The future approach of al-Qaeda

Posted: 23rd September 2016 by Tore Hamming in AQ Central, Bin Laden, Nusra Front, Zawahiri

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

Tore Hamming:

In July 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra broke away from AQ and established Jabhat Fatah ash-Shaam with the blessing of the senior AQ leadership. In his most recent speech (Brief Messages to a Supported Ummah 4) Zawahiri furthermore encouraged Jihadi factions in Iraq to unify and fight IS and Iran. Is the approach of a popular front not necessarily with allegiance to AQ, but simply being sympathetic to the movement, becoming the future for AQ?

Ahmed Al Hamdan:

There is a mistake in the question, as al Zawahiri did not seek the factions in Iraq to unite to fight the Islamic state, not in episode 4 nor in any part of the series.

Secondly: we must understand that wars and battles are magnets which attract Jihadi thinkers and I do not think that you would find a battle front or any popular movement whose people are not sons of the Jihadi movement. And we must understand that al Qaeda do not look to the matter from the perspective of upholding its name and achieving its organisational goals and if that was indeed the case, then they would not have accepted the breaking of ties with al Nusra for the benefit of the Muslims in Syria.

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When Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the leader of al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, announced on July 28, 2016 that he was dissolving his group and setting up a new one, Jabhat Fath al-Sham (JFS, “the Front for the Conquest of Sham”), that would not be subordinate to al-Qaida, he put to rest more than a year of speculation that such a move was in the offing. Jabhat al-Nusra had been, after all, prepared to end its formal relationship with al-Qaida. But in settling one question Jawlani raised two more: Was Jabhat al-Nusra (now JFS) really distancing itself from the terrorist organization? And had al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri really given this separation (real or nominal) his blessing?

The first question is perhaps best left to governments and journalists, but there is at least one reason to see the rebranding as more than superficial. This is that Jawlani’s maneuver alienated a number of prominent Jabhat al-Nusra hardliners who have yet to join JFS. (One rumor puts the number of these “defectors” at well over a hundred.) Presumably these men felt that joining JFS would amount to endorsing an excessively moderate and inclusive political vision.

The second question, whether Zawahiri blessed this rebranding, also remains open. To be sure, Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida portrayed the move as having al-Qaida’s support—as an amicable separation. But the Islamic State has begged to differ. The true story, in its view, is that the “traitor” Jawlani struck again: having betrayed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State back in 2013, he turned on Zawahiri and al-Qaida in 2016. Such a view should perhaps be viewed with skepticism, but it also deserves consideration. Understanding both sides of the story requires first revisiting some of the words of Zawahiri that are key to both narratives.

Zawahiri’s mixed message

On May 8, 2016, al-Qaida’s official al-Sahab Media Foundation issued an audio statement from Zawahiri concerning the war in Syria. Coming to the issue of Jabhat al-Nusra’s relationship with al-Qaida, Zawahiri delivered a most mixed message. That it was mixed is shown by the contradictory headlines it generated. “Zawahiri: Syria’s Nusra Free to Break al-Qaeda Links” was the title of an al-Jazeera English article. “Zawahiri Warns Nusra against Separating from al-Qaida” was the title of an article in an Arabic newspaper. Evidently, what the al-Qaida leader had said was unclear.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

 

Tore Hamming:

Back in 2014, the Islamic State (IS) was winning territory while IS affiliated media and its official spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani were extremely active propagating its successes. In the meantime al-Qaida (AQ) leader Ayman al-Zawahiri remained quiet. Now, in mid-2016, it seems to be the opposite situation as IS is loosing territory, while al-Adnani is increasingly absent from the media scene. Zawahiri, on the other hand, has lately been very active with several speech series e.g. The Islamic Spring and Brief Messages to a Supported Ummah. What does this development tell you?

Ahmed Al Hamdan:

This is due to several reasons. Firstly, during the period in which Adnani came out several times, there were several successes achieved by this group such as them conquering large areas of Iraq and Syria and the opening of branches outside the region of Iraq and Syria. Normally when commercial companies make any profit, they exploit these profits for strengthening their advertising and marketing. So the multiple appearances of Adnani during that period is a normal thing and in accordance with the circumstances which his group was going through at that time. However as for Zawahiri appearing only rarely, there are a number of reasons such as:

Firstly, Al Fajr centre (the media forum for the Mujahideen) which releases publications of all the branches of Al Qaeda contained within its ranks people who were sympathetic to the Islamic State. And these people would delay any verbal attack that would be launched from any branch of Al-Qaeda…!! And they would delay any correspondence relating to the same matter and would even send it to the leaders of ISIS and then the leaders of ISIS would make preemptive attacks in advance to absorb the effect of the publication of Al-Qaeda that was sent to Al Fajr Centre to be released. An example of this is the seventh interview by As-Sahab Foundation with Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri which got published under the title “The reality between pain and hope”. They released the speech of Adnani “This was not our methodology and it will never be” before releasing the interview, and also the release of this seventh interview by As-Sahab Foundation with Dr. Zawahiri was delayed for around twelve days, even though the date of this interview by As-Sahab was before the speech of Adnani. But the speech of Adnani got released before it. So Al Fair centre played the biggest role in transforming the sympathy of many in the Jihadi movement to make them support the Islamic State through this manipulation by them, in addition to Al Fajr center turning to be a defence for ISIS.

And when the well known Jihadi researcher, Abdullah bin Muhammad, wrote about the possibility of the ranks of ISIS being infiltrated as had happened in the Algerian Jihad, this centre took an unusual step of issuing an official statement… !!! They falsified this man and accused him of lying..!!!! And so the branches of Al Qaeda began to ignore this centre and they changed their means of publication by using their own two media delegates in the social media sites in a direct manner. For example the account ‘Abdullah al Mujahid’ belongs to Al Qaeda of Yemen, and ‘Abu Mus’ab Ash-Shanqiti’ belongs to Al Qaeda of Khurasan. And so they began to release all the publications directly without having the need for any intermediaries.

And what must be noted is that these are not exclusive information that are known only to those close to these sources, but they are known to anyone who used to follow the Jihadi forums. And the reality is just as a friend had said, that the Jihadi groups and their media establishments were like closed boxes which not even those close to them would know as to what they contained inside them. However the Fitna (tribulation) of ISIS caused every secret to become publicly known..! And I don’t say known only to the supporters of these groups but also to all the people. This relieved the intelligence and the security agencies a lot, and so they no longer have to tire themselves much like how it was in the past in order to know what is inside the house of their enemy..! Thus there occurred polarization between two competitors and each would speak publicly on secret issues causing the other party to be the accused one which would make them want to defend themselves. And so they too would speak publicly about secret issues..!!. Due to this rivalry a lot of secrets became publicly known. And all praise belongs to Allah in every case.

Secondly, another matter is that Al-Qaeda needed to get its internal ranks to be set in order after they got swept by a tide. Previously there had been elements within Al Qaeda who were sympathetic towards the Islamic State but now the matter has developed and these sympathizers began to pledge allegiance to the Islamic state…! And they began to promote it from inside the ranks of Al Qaeda. So it would not be wise at such a time to come out in public frequently and release statements while your internal ranks have become flimsy and shaky. The priority was to rectify the internal ranks and absorb this attack. And in fact because of the stupidity of ISIS in taking the initiative in attacking the leaders of Al Qaeda in their other branches and slandering them and spreading doubtful allegations which would reach to the point of Takfeer upon them, this contributed to the awareness of some of those who were deceived by ISIS previously and they said that yes it is true that we differ with Al Qaeda in some issues, but not to the extent of Takfeer.

Yet despite that, I used to think and still now think that the role of Al Qaeda’s media was negative to some extent because of them continuing to have hopes that ISIS would return back to the right path. Also from the mistakes committed by the media of Al Qaeda in general was to not confront in an official manner the charges made against them by ISIS. For example Abu Ubaida Al-Lubnani who was the former security official of Al-Qaeda before being expelled and giving the pledge of allegiance to ISIS, was one of the members of Al-Qaeda of Khurasan, and he had written his testimony in the official publication of ISIS known as ‘An-Naba’. And then his former friend known as Abu Kareemah wrote an article in refutation to his testimony, but this was done in his individual capacity through the website of “Justpaste”, and he made evident many of the lies and contradictions that were present in this testimony..!

However I ask, which would have a greater impact- when the group Al-Qaeda officially adopts this article and publishes it through a media wing, or when its author publishes it by himself on his own capacity? By this, you will cause people to ask as to what is the evidence that Abu Kareemah is actually a Mujahid from Khurasan?! And what is the evidence that he is the actual author of this article? There is no doubt that the people will take the official publication as being more credible. On the other hand we see that in every issue of Dabiq, ISIS would heap allegations against Al-Qaeda even to the point of saying that they are agents and disbelievers, while the official media of Al-Qaeda represented by their two magazines “Resurgence” and “Inspire” would completely avoid responding to these allegations and would be content with the writings of some of the leaders and soldiers who would publish them in an unofficial manner.

And if I was a simple Jihadi follower, I would interpret the lack of official response by Al-Qaeda as a weakness in their standpoint, and I would not interpret this as a desire to not escalate the matter so as to not cut off the road for ISIS to come back to the right path. Rather I would say “If the talk that is being spread regarding this matter is not correct then they would have responded to it at the earliest”. But this is a mistaken policy which contributed to increasing the number of ISIS followers from amongst the Jihadi supporters.

With regards to the frequent appearances of Dr. Ayman lately, I sat down with my companions and I said to them “Let us think in the way how the men of intelligence agencies think. Can it be reasonable that these speeches are recent ones? That is they are published just a few days after been recorded? Or are they all recorded before some weeks, if not months, and then published gradually? Obviously it is the second one that is correct. And it is never wise in terms of security for the one who is number one in the wanted list of the security agencies to publish his statement in close intervals as this strengthens the chances of getting hold of the link in the thread which will lead towards him. The security official of Al-Qaeda, Abdullah Adam [1] has said “Two people who keep moving will definitely meet each other at some point”.  But when you decrease the movement, then there is a greater level for your safety.

