an al-Qaida cell in Jordan. When the Syrian rebellion broke out, al-‘Uraydi migrated to the Daraa region along the Jordanian border where he joined Jabhat al-Nusra. He was appointed “general shari‘a official” (al-shar‘i al-‘amm) for the area, and in 2014 was promoted to the post of “general shari‘a official” for the entire group. This coincided with his appointment to the once-vaunted shari‘a council of al-Maqdisi’s website. In the south he grew close to several other jihadi hardliners from Jordan, including the overall commander for Daraa, Abu Julaybib al-Urduni (aka Abu Iyad al-Tubasi), a veteran al-Qaida member who was one of the founders of Jabhat al-Nusra and who previously fought alongside Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. In late 2015 it was reported that both men had relocated to northern Syria.

Following Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebranding as Jabhat Fath al-Sham in mid-2016, al-‘Uraydi lost his position as top scholar, though he remained a member of the shura and shari‘a councils. Meanwhile, several of his allies, including Abu Julaybib, left the group in protest of the breaking of ties with al-Qaida and the new policy of uniting with less ideologically pure Islamist groups. On August 23, 2016, Abu Julaybib announced his resignation in a series of tweets complaining about the influence of “the diluters.” He renewed his bay‘a (allegiance pledge) to Zawahiri, declaring his “total and absolute rejection” of the dissociation. Abu Julaybib’s resignation followed that of another senior Jordanian commander, Abu Khadija al-Urduni (aka Bilal Khuraysat), who later wrote in a letter to Tahrir al-Sham: “I have remained steadfast upon [my bay‘a]. You are the ones who changed and altered. I have kept my bay‘a to the Qaidat al-Jihad Organization from the first day I entered Syria. I don’t know you, while I know al-Qaida.”

For whatever reason, al-‘Uraydi stayed with the group until the formation of Tahrir al-Sham in late January 2017. On February 8, he and another leader confirmed their departure online, saying: “After Jabhat Fath al-Sham dissolved itself and merged into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, we no longer have any organizational link to this new formation.” On the same day, al-‘Uraydi took his first shot at his former group. He wrote on Telegram: “Among the greatest forms of disobedience is disobedience to the mother organization; after it raised them as children, they disobeyed it when one of them started learning to speak.” This was in fact a reposting of a tweet from September 2015, the implied target having been the Islamic State. This time around the implied target—the disobedient child—was Tahrir al-Sham. It was the beginning of a line of subtle criticism that would grow in intensity over the next few months.

Indirect criticism

When al-Maqdisi embarked on his verbal assault on Tahrir al-Sham back in February, al-‘Uraydi was quick to lend support and soon was contributing written criticism of his own. His approach, however, has been much more oblique than al-Maqdisi’s.

The first contribution was a long essay in early March titled “Advice to the Mujahid in the Time of Afflictions,” which defined the current state of affairs (presumably in Syria) as one of “afflictions” (fitan) dividing Muslims and diverting their attention from the goal of implementing the shari‘a. Among the courses of action recommended were staying loyal to one’s group and obeying its authorities, along with outspoken condemnation of those who substitute God’s law with man-made law. These were veiled references to loyalty and obedience to al-Qaida and to condemning states such as Turkey and Qatar and the Islamist groups they support.

In early April, al-‘Uraydi took aim at groups in Syria adopting nationalist rhetoric and trying “to isolate themselves from the movements of global Sunni jihad,” a reference to Tahrir al-Sham and its attempt to distance itself from al-Qaida.

Another essay from early April, written in response to pressing questions from “many of the beloved brothers,” focused on the subject of bay‘a. Al-‘Uraydi wrote that “it is not allowed for a person or group to defect and break bay‘as without legal justification”; that bay‘as “are not to be invalidated or broken on account of fancies, illusions, whims, suppositions, legal tricks, deception, and misleading;” that “you must remain faithful to the bay‘a that you gave to your group and its overall emir”; and that “you are not allowed to break it until you have ascertained the facts clearly from the emir of the group himself with certainty.” Al-‘Uraydi twice quoted the following line from the al-Qaida scholar ‘Atiyyat Allah al-Libi (d. 2011): “It is incumbent on [one who has given bay‘a] to listen to and obey [the group]; it is not permitted for one to leave and create a new group.” Al-‘Uraydi was no doubt referring to Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida, and to the question of whether one’s bay‘a to Zawahiri (the “overall emir”) can be invalidated without the explicit consent of Zawahiri himself.

The most direct of these criticisms came in a Telegram post from April 20 accusing Tahrir al-Sham—though again not by name—of leaving al-Qaida just as the Islamic State had. Al-‘Uraydi stated: “We witnessed fierce criticism of Baghdadi and his group for their breaking the vow and the bay‘a in ways not legally allowed; they [i.e., critics of the Islamic State] described them in the harshest terms. Then today, when the very same action is taken by people and their supporters and fans, it becomes legal expediency and the welfare of the community.” The “people” mentioned here are the leaders of Tahrir al-Sham, which was obvious to its online supporters. One of these responded that “the analogy here between the two situations is false,” for Jabhat al-Nusra made “repeated requests” to dissolve its bay‘a whereas Baghdadi denied having one in the first place.

The matter of Abu al-Khayr

Fortunately, not everyone in al-‘Uraydi’s circle has written in code about Tahrir al-Sham’s departure from al-Qaida. Al-Maqdisi, it will be recalled, claimed in February that al-Qaida’s “leadership was not in agreement” with the decision to cut ties. Another jihadi thinker, Ahmad al-Hamdan, then relayed further information from al-Maqdisi, writing in English: “Communication with Dr. Ayman Al Zawahiri was not possible due to security issues … The branch of Al-Qaida in Shaam which is Jabhatun Nusrah wants [read: wanted] to take immediate decision regarding breaking of its ties with Al Qaida for the sake of uniting with the rest of the other groups … They turned towards Abu Al-Khayr who … approved this step … After the split from Al Qaida took place, there occurred communication with Zawahiri and he very strongly refused this step.”

Abu al-Khayr is Ahmad Hasan Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, an Egyptian al-Qaida leader who served as Zawahiri’s deputy in Syria till his death in late February 2017 in a U.S. airstrike. It was Abu al-Khayr who, on July 28, 2016, put out the audio statement granting Jabhat al-Nusra permission to leave al-Qaida. Yet such permission, according to al-Maqdisi, was dependent on Zawahiri’s anticipated approval, which proved not forthcoming. When Zawahiri was informed of what had happened he sought to restore the status quo ante, but the leaders of his former affiliate balked. And so a superficial split became a real rupture—widened by the bad blood of perceived disobedience.

This story, it should be noted, is widely believed by the jihadis aligned with al-Maqdisi and al-‘Uraydi. “Everyone knows that the sage [i.e., Zawahiri] rejected the breaking of ties, which was carried out by deception and the violation of an oath,” said recently a certain “Dr. Abu Hamza,” a thinker whose messages are reposted by al-Maqdisi and al-‘Uraydi. As another put it even more recently: “We take issue with the fact that [Abu Muhammad] al-Jawlani invalidated the bay‘a and rejected Zawahiri’s command.”

