On 16 June, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the well-known Jordanian radical Islamic ideologue, was released from prison. In the six weeks since his release, many people have argued that there must have been some sort of deal between al-Maqdisi and the Jordanian regime that caused the latter to release him. This blog post looks into these claims.

A Secret Deal

The idea that al-Maqdisi has made a secret deal with the Jordanian regime is widespread. On Twitter, for example, several people expressed their suspicion about al-Maqdisi’s release, claiming that its timing amidst the turmoil involving the Islamic State (of Iraq and Sham, IS(IS)) could not have been a coincidence. Similarly, The Economist stated that al-Maqdisi was released only after “he had been persuaded to issue two fatwas declaring followers of ISIS as ‘deviants’ and telling them not to make attacks in Jordan”. The connection between al-Maqdisi’s release and his criticism of ISIS/IS as a reason for his being set free was also pointed out in the Jordanian media. ‘Umar ‘Ayasira, for instance, a regular columnist for the Islamist daily Al-Sabil, questioned the timing of al-Maqdisi’s release. Although he explicitly denies that al-Maqdisi made a deal with the authorities, he does claim that the shaykh’s critical views on the Islamic State serve the interests of the Jordanian government, which is concerned about that organisation’s rise in Syria and Iraq and therefore supposedly allowed al-Maqdisi to leave prison.

The latter closely resembles a general scenario I also suggested once. Writing in 2008 (after al-Maqdisi was released from a previous stay in prison), I stated that “Al-Maqdisi’s criticism [...] could [...] have a moderating influence on those committed terrorists who are unlikely to be swayed by anyone else. In practice, this policy would mean allowing al-Maqdisi to spread his ideas without interfering with him too much as long as he does not materially support terrorism. The drawback of such a policy is that, while possibly helping to moderate an extremely violent fringe among jihadists, al-Maqdisi’s still radical writings might simultaneously inspire a whole generation of new terrorists. Considering the fact that the Jordanian government apparently does not have a viable case to keep al-Maqdisi in prison, however, this policy of non-interference may be less unacceptable than it sounds.”

Evidence

Scenarios like these and rumours of a deal with the authorities beg the question: what is the evidence for this after al-Maqdisi’s latest release? I asked one person on Twitter who was convinced of a deal whether she had any proof of her suspicions or was simply extrapolating from other, seemingly similar cases in other contexts. Her answer was that she did not have any specific evidence at all and was simply drawing parallels with other cases that she had seen before. This is quite honest, of course, but it is typical of those who claim that al-Maqdisi made a deal with the Jordanian regime: they offer no proof whatsoever.

To be sure, a healthy dose of scepticism towards what goes on in Jordanian prisons and how this is related to the country’s politics is perhaps quite justified. This scepticism becomes slightly conspiratorial, however, if one keeps suspecting fire without even a hint of smoke. When I asked al-Maqdisi about this when I talked to him a few weeks ago, he obviously denied it, yet not by adamantly rejecting these claims; he simply shook his head in disbelief, disappointed about people’s willingness to believe such rumours. It is indeed unlikely that al-Maqdisi made a deal with the authorities, but we don’t have to take his word for it.

Criticism of ISIS/IS

One thing that most claims about al-Maqdisi’s alleged deal with the authorities mention is his criticism of ISIS/IS. Since the latter organisation may develop into a threat to Jordanian security because of the relatively large number of ISIS/IS-supporters within the kingdom, the idea is that al-Maqdisi’s release might contribute to keeping the Islamic State at bay and to moderating its adherents within Jordanian borders. Such an idea is certainly not entirely absurd and al-Maqdisi has indeed penned a few anti-IS articles since being released (see here and here) – widely reported in the Jordanian press (see here, here, here and here) – and did speak out against its supporters after the Jordanian radical thinker Iyad Qunaybi was attacked.

The problem with this reasoning, however, is that the regime does not need a deal with al-Maqdisi to get him to speak out against the Islamic State. In fact, al-Maqdisi has expressed (increasingly explicit) criticism of some jihadis in Syria and particularly ISIS since at least late 2013, long before he was released. This criticism ranged from advice to keep jihad and da’wa (missionary activities) unified (see also here), urgent calls to stop infighting among jihadis (see also here) and to refrain from engaging in fitna (chaos, strife) and clearly siding with al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to a clear disavowal of ISIS. In other words, al-Maqdisi’s condemnation of ISIS was part of a gradual process of advice he gave to jihadis in Syria, which in turn was not only rooted in his broader ideology but also – and more directly – influenced by the failure to successfully mediate between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS and his perception that the latter was mostly (if not entirely) to blame for this.

Timing

Yet if there was no deal, doesn’t that make the date of al-Maqdisi’s release – right in the middle of debates about ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra – rather suspicious? Similar claims were made about al-Maqdisi’s release from prison in 1999 and 2005. With regard to the former year, it has been suggested that al-Maqdisi wrote a book in which he criticised what he considered excesses in takfir (excommunication) to get a more lenient prison sentence. As for 2005, several Jordanian journalists at the time suggested that al-Maqdisi had revised his radical views and that his 2004 and 2005 criticism of the alleged excesses committed by his former student and leader of al-Qaida in Iraq Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi played a role in his release then. Both claims are incorrect, however, as I have pointed out in detail elsewhere.

So what could explain al-Maqdisi’s release last June? Just like in 1999 (a royal pardon on the occasion of King ‘Abdallah II’s ascension to the Jordanian throne) and in 2005 (the regime acquitted him of the charges and had to release him), the immediate reason for al-Maqdisi’s release on 16 June was rather less conspiratorial than it seems: he had simply served his time in prison. Al-Maqdisi was arrested in September 2010 and was given a five year prison sentence. In Jordan, years in prison are not twelve, but only nine months long, making his sentence (5 x 9 months =) 45 months, which equals four years (48 months) minus three months. If one adds four years to September 2010 (September 2014) and subsequently subtracts three months, one simply gets to a release date in: June 2014. The fact that the Jordanian regime actually stuck to this release date instead of trying to keep al-Maqdisi in gaol a bit longer may have been inspired by the idea that al-Maqdisi might help dissuade a few more ISIS-supporters once he’s out, but it is clearly not evidence of any deal.

To deal or not to deal

All in all, it thus seems highly unlikely that al-Maqdisi has made a deal with the Jordanian regime to get released earlier. Even if the regime is willing to release a known radical scholar like him in order to allow him to fend off even more radical ideologues and militants, it is unlikely that they released him any earlier than necessary because of this. Given the fact that al-Maqdisi’s time had been served, the regime probably felt obliged to let him go, perhaps hoping that his ideological opposition against ISIS – a much more dangerous and immediate threat to Jordan than Jabhat al-Nusra, which al-Maqdisi does support – would serve them well. Whether al-Maqdisi’s freedom is actually going to contribute to greater security and stability in Jordan, however, remains to be seen.

The Islamic State’s June 29 declaration of a caliphate has yet to win mass support among the global jihadi community but it has succeeded in provoking an embattled al-Qaeda leadership to respond—in unforeseen fashion. Rather than immediately denouncing the Islamic State’s new “caliphate” as one would have expected, al-Qaeda has responded in kind: that is, with the proposition of a counter-caliph of sorts.

The mooted quasi-caliph is none other than Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar, head of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan since 1996. Like the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Mullah ‘Umar holds the title amir al-mu’minin (commander of the believers), the traditional title of caliphs in Islamic history. The Afghan amir’s title has rarely seemed more than rhetorical but over the last week al-Qaeda has played up the ambiguity of the title. It has reaffirmed its loyalty to Mullah ‘Umar and distributed a video of Osama bin Laden describing him as essentially caliph. Naturally, Islamic State supporters are up in arms at the suggestion of a challenger to Baghdadi.

Old video, new newsletter

Two developments in mid-July have given the impression that al-Qaeda is attempting to recast Mullah ‘Umar as quasi-caliph. The first of these was the July 13 release by its official al-Sahab Media Foundation of an old video of Osama bin Laden. The poor-quality film, 70 minutes in duration, is from mid-June 2001, and shows Bin Laden delivering a lecture on the significance of a recent meeting between George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Al-Sahab gave no reason for releasing the video, but Islamic State supporters claim to have discovered the motive—to use Bin Laden to dispute Baghdadi’s claim to the caliphate.

In the question-and-answer session following Bin Laden’s lecture, a questioner asks the al-Qaeda leader to clarify the nature of his bay‘a to Taliban leader Mullah ‘Umar. Bay‘a is the traditional Islamic contract of agreement between ruler and ruled, and it is widely known that al-Qaeda members operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area give bay’a to him. Exactly what the terms of the bay’a are is less certain. The questioner inquires into them: “You have remarked that you gave bay‘a to the Commander of the Believers Mullah ‘Umar. Is this bay’a the supreme bay‘a, or is it [merely] a temporary bay’a leading toward the supreme bay‘a?”

The term “supreme bay’a” (al-bay’a al-‘uzma) here relates to the “supreme imamate” (al-imama al-‘uzma), a synonym for the caliphate. The questioner is thus asking Bin Laden if he has a contract of allegiance to Mullah ‘Umar as putative caliph. His answer is an emphatic yes.

Bin Laden says: “Our bay’a to the commander of the believers is a supreme bay’a. It is founded on Qur’anic prooftexts and prophetic hadith…” After citing scripture, he continues: “It is incumbent upon every Muslim to affirm in his heart that he has given bay’a to the Commander of the Believers Mullah ‘Umar. This is the supreme bay’a.” Although Bin Laden does not use the term caliph or caliphate, he does appear to have the caliphal institution in mind. In the same query the questioner asks: “What are the necessary qualifications that the caliph of the Muslims must meet?” Traditionally one of these qualifications is descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe of Quraysh, and in this regard Mullah ‘Umar does not qualify. But Bin Laden argues that the Taliban leader is not disqualified on this count (“the bay’a is not withheld because he is not of Quraysh”), citing the legal precedent that the qualification can be ignored in the event of necessity or weakness.

