[Editor’s Note: Jihadica is pleased to welcome Lina Raafat and Charles Lister. Lina is a research assistant for the Extremism & Counter-Terrorism Program at the Middle East Institute. Her research focuses on militant propaganda with a particular focus on foreign fighter mobilization and logics of martyrdom. Charles is a senior fellow and the director of the Extremism & Counter-Terrorism Program at the Middle East Institute.]

The fall of southwestern Syria to Bashar al-Assad’s regime marked a significant turning point in the Syrian conflict, effectively shifting attention to the northwestern province of Idlib, the last remaining opposition stronghold. Home to a wide array of armed resistance groups, including groups with former and current ties to al-Qaeda, as well as defeated opposition fighters recently exiled from elsewhere in Syria, Idlib’s dynamics are incredibly complex and warrant special consideration. As the threat of an impending regime offensive continues to develop, with both Russia and Turkey bolstering defenses, armed opposition groups find themselves under unprecedented pressure to adapt to the evolving dynamics, both on the ground and in surrounding geopolitics.

A prime example of such adaptation is Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS. Previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, this former al-Qaeda affiliate has rebranded itself twice—first as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) in July 2016, and later as HTS in January 2017—in a relentless effort to expand its power and present itself as a sustainable model capable of continuing the fight against the Assad regime. Today, HTS has asserted military dominance in the northwest, has established a “Salvation Government,” and is reportedly engaged in active political discussions with several regional states.

Central to the HTS model is its propaganda apparatus, which the group has employed effectively to achieve its broader strategic objectives. Faced by the impending threat of all-out hostilities, mainstream armed opposition groups have focused their propaganda on highlighting military operations and their willingness and plans to target regime forces. HTS, on the other hand, has substantially amplified its governance efforts, especially emphasizing three pillars: the provision of public goods and services; the maintenance of law and order, including through fighting terrorism (mainly ISIS); and delegitimizing any attempts of “reconciliation” with the regime.

Through a complete mapping of HTS’s entire propaganda output between June 18, 2018 and August 31, 2018, this article takes an in-depth look at how the explosion of hostilities in southwest Syria has propelled HTS to adapt its media strategy to gain (or regain) local support and to legitimize itself. The data implies that, at least when it comes to its online dissemination, HTS propaganda is geared overwhelmingly towards local messaging and aims to highlight steps taken by the group to tackle issues that are most pressing for its local constituents.

Our data set is comprised of every piece of propaganda published by HTS’s official media arm, Ebaa News Agency, during the period in question. This includes statements, video reports, photo reports, newsletters, infographics and opinion articles. Each of these individual data points was coded and analyzed to draw patterns on how the group’s strategy has been changing, and why. When examined closely, the data demonstrates a concerted attempt by HTS to expand its governance efforts and focus on issues that touch the daily lives of its people, or at least it is creating the illusion of doing so. According to the data, 57 percent of HTS propaganda focuses on governance and local grievances, while only 21 percent focuses on military activities. The remaining 22 percent is geared towards delegitimizing regime soldiers, militias, and opposition factions that have agreed to “reconcile” with the Assad government.

At this critical juncture in HTS’s trajectory, maintaining local support could be just as important a survival strategy as achieving battlefield dominance, if not more important. In a little over two months, HTS has released over 900 reports and statements highlighting the active steps taken by its officials to deal with issues critical to its perceived constituents. Those include: building roads, restoring water access, providing employment opportunities, diffusing explosives, arresting criminals, and restoring the rule of law. As the Assad regime continues to expand its grip on power and regain control of formerly “liberated” areas elsewhere in Syria, HTS appears to have re-examined its prioritization of anti-Assad military operations and pivoted to emphasizing its governance efforts in Idlib as “an exemplary model for contemporary revolutions.”

