It’s that time of the year again: the well-known Jordanian radical Islamic ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi is released from prison and speculation about why this happened and whether he cooperated with the Jordanian regime to get freed starts all over. I’ve commented on this before on Jihadica when he was released on a previous occasion and I’ve also briefly analysed his latest release in a Facebook post, so I won’t go into this here. Much more interesting, however, are the recent statements al-Maqdisi has made on the execution of the Jordanian pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasiba, who had been captured by the Islamic State (IS) and was subsequently burned alive by them. These comments were made during a recent interview with al-Ru’ya, a Jordanian television channel, and a letter al-Maqdisi reportedly sent to IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. These give an inside account of the secret negotiations that have taken place to free al-Kasasiba and, as such, throw an altogether new light on them, showing that al-Maqdisi has likely been in the middle of this affair from the beginning.
It was first reported on 5 February that al-Maqdisi had been released from prison a week before. A day later, he gave an interview on Jordanian television in which he stated that as soon as he heard about the capture of the pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasiba, which was reported on 24 December 2014, he wrote letters to IS to try to get them to engage in a prisoner exchange, trading the pilot for Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman who had been sentenced to death for her involvement in the 2005 Amman hotel bombings that were ordered by former Al-Qa’ida in Iraq leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. The latter, of course, was a former student of al-Maqdisi’s when the two were still in Jordan together in the 1990s and is seen by IS today as the godfather of their organisation.
Al-Maqdisi claims to have contacted IS’s leader al-Baghdadi, the organisation’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani and its “scholar-in-arms” Turki al-Bin’ali, who used to be very close to al-Maqdisi before their disagreements over the Islamic State and its policies arose. His efforts to have IS exchange al-Kasasiba for al-Rishawi didn’t work out, however, since it turned out that the pilot had already been executed a month before, in early January. In retaliation, Jordan executed al-Rishawi (and another, Ziyad al-Karbuli, an Iraqi radical Islamist on death row). This turn of affairs caused al-Maqdisi to feel he had been betrayed by IS, with whom he had apparently negotiated in good faith. In the interview, al-Maqdisi calls IS “liars” and scolds them for equating jihad with slaughter and killing, the latest example of which is burning the Jordanian pilot alive, which is not allowed according to sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, he says. (For a more detailed summary, see my Facebook post; for excerpts from the interview translated into English, see here.)
Given al-Maqdisi’s previous criticism of IS and his long-held belief that jihad should be kept free from “excesses”, such comments are to be expected and sound familiar. What we did not know before, however, was that al-Maqdisi – if his statements are to be believed – was involved in negotiating al-Kasasiba’s release from the beginning. In fact, if he did indeed start writing letters to IS right after he heard about the pilot’s capture, he must have been involved in this as early as late December 2014, about a month before he was released from prison. If true, this not only means that there is less of a direct connection between his efforts on al-Kasasiba’s behalf and his own release from prison, but also that al-Maqdisi may have had a central role in this entire saga.
This is confirmed by the letter al-Maqdisi allegedly wrote to al-Baghdadi and which was recently published on the internet (including by the Jordanian newspaper al-Ghad). The letter is dated “Rabi’ al-Awwal 1436”, which coincides with the period 23 December 2014-21 January 2015, meaning that – if truthful – al-Maqdisi did indeed start negotiating with IS before he was released, which is said to have happened on 29 January 2015. It was also around that time – and not in early January, let alone late December – that the media started reporting about IS’s demands to have Sajida al-Rishawi released in return for the Jordanian pilot. Since hardly anybody had heard of al-Rishawi, many people wondered why on earth IS was suddenly so interested in this person and why they wanted her released. Al-Maqdisi’s alleged letter shows, however, that we may have consistently looked at this from the wrong angle.
In the letter al-Maqdisi is supposed to have written to al-Baghdadi, he never seems concerned with the fate of the Jordanian pilot at all. Citing the Prophet Muhammad and the 14th-century Muslim scholar Ibn Kathir, he states that it is a Muslim’s duty to free those who are suffering (either from imprisonment or otherwise), but does not refer to the pilot when saying this. On the contrary, he states that it is imperative that al-Baghdadi works towards releasing al-Rishawi. He emphasises that she is their Muslim sister, a close associate of al-Zarqawi’s and a mujahida, a female jihad fighter, for whom al-Baghdadi is responsible. Al-Maqdisi claims that al-Zarqawi himself had wanted to free her but was killed before he was able to. It now fell on al-Baghdadi, as al-Zarqawi’s successor, to finish what the latter couldn’t and free al-Rishawi. The key to this – as al-Maqdisi states repeatedly in his letter – is in al-Baghdadi’s hands: the Jordanian pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasiba.
If this letter is to be believed, al-Maqdisi thus wrote to al-Baghdadi to have al-Rishawi released and saw the capture (and possible exchange) of the Jordanian pilot as a golden opportunity to achieve this. IS’s interest in al-Rishawi thus appears to have come not so much from any specific desire on their part to have her back, but much more from al-Maqdisi’s wish to see her released. In fact, if al-Maqdisi had not brought up al-Rishawi’s name in his supposed letter to al-Baghdadi, we might never have heard of her at all. This means that while many of us were looking for ways to explain IS’s interest in this obscure woman, we should perhaps have looked at al-Maqdisi instead.
Much of the above hinges on whether or not the letter al-Maqdisi wrote is authentic. Both in style – polite, but certainly not admiring of IS – and in content, the letter squares entirely with al-Maqdisi’s writings. The fact that he does not seem to care very much about the Jordanian pilot is not strange either: to al-Maqdisi, al-Kasasiba was obviously a combatant working for the “apostate” Jordanian regime engaged in waging war against a group that – though deviant and misguided in his eyes – was nevertheless Islamic. The fact that al-Maqdisi rejects the way the pilot was executed does not mean he believes al-Kasasiba was innocent, as he felt about the journalists and aid workers beheaded by IS. In fact, it was al-Maqdisi’s call for support of the Islamic State – despite his criticism of their practices – against the international coalition that landed him prison in the first place.
