Last year witnessed the outbreak of a major feud between two of the most prominent and active ideologues in the jihadi movement: the Syrian Abu Basir al-Tartusi and the Mauritanian Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti. As Joas Wagemakers wrote in June and July of last year, the quarrel emerged in May 2012 following two perceived provocations by Abu Basir. First came the Syrian’s statements praising the generally secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) and criticizing the radical jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusrah; second was his critical letter to the Yemeni jihadi group Ansar al-Shari‘ah. Al-Shinqiti followed with a furious—and ceaseless—campaign of repudiation.

Since last May the context of this dispute has changed significantly. Abu Basir has abandoned his London refuge, where he had lived for more than a decade, for the battlefields of northern Syria. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusrah no longer enjoys a monopoly on Syrian Islamic militancy, as a large number of groups has emerged fighting under an “Islamic banner.”

Yet the war of words between the two jihadi ideologues has intensified over the past months, becoming the most significant bout of intellectual jihadi infighting since the 2005 quarrel between Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi. The tension in jihadi media has been palpable. Two days ago, al-Bunyan al-Marsus, a jihadi outfit promoting unity among Syrian Islamists, issued a plea for reconciliation between the two shaykhs. As the following explains, this is not likely to ease tensions. The intellectual divide separating these opponents is vast, and the battle lines have been boldly drawn—with possible implications for the unfolding Syrian jihad.

Dramatis personæ

Little is known about Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti besides his presumed Mauritanian nationality. His anonymity, however, has not hindered his rising stature, which derives from affiliation with the website Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad. This is the site founded by the now jailed Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi of Jordan. In 2009 al-Maqdisi organized a Shari‘ah Council of some dozen like-minded scholars to handle queries on his website, among whom was al-Shinqiti. For the past several months, al-Shinqiti has been the Council’s sole acting representative. The Minbar also publishes his many books and essays, all written within the last few years.

A great deal more is known about the 53-year-old Abu Basir al-Tartusi (real name, ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Mustafa Halimah), who fled his native Syria in 1980 after fighting against the previous Asad regime. Abu Basir made a name for himself in the 1990s in Jordan with books calling for jihad against the impious rulers of the Arab world. Around the millennium he took refuge in London and started a website hosting his books and commentaries. (For more information, see here and here.)

Abu Basir has long posed as an internal critic of the jihadi movement. For example, he categorically opposes suicide (or martyrdom) operations on theological and strategic grounds and holds that non-Muslims in Western and Muslim countries are entitled to protection from attack. He accordingly denounced the 2005 London bombings as “disgraceful.” He has argued, in a pragmatic vein, that jihad focus on the near enemy—as opposed to the far enemy strategy of al-Qaeda—and eschew needless violence.

When protests against the Asad regime broke out in March 2011 Abu Basir started a Facebook page called “The Islamic Opposition to the Syrian Regime,” urging jihad against the government, and in May 2012 he arrived in Syria himself. Although he is often pictured armed, he defines his role in the Syrian jihad as “simply a servant and an adviser to all the heroic rebels.” He has been seen among various rebel groups with Islamic names (see here and here, for example), but certainly not with the al-Qaeda group Jabhat al-Nusrah.

Al-Shinqiti attacks

Despite his contrarian stances, Abu Basir has long been a welcome member of the jihadi community. Even al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri underscored his “respect and appreciation” for Abu Basir’s “support for jihad and the mujahidin.” Al-Shinqiti, however, has made it his personal objective to write Abu Basir completely out of the jihadi fold.

The Mauritanian fired his opening salvo in May 2012 with the publication of “The Disgusting Deviations of the Critic of Ansar al-Shari‘ah: A Refutation of Shaykh Abu Basir.” (For further coverage of this, see here.) This monograph, a line-by-line critique of Abu Basir’s letter to the Yemeni AQAP-linked group Ansar al-Shari‘ah criticizing it for unnecessary violence in post-revolutionary Yemen, accused Abu Basir of obstructing jihad on the pretext of offering advice. Whereas the Syrian believed it wrong to target Yemeni soldiers following the deposition of the Yemeni president, the Mauritanian held that jihad ought to continue. Al-Shinqiti called one of Abu Basir’s arguments “the ugliest thing I have ever heard in my life in terms of obstruction.” Revolution, he claimed, had become for Abu Basir “an end in itself,” more important than implementation of the shari‘ah.

The following day al-Shinqiti attacked again, this time in a fatwa castigating Abu Basir for his stances toward the FSA and Jabhat al-Nusrah. (For more on this, see here and here). These remarks were indicative of a “large methodological shortcoming.”