A more detailed account of what transpired is provided by one Muhammad al-Gharib (aka “the heir of Zarqawi”), a Syria-based activist close to al-‘Uraydi and other former Jabhat al-Nusra officials. Statements from Abu Julaybib, Abu Khadija, and others are released via his Telegram channel, and his version of events appears to draw on these sources. In a brief defense of al-‘Uraydi and al-Maqdisi from late April 2017, al-Gharib wrote that Zawahiri “reprimanded” Abu al-Khayr for allowing Jabhat al-Nusra to go its own way. He went on to explain: “Shaykh Abu al-Khayr, may God have mercy on him, after his audio message … said, ‘Now I will bring the matter to the sage [i.e., Zawahiri]. I will not bless or agree upon anything without the sage’s decision.’” Abu al-Khayr then told “some of the brothers, ‘If the sage’s decision comes back [negative], I will retreat [i.e., withdraw permission].’” Some within Jabhat al-Nusra conditioned their support for the breaking of ties upon Zawahiri’s approval. When, “approximately two months later,” a letter from Zawahiri arrived rejecting the move, Abu al-Khayr “kept his word,” while Jawlani did not. Al-Gharib described this story as “well established,” or mutawatir, a word in hadith terminology indicating a narration conveyed by so many narrators as to be beyond dispute. (Rumor in Islamic State circles has it that Zawahiri’s letter has been viewed by al-‘Uraydi and al-Maqdisi.)

Whether every part of this account is to be believed or not, it is telling that those in the pro-Tahrir al-Sham column are not contesting the basic fact that Jabhat al-Nusra left al-Qaida on bad terms. They would prefer, so it seems, not to address the issue, but they may have no choice.

Zawahiri’s endorsement

On April 23, 2017, Zawahiri released an audio statement devoted to Syria that was taken by the supporters of al-‘Uraydi and al-Maqdisi as an endorsement of their position. In the short statement, Zawahiri warned the mujahidin in Syria against turning their jihad into “a nationalist war,” urged them to see themselves as part of the global jihad, and called for “reassessment and correction.” He further advised a strategy of “guerrilla warfare” as opposed to one of holding territory. Pressed for comment, al-‘Uraydi said the message was “as clear as the sun.”

Two days later, al-Qaida’s media agency published a new edition of al-‘Uraydi’s “Advice to the Mujahid in the Time of Afflictions” with an introduction by Zawahiri. This was likewise seen by the critics of Tahrir al-Sham as confirmation of their views. The introduction, which said nothing about Syria specifically, cited examples of how jihad had gone wrong as a result of seeking concessions and lusting for power.

Reconciliation?

In early May the London-based jihadi scholar Hani al-Siba‘i issued a statement calling on Zawahiri to broker a reconciliation between the two sides, citing “what happened in terms of the smoke surrounding the issue of the breaking of ties.” The appeal recalled al-Siba‘i’s request several years back that Zawahiri clear up the issue of the Islamic State’s historical connection to al-Qaida. In that case Zawahiri responded with a detailed answer. Perhaps such a reply concerning Tahrir al-Sham is in the offing, or perhaps not. It would be highly embarrassing for Zawahiri to admit that his al-Qaida affiliate disobeyed him, especially since he has accused the Islamic State of doing the same.

Apart from complaining, it remains unclear what the group of al-Qaida stalwarts in Syria intends to do. They do not appear to be on the verge of forming a new al-Qaida group—they are probably too small for that—but nor are they itching for reconciliation. Just yesterday, Tahrir al-Sham’s chief scholar released a three-page defense of his group’s methodology, insisting that the stage of “the one organization” and its “ideology” had passed and refuting the idea that this meant “a descent to concessions as some are wont to imagine.” With these words, commented a thinker in al-‘Uraydi’s circle, Tahrir al-Sham has rejected Zawahiri’s latest advice and “shut the door permanently on walking back the breaking of ties.” It is hard to imagine how al-Qaida’s leader could put an end to the cycle of mutual recriminations.

It has been widely assumed in Western capitals that the latest incarnation of Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (née Jabhat al-Nusra), remains fundamentally unchanged. It may have publicly renounced ties to al-Qaida back in July 2016 and softened its rhetoric somewhat, so the thinking goes, but it has not transformed itself in any meaningful way. It is still al-Qaida through and through.

Don’t tell that, however, to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the preeminent Jihadi-Salafi scholar living in Jordan who vehemently disputes all of the above. Indeed, the problem with this portrayal of Tahrir al-Sham is that it ignores the existence of a profound controversy in jihadi circles surrounding the nature of the group, which some argue has lost its way. According to these critics, al-Maqdisi chief among them, not only was the break with al-Qaida real as opposed to superficial, it was never actually endorsed by al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. What is more, since breaking with the mother organization, the group has sacrificed longstanding jihadi principles—such as the duty of excommunicating and separating from secularists and democrats—for the sake of broadening its appeal and pursuing unity with more nationalist-minded groups. In short, the jihad in Syria has been imperiled.

Al-Maqdisi is no stranger to internal jihadi controversies, as readers of Jihadica will well know. Historically his criticisms have centered on the extremist tendencies of the jihadi movement, most famously the excesses of Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi and the Islamic State. Here, however, his target is not extremism but rather laxity, or in his word “dilution” (tamyīʿ).

Syria’s rebels divided

Al-Maqdisi’s concerns should be viewed against the backdrop of recent developments in Syria’s rebel scene, which recently saw the emergence of Tahrir al-Sham out of Jabhat Fath al-Sham and the consolidation of its main rival, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham. As Aron Lund and Aymenn al-Tamimi have recently explained, the two groups, Jabhat Fath al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, nearly came to blows in January 2017 when the former attacked several Western-aligned insurgent factions taking part in peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. The smaller groups sought protection by joining Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist militia with ties to Turkey and Qatar. In response, on January 28, Jabhat Fath al-Sham and four other hardline groups announced the formation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (“The Committee for the Liberation of al-Sham”) as the new vehicle of Syria’s revolution and jihad. Abu Jabir Hashim al-Shaykh, a former Ahrar al-Sham hardliner, was named leader.

This reordering marked the end of nearly six months of failed initiatives aimed at uniting Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fath al-Sham. The latter had hoped, by splitting with al-Qaida in July 2016, to unify the armed opposition under its banner. But ideological and strategic differences between the two groups proved insurmountable.