Brief analysis of answer:

In the early stage after the Islamic State left the al-Qaida network (or was thrown out depending on the perspective), it won the fight both on the battlefield and in the media. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri simply did not respond forcefully enough as the fitna erupted. In this regard, however, it is interesting to consider the position and influence of the Jihadi media foundations. If the account Ahmed Al Hamdan gives of the Al Fajr Centre’s role in delaying Zawahiri’s attempt of responding to the attacks from the Islamic State holds true, this would point to a critical interference of the media foundations. Interestingly, Al Fajr was also accused of refusing to publish Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s response (titled “Remaining in Iraq and the Levant”, 14 June 2013) to Zawahiri’s ruling that the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham should remain in Iraq only. If both stories are true, it shows an ambiguous role of Al Fajr, fighting an internal struggle to choose side.

Al Hamdan’s account also pinpoints another important factor in order to grasp Zawahiri’s initial passivity. Due to the increasing sympathy towards the Islamic State within al-Qaida, Zawahiri needed to get his house in order before publically taking a stance. Had he been too explicit in his critique of the Islamic State at this point, he would have risked to push away many al-Qaida members. This probably happened anyway though as his passive approach was interpreted as weakness by many.

Perhaps al-Qaida did not realise the seriousness of the situation quickly enough. Whereas the Islamic State utilised all channels of communication and propaganda as efficiently as possible, al-Qaida was hesitant and too conservative (well they are Salafis after all) in their communication instead of empowering its followers through the use of official media centres. On this point, Ahmed Al Hamdan is correct.

In summary, as the Islamic State challenged al-Qaida neither Zawahiri nor his organisation were prepared to counter the aggressiveness of its renegade affiliate. Baffled by the context where it found itself abandoned by its media foundations and its followers, al-Qaida was left in the backseat. But the tide is changing. The Islamic State has less and less to brag about, while Zawahiri is taking the position of the old wise man, who is following a long-term strategy, slowly attracting public support and taking back followers from the Islamic State. This is evident from the number of piblic statements from the two organisations’ leaders. While statements from Baghdadi or Adnani (before his death) have become increasingly rare, Zawahiri has released two series of speeches (first “the Islamic Spring” series followed by “Brief Messages to a Supported Ummah”) recently, giving the impression that he is now once again the main authority within the Global Jihadi movement.

UPDATE: Ahmed Al Hamdan responds to analysis and elaborates on the role of the Jihadi media

The release “Remaining in Iraq and Sham” by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had been previously published by the Islamic State independently, and it is capable of spreading its material quickly and directly. And this is different to the one who has committed himself to method of publishing specifically through Al Fajr Centre. So if this person wants to change his policy it will take him a long time to search for alternative means and he must increase his security before replacing the method of publication. Those who sympathised with the State within Al Fajr Centre took advantage of the fact that the centre was the only source for spreading the material of Al Qaeda to delay or even prevent the arrival of communications between the different branches of Al Qaeda concerning the matter of the Islamic State. And I will give some examples:

The brother Abu Umar al Najdi is a Mujahid from Yemen who wrote under the name “The loyal companion” on twitter and was recommended by the other Mujahideen from Yemen who were present on twitter, for example “Mohamed al Malaki” who is one of the Mujahideen who had previously been in Afghanistan and then went to Yemen. This person published a confidential letter which had been sent from a veteran leader of Al Qaeda who was present in Syria i.e. Muhsin Al Fadli, to the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He said in it:

Attached with this letter is the letter of Shaykh Abu Khalid al Suri, may Allah accept him, which he sent to Dr. Ayman during the first day of the Fitna, also the statements and the claims of both Al Nusra and The State [IS] which I have previously sent to Dr. Ayman, may Allah protect him, and the audio message of Al Jawlani clarifying the causes of the problem and also the audio witness testimony of (…..) and Abu Azeez al Qatari. And for your information I have sent it to you again despite having sent it before through (…..) who is the representative of the leader of Al Fajr Centre – I sent it to you again to make sure that it would reach you.

Abu Umar al Najdi said, commenting in the margin of this letter about the text:

The attachments and testimonies which the writer of the letter sent at the beginning of the Fitna of the State by way of Al Fajr Centre, never arrived to Shaykh Abu Baseer [Wuhayshi] and only arrived with this letter. And he warned everyone to be careful in dealing with Al Fajr Centre and there are suspicious and frightening dealings which did not come from new members, rather from the senior members within the centre. And Allahs refuge is sought.

This explains why the branch in Yemen stopped publishing articles through al Fajr Centre and instead began publishing through their own representative “Abdullah Mujahid”

So, if the Islamic State had not been able to publish their material in any way other than through Al Fajr Centre and despite that the Centre did not publish their material, then at that time we would be able to have doubt and ask if it was true that those people were really sympathetic to the State?

Interestingly, my opinion matches his opinion regarding the reason why fighters went over into the ranks of the Islamic State. And look what this leader said to Abu Baseer:

Now the third generation of the Mujahideen are influenced by the thinking of the State and this is due to a number of reasons, including the strength of the State media, another reason being the silence of the leaders of Al Qaeda and the absence of clarifying the methodological mistakes of the State, making the youth of the Nation go to them and here the Nation has lost out by the silence of the Jihadi movement about these errors.  And may Allah reward you with good for publishing the statement of Shaykh Harith al Nadhari as it clarified and made plain many rulings, however while we have now spoken of the reality, it has unfortunately come too late. And why did you not previously speak out and clarify the ruling about the fake Khilafah of Al Baghdadi. This is necessary for us to restore the confidence of the rational, confident and self-assured youth of the Ummah in Al Qaeda, so don’t postpose the speech beyond its time in order to take a neutral position as this policy is no longer going to work in the face of the behaviour and folly of the state.

It is hard to avoid a feeling of déjà vu. Back in 2013, an established al-Qaida ideologue lamented the decline of the jihadi web forums, warning users against migrating to social media platforms Twitter and Facebook and calling for a revival of the forums as the “main theater” of internet jihad. The appeal of course failed to persuade, as the platforms, and Twitter in particular, surged in popularity and left the forums in the dust. Fast forward three years, and again things are changing. Now, a jihadi author is lamenting the decline of the social media platforms, warning users against migrating to Telegram, an encrypted messaging service, and calling for the revival of Twitter and Facebook as the locus of web-based jihad.

The al-Qaida ideologue from 2013, while ultimately unpersuasive, was right on one count. He predicted that a day would come when the social media platforms would “shut their doors in our faces.” And indeed, the crackdown on the jihadis of Twitter has finally come. (Even my ghost accounts for following them are being deleted.) Yet those targeted have not gone running back to the forums, as this ideologue would have liked. Rather, they have gravitated towards the new hot commodity, Telegram, which has gradually replaced Twitter as the primary online home for the Islamic State and its supporters. Not everyone, however, is so pleased with the relocation.

The Warner

One of those speaking out is the pseudonymous Abu Usama Sinan al-Ghazzi, a pro-Islamic State writer who authored a short essay last month titled “O Supporters of the Caliphate, Do Not Withdraw into Telegram,” published by the al-Wafa’ Media Foundation (wafa’ meaning “faithfulness”). Al-Ghazzi, whose name suggests a Ghazan origin, has been writing in support of the Islamic State since at least July 2013, when he penned a post calling for greater coordination of media efforts between the Islamic State and its supporters. The importance of the online support network is a running theme in his writings. In his 2013 post, he described the need to fight back against “the greatest campaign of disinformation…history has known,” urging his readers “not to be satisfied with fighting [alone]; rather, confront [the enemies] with both the tongue and the spear.” While not a particularly distinguished author, al-Ghazzi’s work deserves attention for being published by an important media outlet.

Al-Wafa’ belongs to an elite group of semi-official media organizations that promote the Islamic State online, previously by means of Twitter but now mostly via Telegram. (Al-Wafa’s decline on Twitter is captured by the pictures of pears it is currently using to hide from the censors.) The other big two organizations are the al-Battar Media Foundation (Battar meaning “saber”) and the al-Sumud Media Foundation (Sumud meaning “steadfastness”). The three are known primarily for their ideological output in the form of essays, poems, and books, and they often work hand-in-hand with the Islamic State’s official media organizations. For example, al-Battar is responsible for producing the transcripts of Islamic State speeches and videos, and al-Sumud has the privilege of publishing the new poems of the Islamic State’s official poetess, Ahlam al-Nasr, every week or so. When the Islamic State launches a concerted media campaign across its provinces, such as its December 2015 campaign calling for jihad in Saudi Arabia, the semi-official organizations also participate. In the Saudi campaign, they released dozens of essays by dozens of anonymous authors, all encouraging jihad there.

It is unclear how many of these authors, like Ahlam al-Nasr, reside in the lands of the caliphate, but occasionally they claim to be speaking from there, or they seem to possess insider knowledge. Neither is the case with al-Ghazzi, though he certainly speaks for more than just himself on the subject at hand.

The Warning

In his essay, al-Ghazzi bemoans the fact that Twitter and Facebook have been losing members to Telegram. This shift, as J.M. Berger has explained, can be traced to September 2015, when the Telegram service introduced a feature called broadcast channels, which added Twitter-like functionality to an app that was previously much like WhatsApp. For many jihadis, Telegram’s arrival was a welcome development, providing a permissive environment for communicating and spreading their message online at a time when Twitter was deleting their accounts more rapidly. But for al-Ghazzi, it was unwelcome, even disastrous.

The Telegram frenzy began, in al-Ghazzi’s telling, at a crucial time in the online war between the “crusaders” and the Islamic State and its supporters. The two sides were engaged in an all-out war for control of the Twittersphere, a war that al-Ghazzi believed his side was winning. The crusaders were being forced to delete thousands and thousands of accounts, but to no avail. Unable to do anything more, the crusaders had “surrendered to reality.” Then along came Telegram, and the jihadis began abandoning the battlefield.

The allure of Telegram was the security and stability it offered relative to Twitter. The chances of one’s account being deleted were much lower, as they still are. “Many of the brothers preferred Telegram over other [platforms],” al-Ghazzi explains, “in view of the small number of deletion operations to which the supporters were exposed on Telegram.” Another attraction was the ability to hide from those who might report one to the censors. On Telegram, channel operators can “change the channels…into private channels,” so as to avoid being targeted for deletion. Here al-Ghazzi is referring to the two different kinds of broadcast channels that Telegram offers.

For those unfamiliar, here is how Telegram defines channels: “Channels are a tool for broadcasting public messages to large audiences. In fact, channels can have an unlimited number of members.” And here’s its explanation of the difference between public and private channels: “Public channels have a username. Anyone can find them in Telegram search and join. Private channels are closed societies—you need to be added by the creator or get an invite link to join.”

