To all appearances Turki al-Bin‘ali, the 30-year-old Bahraini scholar presumed to be the Islamic State’s top religious authority, has been silent for nearly a year. Within weeks of being profiled on Jihadica in July 2014, Bin‘ali suddenly went dark, letting his Twitter account go inactive and discontinuing his incessant online writing. Overnight the Islamic State seemed to lose its most prolific protagonist.

Yet Bin‘ali has not actually kept mum over the past 11 months, rather being hard at work in more important—if less prominent—capacities, his responsibilities expanding notwithstanding his withdrawal from the limelight. Meanwhile, pro-al-Qaeda jihadis have stepped up attacks on him as the symbol of all that is wrong with the Islamic State: overzealous, contemptuous of seniority, and lacking in religious knowledge. In May 2015 some of them circulated embarrassing stories about him using the Arabic hashtag #Bin‘ali_leaks. They are not the only revelations of the past year.

Silenced

As will be recalled, Bin‘ali, who moved to Syria around February 2014, was the most high-profile voice within the Islamic State during its run-up to the caliphate declaration of June 2014. He authored glowing biographies of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, as well as stinging refutations of big-name jihadi critics like Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada al-Filastini, Abu Basir al-Tartusi, and Iyad Qunaybi, among others. Defending the Islamic State’s every move and castigating its every critic, Bin‘ali’s disappearance from the internet marked a dramatic change.

What accounts for the change is not entirely clear, but most likely is that Bin‘ali was silenced by the Islamic State leadership just as he was promoted into it. In November 2014 the Twitter account @wikibaghdady, which periodically leaks Islamic State secrets, noted the group’s new prohibition against its scholars’ writing online without receiving prior approval. Accordingly, Bin‘ali and his cohort seem to have removed themselves from the internet. Rival scholars in Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, by contrast, including Sami al-‘Uraydi and Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, maintain Twitter accounts. The Islamic State’s scholars, for whatever reason, speak not to the outside world.

Promoted

Also in November 2014, @wikibaghdady informed of Bin‘ali’s elevation to the post of chief mufti of the Islamic State, and circumstantial evidence would seem to corroborate the claim. (Contrary to what the Guardian recently reported, “scholar-in-arms” is not Bin‘ali’s official position. And contrary to widespread rumors, it is highly unlikely that Bin‘ali is in Libya, though he did visit there in 2013 and may play a special role in outreach to the country.)

The most detailed information about Bin‘ali’s role in daily Islamic State operations came in a recent four-part special (see here, here, here, and here) for Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat by journalist ‘Abd al-Sattar Hatita, who interviewed five former Islamic State shari‘a officials. In each installment Bin‘ali plays the role of supreme shari‘a authority.

The former officials, all young men in their 20s, described Bin‘ali as “the head of the apparatus for commanding right and forbidding wrong.” They also described him as charged with providing “books, pamphlets, and fatwas” for Islamic State training camps, literature that is published by “the Council for Research and Fatwa Issuing.” Much of this, they said, is written by Bin‘ali himself, and some of the works are for some reason exclusive to the training camps, including three booklets on theology, jurisprudence, and governance, respectively. The latter, titled “Informing the Flock about Public Law,” is almost certainly written by Bin‘ali. (I managed to obtain a copy only when a low-level Islamic State member on Twitter uploaded it in a series of photos in February.)

Policing extremism

In addition to his work as mufti and author, Bin‘ali appears from Hatita’s account to be intimately involved in settling religious disputes in the fledgling caliphate: namely, toning down some shari‘a officials’ more extremist tendencies.

In one instance last summer, Bin‘ali summoned several of the shari‘a officials in question from their battlefield posts in Aleppo to Raqqa for a talk. The men stood accused of spouting views too extreme for the Islamic State on certain doctrinal matters, particularly takfir—the excommunication of fellow Muslims. The young officials deemed al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri an unbeliever and considered al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra a group of unbelievers through and through. On a more theoretical level, they adopted an uncompromising stance on the theological principle of al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl (lit. “excusing on the basis of ignorance”), whereby Muslims can be excused certain errors of belief on account of not knowing better. These officials went so far as to insist that anyone engaged in such “excusing” was himself an unbeliever. In a two-and-a-half hour conversation in Raqqa, Bin‘ali, “anger and malevolence pouring from his face,” failed to make any headway with his interlocutors.