The second development came July 19 in al-Qaeda’s release of a new newsletter called al-Nafir, the first words of which reaffirm Mullah ‘Umar as al-Qaeda’s supreme leader. The first sentence reads: “[Al-Nafir] begins its first issue with the renewal of the bay’a to the Commander of the Believers Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar, the jihad warrior (may God protect him), and it affirms that al-Qaeda and its branches in all locales are soldiers in his army, acting under his victorious banner, by God’s help and His grant of success, until the shari’a prevails…until every part of the land of Islam is liberated…until the Islamic conquests again take place…and return all the violated lands of Islam to the coming caliphal state, God willing.”

The message here seems to corroborate Bin Laden’s words to the effect that Mullah ‘Umar is his caliph. Yet if Bin Laden’s words are ambiguous to the extent that he does not use the word caliph, then al-Qaeda’s newsletter is even more ambiguous. While it clearly aims to recast Mullah ‘Umar as the undisputed leader to whom all al-Qaeda branches must ultimately give bay’a, it also speaks of “the coming caliphal state,” suggesting that there is no caliph. Furthermore, the newsletter does not suggest that Muslims beyond al-Qaeda are obligated to give bay’a to Mullah ‘Umar, as Bin Laden’s words do seem to suggest.

Shinqiti’s fatwa

It is not only the Bin Laden video and al-Qaeda newsletter that have pro-Islamic State jihadis in an uproar. On July 18, the day before the newsletter was released, the influential jihadi ideologue Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti released a fatwa disputing the Islamic State’s right to the caliphate and arguing that, in principle, it belongs to Mullah ‘Umar. Shinqiti, who is presumably Mauritanian but otherwise anonymous, is a well-known jihadi authority online, previously affiliated with the Shari’a Council of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s website.

What has made his fatwa so controversial is that he has been one of the Islamic State’s strongest ideological proponents. Three of his essays (see here, here, and here) have been widely promoted by pro-Islamic State media outlets. In them Shinqiti argues that the Islamic State is possessed of a “general bay’a” (bay’a ‘amma) and that all Muslim militant groups in its vicinity are therefore obligated to give bay’a to its leader. Accordingly, he has vehemently attacked Jabhat al-Nusra and all those arguing on its behalf, such as al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini, who claim that the Islamic State has only a “war bay’a” (bay’at harb) like any other group fighting jihad.

His latest work, entitled “The Caliphate Announcement in the Balance of the Shari’a,” appears to represent a reversal of his position. Here Shinqiti argues that the Islamic State’s announcement does not have the interests of the Muslim community in mind, aimed as it is at settling a score with Jabhat al-Nusra, a ploy that will only deepen the rivalry between the two groups. He furthermore criticizes the Islamic State for failing to consult with the Taliban’s Mullah ‘Umar in making its declaration. This failure is particularly negligent since, according to Shinqiti, the Taliban leader has been the Islamic world’s caliph since 1996, when he was given bay’a in Afghanistan. Shinqiti holds that his caliphate has obtained since then, at least in theory if not in practice, and whether Mullah ‘Umar has claimed the title for himself or not. This is because, in his thinking, the shari’a does not strictly speaking distinguish between amir and caliph. Therefore the first Muslim leader to be given bay’a ipso facto becomes caliph, with priority claim to the title. Like Bin Laden, Shinqiti also counters the charge that Mullah ‘Umar is disqualified on grounds of not descending from Quraysh, drawing on the same legal precedent.

Some jihadis have disputed the authenticity of Shinqiti’s latest fatwa, but they are almost certainly in error. In May 2013, in a fatwa for al-Maqdisi’s Shari’a Council, Shinqiti actually reached the same conclusion: that Mullah ‘Umar is the “commander of the believers” into whose bay’a “all Muslims must enter.” The only difference was that he did not explicitly call him “caliph.”

Defending Baghdadi

Shinqiti’s fatwa and al-Qaeda’s recent moves have inspired a rash of refutations from the pro-Islamic State jihadi community. The first of these, by a certain Abu Maysara al-Shami, quotes numerous statements of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders explicitly rejecting the idea that Mullah ‘Umar is caliph.

In a 2008 forum, for example, now-al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was asked the same question posed to Bin Laden above: “Is Mullah ‘Umar the commander of all believers, or is he [merely] the amir of an Islamic emirate in the land of Khurasan?” Zawahiri responds: “Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar (may God protect him) is the amir of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and whoever joins it, Shaykh Osama bin Laden (may God protect him) being one of his soldiers. As for the commander of the believers across the world, this is the leader of the caliphal state that we, along with every faithful Muslim, are striving to restore, God willing.” Here Zawahiri clearly denies that all Muslims must give bay’a to Mullah ‘Umar, the global commander of the believers having as yet not emerged.

The statements from Mullah ‘Umar himself likewise show the Taliban to have a restricted political vision. He is quoted as saying that “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has strategic and political objectives related to Afghanistan only…as it wants to establish good relations with all the world’s countries in the spirit of mutual respect.” Indeed, as Shami notes, jihadi scholars have been extremely critical of Mullah ‘Umar for seeking normal relations with the international community, as in its holding a seat at the United Nations.

The several refutations of Shinqiti’s fatwa (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) give even more reasons why the Taliban leader cannot possibly be caliph. In addition to criticizing Mullah ‘Umar for participating in the international community, they dwell on the following points: the caliph cannot exist only in theory but must enjoy real political power; the terms of his bay’a as caliph must be clearly understood by all concerned (“How can Mullah ‘Umar be caliph and no one has known this until now?”); the caliph has to be from Quraysh, as is Baghdadi but not Mullah ‘Umar; and the caliph must espouse proper salafi theology as jihadis do, not the Maturidism of the Taliban.

Fostering ambiguity

In assessing the motives of al-Qaeda’s recent recasting of Mullah ‘Umar, one anonymous jihadi writer pointed to the insight of the 14th-century North African Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun, who wrote: “The vanquished always want to imitate the victor in his distinctive characteristics, his dress, his occupation, and all his other conditions and customs.” The jihadi author hereby suggests that al-Qaeda, having been vanquished by the ascendant Islamic State, feels the need to imitate the victorious Caliphate’s strategy. There may indeed be some truth to this. The noted anti-Islamic State jihadi scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi recently stated, in an essay rejecting Baghdadi’s caliphate: “Had we been looking to win the favor of the people…we would have ridden the wave of the [Islamic] State.” The implication of his words is that the caliphate strategy is an increasingly popular one in the jihadi community, at least in al-Maqdisi’s Jordan.

Yet al-Qaeda clearly has more subtle aims than outright declaring a counter-caliphate. Its two statements, in the video and newsletter, indeed concentrate an unusual amount of attention on the Taliban leader, apparently intending to recast him in a more caliphal role. Yet al-Qaeda also seems intent on preserving a certain ambiguity in its embrace of Mullah ‘Umar, as if he is at once caliph and yet not quite so. This is just the kind of ambiguous role that the Islamic State’s Baghdadi used to play before declaring the caliphate last month. He was the “commander of the believers,” but not necessarily the commander of all believers. This ambiguous role, which had proven so popular in Baghdadi’s case, now appears the preserve of Mullah ‘Umar. Or at least the al-Qaeda leadership is testing it out.

With the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or Caliph Ibrahim, seeking to displace al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri as the leader of the global jihadi movement, a parallel displacement effort is taking place in the more recondite realm of jihadi ideology. The old guard of jihadi intellectuals—Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada al-Filastini, and Hani al-Siba‘i, among others—has come out unanimously against the Islamic State and its caliphal pretensions, denouncing the “organization” as hopelessly extremist and out of touch with reality. Their reproach has left a younger generation of pro-Islamic State jihadis no choice but to take up their mantle. One in particular, decrying his jihadi elders and their fierce opposition to his beloved caliphate, appears to be peerless in this effort. He is also the Islamic State’s most prominent and prolific resident scholar, based in Syria since at least February 2014.

Known previously to Jihadica readers by his pseudonym, Abu Humam al-Athari, this young ideologue from Bahrain now uses his given name, Turki al-Bin‘ali (@turky_albinali), or kunya, Abu Sufyan al-Sulami.

The Caliph’s cause

While few outside jihadi circles have probably heard of the young Turki al-Bin‘ali, the twenty-nine-year old Bahraini has played the role of ideological lodestar for the Islamic State since at least 2013. In April of last year, for instance, when Baghdadi announced the expansion of his emirate to Syria, it was Bin‘ali who penned the first monograph in support of his move. Entitled “Extend Your Hands to Give Bay‘a [loyalty] to Baghdadi,” it called on all Muslims in the vicinity of the Islamic State to pledge loyalty to its emir. Moreover, the work anticipated Baghdadi’s caliphate in no uncertain terms: “We ask God for the day to come when we will see our shaykh seated upon the throne of the caliphate!” In addition, Bin‘ali’s biography of Baghdadi, included in this tract, is the most frequently cited by jihadis; already in July of last year he had detailed the future caliph’s lineage going back to the Prophet Muhammad, establishing the crucial caliphal qualification of descent from the Prophet’s tribe.

More recently, at the end of April 2014, Bin‘ali authored another essay portending the Islamic State’s caliphate announcement of June 29, 2014 (Ramadan 1, 1435). In this work, on the permissibility of declaring the caliphate before the achievement of full political capability (al-tamkin al-kamil), Bin‘ali set forth the very legal arguments and scriptural evidence that the Islamic State’s official spokesman would use in his Ramadan announcement—most importantly, the gloss of Q. 24:55 by the Andalusian scholar Abu ‘Abdallah al-Qurtubi (d. 1275). Bin‘ali had identified the Islamic State as “the kernel of the anticipated, rightly guided caliphate.” “Doubtless,” he wrote, “the caliphate requires some measure of power, might, and political capability, and this is present in the Islamic State.” Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Bin‘ali’s former teacher, claims to have remarked upon hearing the title of his pupil’s work: “The announcement declaring their organization the caliphate must be imminent.”