Most of the channels supporting the Islamic State, in my experience, are of the private kind. This means they are not accessible to the broader public. When a new private channel is formed, the other Telegram channels circulate an invitation link that usually expires within hours. The result is that the Islamic State’s supporters on Telegram are a rather isolated community. They create an echo-chamber. (Only some of the private channels maintain parallel public channels, as do al-Wafa’ and al-Sumud, but not al-Battar.)

It is this introverted orientation of Telegram that, according to al-Ghazzi, makes it so unattractive. Among Telegram’s “negatives” he lists the fact that channels are limited to “a specified group and faction determined by the owner of the channel,” and that “searching for channels is not allowed.” “The other platforms,” by contrast, such as Twitter and Facebook, “are open to the masses,” which means they can reach a much larger audience. Telegram, in other words, is bad for outreach.

Al-Ghazzi sums up his warning thus: “Do not withdraw into Telegram.” And he ends with a plea: “Come back to Twitter and Facebook, for our mission is greater than this and deeper. Those we seek to reach, we will not find them on Telegram in the way desired, as we will find them on Twitter and Facebook.”

The Warned

Al-Ghazzi’s essay raises the question whether the Islamic State’s supporters will heed his warning or not. For the moment, the answer seems to be not. His appeal looks to be going the way of the ideologue’s who warned against migrating to Twitter and Facebook back in 2013. Momentum is clearly in Telegram’s favor. The jihadis, it seems, are just not willing to create new Twitter accounts every day when there exists a perfectly good alternative that goes little patrolled.

The more diehard pro-Islamic State Twitter accounts are also, like al-Ghazzi, complaining of a lack of dedication to the platform. “O supporters of the Islamic Caliphate,” a prominent account tweeted a few days ago, “be you warned against laziness and negligence on your battlegrounds!” Less prominent accounts are also complaining. One tweeted two weeks ago: “Where are the supporters, where are their accounts? Where is our power on Twitter that the nations of polytheism were being terrified by?” These are expressions of nostalgia. Twitter has ceased to be the jihadi playground it once was—at least for fans of the Islamic State.

Who is Iyad Qunaybi?

Posted: 15th June 2016 by Joas Wagemakers in Jordan, social media

For years, many Jihadi-Salafi scholars and fighters from several countries have been dealt with in articles about global jihad (and here on Jihadica, of course). One country that has supplied quite a number of these people is Jordan. Men such as Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini have long been involved in or have commented upon all things jihad. One person who could be included in this group but has not received anywhere near the attention that the three mentioned above have received is the relatively unknown Iyad Qunaybi.

Kuwait

According to Qunaybi’s website, he was born in Kuwait on 22 October 1975, although he and his family moved to Amman in Jordan when he was still a baby. Given that his parents were Palestinians from Hebron, they were officially Jordanian citizens (the Hashimite kingdom controlled the West Bank from 1948-1967 and made all its inhabitants citizens) so moving to Jordan was presumably a relatively easy step to take. This nevertheless makes Qunaybi a bit of an outlier, however.

Although there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinian-Jordanians with roots in Kuwait, where they moved to in two different waves (immediately after 1948 and, later, in the 1950s and 1960s), the overwhelming majority of them only returned in the early 1990s, when Kuwait expelled virtually all its Palestinians after the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had implicitly supported Saddam Husayn’s Iraq in its invasion of the tiny Gulf kingdom. As we will see, the fact that Qunaybi moved to Jordan in the 1970s – rather than the early 1990s, like most other Kuwaiti Palestinians – is not the only thing in which Qunaybi is slightly different than other jihadi thinkers.

Pharmacology

Qunaybi apparently showed an interest in literature as a child, according to his website, did well in school and went on to get a BA-degree from the Jordanian University of Science and Technology in 1998. Interestingly, he also practised taekwondo at this time and, perhaps more importantly for his future career, started reading Islamist literature by Sayyid Qutb while studying in Jordan. He subsequently went to the University of Houston to get a PhD in pharmacology in 1999, which he obtained in 2003.

Thus, unlike some have said, Qunaybi is not a “cleric” or a scholar of Islam. This, again, makes him a bit of an odd one out, since many of today’s radical jihadi ideologues do make some claim to having studied Islamic law, creed or another, related subject at university or elsewhere. On the other hand, he is also not one of the many Islamists with a degree in engineering. While jihadis with a medical background are also not unheard of – Ayman al-Zawahiri comes to mind, of course – Qunaybi also seems to be an outlier in this respect.

Da’wa

Qunaybi’s lack of formal training in the Islamic “sciences” has not stopped him from engaging in calling others to Islam (da’wa). Starting in 1997, his website says, he and his friends started producing tapes that they handed out among Muslims after Friday services at various mosques. During this period – which coincided not only with his studies but also with Qunaybi’s publishing of a fair number of academic articles on pharmacological topics – he also engaged in listening to scholars’ tapes and reading Qur’anic exegesis. Interestingly, the ‘ulama’ whose books he read appear to have been rather diverse, including classical scholars like Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, radical Muslim Brothers like Sayyid Qutb, quietist Salafis like Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani and Jihadi-Salafis like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.

If Qunaybi’s website is to be believed, he also took individual lessons from numerous and – again – rather diverse scholars, which – after he returned to Jordan from the United States in 2003 – he began translating into da’wa activities in Jordan. His message was not uncontroversial, however, and his being influenced by some radical scholars as well as his choice of politically sensitive subjects such as the validity of democracy or the characteristics of the Khawarij ensured that he attracted the attention of the authorities in Jordan.

Prison

Given the sensitivity of the topics Qunaybi talked about in his sermons, talks and other da’wa activities and considering that the Jordanian regime was highly suspicious of such things at the time, it was perhaps not surprising that Qunaybi was arrested and imprisoned for twenty days in 2010. Only afterwards, some seven months after he’d been released, he was told what he had supposedly done wrong – having ties with foreign nations and recruiting for the Taliban – and was rearrested and imprisoned for two-and-a-half years.

Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi was also involved in this case at the time and was imprisoned along with Qunaybi. Given that the charges against al-Maqdisi were probably trumped up and used to take away the freedom of a man who was preaching a radical message relatively unimpeded, the same may well be true for Qunaybi. Both men were probably seen as a nuisance by the Jordanian regime, attracting followers and perhaps even gaining new adherents while not engaging in terrorist acts themselves.

Although al-Maqdisi had to serve his entire sentence, the public outcry that Qunaybi claims followed his own sentencing resulted in his having to serve only 470 days in prison and he was subsequently released on 4 January 2013, after which he went back to teaching at university and publishing on pharmacological topics. Qunaybi nevertheless speaks positively about his time in prison, stating on his website that he benefitted greatly from the isolation that it gave him, enabling him to read a lot, write a lot of poems and learn from the experiences of other Islamist prisoners, “their morals, their patience, their love for God the most high and the contemplation of the Qur’an”.

“Arab Spring”

Once out of prison, Qunaybi started making full use of social media, including YouTube (on which he has his own channel), Twitter (in English (@DrEyadQunaibi) and Arabic (@Dr_EyadQun)) and Facebook. Since then, Qunaybi has been extremely active on social media to state his points of view on a host of issues, perhaps particularly on what was still called the “Arab Spring” at the time. The revolts against Arab regimes were at their most successful when Qunaybi was in prison, but they had already begun to show signs of being derailed when he was released. It is this aspect that Qunaybi has commented on in particular.

Qunaybi takes a view of the revolts in the Arab world that differs entirely from how quietist Salafis – who reject the demonstrations and revolutions altogether – feel about them, but also from what the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – which saw the revolution as a good thing – believe. Unlike them, Qunaybi claims that the revolutions that have taken place should be completed by cleansing the states affected by these revolts of the deep states that are actually pulling the strings, rather than merely getting rid of the dictator at the top. While many a political scientist may sympathise with this analysis or even agree with it, it’s not one found (or at least not one talking as explicitly about “deep states”) among many Jihadi-Salafis.

A Jihadi-Salafi?

This brings up the question of whether Iyad Qunaybi can actually be seen as a Jihadi-Salafi. If we define Salafism – as I do in many publications on the subject, including this one – as the branch of Sunni Islam whose adherents claim to emulate “the pious predecessors” (al-salaf al-salih) as closely and in as many spheres of life as possible, we can see from the list of scholars whose work he read mentioned above that he was certainly no stranger to Salafism. Moreover, if we define Jihadi-Salafism – as I have done many times, for example here – as the branch of Salafism whose adherents do not limit jihad to fighting non-Muslims outside of the dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam) in either offensive or defensive wars, but who believe that jihad may also be used to fight the “apostate” rulers of the Muslim world itself, Qunaybi again seems sympathetic to that. His reading of Qutb and al-Maqdisi suggests as much, as do his personal closeness to the latter and his statements on the war in Syria (more on both these matters later).

Yet when I asked Qunaybi about this matter in a telephone conversation once, he refused to be labelled a (Jihadi-)Salafi. A more elaborate statement on this issue can be found in an article he wrote entitled “Does Iyad Qunaybi belong to Jihadi-Salafism?” In this article, he tells his readers that he’s often asked this question and replies that he is not part of any trend or movement. He does, however, like Jihadi-Salafis and calls for the release of their prisoners. They are closest to him, he claims, and advises them without actually being part of their trend or movement itself.

Democracy

Whatever the label he uses for himself, it is clear that Qunaybi’s views are rooted in ideas shared by many Jihadi-Salafis. He clearly rejects democracy, for example, and one reason he does so is that its rule is based on man-made laws (qawanin wad’iyya), rather than the shari’a. That, in Qunaybi’s view, is clearly sinful, as scholars established long before the “Arab Spring”. Islamist parties, he states, should not get involved in the democratic process, because that will cause them to moderate their views and abandon their principles. This, interestingly enough, is precisely what some political scientists have labelled the “inclusion-moderation thesis”: the idea that inclusion in the political process – with its need to compromise, forge coalitions and gain and retain power – will cause ideologically rigid groups to moderate their views.