Figure 1.1

A key element of this model is, perhaps ironically, HTS’s campaign to combat terrorism. Though itself deemed a terrorist organization by many, including the United States, HTS has launched an extensive counterterrorism campaign targeting ISIS sleeper cells in Idlib. As figure 1.2 demonstrates, the group’s law-and-order campaign has predominantly focused on tracking down ISIS sleeper cells, with over 60 percent of its security operations explicitly aimed at arresting alleged ISIS members, confiscating their weapons, and in some cases publicly executing captured members and commanders. Since the beginning of the Dar’aa offensive, HTS has claimed responsibility for the capture of at least 97 ISIS fighters and commanders and the killing of another 23.

Figure 1.2

At first glance this may seem a departure from the group’s earlier strategy of steering away from public spectacles of violence, a technique which its foe—ISIS—has used to demonstrate supremacy and to attract recruits. However, this should come as no surprise, since the Assad regime has framed its war as a fight against “terrorists” and has used the presence of ISIS cells or groups linked to al-Qaeda as justification for launching large-scale offensives. By actively targeting and fighting one of the world’s most notorious terrorist organizations, HTS is attempting not only to strip away the regime’s credibility of using terrorism as an excuse to attack Idlib, but also to portray itself as a legitimate non-terrorist actor, especially in the eyes of local populations which have, on occasion, compared it to ISIS.

In addition to providing basic services and fighting terrorism, another important component of HTS’s recent propaganda effort is directed at the delegitimization of identified enemies of the group. Targets of this campaign include: the Assad regime along with its militias and allies; the international community for its perceived complicity in the war against innocent Syrian civilians; Syria’s exiled political opposition for failing to provide an effective political solution; and most importantly “reconciliation,” which HTS depicts as an existential threat to the people of Idlib.

Figure 1.3

As figure 1.3 indicates, 33 percent of HTS delegitimization campaigns since mid-June have been directed at “reconciliation”—the Assad regime’s chosen mechanism for regaining control of opposition-held areas. Such “reconciliation” scenarios have played out in each of Syria’s de-escalation zones, first in Eastern Ghouta in April 2018, then Homs in May and Dar’aa in June. Now, finally, the regime’s eyes are on Idlib as its next and perhaps final target. In truth, the regime’s “reconciliation” strategy represents an offer of surrender to avoid the prospect of a catastrophic, brutal attack from the air and ground. Frequently, “reconciliation” deals have followed long-drawn-out sieges, or bombing campaigns, or even chemical weapons attacks in the case of Eastern Ghouta in April.

However, both the regime and HTS understand that the situation in Idlib is far more complex than in previous cases. In a video statement released on August 21, 2018, HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani stressed that people in the “Liberated North” are well aware of regime plans and refuse to concede:

The phase through which the jihad in al-Sham is passing today needs us, as fighting factions, to pledge before God, Glorified and Sublime, then before our patient people, that the weapons of the revolution and jihad—that trust which the Muslims have bestowed on us—are a red line that will never be bargained with and will never be on the negotiating table. For our weapons are the source of our power and pride, and they are our bedrock. The very moment one of us thinks about negotiating his weapon, he has effectively lost it. Just thinking of surrendering to the enemy and turning over our weapons is a betrayal of God and His prophet, of the blood of the martyrs, and of the prisoners and the displaced—a betrayal of our people who have sacrificed and given so much, our people who have remained steadfast for seven years in the face of oppression and criminality. What happened in the south, the honorable sons of al-Sham will not allow to happen in the north.

Jolani’s statement comes at a critical time when HTS is under immense pressure to dissolve itself and merge with the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), which has become the largest armed actor in Idlib, comprising ten Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, the Syrian Liberation Front, or SLF (Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki), Jaysh al-Ahrar, and Suqour al-Sham. HTS has issued multiple statements refuting all rumors of any impending dissolution and reiterating its commitment to defend its people from the looming threat of a regime offensive as an independent group. On the contrary, a recent statement issued on August 28 indicated that dissolution remained “an internal matter” and that HTS was “working hard” to come to a workable solution that “spares our people from likely attack.”