From Bahrain, with jihad

According to a short biography written by one of his students, Turki ibn Mubarak al-Bin‘ali was born in September 1984 in Bahrain, where he began his religious education at an early age. At some point he moved to Dubai for higher education in Islamic studies, but was arrested and deported for jihadi inclinations. Thereafter he studied in Beirut and again in Bahrain. The biography mentions numerous other detentions, both within and without Bahrain, and the fact that the shaykh has been banned from the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar, and others.

The greater part of the work aims to inscribe Bin‘ali within the larger Salafi and smaller Jihadi-Salafi networks, detailing his studies with both quietest scholars like the Saudi ‘Abdallah ibn Jibrin (d. 2009) and Syrian Zuhayr al-Shawish (d. 2013) and jihadis like the Palestinian-Jordanian al-Maqdisi and Moroccan ‘Umar al-Haddushi. A whole other biography is dedicated solely to detailing these scholarly connections.

The most celebrated of these is by far Bin‘ali’s link with al-Maqdisi, the biggest-name jihadi scholar alive. While the details of their relationship are not given, the two scholars’ writings bear witness to what was once a profound mutual affinity and extensive collaboration. Bin‘ali has several books in defense and praise of al-Maqdisi, while the latter has returned the favor by certifying his student’s religious knowledge. Al-Maqdisi provided Bin‘ali with a general ijaza authorizing him to teach all of his works. As he wrote in 2009 in the introduction to one of Bin‘ali’s books, “I provided him with an ijaza to teach all of my books when I saw in him extraordinary passion and support for the religion, for God’s unity (tawhid), for jihad, and for the mujahidin. Such passion as this ought not to be met but with backing and support and encouragement. If a shaykh has the right to take pride in any of his students, I am proud of this beloved brother.” In terms of collaboration, when al-Maqdisi set up a Shari ‘a Council on his website in fall 2009, he appointed Bin‘ali one of its muftis. And according to Bin‘ali’s own testimony, al-Maqdisi made him his successor at the council’s helm, presumably when al-Maqdisi was in prison.

In most of his writings for al-Maqdisi’s website Bin‘ali has used the name Abu Human Bakr ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Athari. Only in April 2014 did he finally clarify the matter of his pseudonym, noting that he has used several others as well (including Abu Hudhayfa al-Bahrayni and Abu Hazm al-Salafi), all with the intention of hiding his true identity from the “tyrants and oppressors” of Arab states. As the Islamic State has gathered strength, Bin‘ali has dispensed with the aliases. According to press reports, he arrived in Syria in late February 2014, though he may have been living there even earlier.

In April Bin‘ali wrote that the Bahraini government was threatening to withdraw the citizenship of all Bahraini citizens fighting in Syria unless they return home within two weeks. His response was to compose a poem disparaging the very notion of citizenship, and vowing to stay on in the Islamic State. “Is it reasonable,” he asked, “that we would return, having arrived in the Sham of epic battles and warfare?… A land wherein the rule is Islam is my home; there is my dwelling and there do I belong.”

The Refuter

Bin‘ali’s signature public role for the Islamic State has been to refute its many enemies, his refutations being the most wide-ranging and most publicized of any Islamic State shar‘i (shari‘a specialist). The sharpening of the pen began in December of last year, just before the January 2014 uprising against the Islamic State in northern Syria led by fellow Islamist groups angry at its refusal to submit disputes to third-party arbitration. The accusation—which seems to have been fair—inspired a number of key Islamist and jihadi thinkers to incite their followers against the Islamic State, on the grounds that it refused to submit to God’s law. Bin‘ali, leading the charge against this allegation, argued that the Islamic State was a sovereign polity with courts and a legal system sufficient for such matters.

Between December 2013 and March 2014, Bin‘ali took aim at fellow jihadi ideologues like the Jordanian Iyad Qunaybi and Syrian Abu Basir al-Tartusi, at Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, and at more mainstream Islamists like the Saudi-based ‘Adnan al-‘Ar‘ur and a member of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham’s Shura Council. In the period April-June 2014 he put even larger targets in his crosshairs, refuting al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the two biggest-name jihadi ideologues, al-Maqdisi and the Palestinian Abu Qatada al-Filastini. It is his refutation of al-Maqdisi that is most significant.

Issued June 7 and entitled “My Former Shaykh,” this refutation is Bin‘ali’s last in a busy six-month period. It came in response to a long document published on al-Maqdisi’s website on May 26 detailing the many efforts of the senior shaykh to mediate between the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Maqdisi’s plan was to sponsor a reconciliation initiative that would involve a third-party arbiter, much like other initiatives being proposed by different shaykhs at the time. Bin‘ali acted as his intermediary with the Islamic State leadership, whom al-Maqdisi threatened with dire consequences should they fail to participate.

In the event, his message to the Islamic State went unheeded, and so the shaykh did as threatened. His statement on “the obligatory position” to be adopted toward the Islamic State was harsh, describing it as “deviating from the path of divine truth, being unjust to the mujahidin, following the road of extremism…refusing arbitration, declining reform, [and] disobeying the commands of its senior leaders and shaykhs.” This last comment concerns the Islamic State’s disputed status as a former al-Qaeda affiliate. In the document, al-Maqdisi follows al-Zawahiri in claiming that it was indeed an affiliate and thus obligated to obey its leaders’ commands.

What really piqued Bin‘ali was the insulting approach his former teacher had suddenly adopted toward him. Al-Maqdisi had included in this document long excerpts from emails between himself, Bin’ali, and the administrator of the website, and thrown occasional grammatical errors into Bin‘ali’s excerpted writing. In his discussion of the correspondence al-Maqdisi had furthermore referred disparagingly to his Bahraini pupil as the Islamic State’s “most vaunted mufti” or “most vaunted shar‘i.”

The content of Bin‘ali’s response is not worth examining in great detail. The main points of contention are the Islamic State’s stubbornness in refusing arbitration—which they both acknowledge—and its alleged insubordination against al-Qaeda—which they do not agree on. What is noteworthy is Bin‘ali’s authorship of such a refutation to begin with.

Rejecting seniority

In another statement from early May 2014, al-Maqdisi had written critically of younger jihadi shaykhs dismissing their elders, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Qatada al-Filastini. “Take heed of seniority,” he warned his juniors, accusing them of “wanting to stand upon the shoulders of our best and brightest and then discredit their intellects.” Indeed, just days before this statement was issued, Bin‘ali had written that age was a likely cause of Abu Qatada’s “confusion” surrounding the Islamic State.

Bin‘ali’s refutation of “my former shaykh” (shaykhi ‘l-asbaq) is in its very title a rejection of the idea of “seniority” (asbaqiyya). It represents the assured spirit of a younger generation of jihadis ready and willing to break with an established cadre of jihadi intellectuals and carve their own path. It also represents the assured spirit of Bin‘ali himself, who for years has disputed the notion that he is too young to be a religious authority. Visited in prison some six years ago in Bahrain by a Saudi religious official, who was shocked that a twenty-three-year old was issuing religious opinions, Bin‘ali retorted with an essay on the inadmissibility of age restrictions on such practice in Islam.

Whether Bin‘ali can succeed in leading this younger generation of pro-Islamic State jihadi thinkers is yet to be seen. For the moment he remains the closest thing that the caliphate has, after the caliph himself, to a big-name religious authority.

The Verdict of Abu Qatada al-Filastini

Posted: 26th June 2014 by Joas Wagemakers in Jordan, terrorism, Terrorism trials

Well, the moment has finally come: after years of legal wrangling in Britain and a lengthy trial in Jordan, Abu Qatada al-Filastini has heard his verdict against him at the State Security Court in Amman at last. Abu Qatada has been the subject of several publications in the past few years (see here, for example, and for context of his stay in “Londonistan”, see also here) and a new chapter of his life has presumably just begun, although we’ll have to wait till September to be sure. I have closely followed the case against him in Jordan, both through media reports and through having been present at his trial in Amman several times and this post is an account of that trial and the final verdict.

Deportation

Abu Qatada was obviously notorious as a scholar for North African radical groups long before he ever went to Jordan, but it was his deportation to that country that set in motion the trial that so many had waited for for so long. The reasons Abu Qatada was perceived as being such a nuisance to the British taxpayer was that he was not allowed (and allegedly even unable, because of back pains) to work because he had to stay inside for almost the entire day for security reasons, only being allowed outside with an ankle bracelet to make sure he didn’t get away. At the same time, however, he was made to live in a taxpayer-funded 800,000 pound home in London’s West End. I distinctly remember British tabloids writing about this at the time as a national disgrace, particularly given Abu Qatada’s views about Britain and its policies. The problem was, however, that there were fears that Abu Qatada might be tortured in Jordan and, as such, Britain could not legally send him back there. In the end, Abu Qatada, probably sick and tired of the whole procedure himself, agreed to make a deal with Britain and willingly go to Jordan. The deal entailed his receiving a fair trial and not having evidence extracted by means of torture used against him.

Once in Jordan, Abu Qatada was accused of two things, namely of having been a member of the Jordanian group Jama’at al-Islah wa-l-Tahaddi, which is said to have been involved in plans to commit terrorists attacks (including an attack against the American School in Amman), and for his alleged involvement in the so-called “Millennium Plot”, a plan to commit attacks against tourists celebrating the new millennium in Jordan. He was sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment) for the first charge and to 15 years in prison for the second in absentia in, respectively, 1999 and 2000, so long before he came back to Jordan last year. Since there had never been a real court case against him during which he had been able to defend himself, this was supposed to happen now.