Two particular points of contention are worth mentioning here, as al-Maqdisi refers to them frequently. The first is Turkey’s military intervention in the northern Aleppo countryside known as Euphrates Shield, which is aimed at beating back both the Islamic State and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Ahrar al-Sham has long been involved in the operation and even endorsed it in a fatwa. Jabhat Fath al-Sham, by contrast, prohibited its forces from participating, deeming coordination with the Turkish military to be unlawful “seeking of help” from foreigners. The second issue is the Astana conference that took place on January 23-24. While Ahrar al-Sham ultimately decided not to attend, it still publicly supported those groups that did. Jabhat Fath al-Sham, meanwhile, condemned the talks and urged all to keep away.

Jabhat Fath al-Sham is clearly the more ideologically pure group in this contest. But none of this was enough for al-Maqdisi.

Al-Maqdisi seeks clarity

Al-Maqdisi’s criticisms of what is now Tahrir al-Sham in fact go back to November 2016 when, writing on his Telegram channel, he regretted the group’s breaking of ties with al-Qaida. Having given his blessing to the break back in July, he now admitted that it failed to yield any benefit—it had not produced greater unity or lightened the international coalition’s bombing. If it worked to anyone’s advantage, he said, it was to that of “the diluters” (al-mumayyiʿa), those in the group willing to compromise on “the principles of the path (al-manhaj).”

The term “diluters,” meaning those who would water down strict monotheistic principles, has long formed a part of al-Maqdisi’s lexicon. In the context of Syria, he has mainly used it to denigrate groups that seem Western-oriented or not fully committed to implementing the sharia. But gradually he began to use the term in reference to certain elements in Jabhat Fath al-Sham, and with the announcement of Tahrir al-Sham his criticism became more pronounced.

On January 29, the day after the announcement, al-Maqdisi offered cautious support for the group. Certain people “worried at the growing influence of the diluters,” he wrote on Telegram, were asking his advice concerning giving allegiance to Tahrir al-Sham. While acknowledging their concerns, he urged them nonetheless to pledge fealty if only “to increase the influence of the supporters of the sharia.” But his apprehension was growing by the day. (Al-Maqdisi writes one or two essays daily.)

On January 30, he wrote: “My thinking is that the influence of the diluters, after the formation of the Committee [i.e., Tahrir al-Sham], is now growing greater!” And on February 2, he called on Tahrir al-Sham’s new leaders to reaffirm the soundness of their path, the strength of their monotheism, and their disavowal of foreign powers. Particularly, they were to clarify their stance on Euphrates Shield and Astana, as some of the new groups joining Tahrir al-Sham had been involved or not so opposed to these.

Two days later, al-Maqdisi repeated his call for “clarity”: “clarity that the objective is to implement the sharia, not the laws of men”; “clarity concerning your disavowal of wicked coalitions such as Euphrates Shield”; “clarity concerning your disavowal of conferences and conspiracies such as Astana”; “clarity concerning your views on…secular regimes providing foreign backing.” He emphasized that this appeal was on behalf of certain concerned members of the group with whom he was in contact. One of these, whom he quoted at length, complained of feeling sidelined and unable to trust the new leadership.

Tahrir al-Sham responds

On February 10, Tahrir al-Sham’s leading sharia official, Abu ‘Abdallah al-Shami (real name ‘Abd al-Rahim ‘Utun), released a more than 20-page letter responding to al-Maqdisi. The latter’s criticisms, he said, were troubling to some in the group who held al-Maqdisi in esteem, and could even lead to defections. Evidently the old scholar still held some sway over Syria’s jihadis.

Al-Shami’s letter made a series of points, the first of which was that al-Maqdisi was ill-informed. For some reason he uncritically accepted the claims of individuals bearing personal grudges, when he ought to be communicating directly with the group. Al-Shami claimed to have made countless efforts to establish contact with al-Maqdisi, concluding that “he refused to communicate with us.” For this reason, it had been necessary to respond publicly.

The second point concerned terminology. Al-Shami objected to al-Maqdisi’s use of “diluters,” and its counterpoint “supporters of the sharia,” as imprecise and divisive. Throwing around vague accusations of “dilution,” he warned, implied excommunicating large numbers of fighters with different views on sensitive issues, such as the Islamic status of certain rulers. Al-Shami noted in particular the debate among Syria’s jihadis over whether Turkey’s Erdogan should be considered a Muslim or a heretic. Some, he explained, consider Erdogan, his government, and his military to be unbelievers, while others disagree or hold more nuanced views. Whatever the case, “those who do not excommunicate Erdogan are not necessarily diluters,” just as Usama bin Ladin was not necessarily a diluter for not excommunicating the Saudi government in his early years.

In his third point, al-Shami refuted the contention that Tahrir al-Sham was veering off the jihadi path. The group remained committed to “the same principles,” which included making the sharia supreme. It was also still strongly opposed to Euphrates Shield and Astana, though it was not going to declare the participants in either to be unbelievers. As for the issue of foreign backing, al-Shami argued, the group had never been against foreign support in theory. What it opposed was support with strings attached—namely, conditions inhibiting independence—and this it would continue to resist.

Al-Maqdisi holds firms

Four days later, a thoroughly unimpressed al-Maqdisi responded in turn, accusing al-Shami of failing to bring clarity to the important issues he had raised and making light of such important matters as the excommunication of secular rulers. Al-Maqdisi further charged al-Shami with not really trying to make contact with him and falsely questioning the reliability of his sources. All of this was an attempt to “cover up” the existence of a significant dissident faction in Tahrir al-Sham dissatisfied with the group’s trajectory. Some of these dissidents, al-Maqdisi said, had abandoned the group on the grounds that it had wrongly withdrawn allegiance from al-Qaida.

In this connection al-Maqdisi made an extraordinary revelation—if it is to be believed—as covered previously by Romain Caillet. He claimed that the breaking of ties with al-Qaida was not in fact approved by al-Qaida’s leadership. Back in July 2016, he explained, al-Shami communicated with him and several other scholars to win their support for the intended break. Al-Shami assured them that this step would be “superficial and nominal, not real,” and had the approval of “the majority of the deputies” of Zawahiri. In any event, if Zawahiri rejected it then Jabhat al-Nusra would “invalidate” the decision. Accordingly, al-Maqdisi tweeted his support for the move. Later, however, after “it was revealed” to him that he had been “deceived” by al-Shami, he deleted the post. The truth, al-Maqdisi asserted, was that al-Qaida’s “leadership was not in agreement” with the split: “After its rejection came to them [i.e., Jabhat al-Nusra’s leaders], they did not fulfill their promise to retreat from their superficial step, as they claimed and promised they would. Rather they stayed the course till they made it a real breaking of ties.”

This deception notwithstanding, al-Maqdisi affirmed that his greater concern was with Tahrir al-Sham’s “path” (manhaj), not its organizational affiliation. The one-time al-Qaida affiliate had remade itself into a revolutionary group—“liberation” (tahrir) having recently replaced the more Islamic “conquest” (fath)—and shown itself willing to embrace groups that wanted democracy, not sharia. This was a fact, he asserted, that al-Shami refused to acknowledge.