Qunaybi’s alternative to Islamist political participation is simple: da’wa (the call to Islam) or jihad. This is more or less also the advice he gives to his readers and specifically to some of the people who have actually got involved in the political process in countries affected by the “Arab Spring”. He advises the former Egyptian Salafi presidential candidate Hazim Abu Isma’il not to get into politics, partly because “we want you to be with the dedicated callers [to Islam”. Qunaybi is also very much against cooperating with non-shari’a courts and founding political parties. Citing a fatwa by al-Maqdisi issued via the the Shari’a Council of the latter’s website, Qunaybi advises the Tunisian Ansar al-Shari’a group to refrain from appealing to secular courts. He similarly scolds the Egyptian Salafi political party Hizb al-Nur for their support for a “polytheistic” constitution and their ties to the army.

Syria

Another aspect of the “Arab Spring” – the revolt against the regime of President Bashar al-Asad in Syria – has also been discussed much by Qunaybi. From the start, it has been pretty clear that Qunaybi’s preference lies with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qa’ida. In May 2013, he praised its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, in an article and wished that he would be “a sting in the throats of the criminals”. Still, he advises all jihadis in Syria to stop fighting each other and to realise that all groups fighting the regime consist of Muslims. He even advised the then Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and had good things to say about its spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani.

Yet in late 2013, Qunaybi was forced to defend himself against the charge of singling out ISIS for criticism by pointing out that he had actually criticised a number of groups fighting in Syria. Still, Qunaybi was getting increasingly critical of ISIS, as were many others. In an article written in early 2014, he laments the fact that ISIS-leaders refuse independent arbitration between themselves and other militant groups in Syria and wonders whether, if ISIS only sees itself as legitimate, their project is really meant for the entire Muslim community, as the organisation claims it is. In the same article, he also regrets that jihadi infighting in Syria shows ordinary people that even jihadis themselves do not agree on the shari’a.

Beaten up

Qunaybi’s criticism went further than simply complaining about ISIS’s and later IS’s behaviour, however. In July 2014, after the organisation had changed its name into IS, Qunaybi published a series of articles (here, here and here) in which he clearly states that the announcement of a caliphate does not add anything to an organisation if it cannot back up its words with facts on the ground. Although he makes clear that establishing a caliphate is something he supports in principle, it needs to be viable through power and control over land. Crucially, Qunaybi also states that a caliphate should be there for the entire Muslim community, not just part of it, and that establishing a caliphate does not become a duty until Muslims are actually capable of doing so.

Not surprisingly, supporters of the Islamic State in Jordan did not take too kindly to Qunaybi’s criticism of IS. In response, several IS-supporters attacked and beat up Qunaybi with clubs, smashed the wind screen of his car, while apparently shouting pro-IS slogans. The attack was not only condemned by leaders of the Jordanian Jihadi-Salafi movement, but Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi – with whom he used to be imprisoned – even came round to his house to pay him a solidarity visit in which he strongly condemned the attack on Qunaybi and the use of such methods to deal with those who disagree with you.

Imprisoned again

And then, exactly a year ago today, amid his criticism of IS, it was reported that Qunaybi had been arrested again, this time for apparently “destroying the ruling regime“. A few days later, it became clear that he was actually accused of inciting against the regime and speaking ill of the American ambassador to Jordan on Facebook. Although it thus appeared as if Qunaybi was not as dangerous as reported at first, he was nevertheless refused bail the next month and his trial did not actually start until September 2015. As with so many other court cases in Jordan, the verdict of this one was announced as planned for late October but was actually delayed.

In December last year, however, Qunaybi was sentenced to two years in prison for inciting against the regime. Although the sentence was lower than the prosecution wanted (three years imprisonment), Qunaybi’s lawyer nevertheless protested that his client was not guilty of incitement against the regime at all. The original Facebook post that started all this, one article stated, had merely protested “the visit to Jordan by [then] President of the Zionist entity Shimon Peres, the meeting of homosexuals in Amman with the participation of the American ambassador to Jordan and normalisation practices with the Zionist entity”. Interestingly, the original Facebook post – which, surprisingly, can still be read here – is called “Jordan and the rush to the abyss” and does, indeed, deal with these issues and not so much with direct attacks on the regime.

Given his apparent innocence of the charges levelled against him, it was perhaps not surprising that Qunaybi sought to protest his sentence and he did so by going on hunger strike while in prison. It is not clear whether this was a factor in the Jordanian Court of Cassation’s decision, in March 2016, to reject Qunaybi’s original sentence, but in May it was decided that his original sentence should be reduced to the time he had already served. The fact that Qunaybi was not simply found “not guilty” annoyed his lawyer, but – in any case – on 17 May 2016, Qunaybi was released. Given the flimsy evidence against him, one might wonder why the regime decided to arrest him in the first place. The reason, quite simply, seems to be that the regime periodically wants to show people such as Qunaybi – i.e., people with radical ideas who do not pose a threat to the regime themselves – that they are being watched and that they must not overstep certain undefined boundaries or they will be arrested. Whether this “reminder” to Qunaybi to be careful and watch his words has actually worked remains to be seen: almost immediately after being released, Qunaybi was posting things on Facebook again.

 

It is still too early to predict the collapse of the Islamic State, but it is telling that the group’s own media, which usually keep to a narrative of unstoppable progress and battlefield success, have begun signaling decline. Last week, an editorial in the most recent issue of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter, al-Naba’ (“News”), well captured this new outlook. Titled “The Crusaders’ Illusions in the Age of the Caliphate,” it offers a grim view of the future, both for the Islamic State and for those seeking to destroy it. I provide a full translation below.

Much of the editorial echoes the downbeat sentiments expressed by the Islamic State’s official spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, in his recent audio statement of May 21 of this year. While in that statement ‘Adnani was sure to project a measure of confidence, remarking that the Islamic State is “becoming stronger with each passing day,” some of his comments betrayed the starker reality of a caliphate under siege. This was clear in the following queries: “Do you think, America, that victory will come by killing one or more leaders?” “Do you reckon, America, that defeat is the loss of a city or the loss of territory?” Responding to his own questions, ‘Adnani declared that killing the Islamic State’s leaders would not defeat the greater “adversary”—the group itself—and that taking its land would not eliminate its “will” to fight. Even if the Islamic State were to lose all its territories, he said, it could still go back to the way it was “at the beginning,” when it was “in the desert without cities and without territory.” The allusion here is to the experience of the Islamic State of Iraq, which between 2006 and 2012 held no significant territory despite its claim to statehood. For this reason it was derided as a “paper state.” ‘Adnani is thus suggesting that even if defeated the Islamic State could take refuge in the desert, rebuild, and return anew.

The editorial in al-Naba’ emphasizes the same themes. Like ‘Adnani’s speech, it suggests that the Islamic State could soon degenerate into a paper caliphate bereft of its land and leadership. And yet, it adds, this is no matter, for the cycle of Islamic State decline and revival will simply recur. America’s victory will once again prove illusory. If America seeks to claim real victory, it will have to eliminate an “entire generation” of caliphate supporters the world over.

These prognostications offer a striking contrast with those of the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, from just two years ago. Back then, in an audio address commemorating the start of the holy month of Ramadan, Baghdadi proclaimed the dawn of “a new age,” telling his supporters to “rejoice, take heart, and hold your heads high.” Today, it is Ramadan again, but the once proud and tall Baghdadi is nowhere to be seen. His last audio address was in December 2015. It has been left to ‘Adnani and the editorial team at al-Naba’ to deliver the bad news. The message of these sources could be summed up in the phrase, “brace yourselves for a long and difficult ride.” There remains, however, a hopeful sense that Baghdadi’s “new age” will endure—an age in which the caliphate may rise and fall, but will never truly be erased.

“The Crusaders’ Illusions in the Age of the Caliphate”

The warriors of jihad did not lie against God or against the Muslims when they announced the establishment of the Islamic State. Nor did they lie when they said it would remain, God willing. And they did not lie against God or against the Muslims when they announced the return of the caliphate and chose an imam [viz., caliph] for the Muslims, as they did not lie when they said it would remain, God willing.

The crusaders and their apostates clients are under the illusion that, by expanding the scope of their military campaign to include, in addition to the provinces of Iraq and Sham, the provinces of Khurasan, the Sinai, and West Africa, as well as the Libyan provinces, they will be able to eliminate all of the Islamic State’s provinces at once, such that it will be completely wiped out and no trace of it will be left. In this they are neglecting an important fact, which is that the whole world after the announcement of the caliphate’s return has changed from how it was before its return, and that by building plans and developing strategies in view of a previous reality, they are making plans for a world that no longer exists at present, and will not exist in the future, God willing.

Just as the Iraq war before exposed the truth of the power of the world-dominating crusaders, demonstrating the possibility of defeating them and showing Muslims that jihad is the only way to establish the state and implement the sharia, so the establishment of the Islamic State revealed to them that the return of the caliphate is something possible without first having to adopt the enfeebling ideas developed by factions and parties claiming to be Islamic, which parties with their ideas sowed hopelessness in Muslims’ hearts about the possibility of establishing the religion before the appearance of the Mahdi and the descent of Jesus, on whom be peace.

Therefore, the polytheists everywhere ought to be sure that the caliphate will remain, God willing, and that they will not be able to eliminate it by destroying one of its cities or besieging another of them, or by killing a soldier, an emir, or an imam—we ask God to protect them all and maintain them as a thorn in the eyes of the polytheists and apostates. For the Muslims after today will not accept to live without an imam guiding them upon the prophetic path: an imam around whom they can gather, behind whom they can wage jihad, to whom they can deliver a fifth of the booty and pay the zakat tax, following thereby the practice of the companions, may God be pleased with them, whom the death of the Prophet, may God bless and save him, did not prevent from choosing for themselves someone to succeed him in establishing the religion and implementing the sharia.

They ought to know that after today they will not be able to deceive the Muslims with idolatrous regimes ascribing sharia qualities to themselves, or with wayward parties and organizations claiming to raise the banner of Islam, while these adopt the pagan beliefs of democracy, patriotism, and others, and make war on those who call to God’s pure oneness and seek to unite the community of Muslims.

The State of the Caliphate has shown all mankind what the true Islamic state is like, how the sharia is applied in full and not in part, how polytheism is destroyed from the earth in which God establishes the monotheists, and how “the religion is God’s entirely” (Q. 8:39). It has thus done away with all the myths of popular support, all the lies of gradualism, and all the fears of the revenge of the crusaders.