Court case

As much trouble as the British government had to bring an end (at least as far as Britain was concerned) to the whole Abu Qatada saga, it was really just a prelude to what was to come during the actual court case in Jordan. Unlike in Britain, Abu Qatada had to spend his time in Jordan in gaol. Apart from being denied bail, which his lawyer Taysir Dhiyab protest against, the latter also claimed that Abu Qatada suffered from various other restrictions. He is said to have had only limited access to his family and had to wear the same prison clothes that others wore too. His lawyer argued that for Abu Qatada, being a religious man, this was against his beliefs. The whole episode of Abu Qatada’s clothing took on a slightly comical turn when the discussion focussed on whether or not he had to wear certain underpants, which apparently became subject to legal dispute too. Meanwhile, Abu Qatada’s son Qatada, who’s the spitting image of his father, started attracting attention, too.

On a more serious note, Abu Qatada’s lawyers protested against the fact that there was a military judge present during the trial, which he claimed violated the terms of the deal he had made with Britain. The court thereafter suspended two sessions for this reason and eventually decided to give Abu Qatada a civilian trial, supposedly in accordance with the Jordanian constitution. Other issues surrounding this case included hunger strikes by other Jihadi-Salafi prisoners, in which Abu Qatada is said to have participated to protest against the treatment prisoners were getting, the occasional delays in the court proceedings (including one requested by the defence to have documents in favour of Abu Qatada translated into Arabic) and the withdrawal of one of Abu Qatada’s lawyers and the search for another. At one point last month, there was even talk of trading Abu Qatada for the kidnapped Jordanian ambassador to Libya, but this never happened.

The court sessions themselves were quite chaotic too. Witness after witness was brought in to testify against Abu Qatada, but none of them actually did. Many of them gave long stories about themselves, which were subsequently recorded not by a stenographer but by a regular typist (after being repeated word for word by the judge). This meant not only that one heard every testimony twice, but it sometimes also led to the hilarious situation of the typist not understanding a certain word, with the judges occasionally all getting involved in a discussion of what exactly the witness had said.  More importantly, few (if any) of the witnesses actually touched upon the cases that Abu Qatada was being tried for. In fact, whenever the witnesses were asked whether they knew Abu Qatada personally, they invariably answered “no”. According to observers I talked to at the trial, the prosecution was apparently trying to build a very general case against terrorism and radical Muslims and tried to fit Abu Qatada in there somewhere.

The court sessions were seldom boring, however. It was interesting to see Abu Qatada getting involved in his case by shouting that the trial wasn’t fair, that it violated the terms of the British-Jordanian agreement about him and that, as such, he didn’t recognise the court. His lawyer would often try to calm him down, realising that such talk – justified or not – would hardly do his case any good. Most interesting to me personally, however, were the breaks in between the two halves of every session, when journalists would flock to the large cage that Abu Qatada had to sit in and write down every word he said about the trial and particularly the situation in Syria. As Cole Bunzel has written (see here), Abu Qatada not only wrote about this subject from prison, but also frequently used his day in court as a pulpit from which to denounce ISIS, as other radical scholars have done too.

The verdict

The actual verdict today, which I attended, was preceded by a lengthy point-by-point account of the whole history of the case by the main judge at the trial. He told so much about the different people involved, the books that Abu Qatada had written and everything else, that it seemed as if he was building up to a “guilty” verdict. As it turned out, however, Abu Qatada was acquitted of the case revolving around the Jama’at al-Islah wa-l-Tahaddi and the verdict on the Millennium Plot will be given in September. This was not completely satisfactory for the defence, perhaps, but Abu Qatada’s family were overjoyed and the man himself had a distinct grin on his face too.

The response of the journalists and other people present at the case was predictable: all of them immediately wanted to talk to Abu Qatada and there was quite a lot of chaos for a few minutes. After a short while, however, all of us were led out of the court room and one of Abu Qatada’s lawyers stated to the press that he was quite happy with, as he put it, the just decision that had been taken by the court and he hoped for similar justice in September, when the verdict for the second case is expected. So Abu Qatada remained in prison for the moment, but he may have something to look forward to for now.

Three new books

Posted: 18th June 2014 by Joas Wagemakers in Uncategorized, Western Analysts, Western books

As readers of Jihadica know quite well, jihad – the core subject of this weblog – is quite different from Salafism and even from terrorism, although they are, sadly, all too often equated. This does not mean, however, that studies on any of these three subjects may not benefit students of one of the others. With this is mind, Jihadica readers may be interested to know that three books that I have personally been involved in have recently been published. Two of them deal with Salafism and one with terrorism.

Utopian ideals

The first of these books was published in Dutch – sorry about that, but there are bound to be some Dutch readers among you – and was written by two of my colleagues at Radboud University Nijmegen (the anthropologist Martijn de Koning and the political scientist Carmen Becker) and myself. The book is called Salafisme: Utopische idealen in een weerbarstige praktijk (“Salafism: Utopian Ideals in a Stubborn Reality”) and was published by Parthenon. The book contextualizes Salafism within discussions on fundamentalism and radicalization, but really tries to show that Salafism is first and foremost a religious trend within Sunni Islam, not the producer of terrorists that some think it is. The book deals with the history of Salafism, its ideology, its presence in the Middle East and Europe, Salafi activities and ritual practices on the internet and Salafism in the Netherlands. The chapters on ideology, the Middle East and the Netherlands obviously also deal with the radical ideas and the violent actions of Jihadi-Salafis, how these developed and how these have been influenced by the Arab Spring.

True Islam

The second book (this one in German) that I would like to draw your attention to was edited by Behnam T. Said and Hazim Fouad – both German scholars of Islam – and is entitled Salafismus: Auf der Suche nach dem wahren Islam (“Salafism: In Search of True Islam”). It was published by Herder and contains – apart from my own chapter on the classification of Salafism and its relation with al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal) – chapters on many different aspects of Salafism, including a discussion on Salafism as a distinct category, its creed, Salafism as a school of law and as a political ideology, its role in several Muslim countries (Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) as well as special attention for Europe in general and Germany in particular. Chapters that Jihadica readers may be extra interested in are those written by Behnam T. Said on Salafism and political violence, the chapter by Aaron Y. Zelin on Jihadi-Salafis in Libya and Tunisia and the one on the concept of ghuraba’ (strangers) by Benno Köpfer.

Terrorist Leaders

Finally, the third book – don’t worry, this one’s in English! – was edited by Kacper Rekawek and Marko Milosevic, two experts on terrorism from, respectively, Poland and Serbia, and is entitled Perseverance of Terrorism: Focus on Leaders. It was published by IOS Press and, as the title suggests, focuses on leadership in terrorist movements. Although my chapter is a bit of an outlier since it focuses on religious authority among leaders in Jordanian quietist Salafi and Jihadi-Salafi networks and does not deal with terrorism at all, the other chapters cover many different aspects of terrorism, including definitional and strategic issues, terrorist links with crime, the question of eliminating terrorist leaders and case studies of movements in Macedonia and the Czech Republic. Chapters touching on or explicitly dealing with jihad in relation to terrorism are Ekaterina Stepanova’s study on “lone wolves” and leaderless jihad, Dario Cristiani’s chapter on the Sahelisation and hybridisation of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrib, Ryszard M. Machnikowski’s research on terrorism in the AfPak region and Marko Babić’s chapter on Islamist radicalisation in the Western Balkans.

Although these three books are quite different in style and focus – particularly the last book, of course – I’m sure that Jihadica readers will find much of interest in all three. I’m not aware of any plans for translations of the first two books, but I can tell you that another interesting book on Salafism in English will be published later this year or next year. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter (@JoasWagemakers), you will certainly hear about this. If not, watch this space…

As we outlined in a brief analysis in our first post, Ali Fisher and I will head into a more deeper analysis of our findings regarding the release of “The Clanging of the Swords, part 4″. In the next posting we will discuss and analyse the most important accounts that we will introduce in this part.

We do stress, however, that the reader should keep in mind that one of the key phenoma of jihadi Twitter activism in Syria is that most users engaged online are using mainly mobile platforms. This accounts for people inside Syria as much as outside – the preferred device to interact and Tweets are devices running Android  followed by iPhone, as we had detailed in this graph in the last post. This shows that word of the video on YouTube, and archive.org was spread using a range of different digital technologies, but mainly mobile devices.

The video was also reflected upon on by sympathizers on tumblr, with users in one case posting a picture of the title of the video on a big flat screen while holding a Dutch labelled pop corn bag in front of the camera. This affirms the users claim to be “just one of your beloved brothers from The Netherlands.” Tumblr has become another social media outlet used by Jihadists in the past years. A pioneer short study on this phenomena - “Tumbling along the straight path” – was published by Rüdiger Lohlker, available here.

The effect of jihadi videos in the past years, due to their outreach and the popularity showcasing real men who act and stand up against frames of injustice is thus further highlighted – with the audience trying to actively particpate by the very least of expressing sympathy and spreading the word of the video by all of their means possible – and thus they consider themselves as a media-Mujahid. This is a role model not only sanctioned by senior jihadist ideologues, but also highly approved since the death of bin Laden.

Most Important Users

The information sharing about the video created a network of 6,428 Twitter users and 19,601 edges, some users were mentioned frequently. The graph below shows the frequency prominent users were mentioned.

To extend the analysis of prominent members of the network we created a representation of the network sharing the video via Twitter. It contains 6,428 Twitter users and 19,601 edges. The network had an average path length of 5.7 and a diameter of 15.

 

From the visual representation it is evident that there are a number of different users that were prominent in different sections of the network. Rather than the majority of the network orbiting one of a few influential accounts, in a series of hub and spoke structures, this network has multiple interconnected hubs through which information flows in multiple directions. This creates a level or redundancy providing the network with a degree of resilience that allows information to continue to flow in the event that some Twitter accounts may be suspended. This is because the interconnected hubs provide a level of redundancy so there are a number of other pathways through which information can flow. As Paul Baran’s calculations showed, distributed communications systems need a relatively low level of redundancy for the majority of the network to maintain communication in the event of major network disruption.

Viewing the network map in greater detail can show which users communicated with each other, which reached the same communities, and which were a bridge to specific communities. For example, in the network representation nodes of the same colour are within the same interconnected community. This means they are more likely to interact with other members of that community than the rest of the network. These can be assessed in greater detail in the online version where connections between specific nodes can be examined.