Abu Qatada’s intervention

On February 16, Abu Qatada al-Filastini, al-Maqdisi’s fellow jihadi scholar in Jordan, announced on Telegram that he had successfully intervened in the dispute between al-Maqdisi and al-Shami. The two had agreed to end the mutual recriminations. Al-Maqdisi’s daily criticism of Tahrir al-Sham would not ease up, but he did cease to engage in ad hominem attacks.

Abu Qatada’s peacemaking role was in keeping with his reputation as the relatively more moderate jihadi ideologue. Yet even he had been critical of Tahrir al-Sham, arguing that recent developments gave cause for concern. In a mid-February essay he expressed disappointment with Abu Jabir al-Shaykh’s first public statement as Tahrir al-Sham’s leader. Abu Jabir “was not clear” about what he stood for. Rather “his words were chosen in such a way as not to anger anyone or oppose anyone,” and this was worrying. “The speech he gave only increases the fearful in fear.”

By early March, however, Abu Qatada had changed his tone. In a rather self-critical fatwa posted to Telegram, he resigned himself to the fact that a new generation of jihadi leaders, one less ideologically rigid and less closed off to the larger Islamic community, was in the ascendant. “The jihadi current has long vacillated between partial openness and isolation,” he wrote, and the former tendency was beginning to make inroads—“the idea of the ideological group” was giving way to “a project of the Islamic community.” In his view, this had to be welcomed, though it meant the jihadi current was going to “splinter” further. “Believe me,” he said, “there are going to be more changes within the current.”

More than a name change

All this would suggest that Tahrir al-Sham is not just a new sign on an old al-Qaida building. Rather the new group is indicative of yet another tension in the jihadi movement that is only now coming to the surface. When al-Qaida in Iraq restyled itself the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006, few were those who saw this to be more than a simple name change. But as is well known now, that was not the case. The Islamic State of Iraq marked the start of a new project not really guided by al-Qaida. Something similar appears to be afoot today in Syria, only in “diluted” form.

Zawahiri is Not the Loser People Think he is

Posted: 18th March 2017 by Tore Hamming in AQ Central, Bin Laden, Zawahiri

Al-Zawahiri will never become as charismatic and authoritative as Usama bin Laden, but less can do in times of great ordeal for al-Qaida as the Islamic State briefly overtook its position as the foremost Jihadi movement. Since 2015 Al-Zawahiri has proven to be a commanding and well-respected leader after a period when even his own within al-Qaida started to doubt and criticize him. Bin Laden himself was not always immune to criticism, but the critique of al-Zawahiri was nonetheless critical for the aging leader, who had been waiting for his chance to lead the movement for more than a decade. Some of this criticism, however, is misplaced or no longer applies.

Some, like the Jordanian scholar Hassan Abu Hanieh, have argued that al-Zawahiri does not control his affiliates as closely as al-Qaida Central used to. Perhaps this is true, but then again al-Qaida affiliates have always had quite some freedom of manoeuvre, thus fitting well with the original idea of being a vanguard rather than an actual organization. We know from public propaganda that differential-Qaida’s affiliates still see Zawahiri as the commanding authority. Affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and northern Africa continue to sing Zawahiri’s praises. Most recently the newly established Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimeen, or the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, composed of the Malian groups Ansar al-Deen and Masina Liberation Front in addition to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Saharan emirate, stayed loyal to Zawahiri. In the speech announcing the merger, its leader Iyad ag Ghaly said “On this blessed time we pledge allegiance to our honourable emirs and sheikhs Abu Mus’ab abd al Wadud (AQIM emir) and our wise sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri”.

Internal al-Qaeda correspondence between senior members also suggests that al-Zawahiri is still a respected leader. When the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia confided to Zawahiri that he might join the Islamic State and reform it from within, he left the decision up to al-Zawahiri and other respected jihadist scholars (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini). Similar respect for the Zawahiri is evident in a letter sent by the now late senior operative in Syria Muhsin al-Fadhli to Nasser al-Wuhayshi. Perhaps the best example, however, is when the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani in an interview broadcasted by Al Jazeera on 27 May 2015, explained that he had received orders from the al-Qaida leadership not to target the West and focus on the Syrian arena. Although Jawlani’s groups declared independence from al-Qaida, it is obvious that he is still remains in the fold of Zawahiri.

Further cementing Zawahiri’s position as number one in the hierarchy is the continuous reverence and praise he receives from senior ideologues affiliated with al-Qaida, who are extremely influential on the broader Jihadi masses. This was confirmed in a recent interview I conducted with Abu Qatada al-Filastini who confirmed Zawahiri is the sheikh to follow. In another interview with a student of Abu Qatada, I was told that Abu Qatada has stated that “if all people on earth go in one direction and Ayman al-Zawahiri goes in the other direction, I will follow the sheikh”.

Certainly, the initial passivity from al-Zawahiri in the immediate aftermath of the rise of the Islamic State was not a conscious move, but a sign of desperation as the al-Qaida leader did not know what to do. Along the way, however, he figured it out and his answer was to follow the strategic vision of a population-centric focus that was adopted by al-Qaida already before the conflict with the Islamic State started (and was mentioned as early as 2001 by al-Zawahiri himself). To follow the brutally violent, but nonetheless successful, approach of al-Baghdadi and his cadres was not the solution. This was a smart decision by al-Zawahiri as he now, a few years down the road, commands an al-Qaida that has probably never been stronger than it currently is.

Via Telegram channels operated by IS, the Amaq Agency released a brief video featuring Anis Amri (his name is in Arabic Anis ‘Amari) pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and vowing for more revenge operations. The video is entitled “testimony of the soldier of the Islamic State who undertook the attacks in Berlin and Milano”, dated to December 23, 2016.
He appears to be standing on pedestrian bridge in Berlin where he filmed himself using is cell phone and headphones. The somewhat three minute long video is a brief but firm statement that he has submitted himself under the authority of IS and the application of sharia rule by the “state”, presented often by sympathizers and propagandists as “proof” of the IS’ theological coherence and sincerity.
Amri cites several theological references justifying revenge for the suffering imposed on Muslims, pledging that we shall drink from the same cup of pain, a popular reference within jihadist writings, statements and videos, while calling on Muslims worldwide to respond to actions, to strike everywhere especially in Europe. “Jihad against the enemies of God” is a divine obligation. He ends the video in a sermon styled supplication.

This is the fifth Q&A of the interview series with Ahmed Al Hamdan (@a7taker), a Jihadi-Salafi analyst and author of “Methodological Difference Between ISIS and Al Qaida“. Al Hamdan was a former friend of Turki bin Ali, and a student of Shaykh Abu Muhammad Al Maqdisi under whom he studied and was given Ijazah, becoming one of his official students. Also, Shaykh Abu Qatada al Filistini wrote an introduction for his book when it was published in the Arabic language. The interview series contains contains five themes in total and will all be published on Jihadica.com. You can find the first Q&A here, the second here, the third here and the fourth here. This is the fifth and final part.