They ought to be sure that their terrorizing of Muslims will no longer be effective, that their scaring them from establishing the religion will no longer be effective either, and that the jihad warriors have rejected the argument of the unbelievers when they said, “If we follow the guidance that is with you [O Muhammad], we will be snatched away from our land” (Q. 28:57), as they have rejected their fear of those other than God and their dread of them. What their actions have begun to say is: “We will follow the guidance, establish the religion, compel the community, and fight for this till our heads are cracked open and our limbs are torn apart. Then we will meet God, having been deprived of excuse.” There is no greater evidence of this than the pledges of allegiance, one after the other, to the Commander of the Believers, in spite of the vicious crusader campaign against the Islamic State and its soldiers, to which thousands of jihad warriors have rushed from east and west to throw themselves into the furnace of this war, preferring death under the banner of the community to life in the shadow of the ignorance of factions and parties.

They ought to reevaluate and redesign their plans on this basis. If they want to achieve true victory—and they will not, God willing—then they will have to wait a long while: till an entire generation of Muslims that was witness to the establishment of the Islamic State and the return of the caliphate, and that followed the story of its standing firm against all the nations of unbelief, is wiped out—a generation that knew God’s oneness and saw its adherents, that learned how to make of the doctrine of association and dissociation a lived reality, and how to make of the Qur’an, the Prophet’s practice, and adherence to the ancestors a path of life.

They will have to wait till this entire generation is over to reproduce the generation that was raised at the hands of idolatrous rulers, that grew up under the care of wayward parties and at the hands of evil shaykhs and palace scholars. For the generation that has lived in the shadow of the caliphate, or has lived during its great battles, will be able—God willing—to keep its banner aloft, as was the generation that grew up in the shadow of the Islamic State of Iraq able to bring it back in a stronger form than before, after the crusaders and their clients thought that it had been eliminated and that its trace had vanished from the earth.

The Islamic State will remain, God willing, and the caliphate will remain, God willing, upon the prophetic method, “till there is no persecution [viz., polytheism] and the religion is God’s entirely” (Q. 8:39).

The Extremist Wing of the Islamic State

Posted: 9th June 2016 by Tore Hamming in Islamic State of Iraq

[Welcome to Tore Hamming, a PhD candidate at the European University Institute working on inter-movement dynamics within Sunni Jihadism with a special focus on the al-Qaida-Islamic State relationship. You can follow him on Twitter @Torerhamming.]

 

In a chapter titled “Destructive Doctrinarians,” the author Brynjar Lia describes Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s critique of Salafi rigidity in doctrinal matters. Suri, a Syrian strategist associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and later al-Qaida, fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and was a supporter of the Taliban. Unlike Suri, many of the Arab foreign fighters in the region despised the Taliban, especially the Saudis and Egyptians who considered them religiously deviant.[1] According to Suri, their extreme focus on correct doctrine became a severe obstacle to successful jihad.[2]

There is a similar debate today inside the Islamic State, despite the group’s reputation for religious extremism and uniform belief.[3] The hardline of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is soft in the eyes of some of his followers, and the very doctrine the State uses to justify violence against its enemies is being turned in on itself.

Fragmentation within the Islamic State

In a recent interview this author did with an al-Qaida sympathizer, the interviewee described how the Islamic State ideologically can be divided into two movements: People following Turki al-Bin’ali, the Head of the Fatwa Committee in the Islamic State, and people following Ahmad al-Hāzimi, a Saudi Salafi sheikh imprisoned in the kingdom since April 2015.[4] Because of the rivalry between al-Qaida and the Islamic State one always have to be careful with accusations made by one group about the other, but when looking further into the debate and discussing it with Islamic State supporters,[5] it is clear that a dispute is ongoing between the two factions.

The dispute has to do with whether someone can be excommunicated if they are ignorant of a religious requirement. The Hāzimis, as the followers of Ahmad al-Hāzimi are referred to, adopt the position that ignorance is no excuse and argue that those who excuse the ignorant are themselves infidels. This position eventually led one of the trend’s most prominent figures to excommunicate Abu Bakr al-Baghdādī. The dispute has now spread to include senior theorists within or at least affiliated with the Islamic State and has filtered down to its rank-and-file members who discuss the matter intensively on platforms like Twitter and Telegram. The initial response of Islamic State was to handle the issue by executing the proponents of the Hāzimi trend.

In September 2014, the Islamic State executed one of its Shari’a judges Husain Rida Lare (aka Abu Umar al-Kuwaiti) under mysterious circumstances. Originally from Kuwait, Abu Umar allegedly entered Syria in 2012 where he established the Soldiers of the Caliphate battalion, which developed into Jama’at al-Muslimin before finally pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.[6] Already before joining the Islamic State, the vocal Abu Umar became infamous for his takfīri inclination when he pronounced takfīr on Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.[7] As a Shari’a judge in the Islamic State Abu Umar also argued in favor of pronouncing takfīr on Ayman al-Zawahiri because the al-Qaida leader was unwilling to make takfīr on the Shia as a group; he claimed that Zawahiri was subscribing to the principle of ignorance as an excuse.[8]

Abu Umar finally proclaimed al-Baghdadi to be an infidel. The Islamic State responded by executing him for his “excessive takfīri tendencies”.[9]

Abu Umar al-Kuwaiti was a follower of the so-called Hāzimi trend within the Islamic State, which refers to followers of the Saudi sheikh Ahmad al-Hāzimi. The currently-imprisoned Hāzimi is not officially part of the Islamic State, but many of his followers are. Hāzimi is the main proponent of the principle that ignorance is not an excuse and he claims furthermore that if a person does not excommunicate a Muslim who merits it then he becomes an infidel himself.[10] Based on this principle, Zawahiri is considered an infidel because he does not excommunicate the Shia and Baghdadi is an infidel because he did not excommunicate Zawahiri.

A member of the Islamic State told me that the “al-Hāzimi manhaj [methodology] ideology is forbidden within Dawlah [the Islamic State] due to its extremism and wrong understanding of the 3rd nullifier of Islam”.[11] In the words of the former Saudi mufti Abdelaziz bin Baz, the third nullifier of Islam refers to “Whoever does not hold the polytheists to be disbelievers, or has doubts about their disbelief or considers their ways and beliefs to be correct, has committed disbelief.”[12] To say that this Hāzimi ideology is forbidden within the Islamic State is probably a too formalistic way of looking at it as – at least to the author’s knowledge.

No official ruling or communication has been issued on the matter by Islamic State officials. However, it is clear that the Hāzimis are not being tolerated within the movement. When I first asked an Islamic State source whether he knew of “al-Hāzimi”, he answered “Hāzimi the takfīri?” This sums up how al-Hāzimi and his followers are perceived even within the Islamic State.

Ahmad al-Hāzimi himself has not commented on the dispute between his followers and the Islamic State. This is partly because he has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since 28 April 2015 and thus prevented from any public comments; it’s also because he tries to abstain from engaging in this kind of discussion. Hence you will not find lectures of Hāzimi pronouncing takfīr on anyone or commenting on tangible disputes. He is rather providing the interpretations, or tools, that his eager followers can then apply. Another example of such ‘facilitation’ is when Hāzimi argues that everyone can proclaim takfīr on a group or an individual and that it is not a privilege of religious scholars,[13] thus enabling his followers to attack people they do not consider to follow the correct manhaj (methodology).

The Islamic State leadership’s clamp down on proponents of the Hāzimi trend did not stop with the execution of Abu Umar al-Kuwaiti. In August 2014, the month before Abu Umar was executed, a number of second rank Islamic State leaders and members were arrested also charged with accusations of excessive takfīr. The most prominent were Abu Jāfar Al-Hattab and Abu Musāb Al-Tunisi. Al-Hattab, a former member of the Shari’a Committee of the Tunisian Ansar al-Shari’a group, had released an audio recording declaring his view on takfīr including his rejection of ignorance as an excuse to excommunicate other Muslims. Some supporters of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State accused al-Hattab of issuing a fatwa stating that all opponents of the Islamic State are infidels, much like the GIA fatwa from 1996[14] that proclaimed takfīr on the entire Algerian population. Al-Tunisi was emir in Deir ez-Zour, but became unpopular within the Islamic State ranks when he allegedly called the Taliban and former al-Qaida leader Usama bin Laden infidels.[15] Although al-Tunisi himself dismissed the takfīr charge as hypothetical, he clearly falls into the Hāzimi trend. He also pronounced takfīr on AQIM and Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia.[16] Like al-Kuwaiti, al-Hattab and al-Tunisi were executed by the Islamic State[17] although little information seem to exist on al-Tunisi’s death. Other supporters of the doctrine were arrested.

 

Takfīr on Twitter

The dispute within the Islamic State has recently erupted again online. Since the start of May this year, several long debates between Bin’ali supporters and the Hāzimis have taken place on Twitter,[18] with each side accusing the other of extremism and deviance. Supporters of the Bin’ali trend frame Hāzimis as khawārij and ghulāt (extremist) while claiming their methodology results in “chain takfīr”. The Hāzimis retort that Bin’ali’s supporters are murji’a (“postponers” who accept the principle of ignorance as excuse) and that their loyalty is to people rather than to God.

The recent resurgence of the dispute has not gone unnoticed in official Islamic State circles. On 12 May 2016 an Islamic State affiliated Telegram channel[19] (re-)published several pieces on the issue of takfīr as a critique of the Hāzimi trend. First, it re-published an explanation titled “Details regarding the questions of takfīr on al ‘āthir” by the Saudi sheikh ‘Alī Al Khudayr, originally from March 2016, in which he gives his interpretation of the third nullifier of Islam.[20] This was followed by a piece on the Ansaru Khilafah website on the same topic, but attached with the Islamic State’s official interpretation of the third nullifier as it is taught at their military camps.[21] From this document it is clear that the Islamic State’s position on takfīr follows the interpretation of Turki al-Bin’ali rather than the Hāzimis.

This is not the first time that the Islamic State feels the need to engage in the dispute. Al Ghuraba Media Foundation, which is an unofficial Islamic State communication channel, previously published four articles and one book criticizing the methodology of Ahmad al-Hāzimi.

