Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini, the two preeminent jihadi scholars living in Jordan, have repeatedly clashed in recent years over the proper scope and nature of Jihadi Salafism, the movement to which both helped give rise. While agreeing that the Islamic State is too extreme, they have departed over the issue of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaida affiliate in Syria previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra. In short, al-Maqdisi has accused HTS of abandoning al-Qaida and diluting jihadi ideology, while Abu Qatada has praised HTS as the harbinger of a more practical and more inclusive jihadism. This has led to mutual recriminations. Al-Maqdisi and his allies routinely accuse Abu Qatada and his followers of “fusionism” (talfiq), that is, of attempting to fuse jihadi ideology with mainstream Islamism, including its tolerance of democracy and ideological diversity. The so-called “fusionists” (mulaffiqa), in turn, have cast al-Maqdisi and his friends as purveyors of “extremism” (ghuluww), that is, as being too inclined to engage in the excommunication (takfir) of fellow Muslims. In this view, al-Maqdisi is seen as too close in ideology to the Islamic State. In the words of one al-Maqdisi supporter, Abu Qatada is “the shaykh of fusionism” (shaykh al-talfiq), while in the words of one Abu Qatada supporter, al-Maqdisi is “the shaykh of extremism” (shaykh al-ghuluww).
Recently, the two men and their supporters have feuded over another matter, namely, the network of religious scholars previously associated with the Islamic State. Sometimes known as “the Bin‘ali current” or “the Bin‘aliyya,” these are men who, beginning with the eponymous Turki al-Bin‘ali himself, the head of the Islamic State’s Office of Research and Studies until his death in 2017, emerged as critics of the caliphate’s drift towards an even more extremist theology in 2016-2017. Those who survived the ensuing turmoil grew more critical still in 2018 and 2019, publishing numerous commentaries online accusing the Islamic State’s leaders of extremism and oppression. Ultimately, in early 2019, they turned against the caliphate entirely.
In October 2019, al-Maqdisi began expressing his admiration for al-Bin‘ali and the so-called Bin‘aliyya, praising them for opposing the Islamic State’s “extremism.” Predictably, Abu Qatada and his allies were up in arms at this ostensible embrace of a group of “Kharijites.” One of their number has speculated that al-Maqdisi is trying to form a new jihadi group.
To be sure, this is not the first time that al-Maqdisi has spoken kindly of al-Bin‘ali. The latter, as will be recalled, was a student of al-Maqdisi’s and wrote prolifically for his website. The two fell out in 2014 over the matter of the Islamic State, which al-Bin‘ali had joined. Even though al-Bin‘ali, in 2015, accused al-Maqdisi of “falling away from the religion,” this did not prevent al-Maqdisi from eulogizing his former pupil upon the latter’s death in an airstrike in May 2017. In a brief note on Telegram, which included the phrase “may God have mercy on him,” al-Maqdisi praised al-Bin‘ali for having raised “objections to the extremists” in the Islamic State. At the same time, he was careful to dissociate himself from al-Bin‘ali’s “errors.”
It was Abu Qatada’s indirect praise for a certain Mauritanian Islamist, Muhammad al-Hasan Wald al-Dadaw, that inspired al-Maqdisi to return to the subject of al-Bin‘ali. On October 11, 2019, Abu Qatada reposted a Telegram message noting the death of al-Dadaw’s father and in so doing praising the son, who is known for his favorable view of democracy. (Al-Maqdisi has written several refutations of al-Dadaw; see, for instance, here.) Later the same day, al-Maqdisi responded on Telegram, remarking that al-Bin‘ali’s “sandal covered in dust” from fighting jihad is “better than an earth’s full of Wald al-Dadaw and the likes of him who argue on behalf of the idol-rulers and defend democracy.” Al-Bin‘ali, he wrote, “advised his state, condemned its errors, and sought reform.” He asked God to forgive al-Bin‘ali his trespasses and to reunite them in paradise.
Al-Maqdisi’s post touched off a new round of refutation and counter-refutation regarding al-Bin‘ali. The London-based Abu Mahmud al-Filastini, one of Abu Qatada’s chief supporters, retorted that al-Maqdisi was misrepresenting al-Bin‘ali as some kind of moderate. The reality, he contended, was that al-Bin‘ali’s differences with the senior Islamic State leadership were an intra-Kharijite affair: “Al-Bin‘ali to the last moment of his life proclaimed the unbelief of al-Qaida, the Taliban, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the religious scholars … and his final words contained a clear excommunication of Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaida.” This second point was a reference to an audio statement by al-Bin‘ali observing the degeneration of al-Qaida and describing al-Zawahiri as “the fool who is obeyed” (al-ahmaq al-muta‘). What is more, added Abu Mahmud, al-Bin‘ali had “disparaged” al-Maqdisi “in the worst possible terms,” as indeed he had. For instance, al-Bin‘ali described al-Maqdisi as “abominable” (khabith) in a letter sent to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in January 2017.