Through a refinement of the network image, to show only those users who have at least one mutual connection – meaning they have mentioned someone who has also mentioned them, a core group of users becomes visible.

This network of mutual connections contains 165 Twitter accounts (2.5% of the total network) including all of the top twenty five most mentioned users and on average a node in this core group has slightly more than five connections to other accounts in this group. This means the network has a density of 0.031 – meaning 3% of all possible connections exist. This is sufficient to provide the network with a level of resilience.

Resilience in this context is shown by impact on the network of losing important nodes, in the form of account suspensions.

With the loss of the five most connected nodes (ranked by times mentioned by others) every remaining node would still be connected to this network, with only a slight reduction in graph density to 0.027.  Similarly, the removal of the five most important nodes (ranked by Pagerank) leaves the graph density unchanged at 0.031 and again, every remaining node would still be connected to the network.  This means that the current occasional account suspensions are unlikely to have any practical impact on the ability of users to share information.

The identification of key actors in the network can provide greater insight into the way information travelled. For example, this can differentiate between those users that are important for reaching specific communities, from those users that are part of the core of the network. This analysis is important as not all users are influential in the same way. For example some will be influential within the core of the network while others are important as they form a bridge to wider communities.

Position on the scatter plot below is based on two network metrics pagerank and betweenness. Size is the number of times the account was retweeted or mentioned. Nodes with the same colour are in the same statistical community. If you are viewing the online version of this graph, mouse over dots to show each label, controls in the bottom left corner allow the user to zoom in on specific area of the chart.

When viewing the chart:

• Users in the bottom left of the graph tend to have no particular role and can be thought of as general users, although they may have high value to an often small and very specific group.

• Those in the top left of the graph tend to be in the core (or one of the cores) of the network. This indicates they are often those most invested in the network and have access to privileged information.

• Those in the bottom right of the graph fulfil the role of bridging between the core content producers and a specific community. The value of this role often comes from tailoring information to a specific ‘audience’ and as such these users are more valuable to that group but less important to everyone else.

• Users in the top right are rare. They have a dual function, as they have the same trusted status as those in the top left of the graph. They also fulfil the same ‘bridge’ role as users in the bottom right of the graph, reaching areas of the network which others do not.

In the case of the network disseminating information about the release Sas 4 the pagerank scores are particularly low which backs the earlier visual observation that the network is dispersed and has multiple interconnected hubs. The graph shows that @Minbar_s,  @Aahat9, and @kwatem0 were important conduits for the spread of information to communities that other accounts could not reach. Conversely, @furkan_om and @MoTweetry were hubs which were a core part of the information sharing about this video. Most importantly, @ISIS_1111 was the single node that was able to fulfil both core and bridging functions simultaneously, with other accounts such as @AberatAlkarat_5 fulfilling a similar role to a lesser degree.

In addition to the roles users played in the network, the time at which they were influential is also an important aspect of the analysis. This is known as their engagement profile, the extent to which other twitter users engaged with them over a given time period.

Taking the top five most mentioned users in the network the engagement profiles shows that there were two periods of particularly intense activity. It also shows that different accounts were prominent at different times. For example, @wa3tasimu and @turky_albinali were prominent in the first peak but not the second, while @AL3gneg and @Minbar_S were prominent during the second peak.

 

This analysis demonstrates the need for counter-strategies to be agile as accounts become important at different times during the dissemination of content. In addition, it provides additional context to the key actor graph as @Minbar_s was an important conduit for information to a particular community, and the engagement profile shows that this role was likely to have been fulfilled later in period in which the video was being actively shared.

 

Interim Conclusions

 ·      Jihadist groups have become increasingly sophisticated in their use of social media and mobile technologies. 

·       The release of 4  صليل الصوارم was announced through a resilient and dispersed network. This network has sufficient interconnection and redundancy to continue to operate indefinitely in spite of the current level of account suspensions.

o   On each platform there are clusters of mutually reinforcing accounts which create a level of resilience that allows jihadists to have a persistent presence on the platform.

·       The release of the 4 صليل الصوارم video highlights the multiplatform zeitgeist which has become a feature of the Jihadist social media phenomenon.

o   Accounts on one social media platform are used to reinforce the content on other social media platforms, creating mutually reinforcing connections across platforms. This means users could turn to Facebook or Google+ if a specific Twitter account is suspended to locate the replacement Twitter account. In reality most jihadists that take the propagation element of their activity seriously have back-up accounts already set up with users following their primary account directed to also follow the back-up in case of an account suspension. 

·       The release of the video on a Saturday may have been a deliberate strategy to pick the day when those employed to challenge or disrupt the propagation of information about the video were least likely to be available. 

This is a network based challenge – identifying groups rather than individual accounts.

The release of the video Salil al-sawarim (SaS) by ISIS’s media department al-Furqan over the weekend demonstrated the sophistication of the jihadist use of social media to disseminate their video content. Al-Furqan’s sister department, al-I’tasimu had announced the release of the fourth instalment of Sas on Twitter on Saturday noon, March 17, 2014. A few hours later, it was published via al-I’tasimu’s high-profile Twitter account and the tier-one jihadist forums. The first three Salil al-sawarim videos had been very popular, high quality edited and showed a mix of extreme obscene violence and ideology at play.

This is the first part of the brief glimpse into the data collected on Twitter revolving around the  #صليل_الصوارم_الرابع Ali Fisher and Nico Prucha explore the data networks and outline in brief terms the ideological bearings at play. For a second post we will provide the readers with a more in depth analysis, outlining the context of this video in the jihadist virtual as well as the greater ideological cluster at play.

In the first twenty four hours after Sas (“The Clanging of the Swords”) was posted on YouTube the was viewed 56,998 times with an average user watching a little over 17 minutes of the hour long film. This means that collectively YouTube users spent the equivalent of 686 days watching this one video. It has subsequently been reposted a number of times on YouTube, and was published on other file sharing sites such as archive.org and links for download were broadcast via justpaste.it. It was published in different sizes and formats. A high-definition format, about one gigabyte in size, carries death and mayhem to the home and portable cinemas worldwide.

As of writing this post, the YouTube video has been viewed 124,704 times with 4,204 likes and 491 dislikes.

Delivering high levels of views in the first day after publication takes coordination across a range of social media channels. This briefing analyses that spread of information, and shows:

  • The volume of tweets about the video release.
  • An estimate of the size of the network which shared word of the video release.
  • The users most frequently mentioned in connection with the video.
  • The key actors in the Twitter network that allowed word of the video release to spread rapidly.
  • The platforms that users utilised to tweet.
  • The prominent languages used to spread word of the video release.

 

This shows:

  • Jihadist groups have become increasingly sophisticated in their use of social media and mobile technologies.
  • The release of the video on a Saturday may have been a deliberate strategy to pick the day when those employed to challenge or disrupt the propagation of information about the video were least likely to be available.
  • Information is shared through a resilient and dispersed network. This network has sufficient interconnection and redundancy to continue to operate despite the current level of account suspensions.

The video

In short the approximate one-hour long video is a mix of implementing ideological principles and executing framed enemies. The film starts with several ISIS Mujahideen who tear up their Kosovar passports and burn these. A ring leader outlines the principles of the true Islamic state citizenry in fluent Arabic – an element that was just recently broadcast in two al-Furqan videos where several international fighters tore up their passports to declare their identity and belonging to the Islamic State and not to some vassal or Crusader state entity. The opening of the video enforces the connection of Syria and Iraq: ISIS armed car convoys parading in cities such as Homs, Raqqa, switching to Fallujah where a drone, possibly an Parrot AR.Drone iPad controlled remote aircraft, is flown above the convoy, proving the audience with a 360 angle view of the city and the jihadi boots on the ground.

All operations in the video are allegedly in Iraq, in the notorious al-Anbar province, including the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah where the most severe attacks against the U.S. forces at the time occurred. Iraqi governmental officials are sought out at fake checkpoints and executed, off-duty soldiers are hunted down on the streets and killed for reasons varying from being an apostate of Sunni Islam to being a Shiite or of collaborating with the U.S. funded Sunni Sahwa councils at the time. ISIS, by these specific search-and-destroy missions claims to have insider information and conveys to the audience that all assassination operations are meticulously planned and carried out. Part of these cleansing operations include ISIS units searching the private houses of Iraqi governmental soldiers and officers, who often are visibly confused as ISIS dresses up just like legitimate governmental units. The surprised individuals are then tied up and shot, or beheaded, guilty based on TV-reports and uniforms etc. found in their house – a typical modus operandi often seen in this type of video.

Other parts of the video show how the element of repentance (tawba) is enforced on the local Sunni population of al-Anbar. This is a lesson learned that is already at play in Syria: why alienate the local Sunni people when they can be coerced into inclusion, forcing them to repent their former affiliation or sympathies with the local governments. ISIS gathered what appears to be several hundred men to mosques where preachers declare the Mujahideen are fighting for the Sunni people, demanding that those present dissociate themselves from worldly or Shiite rule etc. ISIS seeks to recruit and integrate by killing off individuals framed as responsible for grievances while empowering the ‘former victims’ by granting them forgiveness and a place among them.

 

Distribution

Word of the video release spread via Twitter with two distinct peaks in Tweeting. One peak occurred on the day of release (17th May) and a second during the following day (18th May).

Between the 17th May and 8am on the 19th May we observed a total of 32,313 tweets carrying the name of the video. There was an average of 807.825 tweets per hour, the median being 736.5.

Tweets contained a range of #tags in addition to the title of the video, the most common of which are shown below.

The first hash tag on the left is the Arabic reference to Salil_al-sawarim_four, followed by The_Islamic_State_in_Iraq_and al-Sham, and the al-Furqan Media department.

However, while all the prominent tags are in Arabic, not all the tweets were in Arabic. This demonstrates the reach of the video and shows that some multilingual users were proactively translating content allowing users to access the information in a range of languages.