The Islamic State also continues to crackdown on followers of the Hāzimi in its ranks. A Hāzimi source, who does not consider himself part of the Islamic State, told me that the Islamic State recently executed another 15 Hāzimi supporters and that many have been put in prison. This raises the question, why are the Hāzimi joining the Islamic State in the first place and why do they not leave the movement when they come under attack? This there are no clear answers when talking to both Bin’ali supporters and Hāzimis. Perhaps it’s because the Islamic State is the Jihadi-Salafi movement that comes closest to the doctrine and manhaj of the Hāzimis. Perhaps many Hāzimis joined the Islamic State before they were influenced by the teachings of Ahmad al-Hāzimi. Or perhaps leaving the Islamic State is not as easy as one may imagine. As another Hāzimi source told me, they are often not welcome in their countries of origin and, the Islamic State will kill them if they try to leave. But as it is now, staying within the Islamic State but sticking to their belief seems just as dangerous for the Hāzimis.

A Path to Self-Destruction?

In her book ‘The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction’, Nelly Lahoud argues that jihadis’ reliance on the concept of al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ (loyalty and disavowal) will eventually lead to the movement’s fragmentation and destruction. When the latter part of the concept, disavowal, is taken to its extreme it results in groups or individuals excommunicating one another. This was what happened with some Kharijite groups during Islam’s second civil war and the Islamic State confronts the same problem today.

So far, the confrontation between supporters of the Bin’ali and the Hāzimis has not destroyed the Islamic State as an organization. The Hāzimis are a small minority within the organization and are not represented on a leadership level – especially not after the string of executions in 2014 when the Islamic State killed or imprisoned the leading proponents of the trend.

But excessive takfirism does run the risk of severely fragmenting a movement that is already showing signs of decay in some aspects. Twitter is now full of debates between the two trends, which extend far beyond the organization. The dispute is not about tactics, strategy, or power ambitions, which characterize the conflict between the Islamic State and al-Qaida. Rather, it is a doctrinal dispute over the acceptable boundaries of Muslim belief and practice. As an Islamic State supporter argues, “The dispute between the followers of Hāzimi is deeper than Dawla’s [Islamic State] dispute with JN [Jabhat al-Nusra]”. Although it will not cause the downfall of the Islamic State, the group’s leaders can no longer focus solely on the enemy outside. Its own extremism has bred a new enemy within that may one day challenge it just as ISIS challenged al-Qaeda.

[1] A survey conducted by jihadis in Afghanistan in the late 1980s shows that members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad believed “nothing is to be hoped for from the war in Afghanistan, nor will there arise an Islamic State there, on account of doctrinal/ideological defects among the leaders and the masses.” Paul Cruickshank, “Al-Qaeda’s New Course Examining Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s Strategic Direction,” IHS, May 2012.

[2] Brynjar Lia, “‘Destructive Doctrinarians’: Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri’s Critique of the Salafis in the Jihadi Current,” in Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, ed. R Meijer (London: Hurst & Company, 2009), 281–300.

[3] Ayman Al-Zawahiri, “March Forth to Sham!,” As-Sahab Media, May 2016, www.justpaste.it/u576.

[4] Author’s interview with Ahmad al-Hamdan, May 2016.

[5] Based on several interviews the author did with Islamic State supporters through Twitter, April-May 2016.

[6] Abdallah Suleiman Ali, “IS Disciplines Some Emirs to Avoid Losing Base,” Al Monitor, September 2, 2014, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2014/09/is-takfiri-caliphate.html.

[7] Jérôme Drevon, “How Syria’s War Is Dividing the Egyptian Jihadi Movement,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 9, 2014, http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=54139.

[8] Abdal Wahid Al-Ansari, “انقلب السحر.. «داعش» يكفّر بعضه بعضاً .. والبغدادي يَعتْقِلُ رجاله لـ«المناصحة»!,” Al-Hayat, 2014, http://www.alhayat.com/Articles/4257230/انقلب-السحر—-داعش–يكفّر-بعضه-بعضاً—-والبغدادي-يَعتْقِلُ-رجاله-لـ-المناصحة-. See also the following debate forum on this issue: http://www.dd-sunnah.net/forum/showthread.php?t=173503

[9] “ISIS Executes One of Its Sharia Judges,” Middle East Monitor, March 10, 2015, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20150310-isis-executes-one-of-its-sharia-judges/.

[10] For Hāzimi audio on ignorance as excuse, see Youtube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oURlSSItr4I

For Hāzimi audio on the pronouncement of takfir on a person who do not make takfir on a kāfir, see Youtube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuJkKXeivps

[11] Author’s interview with Islamic State supporter on Twitter, May 2016.

[12] For explanation of the Nullifiers of Islam, see Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz, “The Nullifiers of Islaam”: https://theclearsunnah.wordpress.com/2007/05/05/10-nullifiers-of-islam/

[13] See Ahmad al-Hāzimi, “Takfir is not a boogeyman,” [Youtube Video], 2016, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuJkKXeivps [Accessed May 11, 2016].

[14] Middle East Monitor, “ISIS Executes One of Its Sharia Judges.”

[15] Ali, “IS Disciplines Some Emirs to Avoid Losing Base.” and https://justpaste.it/el0d

[16] For Abu Musab al-Tunisi’s takfir on AQIM and Ansar al-Shari’a, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvHnfeaBQ9E

[17] Raniah Salloum, “Streit Über Scharia-Auslegung: IS Lässt Eigenen Richter Hinrichten,” Spiegel Online, March 12, 2015, http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/islamischer-staat-koepft-seinen-schaerfsten-richter-a-1023127.html.

[18] For Twitter debates examples, see https://twitter.com/LaysalGhareebM/status/729713368550932481 and  https://twitter.com/Wideyed90/status/727028979593523200

[19] Link to the Telegram channel https://telegram.me/constantsofjihad7 [worked on 13/05/2016]

[20] Alī Al Khudayr, “Details Regarding the Masā’il of Takfīr on Al  ‘Āthir,” Published on March 17, 2016, https://justpaste.it/AliAlKhudayrAthir.

[21] Ansary Khilafa, “The Talk Regarding the Third Nullifier – a Light on the Matter,” May 11, 2016, https://ansarukhilafah.wordpress.com/2016/05/11/the-talk-regarding-the-third-nullifier-a-light-on-the-matter/.

Two months ago, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the leading Jihadi-Salafi scholar known for his fierce opposition to the Islamic State and support for al-Qaida, released an essay that was widely interpreted as a softening of his position toward the Islamic State. As Hassan Hassan recently pointed out, al-Maqdisi has made other pronouncements of late that would seem to point in the same direction, including a December 2015 tweet in which he said: “There is nothing to stop me from reassessing my position towards the [Islamic] State and enraging the entire world by supporting it…”

But is al-Maqdisi really ready to reassess his position? The answer is no, though he has added a little nuance and hope to it over the past year. In the same tweet, al-Maqdisi conditioned his potential reassessment on “the Islamic State reassessing its position toward excommunicating, killing, and slandering those Muslims who oppose it.” He knows that this is not in the offing.

Al-Maqdisi has actually always been a bit softer on the Islamic State than some of his peers in the jihadi scholarly community. The differences between them and himself come out clearly in his most recent essay, but have actually been on display in his writings for almost a year now. The differences center on two key questions: Should the Islamic State be considered a group of Kharijites (in reference to the radical early Islamic sect by that name)? And should it be fought proactively or only in self-defense? Al-Maqdisi is against labeling them as Kharijites, and he is against fighting them proactively. It is a position with potential implications for the future unity of the Jihadi-Salafi movement—or so he would like to think.

Four scholars and a fatwa

In assessing al-Maqdisi’s position, it is helpful to view him in the company of three other jihadi scholars of like mind, age, and stature: Abu Qatada al-Filastini (b. 1960), Hani al-Siba‘i (b. 1961), and Tariq ‘Abd al-Halim (b. 1948). Like al-Maqdisi (b. 1959), Abu Qatada is of Palestinian origin and lives openly in Jordan; al-Siba‘i and ‘Abd al-Halim are Egyptians living openly in London and Canada, respectively. In September 2015, in the first installment of his (very boring) six-part audio series on “the Islamic Spring,” al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri singled out these four for praise, describing them as strong supporters of al-Qaida amid the controversy surrounding the Islamic State. Yet while Zawahiri lauded these “scholars of jihad” for remaining “steadfast upon the truth,” they were not all on the same message when it came to confronting the so-called caliphate.

The differences between them began to surface in the aftermath of a fatwa issued jointly by al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada, and several others in early June 2015. Al-Maqdisi had already, a year earlier, denounced the Islamic State as a “deviant” group that should be abandoned in favor of al-Qaida. This fatwa was his first public statement on the permissibility of fighting the group. It was prompted by the Islamic State’s assault on certain Syrian Islamist groups in the Suran area of Hama, Syria. Describing the Islamic State as “the Baghdadi-ists” (al-Baghdadiyyin), it authorized repelling their assault on the grounds that doing so was legitimate “defense of the assault of those assailing Muslim lands.” Whether the assailants were Muslim or not was beside the point, the fatwa stated. The Islamic State was oppressive, aggressive, and flawed in methodology.

For al-Siba‘i and ‘Abd al-Halim, however, the fatwa did not go nearly far enough in condemning the Islamic State. Responding on social media, the two Egyptians decried the term “Baghdadi-ists”—a weak insult and an offense to Baghdad—and called for a more proactive approach. Al-Siba‘i wrote that fighting the Islamic State should not be limited by the principles of defensive warfare, as this would all but ensure further aggression by the group. Its fighters would retreat to safety only to return once again “to cut off heads and blow things up in homes, mosques, and markets.” ‘Abd al-Halim made the same argument, adding that the Islamic State should be fought so as “to root them out” and that its members ought to be described as Kharijites. The spat attracted some media attention, with one site making a collage of the four scholars.

Resisting the Kharijite label

The battle lines seemed clear enough. Al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada were on one side, al-Siba‘i and ‘Abd al-Halim on the other. But there was also a minor difference between al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada concerning the appropriateness of pronouncing the Islamic State Kharijites. Al-Maqdisi refrained from doing so, while Abu Qatada did so liberally. The difference, however, as both have admitted, was only surface deep.

In late June 2015, following the jointly issued fatwa, Abu Qatada issued another fatwa on the same subject, which al-Maqdisi endorsed. Titled “A Fatwa Concerning Defending Against the Assault of the Kharijites,” it came in response to some Libyan questioners facing a conundrum. Jihadis themselves who were fighting the Islamic State, they had qualms about wishing ill on the “the Kharijites” (i.e., the Islamic State) when they came under aerial attack by the forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar, leader of one side in Libya’s civil war. Abu Qatada assured his correspondents that their wishes were appropriate, but he reminded them that these “Kharijites” were still preferable to the “apostates” constituting Haftar’s forces. He clarified that by “Kharijites” he did not mean all those fighting on behalf of the Islamic State, but only “its leaders, commanders, and overseers.”