Though adamant about maintaining its independence, HTS’s core leadership understands very well that it needs to cooperate with the other factions if it stands any chance of survival. This was made clear in Jolani’s remarks, where he emphasized the urgency of higher degrees of military coordination between different fighting factions on the battlefield and announced the establishment of a joint operations room in the north to defend and protect “the honorable people of al-Sham.” As with other components of its recent propaganda strategy, this talk of “unity” is clearly aimed at convincing local communities that HTS is their defender and an intrinsic part of the broader “revolutionary” movement. Jolani stressed:

Our sorrows and our hopes are one, and our fate is one. Our enemy is out for all of us and does not differentiate between us, and will observe toward none neither bond nor treaty. The best way to confront our enemy is to be a unified front, together in love and brotherhood. All of us must play our role in this crucial battle: fighters, civil society, clergy and scholars, tribes and families. Everyone is targeted.

Whether or not HTS’s propaganda accurately reflects realities on the ground remains unclear and hard to measure, but that should not be the focus of our attention. What HTS propaganda shows is that it is appealing to its local constituents by advertising such products as services and security, creating an image of a functioning society with happy kids, busy markets, and security checkpoints at a time when people are craving any sign of normalcy in the midst of chaos. Though local skepticism of HTS is commonplace in northwestern Syria, the threat of overwhelming attack by the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies may be the one chance for HTS to regain popular legitimacy. Its propaganda is aimed entirely at achieving that result.

The fate of Idlib appears to have been sealed. The chances of Turkey and Russia being able to negotiate a political solution seem increasingly remote. The eventual regime victory will certainly lead to unprecedented levels of death and destruction, which will in all likelihood be used to fuel extremist narratives like that espoused by HTS for years to come. As the regime tries to isolate armed opposition groups by driving a wedge between them and the people, HTS is fighting for its survival by actively seeking to embed itself within society. Whether or not it has been successful, the fact remains that once the fighting begins, HTS fighters will be the first ones on the frontlines, and this more than anything will give the group the chance to bolster its credibility and justify its narrative for years to come.

What to make of Turkey is arguably the most controversial issue in the Jihadi movement in Syria today. Is it to be seen as an infidel state? Is its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to be considered an apostate? Is collaboration with Turkey religiously legitimate? What should be the attitude to Erdogan’s victory in last week’s election? These are some of the questions that have bedeviled Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Jihadi group previously affiliated with al-Qaida in an earlier incarnation, and have become the most serious source of division between the group and the al-Qaida loyalists organized in Tanzim Hurras al-Din.

HTS’s balancing act

Previously, HTS appeared vehemently opposed to any relationship with the Turks, even criticizing groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Deen al-Zinki for cooperating with Turkey on a diplomatic and military level. This was to change radically, however, when HTS openly assisted Turkish forces entering north-western Syria to set up military observation points as part of the Astana diplomatic process. The religious basis used by HTS to rationalize its “cooperation” with Turkey came from none other than Jihadi scholar Abu Qatada al-Filastini, who legitimized certain forms of interaction with the Turks in a fatwa issued as part of a Q&A session in October 2017. As pressure on HTS mounted in spring 2018, one of its senior shar’i figures, Abu al-Fatah al-Farghali, on 18 May affirmed that none of the group’s red lines regarding Turkey had been crossed. About two weeks later, however, Yousef al-Hajar, the head of HTS’s administration of political affairs, acknowledged in an interview with al-Jazeera that his organization in fact had a close relationship with Turkey, which he described as an “ally.” Al-Hajar had probably said too much, and a few days later the interview was removed by al-Jazeera while it continued to be heavily debated within Jihadi circles.

On 8 June, as al-Qaida-aligned figures such as ‘Adnan Hadid began to question the group’s Jihadi bona fides, HTS felt it necessary to publish a statement on its continued commitment to jihad. The statement explained that the group’s strategy is a balancing act whereby it tries to order its priorities and neutralize its opponents without compromising its principles, which remain based on sharia. “Islamic politics is a part of jihad,” the statement read, and the group will act according to what benefits jihad insofar as this does not compromise sharia.