Ultimately the shari‘a officials reached the point of excommunicating the Islamic State itself and very carefully escaped to their home countries. Not all officials of their bent have been so fortunate. As Hatita relates from his sources, dozens of these Islamic State uber-extremists have been imprisoned, and some even executed. One of those killed was the prominent Tunisian scholar Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab, who penned the first extensive defense of Baghdadi’s expansion to Syria in 2013. Twitter jihadis were discussing rumors of his death back in September 2014.

All in the family

None of this is to downplay the extent of Bin‘ali’s own extremism. Indeed, the radical tendency seems to run deep in his branch of the Bin‘ali family in Bahrain (though the larger Bin‘ali clan seems to be moderate and close to the government.)

In late January 2015 Bahrain issued a decree stripping 72 Bahrainis of their citizenship, citing numerous reasons all to do with jihadism. On the list were four Bin‘alis, including Turki (#17) and two of his full brothers, ‘Ali (#50) and Muhammad (#60). On the backgrounds and whereabouts of the two brothers there seems to be little information, though the second brother is on Twitter and clearly supports the Islamic State. So too do Turki al-Bin‘ali’s father, Mubarak, and a third full brother, ‘Abdallah.

In April 2015 Bahraini authorities arrested the third brother, who is also on Twitter, at Bahrain International Airport attempting to flee the country for the Islamic State. (Ahlam al-Nasr, the so-called “poetess of the Islamic State,” wrote a poem to mark the occassion.) Upon learning the news, Bin‘ali père himself started a Twitter account, from which he began decrying the arrest, even complaining that the Bahraini kingdom was preventing his son from “emigrating for the sake of God.” The father’s caliphal sympathies are manifest in other Tweets as well. On April 25 he wrote: “May God reward you well, my sons, for your honorable stance”—i.e., the four sons’ stance on the Islamic State.

In March Turki al-Bin‘ali was pictured holding what is assumed to be his infant son, thus apparently beginning the third generation of Bin‘ali extremism.

Making a peep

On Feburary 15, 2015 Bin‘ali broke his silence, releasing a short, angry refutation of his former teacher, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, written under the pseudonym Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari (on which more below). While Bin‘ali had inveighed against Maqdisi before in a lengthy essay from mid-2014, the friendly ties between the two had not yet completely unraveled. In fall 2014 Maqdisi had reached out to Bin‘ali in hopes of securing the release of American hostage Peter Kassig, as the Guardian reported, and although the effort failed the pair seemed to enjoy a “warm exchange” over the phone.

Not to be disheartened, Maqdisi again reached out to the Islamic State in January 2015 in an effort to secure the release of Jordanian pilot Mu‘adh al-Kasasiba, whose plane had gone down over Raqqa in late December. As Joas Wagemakers discussed in detail, Maqdisi proposed a prisoner swap: Kasasiba for failed female suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi. In the course of these efforts Maqdisi dispatched a voice message to someone in the Islamic State, subsequently made public, hoping that there remained a semblance of “brotherhood” between himself and Bin‘ali. “I still expect there to be mutual esteem between us,” he said, “notwithstanding the severe criticism and exchange of words that has gone before.”

But when the Islamic State released the video of Kasasiba’s immolation on February 3, an infuriated Maqdisi took to Jordanian airwaves to denounce the Islamic State yet again. “They lied to me,” he complained. “They are beheading (lit. slaughtering) mujahidin!” He continued: “Immolation!? The Prophet said: ‘No one punishes by fire except the Lord of Fire.’” “Jihadi-Salafism is innocent of these acts!” “What caliphate is this?” “They have distorted the jihadi current.”