As his endorsement indicates, al-Maqdisi’s views were the same. But he resisted using the Kharijite label even with Abu Qatada’s qualification.

In a short essay written about the same time as Abu Qatada’s fatwa, titled “Why Have I Not Called Them Kharijites Even Till Now?” al-Maqdisi explains his reasoning. He begins by noting that many jihadis who oppose the Islamic State, which he describes as “the State Group” (Jama‘at al-Dawla), have lambasted him for refusing to use the Kharijite label. Some have even purportedly told him “that many men and scholars have temporized in fighting them, using the fact that I do not call them Kharijites as evidence.” But al-Maqdisi says it is wrong for anyone to see in his reluctance to use the term any indication of “praise or accommodation.” For, he affirms, some of the group’s members are “worse than Kharijites.” To illustrate the point, he relates part of the story of his attempted negotiation with the Islamic State for the life of the Jordanian pilot Mu‘adh al-Kasasiba, who was immolated in a well-known video released in February 2015. That the negotiation was a hoax dawned on al-Maqdisi when the group sent him a password-protected file containing the video, the password being “al-Maqdisi the cuckold…” (This confirms the Guardian report with similar details.) Al-Maqdisi holds Islamic State leaders Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani personally responsible for the slight. They are Kharijites through-and-through.

Yet for al-Maqdisi, the fact remains that not all of the Islamic State’s members are Kharijites. He does not fault Abu Qatada for using the label with qualification, but he will not use it himself since “most people do not know and do not understand this qualification.” The Kharijite label might lead people to fight the Islamic State “in order to root them out,” which would only serve “the interests of the idolatrous rulers,” the West, and the Shia. One must, he says, still hope that the Islamic State prevails against these enemies, notwithstanding its deviations. One cannot “support the apostates against them.” He also suggests that declining to call the group Kharijites could help in reaching out to certain of its fighters and in encouraging them to repent.

Not to be rooted out

In mid-March 2016, al-Maqdisi released the essay mentioned at the top of this post. It is mostly an extended justification of his position toward the Islamic State. He notes that “most of [the Islamic State’s] enemies” find his position “oppressive” but that he is going to stick to his guns, defending “the State Group” against the charge of Kharijism and criticizing those who fight it “in order to root it out.” According to his own account, al-Maqdisi delayed releasing the essay several times lest it appear at a “bad time” and be interpreted as justifying the Islamic State’s crimes. But with many in the Syrian opposition cooperating with the West and Turkey to fight the group, even accepting Western arms and directing the airstrikes of the U.S.-led coalition, he decided the time was finally right. The Islamic State, for all its faults, is still in al-Maqdisi’s opinion preferable to groups fighting on behalf of democracy—a form of polytheism in his opinion—and seeking the help of nonbelievers against Muslims—the Islamic State’s members still being Muslims in his view.

Al-Maqdisi reiterates his view that the Islamic State is not to a man a group of Kharijites, and argues that, even if it were, this is irrelevant. For even the Kharijites were still Muslims, he says, claiming the support of the majority view of Sunni Muslim scholars throughout history.

What has upset him in particular is the use—or misuse—by certain opposition groups in Syria of two Islamic texts concerning the Kharijites. The first is a statement attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, who says of the Kharijites that “if I could reach them, I would kill them as the the ‘Adites were killed.” The ‘Adites, as described in the Qur’an, were a recalcitrant Arabian tribe who rejected the preaching of the Prophet Hud, one of Muhammad’s prophetic predecessors. The importance of Muhammad’s statement lies in its suggestion that he would fight the Kharijites aggressively, not just in self-defense. The second text is a fatwa to the same effect by Ibn Taymiyya, the fourteenth-century Hanbali scholar from Syria whose writings form the theological backbone of Salafism. Ibn Taymiyya describes the Kharijites as worse than mere political “rebels,” ruling that they should be pursued until destroyed. Both texts thus suggest a “rooting out” approach to the Kharijites.

Al-Maqdisi argues that such texts are inapplicable to the case of the Islamic State. He rejects the comparison of the group with the early Kharijites for the reason that the Islamic State has good intentions—indeed better intentions than many of its opponents in the Syrian theater—while the early Kharijites did not. In his view the Islamic State is seeking, however misguidedly, to implement God’s law, and so possesses “an exculpatory interpretation” (ta’wil). This is in contrast with the early Kharijites, who rebelled against God’s law.

Al-Maqdisi also expresses hope that the Islamic State can reform itself, noting the potential for more moderate elements in the group to take over. “I know,” he says, “as the Shaykh [Abu Qatada al-Filastini] knows, that in the [Islamic] State are those who oppose al-‘Adnani and even hope that he and those extremists like him will fade.”

As was to be expected, the Islamic State’s opponents censured al-Maqdisi for allegedly softening his position toward it. In early April, he responded with a statement printed in the Jordanian press, avowing that he had not changed his mind at all: he still condemns the Islamic State’s actions in terms of spilling Muslim blood and believes that Muslims should fight it in self-defense.

An eternal olive branch

In considering al-Maqdisi’s hopeful outlook, one should recall just how wrong he has been about the Islamic State before. In early 2014, he thought he could bring about a reconciliation between the Islamic State and al-Qaida. He wrote to al-Baghdadi and one of his chief religious authorities, Turki al-Bin‘ali, only to be spurned. A year later, he was duped by the group for a whole month into thinking he was negotiating for the pilot al-Kasasiba, only to be spurned again. His read on the Islamic State does not appear to be very good. The optimist in him cannot help but ceaselessly extend the olive branch.

It is also important to note that al-Maqdisi has failed to set the tone of al-Qaida’s messaging vis-à-vis the Islamic State. Just this week, Ayman al-Zawahiri deployed the Kharijite label against the group for the first time, describing it as “neo-Kharijites.” Zawahiri still called for unity among jihadis in the face of the “crusader” aggression, but the hardening of his rhetoric seems at odds with al-Maqdisi’s more hopeful expressions. The Syrian al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, meanwhile, has long referred to the Islamic State as Kharijites, even using the Prophet’s statement about the ‘Adites. The jihadi civil war is nowhere near over.

ISIS and Israel

Posted: 6th November 2015 by Will McCants in Islamic State of Iraq, Israel

[Jihadica is pleased to welcome Dana Hadra. You can find her on Twitter @dhadra20. -ed.]

 

On October 23, 2015, ISIS released its first video in Hebrew addressing “the Jews occupying Muslim lands.” “Not one Jew will remain in Jerusalem,” a masked ISIS member warns. “Do what you want in the meantime, but then we will make you pay ten times over.” This video is the latest in a string of statements made by ISIS threatening to invade Israel and slaughter its citizens.

Does ISIS’s rhetoric match its strategic reality? Does it really have its sights set on Israel?

To be sure, Israel has seen an uptick in ISIS activity along its southern border in recent months. In July 2015 ISIS’s Egyptian affiliate “Wilayat Sinai” claimed responsibility for three rockets that exploded in southern Israel. The Gaza-based jihadist organization Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigade, which might have ties to ISIS, launched a rocket attack on the Israeli port city of Ashdod in May 2015.

ISIS itself makes the occasional threat. In February 2008, for example, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, then leader of the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), announced his intention to oversee “the liberation of Al-Aqsa,” stating, “…we ask God and hope that the [Islamic State of Iraq] will be the cornerstone for the return of Jerusalem.” In widely circulated videos released in June 2014, an ISIS member states that Anbar is “only a stone’s throw away from Al-Aqsa Mosque.” In another video message released in July 2015, ISIS members threaten to “uproot the state of Jews,” which will be “run over by our [ISIS] creeping crowds.”  More recently, ISIS released a series of videos encouraging Palestinians to engage in lone wolf attacks against Jews. “Bring back horror to the Jews with explosions, burnings, and stabbings,” says one ISIS militant in a propaganda video, circulated with the hashtag “#The_slaughter_of_ Jews.”

Despite its threats, ISIS tanks won’t be rolling into the Holy Land anytime soon. Overthrowing the Israeli government is not a pressing priority for the ISIS high command. It’s more interested in taking over Sunni lands where state authority has broken down. Dabiq, ISIS’s English-language magazine, summarizes its strategy: weaken Muslim governments through terrorism, thereby creating security vacuums (literally, “chaos” or tawahhush). ISIS fighters will move in and  establish new state-like structures (idarat). So far, ISIS has stuck to this plan; its fighters are most active and successful in areas where there is a security void. Israel, which has one of the mightiest militaries in the Middle East, is the opposite of a security void.

Theologically, the defeat of Israel is also a low priority. Unusual for a Sunni group, ISIS is motivated by Islamic prophecies of the End Times—or at least pays a lot of lip service to them. Those prophecies envisage the conquest of Jerusalem and a war with the Jews as the final act in the End Times drama. ISIS is still in the first act, the reestablishment of the caliphate. It still has to spread the caliphate throughout the world and defeat the Christian infidels.

So despite its combative messaging, ISIS’s threats to storm Israel are empty, meant to recruit Muslims angry about the occupation rather than signal an invasion. ISIS is focused on consolidating its state and expanding it into Sunni Muslim lands; its gaze will remained fixed on Jerusalem but it won’t try to plant its flag there anytime soon.

The “Islamic State’s” Networks of Influence

Posted: 26th October 2015 by Nico Prucha in Strategy
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The media strategy of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (IS) is effective and successful. The professional use of social media to project a coherent worldview has enabled IS to be both resilient to account takedowns on social media platform and attempts to deploy “counter-narratives” (or: “alternative narratives”) against the group. IS publishes videos on an almost daily basis: from gruesome execution videos the group is notorious for to movies showing the “statehood” and reconstruction of infrastructure, IS deploys a rich blend of narratives that are conveyed in pictures and related to a corpus of writings of thirty years of jihadism. By establishing a “state” (Arabic: dawla) and by rendering the borders between Syria and Iraq as irrelevant, IS has realized what AQ has pledged for decades: to erode the borders of Sykes-Picot and establish a “state” on the very theological grounds of extremist interpretation.