Abu Qatada celebrates Erdogan’s win

With the Turkish presidential election last month, the intra-Jihadi debate escalated further. For several days following the announcement of Erdogan’s victory on 24 June, senior Jihadi figures engaged in a fierce debate over how close one could and shouldget to Turkey.

The opening move was a statement shared by Abu Qatada on his Telegram channel on 24 June. In the statement, Abu Qatada calls Erdogan’s victory a “mercy” for the people of Turkey, not because he particularly likes Erdogan (in fact, in October 2017, he stated that he does not consider Erdogan a Muslim) but because he sees his competitors, “apostate unbelievers who hate the religion,” as worse. While acknowledging that Jihadi opinion is divided over Erdogan, Abu Qatada nonetheless takes obvious pleasure in his election: “I love his victory over his enemies—leftists, secularists, and nationalists who hate the religion.” Abu Qatada avers here that he is only pleased with Erdogan’s victory, not with Erdogan himself (“the man does not represent me”), but this qualification did not satisfy some Jihadis.

The sheikh of tawhid and his supporters

Compared with his close friend and fellow Jihadi ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada has taken a much more diplomatic approach to the last year’s Jihadi infighting, including on the issue of collaborating with Turkey. It was therefore little surprise that Maqdisi, just a little later the same day, published his own take on the Turkish election that was in stark contrast to Abu Qatada’s celebratory words.

Following the traditional method of framing his remarks in response to questions posed to him, Maqdisi recounts (here and here) how a person asked him, “Should we elect for Erdogan?” Referring to himself, he answers, “Are you asking the one who people call the sheikh of tawhid, who has dedicated his life to supporting it and giving it priority over everything … are you asking him about electing a person who rules only by secularism?” The questioner then asks Maqdisi, “So are we supposed to let the one with greater enmity towards Islam win?!” For Abu Qatada, this was the crux of the matter: had Erdogan not won, somebody more opposed to Islam would. But for Maqdisi, this is not a legitimate concern. The muwahhideen (believers in monotheism) should not be concerned with choosing between the one with greater enmity towards Islam and the one with less enmity. They should simply be advocating and upholding tawhid (monotheism).

To better understand these differences between the Jihadi ideologues, I posed a question to Maqdisi myself, asking him how he views the disagreement. “Fools are those who build their homes on sand,” he replied. “I do not join them in celebrating his [Erdogan’s] victory.” However, he was careful not to attack anyone specifically for applauding Erdogan. Regarding the narrower question whether it is permissible to “rejoice” in his victory (as the early Muslims allegedly rejoiced in the victory of the Byzantines over the Persians), Maqdisi is more lenient, saying that it is fine. Yet rejoicing in Erdogan’s victory is different, he says, from supporting it and holding up Erdogan as an “Islamic example.” Being realistic, Maqdisi recognizes that his words are not capable of changing the opinion of the “polytheistic majority.” He calls for every single person to look inside himself and make the right choice in accordance with God’s law. People should not fear for Erdogan in his competition with less Islamic candidates, but should only fear for monotheism.

As it would turn out, Maqdisi was not alone in reasoning. Fellow Jordanian Bilal Khuraysat (aka Abu Khadija al-Urduni), who is historically close to Maqdisi, weighed in with his own criticism of those celebrating Erdogan in two pieces released on 25 June. Khuraysat is a former security and sharia official in Jabhat al-Nusra who broke off from the group when it left al-Qaida. More recently, he has been rumored to be on the shura council of the new al-Qaida-affiliated Hurras al-Din. If Maqdisi was unwilling to attack Abu Qatada head on, Khuraysat displayed no such qualms. As reported by Cole Bunzel, Khuraysat claimed that “Abu Qatada no longer enjoys the scholarly cachet and prestige he used to in the jihadi current.” This is a serious, though arguably true, accusation against a senior Jihadi scholar—and fellow Jordanian at that. In his second piece, this time without mentioning the name of Abu Qatada, Khuraysat criticized the compromise between secularism and Islam that some people are seeking, thus touching on the same theme as Maqdisi.