Another response to al-Maqdisi’s post came from the Syrian Islamist scholar and HTS supporter ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Mahdi, who took exception to al-Maqdisi’s imagery. “It is never permitted to compare a Muslim to a sandal,” he wrote. Al-Maqdisi replied that it is indeed permitted in the case of Wald al-Dadaw and those like him who promote the polytheistic system of democracy.
On October 19, Abu Qatada himself entered the fray, writing an essay on his secondary Telegram channel, “The Pearls of Shaykh Abu Qatada,” and signing it “the administration.” In the essay, Abu Qatada chided al-Maqdisi for preferring “the Kharijite al-Bin‘ali” to the well-respected al-Dadaw and for excommunicating the latter. It was this quickness to engage in takfir, he averred, that had led al-Maqdisi’s students, al-Bin‘ali among them, to slander him and call him an unbeliever. “Don’t you see, o shaykh,” he continued, addressing al-Maqdisi, “that you have made very light of the matter of the extremists and their bloodshed?” “Don’t you see that your output in recent years has been confined to generating tensions and stirring up hatreds?”
The next day, al-Maqdisi returned fire with an essay of his own, published in like fashion on his own secondary Telegram channel. The essay derided Abu Qatada for trying to distance himself from a piece that was so obviously his. It was not true, al-Maqdisi claimed, that al-Bin‘ali had excommunicated him; nor was it true that he had excommunicated al-Dadaw. Abu Qatada, he shot back, was the one inciting hostilities, not him. “Don’t you see, o shaykh,” he wrote, imitating Abu Qatada’s language, “that you have begun to make very light of the matter of the defenders and advocates of democracy, endorsing many of its chief figures, even publicly proclaiming your love for them?” “Don’t you see, o shaykh, that most of your output in recent years has been devoted to arguing on behalf of the chief figures of democracy, venerating them, and asking God to have mercy on those of them who have died?”
To make things even more personal, al-Maqdisi recalled Abu Qatada’s enthusiastic support in the 1990s for the radical Algerian Armed Islamic Group, or Groupe islamique armé (GIA), including in particular his 1995 fatwa permitting the killing of women and children—“the likes of which not even the most recalcitrant extremists in our time have issued.” Al-Maqdisi reproached Abu Qatada for his refusal to retract this fatwa, as well as for claiming that his former views are entirely consonant with his present ones. The dispute between the two men would appear to be very deep indeed.
Praising the Bin‘aliyya
Following the exchange with Abu Qatada, al-Maqdisi began extending his praise to the other Islamic State scholars in al-Bin‘ali’s circle. On October 21, he shared the above-mentioned letter from al-Bin‘ali to al-Baghdadi, in which the former warned against a policy of appeasing the “extremists” in the Islamic State. In an accompanying commentary, al-Maqdisi described this as “part of the efforts and attempts of shaykh Turki al-Bin‘ali to push back against the influence of the extremists in the State,” noting that it had been shared with him by one or more of “the supporters of shaykh Turki who opposed the extremists alongside him.” Al-Maqdisi went on to describe these struggles at some length:
[Al-Bin‘ali] contended a great deal with the extremists of the State and opposed them, especially the minister of media, Abu Muhammad al-Furqan. Al-Furqan considered Turki a mortal enemy; the extremists were not pleased with Turki’s work in the research center [i.e., the Office of Research and Studies]. Thus they sought to restrict the authority of the research [center] and to weaken it, because Turki was working through it to confront their extremism, sometimes openly, sometimes through debate, and sometimes by complaining to al-Baghdadi and warning him, as in this document … Al-Bin‘ali represented the tie between the scholars and al-Baghdadi; he hoped and was determined to bring about reform, but al-Baghdadi forsook him.
A-Maqdisi then turned his attention to these other scholars:
The scholars in the State, or those known as the al-Bin‘ali current, were suppressed by the Media Department and its minister, al-Furqan. He punished them severely, to the point that some of them were imprisoned and killed. Among the distinguished scholars who stood up to extremism (and it is just that they be cited, mentioned, and not eradicated physically, ideationally, or literarily) were:
- Abu Hafs al-Hamdani al-Yamani (killed)
- Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi (killed)
- Abu Muhammad al-Masri (most likely killed)
- Abu Mus‘ab al-Sahrawi (killed)
- Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Zarqawi (fled, then killed by the State’s security officials)
- Bilal al-Shawashi (fled)
- Abu ‘Isa al-Darir (fled)
And many more besides them. The people of the State ought to know why it was that they were killed or fled! Among them were outstanding and distinguished scholars. One of them [i.e., Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Zarqawi] was around during the [Islamic] State of Iraq and was a judge for Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi … May God have mercy on those of them who were killed, and may God confirm on the clear truth those who have fled.
As if anticipating the ensuing criticism, al-Maqdisi added that “none of this conflicts with our previously known reservations and well-known refutations of the errors of the State Group.”