12 days later Bin‘ali issued his response, a five-page polemic titled “Maqdisi: Falling in the Mud and Abandoning the Religion.” The take-down is intensely personal, the author at one point addressing Maqdisi with the name Abu Muhammad al-Sururi, associating Maqdisi with an early teacher of his, Muhammad Surur Zayn al-‘Abidin, notorious for opposing the jihadis. The rest of the refutation is concerned with Maqdisi’s failure to condemn the title of the television program on which he appeared—“Pilot Mu‘adh al-Kasasiba the Martyr”—and with the merely “legal matters” of ransoming apostates, beheading, and immolation.

On the subject of ransoming and immolation, Bin‘ali’s opinions are nearly identical to those given in the fatwas that I translated in March (see no. 52 and no. 60). In short, his argument is that ransoming apostates (i.e., Kasasiba) is only permissible when absolutely necessary. Punishment by immolation, he says, was approved by the Hanafi and Shafi‘i schools of law in addition to being approved by all four schools in the case of reciprocal punishment. As to beheading, Bin‘ali cites the standard prooftexts invoked by jihadis supporting the practice, including the Prophet’s statement, “O people of Quraysh, by God, I have come to you with slaughter,” and several reports in which the Prophet seems to approve of those carrying severed heads.

A month and a half later, a member of the Shari‘a Council of Maqdisi’s website published a 30-page critique of Bin‘ali’s refutation, subtitled “a refutation of the lying shari‘ia official of the [Islamic] State hiding behind ‘Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari, and a defense of our Shaykh Maqdisi in the matter of the Jordanian Pilot.” The work is too detailed to summarize, but the author makes two noteworthy charges. One is that Bin‘ali is the author of the essay in question and is “hiding behind” the pseudonym Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari, which information he says came from “two reliable sources” close to Bin‘ali. Second is that Bin‘ali’s subtitle, “abandoning the religion,” unmistakably amounts to takfir, or excommunication, of Maqdisi. In other words, the chief shari‘a authority for the Islamic State has excommunicated Jihadi-Salafism’s most preeminent ideologue. Two counter-refutations (see here and here) supporting Bin‘ali appeared in the succeeding months. Neither disputed either charge.

The Other pseudonym

Oddly enough, Bin‘ali’s critics failed to mention that he had written under the name Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari before. Searching online, I found 12 essays under the name from the period March-May 2014, and in terms of style and content (and even formatting) they are unmistakably his work. Their appearance furthermore coincides with the period in which the Bahraini was extraordinarily active online, writing under two other pseudonyms and also under his own name.

In April 2014 Bin‘ali confessed to being behind the two pen names Abu Human al-Athari and Abu Sufyan al-Sulami but did not mention Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari. Perhaps he wanted to leave one name unacknowledged for future use. At all events, what further confirms the pseudonym’s belonging to Bin‘al’i is his statement that he only chooses pseudonyms that accurately reflect who he is. And according to his biography, he descends from the Mudar clan (Mudari is the ascriptive).

Adding Mudari to the count, one finds that Bin‘ali wrote some 45 works between October 2013 and May 2014 (see the “Inventory of Bin‘ali Writings” below.) In some cases he published more than one work on the same day. Possibly he wanted to give the impression that more jihadi scholars supported the Islamic State than was actually the case. Thomas Hegghammer has observed “how single media-savvy individuals can dramatically increase the perceived size and strength of [a jihadi] organisation.”

The 12 Mudari writings are not otherwise particularly noteworthy. Here Bin‘ali is occasionally more pointed than usual (he identifies 16 grammatical errors in a statement by Jabhat al-Nusra scholar Abu Mariya al-Qahtani), but generally they are just more of the same: the Islamic State is great, al-Qaeda is flawed, the Taliban is flawed, Jabhat al-Nusra consists of traitors, etc

Dreaming about Hani al-Siba‘i

In May 2015 a certain jihadi opposed to the Islamic State released 19 emails from Bin‘ali to jihadi scholar Hani al-Siba‘i, dated between 2009 and 2012. Siba‘i, a London-based Egyptian in the top tier of jihadi scholars along with Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini, has like his peers stood firmly opposed to the Islamic State and supported al-Qaeda.

