Maqdisi invokes McCants

Posted: 18th April 2009 by Thomas Hegghammer in Uncategorized

The al-Maqdisi controversy has taken a very interesting new turn. In a statement posted his website earlier this week, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi cited several Western scholars, including Dutch al-Maqdisi specialist Joas Wagemakers and Jihadica founder Will McCants, to make the point that his enemies understand him better than his detractors in the jihadi community do.

The statement, entitled “Among the Methods Used by the Infidels to Plot Against the Call and the Preachers, and shared by many Ignorants and Fools,” represents another attempt by al-Maqdisi to rid himself of accusations that he has moderated his position on jihad. For previous attempts see here and here.

What’s distinctive about this statement is its frequent references to Western academics and liberal Arab commentators, which al-Maqdisi uses variously to discredit his critics and to boost his own credentials. Al-Maqdisi first accuses his critics of running the errand of the infidels by implementing a strategy of discrediting ideologues originally proposed by the “Crusader RAND corporation“. (I am not sure exactly which RAND study al-Maqdisi has in mind here – could it be this one?)

As evidence that this strategy is bound to fail, al-Maqdisi then references Joas Wagemakers’s Sentinel article about al-Maqdisi as a counterterrorism asset:

“The understanding of our enemies and their readings of my publications, have yielded results that differ completely from the calls of those inexperienced people and their understanding. For example, the theorists of the Combating Terrorism Center in the US Military, in the 6th issue of their magazine, studied the possibility of exploiting Al-Maqdisi to strike at jihad and the mujahidin (as they have exploited the leaderships of the Egyptian Islamic Group). The conclusion was that such an attempt will lead to failure because of [Maqdisi’s] steadfastness and the firmness of his positions. This is what the enemies said about me and distributed on the Internet.”

To underscore his jihadi credentials, al-Maqdisi then cites the Militant Ideology Atlas edited by Will McCants:

“[Then there is the] Militant Ideology Atlas by the Combating Terrorism Center at the West Point Military Academy, which trains officers in the American Army, and which is led by the retired general, Wayne Downing, who was the commander of American Special Operations. It concluded that: ‘Al-Maqdisi is the most influential living Islamic thinker in Islamic ideology amongst jihadi groups.’ [Note that it says] the jihadist groups, and not those that delay and reject. Credit is to the testimony of enemies.”

Finally al-Maqdisi cites two articles by liberal Arab commentators: The first is a 2004 article by the Saudi ex-jihadi Mishari al-Dhaydi entitled “The Sheikhs of Violence are numerous … and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi remains the most important”; The second was written by Tariq al-Humayyid (now editor of al-Sharq al-Awsat) following al-Maqdisi’s July 2005 appearance on al-Jazeera.

This is not the first time that McCants and CTC West Point are quoted by prominent jihadi ideologues. Ayman al-Zawahiri has mentioned the article “Stealing al-Qaida’s Playbook” by Will McCants and Jarret Brachman not once but twice (once in a video and once in the Exoneration). One of the article’s suggestions is that the pietist salafi current known as madkhalism represents a potential ideological counterweight to jihadi salafism. Al-Zawahiri seized upon this point to discredit his critics.

More recently, Abu Humam al-Athari cited the Militant Ideology Atlas extensively in a book entitled “The Exalted Declaration of the Justness of Our Shaykh  al-Maqdisi” which seeks to defend al-Maqdisi from the recent criticism (hat tip: Vahid). The book includes the graphic of the CTC coin, and the ideological influence map (see pp. 94-95) from the original report.

These references are above all a great compliment to the CTC in general and Will McCants in particular. It is perhaps the best possible testimony of the quality and incisiveness of their research. I would be lying if I said I am not envious of their being cited by jihadi legends.

On a deeper level there is something slightly disturbing about academic publications entering the discourse of the actors themselves and influencing inter-jihadi debates. The Internet makes such dynamics inevitable, and we have seen several entertaining examples of the “hall of mirror effect” in recent years. However, when this happens at a high level, as on that of al-Zawahiri and al-Maqdisi, it becomes more serious. The irony here is that the CTC’s publications are essentially having the unintended consequence of prolonging the political life of a leading jihadi ideologue.

  1. Vahid Brown says:

    Excellent post, Thomas, though I think the assertions in your final paragraph are open to debate.

    I would only add that the invocation of the accuracy of CTC in intra-jihadi conflicts also appears in the Zawahiri/Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (Dr. Fadl) controversy. In the first part of his “Revisions,” Sayyid Imam quotes Zawahiri as saying that the CTC was fairer than his detractors in that we cited his actual works (the context here is that Sayyid Imam is proving that Zawahiri is “a liar with no sense of justice”).


  2. radwan says:

    Kudos vahid becky and chris on all the hard work. Abu muhammad noticed. Tanbih!

  3. Radwan A. says:

    Nice work Vahid Becky and A.H.! Glad Abu Mhmd noticed!
    ma`a salaama wa bil-taqdir

  4. MStout says:

    Maqdisi, Zawahiri, et al, are, indeed, using these works by McCants and others in their own defense. Since we must assume, as a first order approximation, that Maqdisi, et al, know their own interests best, this does indeed, suggest that all other things being equal, these works are contributing to the longevity of the movement. Of course, however, we have to consider the alternative. I’d argue that in general this horrible struggle would go on much longer without the sort of scholarship that McCants (and you!) do. Ignorance, as you’ve noted elsewhere, is not a winning strategy.

  5. Marisa Urgo says:

    Hi, Thomas, you wrote:
    “However, when this happens at a high level, as on that of al-Zawahiri and al-Maqdisi, it becomes more serious.”
    And I’m curious: how so?


  6. Tom says:

    Wasn’t RAND responsible for that power point doc that floated around the NeoCon movement advocating the Shia crescent and restoration of Hashemite rule?

  7. Marisa: What I mean is that when a western academic work is cited in a random forum posting, it is more of a curiosity than anything else. When a work is quoted by a top jihadi ideologue on the other hand, we know it is having a strategic impact.

    Tom: I don’t know.