Tore Hamming:

A recent interesting development is the dismissal of Turki al-Binali from the IS Sharia Council [still not confirmed] allegedly due to his ‘moderate’ view on the ‘excuse of ignorance’ and Takfir al-Adhir. This could be interpreted as a defeat of the Bin’ali trend within IS and a victory for the so-called Hazimis (followers of Ahmed al-Hazimi). How do you interpret this development?

Ahmed Al Hamdan:

Extremism in Takfeer is the filthy germ which is found in every Jihadi group because of ignorance and impulsiveness and due to feeling oppressed and other such reasons. However, each group deals with this disease in different ways. There are those who take a gradual approach in dealing with it in which those who have extremism are made to undergo Shariah courses like what happened with a group of youth in Waziristan. The officials of Al Qaeda put them under a Shariah course to correct their thinking. (1) Or it would be by expulsion from the group like what happened when Shaykh Abu Mus’ab az-Zarqawi expelled a coordinator who made it a condition that a person should make Takfeer on the Saudi scholars like Bin Baz and Ibn Uthaymeen in order to be sent to Iraq for Jihad (2). But there are also groups who do not immediately deal with this disease or even try to treat it, and so it takes root and spreads inside the group, and then suddenly you see its leaders coming under pressure from a lobby of the extremists, and they get compelled to adopt their ideology, or they revolt against it as had happened with the GIA in Algeria when the group with Zaytouni carried out a coup against the leadership and took control of the group and then imposed their ideology on the group as a whole (3).

ISIS is amongst those groups that did not deal with this extremism from the beginning, and so it gradually spread within its ranks. I guess, without me being absolutely sure, that the leadership felt confused in front of its soldiers who used to exaggerate in Takfeer, and they were afraid to appear weak in front of them, and so they tried to get along with them so that they may prevent them from going further to the point of making Takfeer upon themselves, so that the issue will not aggravate soon to a situation of internal fighting.

  1. What prompts me to say this are several things amongst which are: They espoused certain matters relating to Takfeer and then suddenly they began to say that those who espoused this are deviated!
  2. What was stated by Abu Yazin Ash Shami – a member of the Shura council of Ahrar ash Sham – in the debate which took place between him and Abu Muhammad Al Adnani and a group of Shariah officials in ISIS after announcing their state in Sham, when one of those who were present there mentioned that we have become forced to be defensive and are under pressure from our soldiers after Sheikh Al-Zawahiri began to address Morsi with the title “Doctor” Morsi! So they are attacking and we are defending (4).

So it is clear that this group ISIS is trying to silence all of its soldiers who oppose them who are accusing them of being weak. Thus, their policies stemmed from reactions due to the behavior of these soldiers, and they confronted extremism with a counter-extremism.

However, before we speak about the issue of Takfeer on the ‘Aadhir’ we must clarify the concept, which states ‘There is no excuse for ignorance in the issue of major Shirk’.

Shaykh Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab explained the writings of some of the scholars before him saying that a Muslim who falls into major Shirk is not excused due to ignorance or misinterpretation. In fact, he is only excused in one case only and that is when he is compelled or really forced by the enemies. For example:

If I prostrate to a grave and supplicate to the dead person that is in the grave and I say to the dead person “oh Ali, make my matters easy for me and help me.”

From amongst the acts of worship which should be for Allah alone is prostration and supplication for needs which no one except Allah is capable of fulfilling. So when you stand and prostrate to other than Allah, this means that you have made someone else a partner with Allah in a matter that should not be made for anyone except for Allah alone.

So then now you have fallen into Shirk (by associating partners with Allah).

And if I am ignorant that this action is Shirk (associating partners to Allah), will Shaykh Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab excuse me for this ignorance? The answer is no. And if I did this due to a misinterpretation thinking that this person is an intermediary between me and Allah, will Shaykh Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab excuse me for this misinterpretation?  The answer is no.

But he will excuse me if a group of people came and threatened me with weapons and they were serious in their threats and I was unable to escape from them, and they said to me “prostrate to this grave or else we will kill you”. So here it is allowed to prostrate as long as you hate to do this action. And this is the only case in which I will be excused by Shaykh Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab.

But why will I not be excused in the first two cases? It is because Allah has warned from Shirk in a very clear manner in the Quran in verses which are easily understandable. So whichever person the Quran has reached, he has received the Hujjah (clear message) and it is not necessary to further clarify it for him. So based upon this, whoever the Quran has reached, he has received the Hujjah (the clear message).

So the matter of making Takfeer on a Muslim if he commits major Shirk is a matter which was agreed upon by the Salafi school (or as known in the west as the Wahhabis) generation after generation. It was only after the establishment of the third Saudi state (the current one) that this matter got reviewed again, and now we find different points of view (5). Despite that, some Saudi official religious figures still support this juristic view. For example:

  • the member of the committee of the senior scholars (Kibaar ul Ulama), Dr. Saalih al Fawzan, who has written an introduction to two books ‘Daabit Takfeer al Mu’ayyan’ and ‘Aarid al Jahl’ by Shaykh Rashid Abul Alaa, which are amongst the books which are being circulated in the Saudi prisons.
  • And also the member of the ‘presidency of scientific research, Fatwas, propagation and guidance’ (Riaasath al Buhooth al Ilmiyya wal Iftaa wa Da’wah wal Irshad), Shaykh Ibn Jibreen when he wrote an introduction to the book “Al Udhr Bil Jahl Tahta al Mihjar Ash Shari’e” by Shaykh Mad’hat al Farraj which is also one of the books circulated in the Saudi prisons.

So the Salafi schools and trends even if they conflict in some matters, they however are in agreement in the others.

But if every group and lobby within ISIS adopts this position of not excusing the ignorant person in the matters of major Shirk, then what is the problem? The disagreement is in one issue only, and it has a relation to the legitimacy of ISIS and its leader. It is the issue of Takfeer ul Aadhir (making Takfeer on the one who excuses the ignorant) and a series of chain Takfeer based on this.

Let us give an example: “Sulayman” does an act of Shirk and so he is a Mushrik Kaafir according to all these groups with no disagreement. However, “Ahmed” does not make Takfeer on this “Sulayman” because of some doubt he has in this matter. Here they get divided into two groups – The group with Turki Bin’ali says that Ahmed does not become a Kaafir except after clarifying the matter to him regarding Sulayman’s action of Shirk and the doubts have been removed and the matter has been explained to him. (This act of clarifying is known as providing the Hujjah).

So Turki Bin’ali says about the person who does not make Takfeer on a Mushrik or a Kaafir: “As for the one to whom it has become clear through evidences from the Sharia about the Kufr (disbelief) of a person and then he still did not make Takfeer on him, he is a Kaafir” (6). So it also becomes understood from this statement that the one to whom it has not become clear, it is not allowed to make Takfeer on him. The Hazimi group would immediately make Takfeer on Ahmed without any need to clarify the matter to him and remove the doubts. In fact, they even make Takfeer on the one who does not make Takfeer on him!!