Users were also using a range of different technologies through which to tweet but mobile technologies and particularly phones are dominant. The most common ways users tweeted about the video was an app on an Android mobile phone, (Twitter for Android) followed by an iPhone app, (Twitter for iPhone). The web and tablets are also important but to a lesser extent.

As the graph shows, word of the video on YouTube, and archive.org was spread using a range of different digital technologies, including mobile phones, desktop (web), and via other social media including Facebook. This last case emphasises the importance of understanding the jihadist social media phenomenon as a cross platform zeitgeist, as users were using Facebook to tweet about a video posted on YouTube.

Following the recent airstrikes carried out against a convoy targeting al-Qaeda fighters in remote training camps in southern Yemen, Ali Fisher and Nico Prucha examine  how the tales of drone strikes and civilian suffering claimed to be the result have become a frequent narrative for jihadi statements, videos and on forums. Analyzing the way word of the strikes and announcements of the martyrs spread via Twitter we find that jihadist groups are using the impact of drone strikes to strengthen the cohesion of remaining fighters, celebrate the martyrs, and attempt to derive sympathy from a wider audience.

While the conversation, denoted by the Arabic hash tag for “martyrs of the American strike in Yemen” #شهداء_القصف_الأمريكي_باليمن)) was short-lived and quickly reached its peak when the majority of the martyrs had been announced. However, we also find that while a division between pro-ISIS and pro-AQ users can be identified, there is a shared positive opinion on AQAP and drone strikes in general, independent of the leaning of individual accounts towards ISIS or AQ Central.

Independent of the hash tag, AQAP’s media department issued two responses to the drone strikes end of April. The first response is a direct reply to the statements made by the Yemeni President Hadi, the other one is a commentary of AQAP commander Hamza al-Zinjibari; both documents were quickly translated into English and dispatched via Twitter and the ‘old media’ jihadi forums (here, here).

 

The Impact of Drone Strikes on Physical Networks – Limiting Online Jihadism?

The deaths of high ranking ideologues and leaders by missiles fired from unmanned aerial vehicles, that have in the past years become the operational backbone of the “war on terror”, have risen and seem to be the operational weapon of choice by military planners. With ideologues and media-valued activists such as U.S. citizens Anwar al-Awlaqi and his media operator Samir Khan killed in Yemen in 2011, or the targeted killing of the Libyans ‘Attiyatullah and Abu Yahya in 2012 in Pakistan only highlight prominent drone operations recently. Nevertheless, the extrajudicial killing of al-Awlaqi and Khan did not kill off the English jihadi magazine Inspire that had published a new edition in May 2012 under the title “winning on the ground.” This ninth edition (Winter 1433 / 2012) addressed its readers on the cover page, asking

“does the assassination of senior jihadi figures have any significance in validating Obama’s claims? After a decade of ferocious war, who is more entitled to security?”

It may be asserted that the U.S. operated drone program has similar affects on local populations as in Pakistan, although the degree differs from country to country. According to The Long War Journal, 354 drone strikes had taken place inside Pakistan and 95 bombing runs in Yemen. The impact of frequent or more regularly occurring drone strikes on the people on the ground is devastating and generates new grievances with innocents being either mistaken for legitimate targets or are nevertheless considered as acceptable collateral damage. A study on the impact of drone strikes in Pakistan is available here. The long-term side affects of drone warfare are open for debate, however, the tales of drone strikes and civilian suffering as a result of missile strikes have become a frequent narrative for jihadi videos and forums and are also addressed by scholars and journalists alike.

Killed civilians, mainly children, are pictured in jihadist propaganda material with the vow for revenge. The Shumukh al-Islam Forum in early May 2014 responded to the continuing drone activity inside Yemen that had recently killed a number of AQAP operatives. The administration of the forum via its media “workshop” (warsha) issued a forum thread showing several propaganda pictures and a video showing scores of killed people allegedly the result of drone strikes in Yemen. The “official account of warsha shumukh al-Islam for incitement” of the Shumukh al-Islam forum on Twitter is @warshshomokh1, which promoted both pictures and the video. The pictures in the forum thread relate the death of children to calls for revenge on a wider scale; other pictures visualized the close relationship of the U.S. and Yemeni government, in extremist reasoning defined as ‘one’ enemy, committed to the “war on Islam” likewise.

 

Drone Strikes in Yemen and the Response on Twitter

The posting of SSI in early May was the direct response to a drone strike that had killed about 40 AQAP members on April 21, 2014, as the New York Times reports. Shortly afterwards, on April 24, 2014, jihadi-linked accounts on Twitter started posting pictures and names of the alleged slain AQAP fighters. By using the hash tag #شهداء_القصف_الأمريكي_باليمن

All in all about 200 Tweets were issued from April 24 to April 27; all Tweets are in Arabic. The hash tag translated to “the martyrs of the American strike on Yemen.”

The distinctive feature of this Twitter network analysis is set on two key findings:

  1. a division between pro-ISIS and pro-AQ can be identified. The main underlining finding, however, is the common relation to the U.S. drone strikes in Yemen against AQAP, whereas most pro-ISIS media activists and followers nevertheless have high, if not higher, sympathies for AQAP. There is a shared opinion on AQAP and drone strikes, independent of the leaning of individual accounts towards ISIS or AQ Central.
  2. The hash tag referring to the drone strike was short-lived and quickly reached its peak when the majority of the martyrs had been announced on Twitter.

Four major hubs can be identified within this network on Twitter, with the respective accounts @_Glibeb, @AbuUsamh, @Adnan_Alawlaqi, and @al_khansaa2 as the most influential. These four major nodes are connected to each other by shared followers, who (re-) tweeted using the hash tag and by addressing accounts directly. Some of the interlinking accounts are further analyzed below.

 

Networking about 200 Tweets relating to the U.S. drone strike in Yemen the fatter the arrow the more often the source mentions the addressed account (click to enlarge and zoom in)

The biggest node in this network analysis is @Adnan_Alawlaqi, some of his followers are connected to the other three major nodes. By choosing “Alawlaqi”, the account claims a direct relationship to the Yemeni tribe and to the U.S.-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi who had been killed in a drone strike in 2011. For the avatar of this account Osma bin Laden has been chosen, the background picture shows “the martyr: Abu ‘l-Ghayth al-Shabwani”, a Yemeni AQAP fighter killed in a drone strike. For his web interface Twitter account, he has chosen the cover of the book “Why I Chose al-Qa’ida” which has been written by Abu Mus’ab, an AQAP affiliate who claimed being a member of al-Awlaq tribe. According to the book, Abu Mus’ab al-Awlaqi “was martyred in an American strike on Wadi Rafd in the Shabwa Province” in 2009. His full name is given as Muhammad ‘Umayr al-Kalawi al-‘Awlaqi. The foreword of the book has been written by AQAP chief Abu Basir (Nasir al-Wuhayshi), which evidently was finished shortly before the death of Abu Mus’ab. The about 80-page long book outlines in simple words and reasoning the motivation to have joined al-Qa’ida and serves as a guide to inspire and indoctrinate a non-Arabic audience. The English-language magazine Inspire has a regular section entitled “Why did I Choose Al Qaeda” where selected parts of the book are made available in English.

The most mentioned users in this data-set highlights the impact and importance of the major nodes, with @Adnan_Alawlaqi ranging at the top. @Qaadayaalumaa1 has been omitted in this analysis, although rank 4, it is not connected to the above network analysis. Instead, it is an independent sub-network that uses the same hash tag and shares similar content.

 A not connected network sharing same content on Twitter

 @Adnan_Alawlaqi has a little over 4,000 followers and issued more than 2,000 Tweets as of May 12, 2014. The account is primarily affiliated with “the organization of al-Qa’ida on the Arab Peninsula” and pictures from within Yemen and of drones are frequently published. It seems to be following the strict AQ conduct and has little to none connection to any ISIS related material.

Another major node in the network is @abuUsamh, as seen on the bottom right. According to his online profile, this is the account of Abu Usama al-Abini. His profile further states his clear favor of ISIS, hoping that

“the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham will remain and expand, by the will of God, #the lion cubs of jihad (#شبل_الجهاد) // my backup account is @abuusamh1.”

He refers to the “soldiers of Yemen” (jund al-Yemen) and lists his YouTube channel “greebe1.” His focus is also set on Yemen, but he approves and idealizes ISIS and their war in Syria as the future and considers them as an avant-garde that will soon arrive in Yemen as well. He has about 2,300 followers and issued 1,300 Tweets as of May 12, 2014.

@abuUsamh posted pictures of alleged victims of the April drone strike and provides further information. The name of the deceased seen here is given as “the Mujahid: Abu Tamim al-Qayfi (…) killed in the despicable American [missile] strike. Look at his smile!”

@abuUsamh is connected to @Adnan_Alawlaqi by three accounts, two of which also interlink to @_Glibeb. @Jeefsharp and @911Fahd interlink these two major nodes.

@_Glibeb refers to Jilbib al-Sharruri and has about 2,500 followers and issued close to 9,000 Tweets as of May 12, 2014. He too has a greater leaning towards ISIS and re-tweets and disseminates videos published by ISIS’s media channel al-Furqan:

“Special report on the civil service work by the Islamic State in Aleppo before ISIS was betrayed; preparing: Flour and bread – health care – electricity – overall services.” Two links are set in the Tweet, the first leads to YouTube where a sequence of the video Services provided for by the State of the ISIS series Rasa’il min ard al-malahem, part 14, is shown. The second link extends the civil aspect of ISIS by directing to a Facebook group.

Like most other Twitter accounts linked to this hash tag, @_Glibeb posts pictures of male victims of the airstrike with the impression that they indeed had been AQAP members. He may be of Yemini origin and possibly related to some of the deceased by tribal relations. The name “al-Sharruri” pops up frequently in Yemen and has also come to use among ISIS members in Syria. Abu Jandal al-Sharruri appeared in a video a while ago and the picture used to commemorate him on Twitter is a screen grab thereof.