The barrage against Abu Qatada’s position did not stop there. An unnamed Maqdisi supporter provided a two-part critique (see here and here) of sheikhs who do not understand monotheism and its boundaries. According to the author, history is full of examples of noteworthy figures that fought for Islam but at the same time contravened tawhid by supporting un-Islamic regimes. Supporting Erdogan is no different, he says. This is “the Erdogan who bombed the city of al-Bab and others and killed hundreds of Muslims in order to seize control of that region. The Erdogan who opened his airspace and bases to the Americans to bomb the leaders of jihad in the Levant. The Erdogan who arrested scholars and students of religion and handed them over to their home countries.” Instead of listening to these sheikhs who dilute Islam, one should listen to Maqdisi, who since the days of the Afghan jihad has been a stalwart upholder of a pure monotheism. Another al-Qaida supporter, “Salah al-Deen,” offered a similar take.

To Abu Qatada’s aid

Luckily for Abu Qatada, he was not alone either. The same day Khuraysat published his critiques, two other Jihadi ideologues offered congratulatory remarks similar to Abu Qatada’s. In brief statements, Abdullah al-Muhaysini and Tariq Abdelhaleem claimed that Erdogan’s victory was better than the alternative. The Saudi Muhaysini, it should be mentioned here, is a former member of HTS, while the Egyptian Abdelhaleem, who is based in Canada, publicly supported the group before it split from al-Qaida. Yet perhaps more relevant is the fact that both Muhaysini and Abdelhaleem have had their falling outs with Maqdisi during the past year, having been on the receiving end of his criticism. (Here Abdelhaleem calls Maqdisi a Haruri, referring to a Kharijite sect; in his response, Maqdisi says Abdelhaleem has “lost his mind.”)

More direct support for Abu Qatada came from Abu Mahmoud al-Filastini, a student of Abu Qatada’s based in London who has also been at odds with Maqdisi over the past year (see his article titled “Maqdisi and the free fall”.) Abu Mahmoud’s first response was delivered in the form of advice to Bilal Khuraysat, whom Abu Mahmoud claims is reading Abu Qatada’s statement out of context. Abu Mahmoud emphasizes that his mentor explicitly stated that Erdogan does not represent him. His second comment centers on a constant issue in the Jihadi movement: how creed (‘aqida) is properly translated into action (manhaj). Maqdisi and his followers are known for their extreme puritanical methodology, allowing little room for pragmatism. For Abu Mahmoud and Abu Qatada, it does not make sense to make an enemy out of Erdogan despite the fact that they do not necessarily consider him a good Muslim ruler. Just look at the Taliban and its relationship to Pakistan, Abu Mahmoud says. Perhaps trying to provoke controversy, Abu Mahmoud says that the strategy of making enemies everywhere most of all resembles how the Islamic State behaved.

The Islamic State weighs in

Soon after, an article in a pro-Islamic State newsletter, ‘From Dabiq to Rome,’ also commented on the issue. Although the article does not name any of the above figures, it should be read as a critique of Abu Qatada’s position and his celebration of Erdogan’s victory. The article refers to a fatwa by the late Saudi Jihadi-Salafi sheikh Hamud ibn ‘Uqla al-Shu‘aybi, in which he says that “congratulating the kuffar and sending them blessings upon their taking office ​is something prohibited by the sharia.” Though al-Shu’aybi’s fatwa was issued in the context of congratulating Vladimir Putin, according to the newsletter it is no less applicable to Erdogan, who long ago abandoned Islam by supporting a secular system and directly waging war against the people of Islam. Indeed, whoever congratulates Erdogan on his victory is as much an apostate as Erdogan himself. The logic here is not controversial within Salafi circles, based as it is on the third nullifier of Islam mentioned by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. But the unsubtle implication in this case is that scholars like Abu Qatada and Muhaysini are to be considered apostates.