Al-Maqdisi’s efforts on al-Rishawi’s behalf should not surprise us either. Having spent some fifteen years in prison during his 23-year stay in Jordan, al-Maqdisi knows the trials and tribulations of gaol and may well sympathise with any jihadi inmate for that reason alone, particularly if this is abetted by an Islamically inspired duty of coming to the aid of those languishing in prison. Also, his close relationship with al-Zarqawi (and perhaps even his sense of responsibility about him and his actions) may make him more inclined to stand up for those associated with his former student. Moreover, al-Maqdisi has come to the defence of an obscure woman related to al-Zarqawi before. As I wrote several years ago on Jihadica, al-Maqdisi once defended al-Zarqawi’s wife when she was accused of inadvertently giving out information leading to the whereabouts (and, ultimately, death) of her husband. Furthermore, al-Maqdisi was not the only one who is said to have written a letter to al-Baghdadi. According to “sources from the Jihadi-Salafi trend [in Jordan]”, the mother of the other person executed by Jordan recently in retaliation for the pilot’s death, Ziyad al-Karbuli, also penned a letter to IS’s leader in which she offered to have him released in return for al-Kasasiba. She reportedly did not receive any answer from IS. Finally, it was reported a few days ago that al-Maqdisi is not allowed to talk to the press anymore and that the security services in Jordan were even surprised about his television appearance. This suggests that al-Maqdisi was at least partly acting on his own and was not constantly pushed by the regime to do this.
The above is confirmed by a document written by Abu l-‘Izz al-Najdi, a presumably Saudi member of the Shari’a Council of al-Maqdisi’s website, who provides details of the negotiations taking place between al-Maqdisi and IS. He confirms the authenticity of al-Maqdisi’s letter and, given that al-Najdi’s document is posted on al-Maqdisi’s website, we may assume that the latter does so too. He also confirms that the Jordanian pilot was an apostate in al-Maqdisi’s eyes, but that an Islamically legitimate purpose could be served by setting him free because it would cause the Jordanian regime to release al-Rishawi. That it didn’t happen this way is, al-Najdi writes, ultimately IS’s fault and he therefore holds that organisation responsible for al-Rishawi’s death, as does al-Maqdisi.
Al-Najdi writes that while al-Maqdisi was engaged in negotiating al-Rishawi’s release with IS, the latter’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, didn’t even mention her in his audio messages to show that he cared about her. Al-Maqdisi, however, encouraged other jihadis to “send [letters] and put pressure on all those in IS in whom a remnant of good remains in order to rescue their sister Sajida [al-Rishawi]”, al-Najdi writes. A man named Abu Mahmud al-Mawsili eventually came to the fore, claiming to be a prominent member of IS who could mediate between al-Maqdisi and al-Baghdadi to get al-Rishawi released. This, al-Najdi writes, was “the first clear lie” since “it was confirmed to [al-Maqdisi] from week one that the pilot had already been killed, based on information that reached him from inside Iraq and Syria”. The mediator al-Mawsili said that this was a lie, however, and swore he was serious about this prisoner exchange. He also swore that the pilot was still alive, al-Najdi writes. Al-Maqdisi, unwilling to accept that a mujahid would lie about this, believed him.
As it became clear that IS was interested in a trade-off between al-Kasasiba and al-Rishawi – despite having already killed the former – Jordan indicated that it was willing to do business on these terms, but it did demand video images of the pilot in which he mentions the date to prove that he was still alive. What follows is almost farcical. Al-Mawsili, aware that he was now forced to prove that a man already executed was still alive, promised to show al-Maqdisi the video. When he eventually claimed to have the video showing al-Kasasiba was still alive, he subsequently stated he couldn’t play it for al-Maqdisi because the internet connection was too slow, but he swore he would send it to him.
Al-Maqdisi, al-Najdi writes, was starting to lose faith in al-Mawsili and saw his doubts confirmed when the mediator asked him if the Jordanian regime would also be willing to trade al-Rishawi for the Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, who was still alive by this time and being held by IS as well. This indicated to al-Maqdisi that al-Mawsili was lying because he knew full well that Jordan was simply interested in getting its pilot back, not a Japanese journalist. Al-Maqdisi by now felt that he had been betrayed by IS all along and was angry by their apparent lack of concern for al-Rishawi. As such he holds IS responsible for al-Rishawi’s death because it could have prevented it by immediately accepting al-Maqdisi’s proposal, al-Najdi writes. Instead, IS “only cares about killing and slaughter and portraying that through Hollywood-like action” that they care more about than “the norms of the shari’a and helping the weak among their adherents among Muslims in general”.
The above doesn’t make this story any less dramatic and doesn’t change the outcome. Yet is does show that al-Maqdisi most probably played a much bigger role in all of this than we assumed until now, that his efforts to get the pilot released were actually not aimed at freeing him at all but at getting al-Rishawi out of prison and that IS’s interest in the latter was probably sparked by al-Maqdisi in the first place. One could argue that al-Maqdisi has been rather naive throughout this process, given his willingness to work with and believe people who have proven that a human life often means very little to them. Perhaps. Yet, the fact that al-Maqdisi didn’t mention in his recent television interview that he never really cared about the Jordanian pilot but actually saw him as an apostate who deserved to be killed and only acted as a means to get al-Rishawi released shows he is quite cunning after all: with Jordan up in arms over the execution of one of its citizens, such a remark would surely have landed al-Maqdisi in prison once again.