The Shariah official of ‘the Islamic state’ in Yemen, Abu Bilal al Harbi who was one of those who had previously been close to al-Hazimi said “We are free from his latest Fitna (ordeal) which is to make Takfeer on the Aadhir (the excuser) and we believe that the one who excuses is not to be made Takfeer upon except after the matter has been made clear to him and the doubts have been removed. I asked al-Hazimi about chain Takfeer and he said it goes up to the third person (i.e. Takfeer is made till the third person in the series of the one who excuses the one who excuses the one who excuses the one who commits Shirk – i.e. three people in the chain of excusers) and I asked him for the evidence that it is made till the third person only and he gave me no evidence for that” (7).

How does this disagreement affect the legitimacy of ISIS and its leader?

– The Shia are Mushrikeen and Kuffar by the agreement of these people.

– Shaykh Ayman al Zawahiri does not make Takfeer on all the Shia. He excuses their general masses and because of this he himself is a Kaafir Mushrik according to the Hazimi wing.

– Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi addressed al Zawahiri previously saying “May Allah protect him” and as “the Shaykh the Mujahid”, and this means that he does not make Takfeer on him.

– So then he (Baghdadi) himself is a Kaafir..!

And if the leader is a Kaafir then it is not an Islamic state..!!

The second problem is that amongst many who do not speak the Arabic language and who speak in Russian and English, there is a matter that is spreading amongst them gradually, and appears to be taking root in them. And that is the issue of the Takfeer on the Aadhir (on the excuser). ISIS has been spreading their propaganda strongly in these two languages and also amongst many who come to them especially those who speak Russian who have engrossed themselves deeply into this innovation of making Takfeer on the Aadhir. And the ranks of these people are gradually growing stronger inside ISIS due to many people who have this belief entering ISIS. And they are divided into three groups:

  1. The first group is of those who have fought against ISIS (8).
  2. The second are those who have disassociated from ISIS and are trying to split from it (9).
  3. And a (third) group that is still within its ranks and spreading these thoughts.

Previously ISIS used a technique of eliminating the leaders of these people (10), but now it has gone out of control and these people who make Takfeer on the Aadhir have increased in large numbers, and it is difficult to deal with them all using the same method which was previously used when they were only a few.

Now we will deal with the final point, which is the statement attributed to ISIS regarding the issue of the Aadhir “the excuser” (11). The reality is that this statement does not agree with the bases of those who make Takfeer on the Aadhir, rather there are radical differences, such as:

  • In the first page it demonstrated the mistake in the arguments of those who make Takfeer on the Aadhir since those who make Takfeer on the Aadhir say that the Aadhir becomes a Mushrik by not making Takfeer on the one who does an act of Shirk, whereas the statement says that this argument is wrong because we don’t say that the one who does Shirk and the one who does not do it are equal, and this argument will necessarily lead to chain Takfeer.
  • In the second page ISIS forbade the use of certain terms such as “the foundation” and “necessary implications” in the meaning of “there is no God but Allah” and “Kufr bi Taghut” and the term “Takfeer on the Aadhir” whereas these terms are the central themes of those who propagate Takfeer on the Aadhir..!
  • And in the third page it says that the issue of Takfeer on the Aadhir is an issue which changes depending on the circumstances and it is not always the same. Sometimes the person who doesn’t make Takfeer on the Mushrik does not become a Kaafir because the matter is unclear and ignorance is widespread and propagation is weak and doubts are widespread. So here it is necessary to clarify the matter (i.e. provide the Hujjah), and if he still abstains from making Takfeer after the matter has been clarified then he will become a Kaafir. This is contrary to the beliefs of those who make Takfeer on the Aadhir who do not accept these kinds of excuses which can prevent Takfeer. Rather, they make Takfeer even on the one who abstains from Takfeer even at a time when ignorance is widespread, propagation is weak and doubts are common.
  • Also, in the third page, they said that there is an exception which is during a situation in which there is an Islamic state which preaches Tawheed and renounces Shirk “like our state now” (as per their claim). So here there does not exist anything that can prevent Takfeer on the one who does not make Takfeer on the Mushrikeen, because the matter has become clear (in an Islamic state). Even though both the groups would reach the same conclusion here, the arguments taken from the Shariah by both the groups to view the matter, are different. ISIS applies this ruling inside their borders only, which would mean that this is not applicable to those outside ISIS, because there the voice of Islam is not loud enough or there does not exist an Islamic state which calls towards renouncing Shirk and towards Tawheed, as per their claim. So based upon this, this ruling applies only in areas under their control and does not extend to the rest of the lands. And this is contrary to the arguments of those who make Takfeer on the Aadhir, who as we have stated in the previous point do not give any consideration to such differences in circumstances.
  • However, in the fourth page they used flexible terms which can take many meanings. They say in it that it is necessary for the preacher in the Islamic State to remove the doubts in abstaining from Takfeer on the Mushrikeen, but in the previous page they say that this is a clear and evident matter! So I do not know how this matter can be clarified to the people when it is already a clear matter! As if they are still dealing with it as if it is an unclear matter!!!

So ISIS has two solutions, and each one is equally difficult.

To formally adopt the belief of making Takfeer on the Aadhir in the form put forward by those who make Takfeer on the Aadhir. And by that they will have given to their opponents in the other Islamic groups such as Al Qaida the proof that they are extremists, who have no connection to the Jihadi methodology and its previous Shaykhs, in a clearer manner than before. This will weaken their propaganda amongst their supporters abroad. Or be silent or oppose this thinking, which will increase the numbers within its ranks by new members joining them or by being convinced of it, who will then become an obstacle for them, destroying them from the inside, whether they refrain from fighting or they fight against ISIS themselves for not adopting their view.

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Footnotes:

(1) – In fact Shaykh Usama Bin Ladin used to prohibit speaking about making Takfeer on the common soldiers. He said, “In an authentic Hadeeth from our Prophet, may prayers and peace be upon him, he said “If a person makes Takfeer on his brother, then one of them would definitely become a Kaafir”. If the one who has been called a Kaafir is indeed a Kaafir then it is over, and he is a Kaafir. But if he was not a Kaafir then it returns to the one who said it (on the one who made Takfeer). So this is a very, very, very severe warning against getting involved in this issue, especially in regards to Takfeer on a specific individual. So fear Allah, glory be to Him, and beware, and again beware…! Making Takfeer on the people is a very great sin, and from amongst the very major sins. So safeguard your tongues. And when we speak, if the speaker is from the people of knowledge and knows the rules of Takfeer, there is no problem if he speaks about this and clarifies it to his brothers, like when sometimes some people commit nullifiers of Islam. So it is detailed and sensitive issue. Sometimes a person may do an act of Kufr but he will still not be a Kaafir due to his ignorance or due to some compulsion. These are detailed issues and it is not easy for the brothers in general to learn it or specialize in it. But we normally speak on matters in general. So fear Allah and stay away from this matter, and busy yourselves by remembering Allah a lot and supplicating to Him and by acknowledging the blessings of Allah and being grateful for these blessings, until we meet Allah while He is pleased with us. So before you speak, think about what will be the consequences of this statement, and strive hard in obeying Allah and in Jihad for the sake of Allah. And fear Allah in those matters in which you do not have a deep knowledge. And to fear Allah means you should not boldly issue Fatwas. [“Faith defeats arrogance” at 58:00 minutes, by As Sahaab Media foundation]