This was already the Islamic State’s position, so no news there. But the Islamic State’s argument is noteworthy in that it illustrates the divisive potential of the Erdogan issue. Though they may pretend otherwise, it is clearly a serious bone of contention between Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, and between different sides of the pro-al-Qaida wing of the Jihadi movement more generally. It is unlikely that we have heard the end of it.

Last month, a jihadi Telegram user called “And Rouse the Believers” leaked a series of documents related to the Islamic State’s internal ideological rift. As discussed in a previous post, this dispute revolves around the doctrine of excommunication (takfir), and specifically whether those hesitating or refusing to excommunicate unbelievers are themselves to be excommunicated. Heading up the more moderate side in this debate was Turki al-Bin‘ali, the emir of the Islamic State’s Office of Research and Studies, until his death in an airstrike in May 2017. The more extremist side was represented by the Delegated Committee, the Islamic State’s executive council, until Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reconstituted it late last year and instituted a theological compromise of sorts.

“And Rouse the Believers,” whose name comes from Qur’an 4:84, is something of an anomaly: he is even more extreme than the extremists in this contest, believing that the Islamic State has lost its way. But that is beside the point. The documents he has unearthed shed considerable light on the origins of a struggle that continues to plague the ailing caliphate.

The Methodological Committee

One document is an internal memo on the activities of the so-called Methodological Committee (al-Lajna al-Manhajiyya), a body that was responsible for investigating the beliefs of the Islamic State’s scholars. It has also been referred to as the Office for Methodological Inquiry (Maktab al-Tadqiq al-Manhaji). As was seen before, the committee led an inquisition into senior Islamic State scholar Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shami al-Zarqawi, accusing him of holding too moderate a position on takfir.

According to the memo, the committee was formed in February 2016 as the result of a meeting between three Islamic State senior officials, Abu Muhammad al-Furqan, Abu Sulayman al-Shami, and a certain Abu Khabbab al-Masri. Al-Furqan, an Iraqi who headed the Islamic State’s Media Department, was killed in an airstrike in September 2016. Al-Shami, a Syrian-American known for his editorial work on the group’s English-language magazines, was killed by the same means in January 2017. The purpose of the committee was to take the measure of the numerous scholars, or “sharia officials” (shar‘iyyin), who had flocked to the the Islamic State, and to determine if any were guilty of ideological “transgressions.” The committee met with the scholars individually, asking them about their backgrounds, their journeys to the caliphate, and their views on takfir.

The committee was initially concerned, the memo explains, with the alleged “extremism” of some of the scholars, but it soon came to the conclusion that the greater problem was “Murji’ism,” a theological term denoting, in this context, undue leniency in takfir. The end of the memo comprises a chart with brief notes on the results of meetings with 29 scholars, including al-Bin‘ali, who is described as vehemently opposed to the work of the committee.

Called to repent

The entry on al-Bin‘ali also refers to his involvement in the case of Abu al-Mundhir al-Harbi, a Saudi scholar with the Office of Research and Studies who was accused of being soft on the issue of man-made law. Al-Harbi, who was affiliated with al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan from 2010 onward, arrived in Syria in 2014. Like al-Bin‘ali, he had an association with the jihadi ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who wrote the introduction to his 2009 book defending al-Qaida’s terrorism. Sometime in 2015, he came under fire for his written answers to a series of questions put to the Islamic State by a group of prisoners in Baghdad. The answers were never published.

One of the questions was whether it was permissible to appeal to courts administering man-made law in order to recover something, such as property, that was wrongfully seized. In other words, is it allowed to take advantage of the court systems of unbelievers? Al-Harbi’s answer was yes, and al-Bin‘ali, among others, signed off on the response. But when the collected answers were brought to the Delegated Committee for review, some of its members balked. Seeking the judgment of other than God, as jihadis are keen to point out, is tantamount to ascribing partners to God, i.e., polytheism. Yet in the view of men such as al-Harbi and al-Bin‘ali, there are exceptions to such rules, and this was one of them.

