[Editor’s note: I am proud to introduce Joas Wagemakers as our new guest contributor. Regular Jihadica readers will know Joas as the world’s leading expert on Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi; but as you will discover over the next few weeks and hopefully months, Joas’s expertise extends way beyond the Jordanian ideologue. A lecturer and PhD candidate at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Joas has published widely on jihadi ideology and is a rising star in the Middle East and Islamic studies field.]
In the past, Will (here and here), Brynjar (here) and Thomas (here) have written excellent posts on Jihadica about the Jordanian ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s credibility problems. Just to refresh everyone’s memory: as a result of al-Maqdisi’s criticism of his former pupil Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi’s extreme use of violence in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, some fellow jihadis accused him of reneging on his earlier, supposedly more radical beliefs and of betraying the mujahidin. This criticism was expressed particularly fiercely on the Midad al-Suyuf forum by contributors such as al-Mihdar, Layth Makka and especially al-Zarqawi’s brother-in-law, Abu Qudama Salih al-Hami.
Abu Qudama, a journalist who worked in the AfPak region during the fighting there in the 1980s, is said to be close to many of the mujahidin who fought there and particularly al-Zarqawi. It therefore seemed safe to assume that the reason for his hostility was al-Maqdisi’s criticism of al-Zarqawi. Abu Qudama’s hostility was expressed in several books, including The Truth of the Conflict between Shaykh al-Maqdisi and the Heirs of al-Zarqawi is Jihad in the Way of God, which were also posted on the Midad al-Suyuf forum, as well as some others. Indeed, if one were to visit the Midad al-Suyuf forum today and go to the “al-Siyasa al-Shar‘iyya” section, it would be easy to find recent threads dedicated to anti-Maqdisi themes. These include threads with titles such as “Why does Abu Qatada remain in prison while al-Maqdisi is released?”, “Shaykh al-Maqdisi is a scholar with the people of ignorance”, “When is al-Maqdisi going to wake up?” and “Al-Maqdisi and the internet… The means to realise the agreed upon goal… or only for fame?” These and other threads are highly critical of al-Maqdisi and make Midad al-Suyuf look like it is obsessed with al-Maqdisi since he criticised al-Zarqawi and doesn’t seem to take him very seriously anymore no matter what he does. Indeed, al-Maqdisi himself has dedicated an article to addressing the hostility he encounters on this particular forum. They give the impression, in other words, of being sworn enemies over their dispute about al-Zarqawi.
This impression may be wrong, however. Strangely enough, as late as 2008 al-Maqdisi’s writings were sometimes posted on the Midad al-Suyuf forum without any commentary or accompanied by praise, occasionally even by people like al-Mihdar, who would later criticise him severely. This change of tone from neutrality or even support for al-Maqdisi to downright hostility cannot be explained by simply pointing to al-Maqdisi’s criticism of al-Zarqawi; after all, this was expressed in 2004 and 2005, implying that if this was the reason, the change in attitude towards al-Maqdisi would have taken place earlier. This raises the question: what caused this change?
The reason why Midad al-Suyuf turned sour on al-Maqdisi has a lot to do with the writings by Abu Qudama, which seem to have given the contributors to the forum the information on which they base most of their hostility. In 2007, he wrote a book called Knights of the Absent Duty, in which he describes his experiences with the mujahidin and especially displays his knowledge of al-Zarqawi. In the book, however, he is not very negative about al-Maqdisi at all and even describes his endurance under torture in a Jordanian prison, although he does indicate the differences between al-Maqdisi and his hero al-Zarqawi. Significantly, however, Abu Qudama points out that al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006 by an American attack because the latter’s wife, Umm Mus‘ab, wrote letters to family and friends in either Iraq or Jordan without her husband’s knowledge. He suggests that through these letters, Umm Mus‘ab must have (inadvertently) betrayed al-Zarqawi’s whereabouts, leading the Americans to the place where he was hiding. He states that this is the only way they could have known about this.
This implicit accusation of Umm Mus‘ab was apparently so offensive to al-Maqdisi that he claims to have written a letter to Abu Qudama in which he tells him that he shouldn’t defame Umm Mus‘ab and that this whole story is a lie since al-Zarqawi’s wife was not even in Iraq at the time so she couldn’t have known about her husband’s hiding place. Although al-Maqdisi has several writings on his website that briefly refer to Abu Qudama’s accusation, in none of them does he mention what Abu Qudama actually accuses Umm Mus‘ab of. He states that he didn’t mention this because he didn’t want to defame her any more than Abu Qudama had already done. Perhaps for the same reason, al-Maqdisi’s letter to Abu Qudama is also absent from his website.
According to al-Maqdisi, Abu Qudama got so angry with him over this letter that he started writing books condemning al-Maqdisi. Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, al-Maqdisi may suggest that all of Abu Qudama’s anger towards him isn’t about his criticism of al-Zarqawi at all but simply about his own anger over being reprimanded for supposedly falsely accusing Umm Mus‘ab. Although this information should be treated carefully since I do not know how Abu Qudama feels about this issue, it would explain why the Midad al-Suyuf forum turned increasingly hostile to al-Maqdisi.
This story may come across as nothing more than jihadi gossip. There is, however, some significance to it. Firstly, it shows how much influence one author knowledgeable about jihadis can have on a forum that was initially not unfavourably disposed towards al-Maqdisi. Secondly, it also shows how a man widely viewed as one of the most important radical scholars alive can quickly fall from grace among a small but dedicated group of people if targeted in the right way. Perhaps surprisingly, it appears that for some zealous jihadis al-Maqdisi’s large number of books and his prison credibility seem to count for little.