The former Mujahid in Afghanistan and the ex-detainee in Guantanamo, Waleed Muhammad Al Haajj, said on his Twitter page: “The commander Shaykh Usama Bin Ladin, may Allah have mercy upon him, gathered all the Mujahideen at the Farooq military camp leaving only the guards at the gate when he had heard that some of the Mujahideen at the camp had made their main concern to say that such and such a person is a Kaafir and such and such a person is an apostate. So he gathered them together and said “Oh my sons, you came here to train and prepare, so do not concern yourselves with Takfeer, and leave it to the scholars”.

Links to the tweets:- (12)

(2) – A member of the Shariah committee of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Maysarah al Ghareeb said: “I met a brother from Sham who had recently entered Iraq. He told me about an incident that occurred to him, which in brief was that prior to his entry into Iraq he had met a brother who came from the Arabian Peninsula, at one of the guest houses. And while they were eating, the coordinator asked the brothers about their beliefs regarding Bin Baz and Ibn Uthaymeen, and it became clear to him that the brother from the Peninsula did not make Takfeer on them. So this host was surprised at that and he rebuked the brother, telling him that Shaykh Abu Mus’ab makes Takfeer on them both and that the one who does not make Takfeer on them will not enter the land of Jihad. At that, the brother asked in amazement “So you are stopping me from entering Iraq?” and the host said “Yes”, and he did what he threatened him of doing and he sent him back to where he had come from. But the brother who spoke to me was afraid and he did not say his opinion regarding the matter due to his fear that he also will be prevented from entering the land of Jihad and Ribat. I immediately raised the case to our Shaykh (Zarqawi), may Allah have mercy on him, especially since he had entrusted me to tell him everything that was happening in the field due to his fear that his followers may not be able to reach him because of him remaining hidden for the sake of security. So he became very much angry and threatened the one who attributed an opinion to him which he did not believe in, and ordered his deputy to investigate this matter and if it was found to be true, then to expel the host from the group. Then the Shaykh told me “It is true that I consider them as having misled the Ummah by their Fatwas, but I do not make Takfeer on them. By Allah, even if the brother from the Peninsula does not make Takfeer on (King) Fahad, I would still not prevent him from Jihad. Many have entered Iraq who do not make Takfeer on the Saudi government.” [Al Zarqawi as I knew him” –3/6 released by Al Furqan Foundation]”

(3) – Shaykh Atiyatullah who was at that time in Algeria spoke on the details of a coup led by Jamaal Zaytouni (Abu Abdur Rahmaan Ameen) against the leadership of the group by putting pressure on the media official to issue a statement under the name of the Shura council stating that the previous leader had been removed and Zaytouni has been appointed in his place and he spread it quickly to the battalions and to the brigades for the matter to become firmly established. Then he met with the actual leader and the Shura council and refused to step down saying “what will decide between me and you is killing”. So they stepped down and left their leadership to him to prevent bloodshed. (Refer to the book: “The Algerian experience”, by Atiyatullah, P.16)

(4) – Refer to “The details of the debate with the group ISIS” by Shaykh Abu Yazen ash Shami, with comments by the previous head of the Shariah office in Ahrar ash Sham, Shaykh Abu Muhammad as Saadiq P.6

(5) – From those major scholars during the period of the third Saudi State who adopted a somewhat different view are: Ibn As-Sa’adi who wrote on that in (Fataawa as-Sa’adi, P.447) and Ibn Uthaymeen in (Sharh Kashf Shubuhaat, P.37)

(6)– “Al Kawkab Ad-Durrie Al Muneer”, p.11, Sharh Nawaaqid Al Islam Al Ashrah, lesson 2 (50:00), Tawheed broadcast in the city of Sirte, 3rd August 2013

(7) – The letter: “Al Hazmi from a close look”, p.5, 5th August, 2014

(8) – For example Abu Mu’az al Aasmi, one of the former soldiers of ISIS who were imprisoned previously in the prison of Raqqa and fled after the US bombed it, wrote an article on 3rd October 2016 entitled “The reality of the clash at Aleppo and the cowardice of the soldiers of Al Baghdadi, the Taghut of Shaam”, and in it he mentioned about a fight that took place between this group and Baghdadi’s group in the city of Al Baab and then at a farm between Al Raii and Jarablus.

(9) – Al Aasmi also stated in the above mentioned article that “After Allah guided a group of Muhajireen brothers towards Tawheed in the city of Al Baab, in Aleppo, the security apparatus of the ‘Idols’ State’ began to plot against them after they saw that the call towards Tawheed had reached everyone and the one who has not been guided towards it would leave fighting until he gets clarification and searches for the truth”.

(10) – On 16th August 2014 a statement was published entitled “Aiding the imprisoned brothers in the Kaafirs’ Jahmiyyah State” in which it was stated that these:- “(Abu Ja’far al Hattaab, Abu Mus’ab At-Tunisi, Abu Usayd al Maghribi, Abul Hawraa al Jazaairi, Abu Khalid Ash-Sharqi, Abu Abdullah al Maghribi and Abu Umar al Kuwaiti) have been arrested by ISIS for making Takfeer on the Aadhir, and since the past two years their fate has been unknown, and it is likely they have been executed.”

(11) – It is the statement number 155, issued by Al Maktab al Maqreezi Li Mutaaba’ah Ad-Dawaween Ash-Shariea”, on 25th May 2016.

Tore Hamming:

Even in Jihadi circles the issue of takfeer [excommunication] is a delicate matter. Scholars and Jihadi leaders, including Usama bin Laden and Abu Yahya al-Libi, have continuously emphasised that takfeer should be applied extremely cautiously as it is a complicated matter that should be left for the knowledgeable people only to decide upon.

The use of takfeer is probably the main issue causing fragmentation between Sunni Jihadi groups, both now and in the previous decades. After the Jalalabad defeat in 1989, proponents of a more extensive use of takfeer started to appear, especially within the Algerian community, and it developed within the Groupe Islamique Armé in Algeria in the 1990s resulting in severe conflict between Jihadi groups and individuals.

I have myself described the disagreement within the Islamic State in a post here on Jihadica (See article), but due to the complexity of the matter, I have found myself confused on a regular basis trying to understand the Islamic State position on takfeer (and takfeer on the excuser). Ahmad Al Hamdan does a good job explaining the problem the Islamic State is facing internally as it seeks to avoid extremism in takfeer while, at the same time, managing its followers with an extreme on takfeer. Giving in to the extremists within its ranks could lead to self-destruction as prophesised by Nelly Lahoud.