“And Rouse the Believers” leaked two documents related to this episode. The first is a four-page brief on the Methodological Committee’s meeting with al-Harbi, written by Abu Sulayman al-Shami. It accuses al-Harbi of “permitting polytheism” and recommends that he be made to repent. The second document is a letter from al-Bin‘ali to the Office of the Caliph and the Delegated Committee, complaining that he too has been called to repent for “permitting polytheism.” Al-Bin‘ali was furious.

In his letter, dated November 2015, he explains that the accusation against him was brought by Abu Muhammad al-Furqan, who, he laments, refuses to see shades of grey in the issue of appealing to infidel courts. Though regretting some of the ambiguous language in al-Harbi’s response, he is firm in his view that the issue is not black and white. Even al-Furqan, he says, believes it permissible to pay ransoms to the Iraqi judiciary.

The letter also reveals that al-Furqan was serving as the “adviser” (mushrif) of the Office of Research and Studies, a role that al-Bin‘ali did not think him qualified for. Portraying him as deeply suspicious of the scholars, al-Bin‘ali advises that men with greater knowledge assist him in advising the office. Al-Furqan, he says, is reliant for his views on Abu Sulayman al-Shami, who is described as not very learned in religion. Al-Bin‘ali underscores his “severe displeasure” with the charge brought against him and “the extent of the divide between the Office of Research and Studies” and al-Furqan.

But if al-Bin‘ali saw al-Furqan and al-Shami as anti-intellectual extremists, he would soon be looking back at them as relative moderates.

Letter to Baghdadi

In late January 2017, about two weeks after the death of al-Shami, al-Bin‘ali wrote a letter to Baghdadi warning him against including the “extremists” in the power structure of the Islamic State. For months he had been hearing, he said, of a new policy intended to appease them by giving them a share of the top posts. But this “theory of balance” would needlessly embolden them. The fact of the matter, he went on, is that “the extremists’ numbers, even if they are great, are not greater than those who follow the truth.” Their power should therefore be curtailed, not enhanced.

This was a time, however, when the “extremists” were on the rise in the organization and the likes of al-Bin‘ali were losing out. In a lecture delivered in Raqqa back in late 2014 or early 2015, al-Bin‘ali had confidently stated, “What we proclaim is the creed of the Islamic State, and it is the creed of the Commander of the Believers … The methodology of the [Islamic] State, and the creed of the [Islamic] State, are issued by the Department of Research and Fatwas … this is by the seal of the Commander of the Believers [i.e., Baghdadi].” But soon the “department” was reduced to an “office” and the word “fatwas” was replaced with “studies,” symbolizing the decline in the influence of al-Bin‘ali and his outfit. The Methodological Committee was created soon afterward, and during the next year the Delegated Committee would release its explosive statement on takfir, prompting a strong reaction from the scholars.

One of the most senior scholars to object was a Saudi named Abu Bakr al-Qahtani, himself a member of the Delegated Committee at one point. “And Rouse the Believers” leaked part of a document, dated July 2017, advising that he repent of his all-too-tolerant position on takfir. This was about a month before he died in an airstrike. Like al-Bin‘ali, who met the same fate two months earlier, al-Qahtani was posthumously vindicated by the new statement on theology issued in September 2017. This statement—the “compromise” referred to above—was released in six installments. The most significant point that it makes is that takfir is “not part of the foundation of the religion” but rather “one of the requirements of the religion.” This was precisely al-Qahtani’s view. The internal memo on the Methodological Committee had complained that he relegated takfir to a subordinate status, as “one of the necessities of the foundation of the religion.”

A house divided

Al-Bin‘ali and al-Qahtani may have won the argument over takfir, but the new statement endorsing their views has been no salve to the ideological dispute. The Islamic State, and particularly its online support community, are more divided today than ever before. The ideological battlefield can be outlined as follows.