In the following days, al-Maqdisi continued his trumpeting of the Bin‘aliyya by sharing more relevant files. On October 23, he shared the recently published “testimony” of a former Islamic State scholar, Abu Jandal al-Ha’ili, regarding the massacre of intended “penitents” in Iraq in 2014. Abu Jandal, according to al-Maqdisi, had worked closely with al-Bin‘ali and was one of the scholars who “condemned the oppression and transgressions” of the Islamic State. A week later, al-Maqdisi posted a short biography of the Yemeni Islamic State scholar Abu Hafs al-Hamdani, authored by an anonymous admirer of al-Hamdani’s. A few days after that, on November 3, he shared an essay by the pseudonymous Ibn Jubayr, likely a former Islamic State scholar who fled eastern Syria in 2018, titled “The Collapse of the Fiction.” The essay is a refutation of the Islamic State’s appointment of a new and anonymous caliph. Its importance, al-Maqdisi said, lies in the fact that it is “an internal criticism.” He was not sharing it, he emphasized, because he agreed with it in its entirety, but because it was “from within the State.”
By sharing and commenting on the these works, al-Maqdisi revealed not only his enthusiasm for this group of erstwhile Islamic State scholars but also his familiarity with their struggles and writings. Furthermore, he showed himself to be well plugged in to their network. When one of the Bin‘aliyya, Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi, was executed by the senior Islamic State leadership back in 2018, he was charged with, among other things, communicating with al-Maqdisi. The charge is not so difficult to believe.
A new group?
On November 5, one of Abu Qatada’s allies, a certain Abu ‘Umar ibn Sihman al-Najdi, came out with an essay attacking al-Maqdisi’s recent efforts on behalf of the Bin‘aliyya. Titled “al-Maqdisi and the Bin‘aliyya: Refuting al-Maqdisi’s Rehabilitation of Kharijite Bin‘ali Current,” it sought to debunk the notion that al-Bin‘ali and his allies were waging a war against extremism in the Islamic State. Al-Bin‘ali, the author wrote, did not oppose the takfir of the Taliban and al-Qaida or the shedding of innocent Muslim blood. What al-Bin‘ali was against, as seen in his letter to al-Baghdadi, was the notion of chain takfir, or takfir in infinite regress (al-takfir bi’l-tasalsul), which some members of the Islamic State were promoting and which was leading some of them to pronounce takfir on al-Baghdadi himself.
Speculating as to his motives, the author mused that al-Maqdisi was dissatisfied with al-Qaida and the Taliban, deeming them insufficiently ideologically pure. His cheerleading for the Bin‘aliyya was thus part of an effort “to create a new entity that he could defend” without embarrassment, one that would be “an effective alternative on the ground.”
Later in the month, on November 20, Abu Qatada wrote an essay referring to al-Maqdisi’s support for the “remnants of the Kharijites,” warning against their reintegration before they are made to repent. In his characteristically oblique style, he denounced the efforts of “the one who is known for making light of extremism” (i.e., al-Maqdisi) to rehabilitate and organize the Kharijite remnant (i.e., the Bin‘aliyya).
According to one member of the Bin‘ali current, Abu Qatada had caught wind that al-Maqdisi might be trying to form a new group. A number of mostly Jordanian jihadis had sent a letter to al-Maqdisi and Bilal Khuraysat, a leader in Hurras al-Din (the new Syrian al-Qaida branch), asking for their help in establishing a “group” (jama‘a) that would be free of both the “dilution” of al-Qaida and the “extremism” of the Islamic State.
The letter in question, which was later published, did not in fact propose the formation of a “group” (jama‘a). It did, however, ask al-Maqdisi and Khuraysat, and “all the shaykhs of the intermediate path,” to “bring together the monotheist brothers under one banner, far from the unbelieving parties such as the Brotherhood group … and from the waywardness of extremism and takfir of the Muslim masses.” The authors, who described themselves as former Islamic State supporters and students of Mahdi Zaydan (a Jordanian scholar who joined the Islamic State in 2014 and died in 2017), expressed their disapproval of the “creed” of the Taliban and the “dilution” of the “Brotherhoodized” al-Qaida.
The letter was sent to a media agency affiliated with Hurras al-Din, the “Bayan Foundation” (Mu’assasat Bayan). An image of the correspondence on Telegram shows a representative of Mu’assasat Bayan saying that he showed the letter to Khuraysat, and that the latter sent it to al-Maqdisi. Curiously, Khuraysat denied any knowledge of the letter, as did al-Maqdisi. One of Abu Qatada’s supporters thereafter collected these sources in an essay accusing al-Maqdisi and Khuraysat of lying.
The jihadi homeless
As this correspondence suggests, a number of jihadi intellectuals are currently without an organizational home, having been turned off by the perceived moderation of al-Qaida and the hyper-extremism of the Islamic State. The Bin‘aliyya fall into this category, as do the men who wrote to al-Maqdisi and Khuraysat, these “shaykhs of the intermediate path.”
Al-Maqdisi would appear to be the natural leader of this current, though some among the Bin‘aliyya, it is worth noting, still bear him ill will. In time, these wounds may heal, but none of this necessarily portends the creation of a new group. What it does suggest is that the two leading groups in the Sunni jihadi universe—al-Qaida and the Islamic State—are out of step, each in its own way, with the “intermediate path” represented by al-Maqdisi. In the short term, this is likely to limit these groups’ appeal; in the long term, it may well leave the door open for the emergence of an alternative.