In September 2012 al-Shinqiti released yet two more monographs chiding Abu Basir—and this time also his followers—in equally harsh terms. The first of these, called “The Enlightenment of Some Warnings in the Book Jihad and Shari‘ah Politics,” attacked Abu Basir’s forenamed book that called on jihadi groups to reform and reassess their strategies. The second, called “The Illumination of the Truth of Abu Basir’s Method,” comprised fourteen enumerated points of criticism and an extended plea to his followers to desist from supporting him.

Continuing his line of criticism, al-Shinqiti writes in these monographs that the chief aim of Abu Basir’s “advice” literature is to put out the fires of jihadis’ passion and instill in them fear of activity. “He considers himself a theoretician of jihad, and yet at the same time he supports not one action of the mujahidin’s actions.” Some of his fatwas, al Shinqiti believes, even played a role in decreasing the number of jihadi attacks in the United States and Europe. ‘Abd al-Bari ‘Atwan, the editor of the London-based daily al-Quds al-‘Arabi, he says, is a bigger supporter of al-Qaeda than Abu Basir.

Addressing himself to the Syrian’s supporters, al-Shinqiti says that it is time they recognize that their shaykh has defected from “the jihadi methodology,” much like other erstwhile jihadis, including Salman al-‘Awdah, have before him. “Know,” he continues, “that Abu Basir’s dispute with the mujahidin is not a dispute over one or two issues but rather one between two methodologies (manhajayn).” Therefore his opinions and judgments are to be read with great caution.

Abu Basir fires back

Abu Basir has issued two responses to al-Shinqiti, the first in November 2012 and the second in early January of this year. They are both short—about two to three pages each—in comparison with the Mauritanian’s more than 100 pages, and betray a certain reluctance. Abu Basir states that while he preferred to stay silent on the matter of al-Shinqiti’s accusations, he finally relented in view of the many solicitations for a response. But for all his reluctance, he does not mince words.

Al-Shinqiti, says Abu Basir, is a delusional “extremist” and “khariji” whose critiques amount to implicit takfir (excommunication). “He sees no farther than his nose” and writes as if he held “the keys to paradise in his hand.” In his lying screeds, “he interprets your advice to some of the mujahidin brothers as if it were an expression of enmity toward God, his Prophet, and the believers.” And he piles up scriptural evidence like firewood. Abu Basir states that while he, Abu Basir, is busy supporting jihad against the Asad regime, al-Shinqiti spends his time drumming up opposition not to Asad but to Abu Basir.

Al-Shinqiti ought not to be praised as brave and bold, Abu Basir warns, for he is in fact a coward, “too scared even to identify himself.” This “unknown jurist of his age,” he says mockingly, does not even deserve a proper refutation. Those who truly deserve one are “the brothers in charge of Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad. How do they allow such dishonesty, extremism, and vileness to be published on their site?” (Ironically, the site also hosts a large number of Abu Basir’s writings.)

Most important for this discussion is that Abu Basir finds al-Shinqiti a serious threat to opposition unity in Syria. He is worried by the spreading influence there of his “takfiri words,” for certain Syrians are paying them notice. The result, he claims, is that some in the Syrian opposition are preparing for a confrontation with their fellow Muslims on the pretext of fighting the FSA.

Reconciliation?

Clearly the temperature of this exchange does not bode well for any hoped-for reconciliation between the two shaykhs. It may even portend confrontation between two kinds of Syrian jihadi groups somewhere down the road: those concerned with immediately seizing power and establishing God’s law by whatever means necessary, and those more willing to cooperate with the less Islamist elements of the opposition.

Recently, Abu Basir endorsed a new conglomerate of Islamic militant units called the Syrian Islamic Front, which represents—at least probably to his mind—the latter kind of group. The group’s charter mentions “gradualism” with respect to political objectives and “coexistence” with Syrian minorities. While Abu Basir criticized some parts of the charter, these were mere quibbles which the group kindly noted and brought to the attention of its leadership.

Abu Basir remains critical of Jabhat al-Nusrah, which he did not defend after its designation by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. He did recently affirm his “affection for all the mujahidin” in Syria notwithstanding “reservations about some of their strategies and policies.” But the very next day he criticized Jabhat al-Nusrah for its excessive secrecy.

One might anticipate that this rather intellectual dispute between Abu Basir and al-Shinqiti will have practical implications for the ongoing Syrian jihad. It may be some time before the full extent of these implications is borne out—or perhaps the mujahidin will allow all this to pass over their heads. But it is clear from Abu Basir’s writing that he, at least, sees confrontation between Syrian jihadis as a looming threat and possibility.

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