According to Siba‘i, who later spoke about the email affair in a recording, Bin‘ali sent him some 40 to 50 emails over the years, using various pseudonyms. Siba‘i had circulated 19 of these to fellow jihadi scholars, one of whose students subsequently posted them to Twitter without permission. Though surprised, Siba‘i did not regret the leaks, using #Bin‘ali_leaks to poke fun at his one-time pupil. Most of the emails were mundane, with Bin‘ali flattering “my teacher” and calling himself “your pious student.” Several bore requests for Siba‘i to contribute forwards to his books.

Others were stranger. In one from October 2011, Bin‘ali said that he recently dreamed about Siba‘i. “I dreamed about you several days ago,” he wrote. “I dreamed that I had traveled to you intending to study under you. I came to London and arrived at your house. I went inside, seeing there a great verdant garden, and I proceeded till I came to you. I sat with you and spoke with you at length.” In the same email Bin‘ali asked Siba‘i to send him personal photographs, “like you behind your desk and the like.” In his comments Siba‘i, laughing, admitted to sending one photograph. He also said that there were other emails with some “very personal things” that “I did not publish.”

In addition to jeering at him, Siba‘i expressed serious regret about Bin‘ali, a mere “youth” who was soliciting fatwas from his seniors just years ago and now deigns to “give fatwas to the entire Muslim community.” “I hope that he turns in penitence to God,” he said, but unfortunately “he cannot come back. He would be shot.” Indeed, the Islamic State does not permit its members to leave.

Siba‘i went on: “This community is the graveyard of extremists…and only the truth shall prevail…You will know, succeeding generations in the future will know, that what I am saying is right.” Yet in all likelihood it is Siba‘i and his ilk who are headed for the graveyard first. Perhaps symbolically, Siba‘i’s once-acclaimed website was permanently deleted within days of his comments. Impressively, the silent mufti seems to be quietly winning.

 

Inventory of Binʿalī writings since August 2013:

The name used by the author is indicated in parentheses. Binʿalī=Turkī ibn Mubārak al-Binʿalī, Atharī =Abū Humām Bakr ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Atharī, Sulamī=Abū Sufyān al-Sulamī, and Muḍarī=Abū Khuzayma al-Muḍarī.

August 5, 2013           Mudd al-ayādī li-bayʿat al-Baghdādī (Atharī)

October 16, 2013        al-Maʿānī qabl al-tahānī (Sulamī)

November 13, 2013    Nawāfidh ʿalā ʿālam al-jinn (Binʿalī)

November 17, 2013    al-Mutaʿassir fī kalām al-munaẓẓir (Sulamī)

November 25, 2013    al-Ikhṭiṣār fī ḥukm qaṭʿ al-ashjār (Sulamī)

December 4, 2013       Ruʾyā gharība fī mawāṭin ʿaṣība (Binʿalī)

December 11, 2013     Rafʿ al-labs fī ḥukm madḥ al-nafs (Binʿalī)

December 15, 2013     Khaṭṭ al-midād fī ʾl-radd ʿalā ʾl-duktūr Iyād (Atharī)

December 22, 2013     Taḥbīr al-dawāh ḥawl ḥadīth “wa-mā lam taḥkum aʾimmatuhum bi-kitāb Allāh” (Sulamī)

January 5, 2014          Risālat naṣh wa-ʿatb li-ahl Ḥalab (Atharī)

January 8, 2014          al-Thamar al-dānī fī ʾl-radd ʿalā khiṭāb al-Jawlānī (Atharī)

January 19, 2014        Tabṣīr al-maḥājij biʾl-farq bayn rijāl al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya waʾl-Khawārij (Atharī)

January 29, 2014        Risāla ilā ʾl-ʿulamāʾ waʾl-duʿāt li-nuṣrat al-mujāhidīn al-ubāt (audio; Sulamī)

February 18, 2014      Bayān al-ukhuwwa al-īmāniyya fī nuṣrat al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya (signatory; Atharī)

February 28, 2014      al-Naṣāʾiḥ al-ʿaṭira li-junūd Jabhat al-Nuṣra (Binʿalī)

