In the previous two parts of this short series (here and here), we saw that the Jordanian radical ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and his website, Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, have been closely involved in efforts to support the mujahidun in the Caucasus by offering advice, translating books into Russian and encouraging and praising their efforts. We still don’t know why this is the case, however. In this final part of the series, we will try to answer that question.
The Shari’a Committee
To understand why al-Maqdisi and his website are so interested in the mujahidun in the Caucasus, we need to go back a few years to an interview that al-Maqdisi gave to the Jordanian newspaper Al-‘Arab al-Yawm, which was published on 5 July 2005. As regular Jihadica readers know, al-Maqdisi used his week-long release from prison in that year to criticise his former pupil Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and to scold other jihadis for their – in his view – extremist and sometimes plain stupid actions in conflicts that they could never win anyway. He also mentioned that he wanted to set up a committee of religious scholars that could guide jihadi youngsters all over the world by giving them advice and fatwas. Although this latter piece of information was not widely reported at the time and was not acted upon by al-Maqdisi – he was quickly rearrested in 2005 and not released until 2008 – it is nevertheless highly interesting because he seems to have realised this goal of setting up such a committee in 2009.
Since September last year, Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad has had a forum on which readers can ask al-Maqdisi and ten other scholars all kinds of questions related to Islam. Although many of these questions (collected in ten volumes so far) are about issues that have nothing to do with jihad, such as wearing trousers (vol. 5, p. 25) or determining the first day of Ramadan (vol. 2, pp. 5-6), many of them do deal with fighting and violence. Considering the context given above (i.e. that this forum was perhaps partly meant to prevent young jihadis from using too much violence), it is not surprising that several of these fatwas actually discourage questioners from using force. A question on Hamas’ Qassam Brigades in the Gaza Strip is answered with the advice to radical jihadis to remain patient and not to seek any confrontation with Hamas (vol. 1, pp. 1-2), notwithstanding the Shari’a Council’s strong disagreements with that movement. Another reply to a Belgian group called Shariah4Belgium advises that group’s members to support jihad elsewhere, but to refrain from using violence in their own country because of their weakness there.
So what is the Minbar doing in Moscow then?
The Minbar’s communique about the subway bombings in Moscow earlier this year, its interest in the Caucasus and its efforts to translate certain books into Russian should probably be seen as part of this wider plan by al-Maqdisi and certain like-minded scholars to support and encourage mujahidun who try to wage a “clean” jihad and to advise others on how to do that. In fact, if one were to take a look at the communique with which this series started as well as al-Maqdisi’s epistle about the Islamic Emirate in the Caucasus, it is striking that so much of these texts is spent praising the mujahidun for their eagerness to obtain knowledge, their supposed purity of arms, the situation in which they allegedly had no other choice than to use violence, their correct choice of victims etc., while hardly any attention is paid to their military prowess. The praise, in other words, seems to be caused not by the mujahidun‘s firepower but by their careful and considered use of violence and appears to be directed not just at the mujahidun in the Caucasus but also at other aspiring jihadis as if to tell them: “Take a good look guys, this is how you wage a proper jihad.”
The Shari’a Committee is only less than a year old and consists of relatively unknown scholars (apart from al-Maqdisi) and it remains to be seen whether its fatwas actually have the kind of influence that its authors want them to have. Still, throughout the past year, several new scholars have been added to the committee – sometimes with much fanfare – and if others (perhaps Abu Basir al-Tartusi?) join too, al-Maqdisi’s and the Minbar‘s efforts to stem the extremist tides of unlimited violence could pay off and have the potential to become an influential ideological force.