On one side stand the al-Wafa’ Media Foundation and the al-Turath al-‘Ilmi Foundation, two online media groups closely aligned with the Office of Research and Studies, or whatever is left of it. (The office is rumored to be headed today by a Jordanian named Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi, but it is not clear that it is functional.) Al-Wafa’, which was created in April 2014, produces mostly unofficial written materials in support of the Islamic State, though occasionally it breaches the official-unofficial line. For instance, it recently published several pieces by Ahlam al-Nasr, the “poetess of the Islamic State” (see here, here, and here). Al-Turath, which was founded in October 2017, is primarily concerned with publishing the “heritage” (turath), written and otherwise, of the Islamic State’s scholars who were or still are with the Office of Research and Studies. Its releases include a six-volume collection of books and fatwas that runs to nearly 3,000 pages. According to al-Turath, this was assembled by al-Bin‘ali in August 2016, but the Delegated Committee and the Media Department obstructed its publication. Related to al-Wafa’ and al-Turath is a discussion group called “The Group for Constructive Criticism among the People of Islam,” a Telegram chatroom where like-minded Islamic State supporters congregate.

On the other side are a number of high-profile, pseudonymous activists and writers such as “Tarjuman al-Asawarti,” “Yemeni and Proud of My Islam,” and “Uncovering the Jews of Jihad and the Suspect Ones.” All of these are allied with the Islamic State’s Media Department, which the supporters of al-Wafa’ and al-Turath contend is a den of extremists. The Media Department, which is still very much active, is responsible for producing the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter, al-Naba’, which al-Wafa’ and al-Turath never promote or link to. Al-Asawarti and his allies often refer to the followers of al-Wafa’ and al-Turath as “the suspect ones” (al-mashbuhin), calling into question their support for the caliphate. The “suspect ones” consider their accusers “extremists.”

The two sides, the “suspect ones” and the “extremists,” frequently trade insults and refutations online. Back in February, Tarjuman al-Asawarti published a lengthy report about al-Wafa’, claiming that it is working against the interests of the caliphate, even that it is a spy cell. A prominent contributor to al-Wafa’ shot back with two rebuttals (see here and here). One of the biggest complaints against the “suspect ones” is that they are publishing official Islamic State products without the consent of the group’s leaders. Other complaints, such as that they work for the Rand Corporation, are not to be taken seriously.

It is hard to know which side has the numerical advantage online. Telegram has cracked down hard on the accounts of both sides, making it difficult to observe trends clearly. But the activity of the “extremists” seems to be the greater. Within the Islamic State itself, the dispute is less visible, but rumors abound that it remains intense. Al-Turath often leaks information about the scheming of the “extremists” and the periodic arrests of certain scholars.

A candle in the dark

In March of this year, al-Wafa’ published an essay by one of its senior writers calling on both sides to bury the hatchet and unify ranks. It does not seem to have had any effect. Yet there may be potential for reconciliation of another sort—with the more hard-line supporters of al-Qaida

Last month, one of the more prominent al-Qaida supporters on Telegram, “the Son of al-Qaida,” noted his “surprise” at the emergence of a “more open and balanced tendency” in the Islamic State, one following the teachings of al-Bin‘ali and less inclined to dismiss al-Qaida as heretics. Those belonging to this tendency, he says, are standing up to the “extremism” of the Islamic State. He further claims, perhaps too optimistically, that they are gaining ground, both “in the online space and on the ground.” From his point of view, this a welcome development, one that his pro-al-Qaida colleagues ought to embrace and encourage. “Don’t curse the darkness,” he tells them.“Rather, light a candle.” There is hope yet, he suggests, for this faction of the Islamic State.

The possibility of an al-Qaida-Islamic State merger has been oversold by some analysts, but another kind of jihadi reconciliation is conceivable. With the al-Qaida support network riven by its own factions of “moderates” and “extremists,” one can imagine a scenario where the “moderates” of the Islamic State and the “extremists” of al-Qaida eventually link up. This is probably a ways off, and may well require the dissolution of both jihadi organizations as a precondition. But the ideological common ground is there should a light be shone on it.

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 .


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.


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.


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.