The fourth most important node in this mini-network of approximately 200 Tweets is an account the reader of our work may already be acquainted with: @al_khansaa2. This account in this network is only linked via the account @aboyahay88 to the main node of @Adnan_Alawlaqi. The main objective, as for the others, is to document the martyrs of the drone strike and provide affirmative comments on pictures of killed AQAP members. All pictures issued within this particular hash tag are male, some are flashing weapons, and others are a screen grab from a jihadi video. One of the pictures shared by @al_khansaa2 is a typical Yemeni dressed man flashing his janbiyya ­ a specific type of dagger with a short curved blade that is worn on a belt. This is a sign of male hood and pride and very common on the streets in Yemen.

@aboyahay88, the account linking @al_khansaa2 to @Adnan_Alawlaqi also connects to two other nodes, @alabjani_21 and @Mooneer55. @aboyahay88, whose screen name is the sincere (الصديق) referring to Abu Bakr further states on his profile “We belong to God and to Him we shall return”, taken out of the Qur’an (2:156). This part of the Qur’an is often cited at funerals and generally expressed to sympathize with the deceased, emphasizing the conviction in the existence of the afterlife. Apart from this @aboyahay88 is a low-key and low profile node with only 438 followers and over 4,000 Tweets as of May 12, 2014. The majority of his shared pictures are Yemen related with some pictures apparently taken by a cell-phone, perhaps implying he has taken these himself. Other pictures are from ISIS accounts on Twitter. His Twitter account is linked to the open Facebook group al-Ta’ifa al-Mansura that has eleven members but no actions or shared material whatsoever. All eleven members are part of the jihadist cluster network and show related iconography.

@alabjani_21 is one of the more prolific Twitter accounts in this network, although not the biggest node in this particular network analysis. He has over 9,000 followers and Tweeted close to 17,000 times as of May 12, 2014. The chosen avatar is Ayman al-Zawahiri with both of hands held up towards the viewer – in a praying fashion, although it is clearly a screenshot of one of al-Zawahiri’s sermons televised by as-Sahab. @Mooneer55 in turn only has 787 followers but Tweet an impressive 11,700 times as of May 12, 2014. This account clearly aligns itself to ISIS with an avatar showing Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi and referencing “the book leading the right way” (kitab yahdi) and the “sword that assists” (sayyf yansur), as detailed in the chapter The ‘Arab Spring’ as a Renaissance for AQ Affiliates in a Historical Perspective.

Of greater interest are the two accounts linking the three nodes of @Adnan_Alawlaqi, @_Glibeb, @abuUsamh, which are:

@JeefSharp: This account is also in clear association to ISIS, stating in his profile,

“I pledge allegiance to the amir al-mu’mineen Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”

He has a meager 185 followers and around 3,500 Tweets. The majority of these are retweets of ISIS related accounts and material, that is in parts also anti-Muslim Brotherhood who demand action instead of passive protests.

And @911Fahd: This account showcases the killed leader of the TTP, Hakim Allah Mehsud with an ISIS related avatar. He has a little over 1,000 followers and Tweeted an incredible 66,454 times as of May 12, 2014. The majority of his shared pictures are related to Iraq and ISIS but also include a picture of the Gaza-based Jund Allah and their leader Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisis – all of whom had been wiped out by their rival HAMAS in 2008. Like the above account, @911Fahd mainly retweets and is interlinked to high profile users such as @al_khansaa2 or @Adnan_Alawlaqi.

 

Conclusion

The analysis of this mini-dataset has shown that jihadist groups are framing the impact of drone strikes to strengthen the remaining fighters, celebrate the martyrs, and attempt to derive sympathy from a wider audience.
Drone strikes are a unifying issue, while a division between pro-ISIS and pro-AQ users is visible in terms of who they interact with, we did not find the same division in the content of 200 tweets which used this specific hash tag. On this specific issue, jihadist opinion appears to have been independent from individual allegiance to or sympathy for AQ or ISIS. While some pro-ISIS users openly wish for the emergence the Islamic State as a part of ISIS in Yemen, the pro-AQ accounts stuck to what al-Zawahiri had called for, unity among the Mujahideen. Other users simply admired the martyrs and sought to document and share as widely as possible reports of this ‘crusader’ attack.
This mini-dataset from Twitter has focused on two specific drone strikes in April 2014 in Yemen, but it is just one part of a wider cluster of jihadist content that has been exploding in terms of quantity and quality, particularly in relation to the war in Syria. In this wider context, drone strikes have impacted jihadist activity and ideology. For example, with the reality of drone warfare hitting jihadist groups hard in recent years, jihadist videos and ideological writings have adopted the theme of spies among the Mujahideen. A number of videos have emerged showcasing the confessions and subsequent execution of alleged spies. In addition, Abu Yahya al-Libi commemorated his friend and comrade Abu ‘l-Layth al-Libi after he was killed in a drone strike in 2008 and subsequently published a detailed book on shari’a law policy for jihadist groups a year later. Ironically, Abu Yahya was killed himself in Pakistan in a drone strike in June 2012 but his work has become an integral handbook for jihadist implementation of shari’a law in dealing with indicted Muslim spies among the ranks of the Mujahideen. It is often referenced in videos showing the execution of alleged spies in Yemen and Somalia. Through the combined analysis of the written and audio-visual layers, the way alleged Muslim spies are framed for jihadist propaganda can be assessed and tied into events such as this case study – the topic of a future post on Jihadica.

 

The University of Vienna, Near Eastern Department, initiated last February with the Terrorism Research Initiative (TRI) the Syrian Engagement Project. The first conference was held in early February in Vienna where we sought to empower local Syrian political activists on the first day with a broader perspective on the second day, bringing together senior members of the Syrian opposition. For the first conference, we sought to provide a framework and a open floor for civil-society activists and the opposition to talk about their perspective and past experiences from a multitude of perspectives. TRI has recently published a conference report, available here.

As part of this series, a second conference will be held in Vienna on May 2, 2014. The theme of the second conference is, however, strictly related to security matters with the focus set on religious extremist groups in Syria, from both a Sunni and Shiite perspective. The conference Religious Extremism in Syria: A New Launching Pad for Global Terrorism? seeks to enable participants and speakers to engage in an open environment on how to deal with the implications of the turmoil in Syria.

The rise of confessional warfare and the effective recruitment of foreign fighters from the greater Middle East, Europe and beyond to join militant factions in Syria have implications far beyond the current conflict zones. The professional use of Social Media to attract young males for the cause and to raise funds has reached an unprecedented dimension that could perhaps transform Syria into a similar, if not worse, launching pad for global terrorism than Afghanistan. This one-day conference seeks to provide insight into a set of overlapping issues surrounding the Syrian conflict and its implications for Europe and the international community. The conference will bring together an interdisciplinary set of speakers to provide insight into extremist and other militant actors in the conflict and the implications for regional and international security.

The conference agenda with the speaker abstracts and bios is available as a pdf here.

Agenda:

09:00   Registration

09:30   Opening remarks, introductions, programme review, and administrative announcements by Nico Prucha

09:45   Tom Keatinge, Independent Analyst, “The Syrian Conflict and the Importance of Financing.”

10:15   Maura Conway, Dublin City University, “Assessing the Role of Social Media in the Syria Conflict.”

10:45   Tea and coffee break with oriental snacks

11:15   Joas Wagemakers, Radboud University Nijmegen, “Jordanian Salafis and the Syrian Conflict.”

11:45   Rüdiger Lohlker, University of Vienna, “True Romance: A New Paradigm for Jihadis in Syria and Beyond?”

12:15   Morning panel discussion

13:00   Lunch break

14:00   Nico Prucha, University of Vienna, “The Sectarian Divide in Syria as the Rationale of The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to Indoctrinate, Radicalize and Recruit Foreign Fighters”

14:30   Mahan Abedin, Dysart Consulting, “The Role of IRGC Qods Cops as Force Multiplier in the Syrian War.”

15:00   Tea and Coffee break with light snacks

15:30   Iranian Embassy Representative (Invited, TBC)

16:00   Syrian Embassy Representative (Invited, TBC)

16:30   Robert Wesley, Terrorism Research Initiative, “Why Egypt Matters in the Context of the Current Syrian Civil War.”

17:00   Afternoon panel discussion

18:00   Concluding Remarks and Farewell

Due to limited seating at the venue, registration for this event is mandatory. The Registration Fee for the Conference is 40 EUR/   per prospective attendee, which includes a light lunch of Middle Eastern food. To register, please purchase your ticket here:

http://bit.ly/1lUPDKN

Payment in cash at the venue is also possible.

For any issues regarding registration, please contact Nico Prucha (nico.prucha (at) univie.ac.at)

The rebel offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) in northern Syria, which broke out on January 3, 2014, has dramatically heightened tensions between Jihadi-Salafi thinkers. As noted previously, two tendencies predominate among jihadis insofar as the Syrian war is concerned: one favoring the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and cooperation with all rebel groups, and another favoring ISIS and its exclusionary political designs as the reborn Islamic state, or proto-caliphate.

On the ground at least, the uprising against ISIS has not for the most part opposed the more pragmatic JN backers to the more ideological ISIS devotees. Although driven violently out of Raqqa by the Islamic State in mid-January, JN has largely stood aloof during this confrontation. Rather those arrayed against ISIS—what one jihadi author has termed “the tripartite aggression”—consist of two upstart groups, the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front and the Mujahidin Army, and the Islamic Front (IF), an Islamist umbrella organization founded in November 2013. Nonetheless, the fighting has aggravated intra-jihadi tensions as the ongoing hostilities focus attention on ISIS’s unique claim to statehood and the inviolable sovereignty that this implies.

The Maskana prelude

It was an escalating dispute between ISIS and IF affiliates in December in the town of Maskana, located on the eastern outskirts of Aleppo, which precipitated the present crisis. The Islamic State’s refusal to submit the dispute to arbitration pushed its rivals over the edge. The same recalcitrance in the current conflict has forestalled any progress in reaching a solution.