IS embodies the “new AQ”, applying AQ ideology within territories in the Sunni-Arabic heartlands of Syria, Iraq, and to a varying decree in Libya, Sinai Peninsula, Yemen etc. Hence, the majority of foreign fighters among the rows of IS are Arabs and the overwhelming majority of IS videos are in Arabic, addressing and targeting a likewise rich and disperse Arab(ic) target audience.

By projecting a physical “Islamic State”, IS embodies a positive worldview, provides a clear cut videotaped “Sunni Muslim identity” and uses Arab and non-Arab foreign fighters for their media productions to boost the image of this “state”.

Fighting for Hegemony: Claiming Sunni-Muslim identity and “Prophetic Methodology”

This is a fight for hegemony and identity: what does it mean, being a Sunni Muslim in times of war and sectarianism? To answer these questions, the “Islamic State” has taken the lead in producing mainly Arabic language videos to incite a global Arab audience by popularizing their fighters, ideologues and preachers as ultimate role models, modern day Islamic warriors, or simply as defenders of Sunni communities in time of suffering. IS is a Arab movement fighting for independence, yet welcoming non-Arab Muslim foreign fighters into their ranks who are used strategically and on a tactical level for jihadist media, the battlefield or the hinterland where they can be of value to the state-building efforts. Non-Arab foreign fighters tend to address their target audience in their respective language, and oftentimes are featured in special videos with Arabic and non-Arabic titles. This accounts for Brits, Germans, Austrians, French, Russians, and so on, while the overwhelming majority of IS and AQ videos are in Arabic featuring native Arabs.

With the influx of foreign fighters among the ranks of The Islamic State from the European Union and the United States, the use of social media has reached an unprecedented dimension – with an immense input from both Arab and non-Arab foreign fighters in various languages on respective social media sites. These foreign fighters have the potential to have particular resonance for Islamic communities in their respective countries of origin, as the grievances and framing of “injustice” can vary depending on the local context, while the ideology is tied into the Arabic religious reasoning as expressed by writings and most important as conveyed by audio-visual means. With Arabic as the most important language for Islam, as the Qur’an is the speech of God (kalimat allah), revealed in Arabic, the lingua jihadica is likewise Arabic. Arabic key words of the jihadist segment, as a consequence, have become a mainstream substrate in many non-Arabic languages where Islam has found a home, providing non-Arabic speaking sympathizers of jihad an everyday slang to identify with and to use for their religious rituals and codes of identification. This is of importance when studying Arabic jihadist materials, perhaps even more so important in regards of the social media jihad, as the questions and answers provided within this framework for operational or plainly ideological purposes produce new key words for the jihadist lingual substrate worldwide.

Sympathizers and media operatives use key words strategically alike with the aim to widen the appeal of the jihadist ideology, while assuming a monopoly over the mainly Qur’anic terminology in by extremist definitions. Deriving from the original Arabic, the key words are transcribed in Latin letters and are the most integral part of any non-Arabic language production. The use of these key words is significant to grade and understand what impact the Arabic dominated ideology has on non-Arab majority societies, expressed both on- and offline, whereas non-Arab foreign fighters project influence and the extremist hegemony of what it means being a ‘true’ Sunni Muslim by injecting such keywords into their target audiences. The interaction of social media platforms calls on the sympathizers to engage with such videos and role models, hence popularizing specific key words and having a potential impact on the local non-Arab milieus within non-majority Islamic societies such as in Europe and beyond.

Videos are the most important medium through which to demonstrate the manifestation and realization of jihadist creed (‘aqida) and methodology (manhaj), for which IS claims to fight, as described in an earlier post. Re-enacting the extremist understanding of the conduct of Prophet Muhammad and hence claiming being “upon the Prophetic Methodology” as one of the most important video by the same title clarifies.

The Media Works of IS

IS occupied swathes of territory in the Sunni-Arab heartlands of Syria and Iraq in June 2014. In a blitzkrieg style, the “Islamic State” was able to take over major cities and declared a “caliphate”.

The valorization of achievements is expressed in a young and highly visualized language. When the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, prior to the declaration of the “Caliphate” in a surprise move was able to gain a momentum and take control of vast parts of Iraq, including the urban hubs of Mosul, Tikrit and Samara’, the jihadist self-esteem was boosted in their conviction of being the chosen few to act on behalf of God and the prophetic conduct. This found its expression in a most modern format on Twitter by sympathizers. By taking Hollywood movies, sympathizers frame and reframe their perception of what is happening on the ground. Pro-IS Twitter users part of a cluster network of English language supporters were quick to remodel movie posters of the film “300” to visualize the victorious “800” mujahidin of the “Islamic State”, citing the Guardian as a source.

The fans and sympathizers, not only create their own fan-content, or user-generated content, but understand and know the movies and codes popular within the specific circles – crafting a connection between hard-core mujahidin and popular global culture, dominated by Western elements and movies in particular. This mechanism of relaying the on- and offline worlds is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the modern usage of the Internet by jihadist activists to develop a deep-rooted movement in the Middle East and North Africa region. Simultaneously, within the “state”, within consolidated “provinces” of IS the Internet is the main hook to connect to the outside world to call on Muslims everywhere to – at least – support and – at best – join this project. The logical consequence, perhaps, with IS making gains in Iraq and declaring an Islamic caliphate, media activists embedded along the front lines and their global support networks, the media mujahedin, valorize their achievements in HD video and Hollywood film style posters which are distributed via social media. The public diplomacy and cultural relations organizations mandated to counter violent extremism require strategies based on network concepts to counter it.

Jihadi subculture online is characterized by a culture of individual participation whereas user-generated-content enriches the propaganda by IS. This user-created-content should not be underestimated or underrated. While some favor gory videos or movies from the frontlines, others are more attracted to the “civil side” of “the state”, whereas IS presents itself as a functioning state providing the population with energy, water, the reopening of grocery stores, or by showing a fire department brigade in Raqqa. This is a niche hardly covered by other players in Iraq or Syria allowing IS to claim sole responsibility for the (Sunni) civilian population and fosters the image of the soft side of the terror group as a savior handing out aid for their brothers and sisters in need.

Perimeter control: Resilience of IS networks and a coherent ideology as a mental safeguard

IS is a revolutionary group that deploys a highly professionally and ideologically coherent media strategy. It systematically makes use of the Internet like no other terror or interest group to market their messages and narratives to a global audience in multiple languages. Time and again, IS has proven to be skillful to adapt, respond and to reconfigure. The first year anniversary of the coalition airstrikes against the group, that had been launched to retaliate the filmed execution of U.S. citizen James Foley and others was mocked by the group in videos showing members of al-Hisba, the “Islamic State’s” police, patrol the market of Aleppo and address the audience of the futility of the war against IS. Responding to the refugee crises, IS not only claimed the drowning of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi as God’s punishment for wanting to leave the “Islamic abode” in the English language magazine Dabiq. In several Arabic language videos, IS dignitaries decreed any Sunni Muslim turning away to Europe and elsewhere as a legitimate target for the group. These statements were enriched by accounts of local Syrians and Iraqis expressing their gratitude to be finally able to live out the true Islamic identity and have protection. These films are usually in Arabic featuring local Arabs – reaching out directly to a target Arab audience in neighboring countries, within refugee camps worldwide and within societies outside of MENA region. Such messages are part of the rich blend of videos released on an almost daily basis. These videos, to share the links to watch or download, are talked about on social media where users across a wide range of languages respond and engage personally to foster the “Islamic State” as the only legitimate source and physical representation of “Islam”.

In this regard, Twitter is the most important platform for IS. Despite the tireless takedowns of IS accounts by Twitter, the extremists are disseminating their material more decentralized, relying on mainly Arabic language hash tags and have given up to re-establish “official” IS media Twitter accounts.

This adaption of their marketing strategy is successful. Accounts are replaceable, the consistent use of specific hashtags (#) on Twitter ensures an undisrupted flow of content and information that seek to indoctrinate and initiate the consumers into jihadist ideology. The Arabic hashtags used are not limited to the “Islamic State” or “IS will remain and expand”, an early slogan crafted in the critical phase of the first half of 2014, as crafty supporters also use current trends, such as world sport events or global news items (even Apple key notes) in an attempt to reach a most diverse audience.

Like ants, IS has proven to act like a swarm and reconfigure their networks to maintain their ability to project influence on social media platforms. Even when several accounts are deleted, enough hard-core followers and plenty of supporters remain active to immediately promote both the current content as well as new IS accounts. Dissemination strategies in combination with the consistent and coherent (and mainly Arabic) IS content gives a grim outlook that IS is winning the Online Jihad against the West, as also noted by the New York Times.

No disconnect between online and offline

Because of the immense quantity of videos as well as the frequent “photo reports” from within the respective “provinces” of the “caliphate”, IS propaganda is overly present within social media channels.

(Non-Arab) foreign fighters are not only featured in the videos but can communicate directly with their friends and relatives in their country of origin by mobile phone. This non-Arabic input from inside the “caliphate” further enriches the overall output and allows the media tacticians to target milieus that had never been breached before inside western societies.

The visual culture and massive quantity of qualitative videos allow for the constant repetition and showcasing of doctrines that disparage non-believers and sanction the collective punishment of “apostates” (murtaddin) and Muslim “hypocrites” (munafiqin). This theological led discourse can be defined as “discursive guidance”; through the constant repetition of extremist-laden theological interpretation and its practical implementation, jihadi media consumers and participants are provided with a framework to become active and engaged in the jihadist ideology.

The al-Qaeda (AQ) ideology has provided the theoretical framework that IS employs and exercises. While AQ has been pledging for decades to erode the borders of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, IS was able to do so within few months – with proper tabloid styled reporting of the event for their electronic English language magazine “Dabiq” as well as several videos in Arabic, English, Spanish and other languages. One may thus argue, the AQ ideology cannot be separated from IS, rather, IS is the recent evolution thereof. With the consolidation of territory by IS within Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, local Arab traditions are subjected or forced to adapt to the application of its “state” ideology – based mainly on AQ ideologues and their rich theological corpus (mainly writings).

AQ propagates multi-layered theological and Islamic jurisprudential narratives advocated in writings and advertised in videos as “discursive guidance”. However, IS has the ability to re-enact and implement this “discursive guidance” within the Sunni landscape inside Arab countries and thus produce new audio-visual content to booster their messages and their self-proclaimed “state-” and “manhood”, based on the extremist understanding of acting “upon the Prophetic Methodology.”

 

*This research is funded by VOX-Pol, an FP-7 funded Project of the European Union.