The Nigerian jihadist movement Boko Haram has gone through a number of iterations since it emerged in the early 2000s. One major question about the group, from its early days until the present, has concerned the nature and the extent of its ties to other jihadist groups. Support from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb may have been one enabling factor in Boko Haram’s campaign of sustained guerrilla violence starting in 2010. More recently, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015, a tie that seems more rhetorical than operational, but that may contribute to flows of fighters and weapons between Nigeria, Libya, and elsewhere.

I have long treated Boko Haram as a primarily homegrown movement, but there is one international connection that stands out to me from Boko Haram’s early years, before its decisive turn to jihadism in 2010. That connection is the intellectual debt that Boko Haram’s founder, Muhammad Yusuf (1970-2009), owed to one of the world’s most influential Salafi-jihadi thinkers, the Jordan-based Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (b. 1959) There is no evidence that the two men ever met, and neither did Yusuf directly name al-Maqdisi in any writings or lectures that I have located. Yet there are two substantial pieces of evidence that al-Maqdisi’s writings were crucial to Yusuf as he articulated his own Salafi-jihadi creed in 2008-2009, the period just prior to Boko Haram’s mass uprising in July 2009.

First, Yusuf almost certainly borrowed ideas and citations from al-Maqdisi. As I describe in my recent book, Yusuf published a manifesto in 2009 entitled Hadhihi ‘Aqidatuna wa-Manhaj Da‘watina (This Is Our Creed and the Method of Our Preaching). Hadhihi ‘Aqidatuna overlaps with al-Maqdisi’s writings in several ways. For one thing, the book shares a title with one of al-Maqdisi’s works (entitled simply Hadhihi ‘Aqidatuna). Additionally, Yusuf’s manifesto adopts a similar rhetorical strategy to al-Maqdisi’s book. Both authors present the Salafi-jihadi creed as identical to mainstream Salafi thought and as completely continuous with the thought of figures such as Taqi al-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), the medieval Damascene theologian.

Moreover, Yusuf writes at length about three themes that al-Maqdisi also treated, namely al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal), izhar al-din (manifesting religion), and the exemplary nature of the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham). In Salafi-jihadi eyes, al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ involves exclusive loyalty to fellow Muslims and a stark disavowal of all other allegiances. Izhar al-din means adopting an outspoken, activist posture toward practicing and spreading Islam. Abraham, meanwhile, is for Salafi-jihadis an example of acting single-mindedly in the quest to manifest religion and disavow all non-monotheists, even one’s own family.

Finally – and here is where we see al-Maqdisi’s influence on Yusuf most clearly – Yusuf cites some of the same passages that al-Maqdisi cites from nineteenth-century Wahhabi hardliners. Two key nineteenth-century texts that both al-Maqdisi and Yusuf used were Hamad ibn Atiq’s Sabil al-Najat wa-l-Fakak (The Path of Salvation and Liberation) and the collection of Wahhabi writings called Al-Durar al-Saniyya fi al-Ajwiba al-Najdiyya (The Glittering Jewels of the Najdi Responses). Sometimes Yusuf’s citations are identical to al-Maqdisi’s, so that one suspects outright plagiarism from al-Maqdisi; in one edition, Al-Durar al-Saniyya runs to sixteen volumes, making it unlikely that Yusuf would have come to these citations entirely on his own. Yusuf must have had a copy – at the very least – of al-Maqdisi’s 1984 Millat Ibrahim wa-Da‘wat al-Anbiya’ wa-l-Mursalin (The Community/Creed of Abraham and the Call of the Prophets and the Messengers). It would have been easy to obtain a copy online, although perhaps it was given to Yusuf by an associate.

Why would Yusuf have downplayed the influence that al-Maqdisi had on his thinking? One answer may be that Yusuf was wavering about his commitment to jihadism up until the final months of his life, and that he still had some hopes of presenting himself as a mainstream Salafi scholar. Yusuf had begun his career within the mainstream Salafi fold in northern Nigeria – figures who rejected jihadism – and it was not until the mid-2000s that he fell out with his mentors and peers in the wider Salafi movement. Another possibility may be that Yusuf was keen to situate himself as the pre-eminent scholarly authority for his audiences. And so while it bolstered his intellectual authority to cite from nineteenth-century Wahhabis and from the twentieth-century Saudi Arabian religious establishment, it could have undermined his authority to be seen as the blind follower of a living Jordanian jihadist.

This brings us to the second piece of evidence that Yusuf was influenced by al-Maqdisi: even if Yusuf downplayed al-Maqdisi’s influence, Yusuf’s opponents within Nigeria’s Salafi movement linked Yusuf to al-Maqdisi in an attempt to discredit both men. Just a few months before Yusuf led Boko Haram in its mass uprising in July 2009, a major Nigerian Salafi scholar, Dr. Muhammad Sani Umar Rijiyar Lemo, came to Maiduguri, the epicenter of Boko Haram, to denounce Yusuf. Rijiyar Lemo, however, focused only indirectly on Yusuf – instead, he devoted his two-day lecture series to criticizing the global jihadist movement more broadly. In one significant passage, Rijiyar Lemo explicitly belittled al-Maqdisi’s credentials, denying al-Maqdisi the status of scholar. Rijiyar Lemo, a graduate of the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia, also positioned himself, rather than Yusuf, as the authority who could interpret Saudi and global Salafi scholarship.

What do the ties between Yusuf and al-Maqdisi tell us about Boko Haram? For one thing, they show how Yusuf was attempting to construct an intellectual architecture as Boko Haram drifted into jihadism. In the early and mid-2000s, even after some Boko Haram offshoots launched a disastrous uprising in 2003-2004, Yusuf was willing to operate within mainstream society: he served on a government committee, he interacted with politicians, and he even made statements (perhaps disingenuous, but a far cry from his later postures) indicating a tacit acceptance of the pluralistic, secular environment in which he found himself. By 2009, however, he was headed toward a collision with authorities. Al-Maqdisi’s ideas helped him to flesh out the justifications for that collision.

As noted above, Yusuf and al-Maqdisi almost certainly never met, but their intellectual tie connects Yusuf to a long genealogy of jihadist thinkers. That tie also connected Boko Haram to the Islamic State – in an ideological sense – even before Boko Haram pledged allegiance. Although al-Maqdisi has essentially rejected the Islamic State’s authority, many of the core ideas that he popularized were crucial for the Islamic State’s own intellectual framework. For example, Islamic State propagandists continue to cite ideas like the example of Abraham, albeit without crediting al-Maqdisi (see pp. 20-23 here). Given that Boko Haram and the Islamic State have a shared intellectual DNA, their convergence (again, likely much more at the rhetorical level than in any operational sense) should not be surprising.