On January 1, the Islamic Front announced that one of its revered commanders, Abu Rayyan of Ahrar al-Sham, had been brutally tortured and killed by ISIS in Maskana. Abu Rayyan had headed to the town to mediate the month-long conflict there, which had led to tens killed and many prisoners taken by each side. For weeks Ahrar al-Sham had asked ISIS to allow a third-party—“an independent shar’ia court”—to make an independent ruling on the conflict, but a response was never forthcoming. In mid-December a shari’a consultant (shar’i) of Ahrar al-Sham issued a stern warning to ISIS: “I call openly on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: restrain your soldiers and reconsider your policy. We are in one ship and will all drown if it sinks. May he perish who refuses to submit to the judgment of the shari’a!” Following the death of Abu Rayyan, the Islamic Front’s political committee issued a further warning: “We warn the Islamic State organization not to follow in its its regular manner by standing in the way of…an independent court.” In an interview five days later, the local leader of ISIS in Maskana, one Abu Dujana al-Kuwaiti, blamed the Islamic Front for instigating the current anti-ISIS uprising, seen as part of a larger “global conspiracy” aimed at uprooting the Islamic State.

Before the death of Abu Rayyan, the events in Maskana drew the attention of two prominent jihadi thinkers, the pro-JN Iyad Qunaybi (@EYADQUNAIBI), a Jordanian and U.S.-trained pharmacologist who served in prison with Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and Abu Humam al-Athari, a well-known Bahraini member of the pro-ISIS camp. Qunaybi condemned what he saw as the Islamic State’s refusal to answer requests for third-party arbitration. Addressing ISIS leaders, he wrote: “You command the people to submit to the ruling of God’s book…Then when you yourselves are called upon to do so, you say, ‘We have our own courts’… If the Islamic State organization only pays heed to itself, is its agenda really the agenda of the Islamic community?” Al-Athari responded with a refutation of Qunaybi’s “bizarre judgments.”[i] These he chalked up to Qunaybi’s irrelevant background in pharmacology. Qunaybi’s first mistake, said al-Athari, was his mischaracterization of the Islamic State as an “organization” (jama’a), as in reality it is a sovereign state (dawla). As such it cannot accept external legal supervision or mediation (except in coordination with an ISIS court), for that would “infringe on the right of the Muslim sovereign and his state.” Since the offensive against ISIS began, the question whether the Islamic State should accept arbitration has remained a central feature of the expanding intra-jihadi debate.

Initiatives

A series of initiatives has since called on the belligerent parties to authorize an independent tribunal to arbitrate the conflict. Predictably, ISIS has proved unwilling to accept any such thing.

The first initiative, presented by JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani in an audio message on January 7, proposed that a “legal commission” be formed by “all concerned parties” with a mandate to impose a solution. ISIS gave no public response to Jawlani, who in the same statement had blamed the Islamic State’s “wrongheaded policy” for “a large role in instigating the confrontation.” The pro-ISIS Abu Humam al-Athari, for his part, quickly came out with an aggressive refutation of Jawlani—“the renegade leader.” The real cause of rebel infighting in Syria, as he saw it, was not ISIS’s policy but rather Jawlani’s original defection from the ISIS ranks, a precedent for further revolt.

On January 19, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi presented a counter-initiative, essentially a plea for an unconditional ceasefire. In an audio statement he explained that his state was only fighting in self-defense, and so anyone who desisted from fighting would not be harmed.

Two days later a second initiatve was proposed by two jihadi thinkers of Egyptian origin, the London-based Hani al-Siba‘i and the Canadian-based Tariq ‘Abd al-Halim. While both have tended to favor JN over ISIS—they do not recognize ISIS as a state—their proposal praised Baghdadi’s ostensible offer of peace. Yet like Jawlani, they too premised their initiative on the formation of an independent shari‘a court empowered to issue a binding judgment. The result: no response.

The Siba‘i-‘Abd al-Halim gambit soon gave way to the so-called “Community Initiative” of prominent Saudi preacher ‘Abd Allah al-Muhaysani. The latter called on all concerned parties “to place the interest of the Islamic community ahead of the interest of the group.” Al-Muhaysani presented a detailed reconciliation plan again involving an independent tribunal of sorts. It required all parties to assent to the terms of the initiative within five days, which all but the Islamic State did (see here and here). At the last moment, as the initiative expired on January 27, ISIS published a statement informing that it would participate if all parties first agreed on what position to take on cooperating with the Syrian National Coalition, its Supreme Military Council, and the neighboring governments of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. Since ISIS rejects cooperation with all of them (ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani has essentially hereticized them) while the other parties do not (even Jawlani has indicated a willingness to work with the Gulf countries) the statement served to preempt all discussion of mutual arbitration. In closing, ISIS reminded its adversaries that “the initiative of the commander of the believers”—that is, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s peace offering—remained on the table.

A pro-IF jihadi

While most jihadi thinkers have tended to support either ISIS or JN as the epitome of the jihadi movement in Syria, one prominent jihadi ideologue, the Syrian Abu Basir al-Tartusi, has instead favored the Islamic Front and particularly Ahrar al-Sham, accusing the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra of representing foreign interests. In mid-January, Abu Basir took his criticism of ISIS to another level, issuing a fatwa branding the Islamic State a band of “extremist Kharijites,” a reference to the violent exclusionary sect in early Islamic history. Among other things, he accused ISIS of unduly hereticizing other Muslim rebels in Syria, torturing its prisoners, targeting fellow Muslims with suicide tactics, and  exploiting the phrase “the Islamic State.” “Their state,” he wrote, “exists only in their imaginations and feeble minds.” Jihad against ISIS is thus warranted till such time as they desist from their “injustice, oppression, and aggression.” Some IF members, including the leadership of Liwa’ al-Islam and the Suqur al-Sham Brigades, have recently made similar remarks comparing ISIS to the Kharijites.

While Abu Basir’s stature in jihadi discourse has suffered since last year when he denounced Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Athari apparently found that this fatwa merited a detailed response. This he delivered in a booklet intended to explain “the difference between the men of the [Islamic] State and the Kharijites.” Its main argument is that the accusations brought against ISIS today—especially that of excessive hereticization (takfir)—were precisely those leveled against the first Saudi state inspired by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab.

Pro-JN jihadis

The jihadi thinkers favoring JN have not gone so far as to brand the Islamic State a group of Kharijites. Rather their critique consists in a rejection—sometimes subtle, sometimes not—of ISIS’s claim to constitute a state with unimpeachable sovereignty. Iyad Qunaybi is an example of a pro-JN jihadi who has been outspoken in this rejection. Those who used to make it more subtly have started to join him.

Whereas two months ago Abu Qatada al-Filastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the two best-known jihadi thinkers alive, erred on the side of subtlety in  criticizing ISIS, since the offensive started they have quite noticeably sharpened their tone. During a court hearing in Amman in mid-January, Abu Qatada called on al-Baghdadi to scrap the “Islamic State” name and fight under Jabhat al-Nusra’s banner. He thereafter made his views clearer in an open letter, advising ISIS members in Syria to join JN and pleading with Baghdadi to follow the orders of Ayman al-Zawahiri and retreat to Iraq. According to Abu Qatada, while it is unlawful for Muslims to fight ISIS, the causes of the war against it lie in its stubborn insistence on statehood and in its unwarranted killing of other Islamist groups’ members. In his letter he is pessimistic that the conflict can be peacefully resolved, noting that since it “refuses to accept arbitration” of disputes, the Islamic State will not likely lend “receptive ears” to any call for reconciliation. That seems a pretty accurate prognosis.

In a leaked message from mid-January, al-Maqdisi likewise voiced his frustration with ISIS’s stubbornness. Additionally, he chided fellow jihadi ideologues al-Athari and Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, both of whom have contributed extensively to his popular website, for lending their support to the Islamic State’s radical policies. “I hope,” he is reported to have said, “that my anger reaches them.” Subsequently, in an open letter online, he struck a more conciliatory tone, though still managing to ridicule the idea that any jihadi group had become something “like the caliphate.” Reportedly al-Maqdisi was supportive of al-Muhaysani’s “community initiative.”

Pro-ISIS jihadis

Apart from al-Athari, two other noteworthy exemplars of the pro-ISIS jihadi camp are the Mauritanian al-Shinqiti (named by al-Maqdisi) and the Jordanian ‘Umar Mahdi Zaydan. Recently, neither has exhibited much restraint in criticizing ideologues of the competing camp. In an essay from early January, al-Shinqiti took aim at the argument of some thinkers (including Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi) that the Islamic State is not a “lawful emirate” but rather a mere “battlefield command.” “O you who have made war on the [Islamic] State with your fatwas,” he said, “you have created this state of division (fitna).” The proper course for all Muslim fighters in Syria, in his view, and the only way to avoid dissension, is that they give allegiance (bay‘a) to ISIS leader Baghdadi. In a mid-January audio address, Zaydan praised al-Athari and al-Shinqiti for defying “their shaykh” al-Maqdisi, “with whom they are associated” and to whose website they once contributed. Instead of heeding the wrongheaded opinion of their teacher, they had obeyed God and His messenger.

A deepening divide

The protests of the pro-JN camp, which includes those thinkers generally considered most influential within the jihadi movement at large, seem unable to shake the resolution of the partisans of the Islamic State. Over the last month the latter have only grown more resolute, even mustering the courage to refute their presumed elders. The Islamic State, which was meant to unify jihadis and expand their base of support, has in Syria created a stark division. As the ideological divide in jihadi discourse becomes more and more pronounced, the likelihood grows that the consequences for jihadi unity will be dire.

 


[i] According to unverifiable information from @wikibaghdady (on which see here), Abu Humam al-Athari is the pseudonym for Bahraini religious scholar Turki al-Bin’ali and has considerable ties to ISIS.