March 4, 2014            Mukhtaṣar al-suṭūr fī ḥiwārī maʿa ʿAdnān al-ʿArʿūr (Binʿalī)

March 13, 2014          Mufāraqāt bayn al-imāratayn (Muḍarī)

March 16, 2014          Mukhtaṣar kalāmī fī ʾl-radd ʿalā Abī ʿAbdallāh al-Shāmī (Binʿalī)

March 16, 2014          Bayn al-umma waʾl-Dawla al-Muslima (Muḍarī)

March 17, 2014          al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fī ʾl-ʿIrāq waʾl-Shām maʿahā siqāʾuhā wa-ḥidhāʾuhā: fa-mā lakum wa-lahā? (Muḍarī)

March 20, 2014          Waqafāt maʿa khiṭāb Abī ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sūrī (Binʿalī)

March 24, 2014          Kullukum rāʿin: risāla ilā shaykhinā Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī (Muḍarī)

March 26, 2014          A-laysa fīhim rajul rashīd? (Muḍarī)

March 29, 2014          Hal al-jihād ghāya am wasīla? (Binʿalī)

March 29, 2014          al-Duktūr Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī wa-biṭānatuhu (Muḍarī)

March 31, 2014          ʿAyyina min jahl al-ʿArʿūr (Binʿalī)

April 2, 2014              Hal al-jihād farḍ ʿayn am kifāya? (Binʿalī)

April 4, 2014              Zubālat al-milal waʾl-niḥal (reissue with new introduction; Binʿalī)

April 5, 2014              Tanẓīm al-Qāʿida al-sharʿī wa-Tanẓīm al-Qāʿida al-shaʿbī (Muḍarī)

April 11, 2014            al-Qaṣīda al-Binʿaliyya fī dhamm al-jinsiyya (Binʿalī)

April 15, 2014            Mukhtaṣar al-lafẓ fī masʾalat dawarān al-arḍ (reissue with new introduction; Binʿalī)

April 16, 2014            al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya waʾl-tajdīd (Muḍarī)

April 18, 2014            Hal yuqās ḥālunā ʿalā ʾl-marḥala al-Makkiyya am al-Madaniyya? (Binʿalī)

April 19, 2014            Waqfa maʿa baʿḍ al-alqāb (Muḍarī)

April 25, 2014            Hal al-maṣlaḥa fī ʾl-jihād am fī tarkihi? (Binʿalī)

April 29, 2014            al-Ifāda fī ʾl-radd ʿalā Abī Qatāda (Binʿalī)

April 30, 2014            al-Qiyāfa fī ʿadam ishṭirāṭ al-tamkīn al-kāmil lil-khilāfa (Binʿalī)

April 30, 2014            Jadwal muʿayyan lil-mubtadiʾ fī ṭalab al-ʿilm fī ʾl-dīn (reissue with new introduction; Binʿalī)

May 1, 2014               La-qad ṣadaqa ʾl-Ẓawāhirī (Muḍarī)

May 3, 2014               Taʿlīq awwalī ʿalā kalimat al-duktūr Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī (Binʿalī)

May 10, 2014             Hal yajūz lil-Baghdādī an yatarājaʿ? (Muḍarī)

May 18, 2014             Sībawayh Harāra (Muḍarī)

May 19, 2014             Waqafāt sarīʿa maʿa mā yusammā zūran wa-buhtānan bi-quḍāt al-sharīʿa (reissue with new introduction; Binʿalī)

May 26, 2014             al-Lafẓ al-sānī fī tarjamat al-ʿAdnānī (Binʿalī)

May 31, 2014             Shaykī ʾl-asbaq (Binʿalī)

February 15, 2015      al-Maqdisī: suqūṭ fī ʾl-ṭīn waʾnsilākh ʿan al-dīn (Muḍarī)

 

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  2. […] however, is the question of what role Turki al-Bin‘ali actually played in the Islamic State. As I wrote more than two years ago, there were rumors in late 2014 that al-Bin‘ali had been elevated to the […]