More Fitna in Cyberspace: Mihdar vs al-Maqdisi

Posted: 7th February 2009 by Brynjar Lia in AQ in Iraq, Jihadi media

Is another chapter in the history of cyber-jihadi infighting about to be written these days? The latest controversy is a series of attacks by the webforum Madad al-Suyuf on Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, perhaps the most influential salafi-jihadi clerics alive.

That the cyber-Jihadis quarrel with one another should come as no surprise. Despite calls for unity and brotherly counseling, jihadi writers frequently fight it out in the open.  In fact, inter-jihadi quarrels seem to have become more common and less ‘brotherly’ in tone in recent years. As for al-Maqdisi himself, most of you will recall his open letter of advice to al-Zarqawi in mid-2005, which earned him a stern reply from his former disciple and many enemies among al-Zarqawi’s numerous buddies. More recently, people have suspected that al-Maqdisi is being pressured to follow in the footsteps Sayyid Imam Sharif and other revisionists. Will, Joas and others have already covered these accusations brilliantly on Jihadica (See also Murad al-Shishani’s piece).

A key player in the latest round is ’Mihdar’, the Madad al-Suyuf administrator. His full name is apparently Abu Harith Mihdar al-Shadhili and he is a very controversial figure. He has been kicked out of many jihadi forums and is notorious for his attacks on well-known clerics. Mihdar is now accusing al-Maqdisi for posting studies on his website the Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad without referencing their source. (This is an odd accusation coming from a cyber-jihadi since copyright is usually seen as a ’kafir’ invention. In jihadi propaganda one is more likely to find statements like ’this is the property of the entire Islamic Umma’ than ’all rights reserved’.) However, the harsh tone in Mihdar’s criticism suggested that the issue was not merely about copyright.

Al-Maqdisi took this accusation seriously and posted a response on his website, as he has done in the past. What followed was an avalanche of hostile postings on Madad al-Suyuf on a range of serious matters. One sticky posting entitled “For discussion: ambiguity problems in al-Maqdisi’s thinking” accused him of confusing and misguiding the mujahidin with his ambivalence on the takfir issue. Another details al-Maqdisi’s ‘disgraceful acts’ in prison.

Others have jumped in to try to reconcile the parties and mend differences. Hani al-Sibai at the al-Maqrizi Centre in London was called upon to support al-Maqdisi, and he came out firmly on al-Maqdisi’s side,  as he has done in the past. This in turn triggered yet another angry reply from Mihdar. On many other webforums, people have responded harshly to Mihdar’s attack, most of them denouncing Mihdar and accusing Madad al-Suyuf of being “nothing more than an intelligence operation”.

Some of this wrangling smacks of a type of blue-collar vs white collar jihadists: we fight and they only criticize. Mihdar may well be an armchair jihadi himself, but his criticism could reflect growing discontent among jihadis in the field toward jihadi clerics. Are we witnessing a renegotiation of the very nature of the commander vs clerical mentor relationship? The neo-Zarqawists and their like clearly seek and welcome clerical counseling, but not in public. And they respond by showing their strongest card: battlefield glory. In the current debate, for example, the Madad al-Suyuf crowd hold against al-Maqdisi that the latter does not have “any jihadi credentials”. This is precisely what Abu Musab al-Suri, also more of a jihadi practitioner than a cleric, used to say about Abu Qutada: the latter never fought in Afghanistan. He “was not a jihadi and had no history in that field.” The clerics’ resort to public admonishments instead of discrete counseling is a common theme elsewhere too. Critics of Shaykh Hamid al-Ali’s controversial repudiation of the Islamic state in Iraq have also complained: Why don’t you keep this out of the public eye? At the very least, there is an inherent contradiction between two oft-heard slogans in jihadi discourse: “the mujahidin in the fields know best” and “pay respect to the clerics”.

Document (Arabic): 1-al-maqdisis-response-to-madad-al-suyuf

Document (Arabic): 2-boraq-forum-on-mihdar

Document (Arabic): 3-for-discussion-ambiguity-problems-in-al-maqdisis-thinking

Document (Arabic): 4-call-to-the-two-shaykhs-al-maqdisi-and-al-mihdar

Document (Arabic): 5-madad-al-suyufs-respons-to-hani-al-sibai

Document (Arabic): 6-the-truth-about-the-differences-between-shaykh-al-maqdisi-and-the-heirs-of-al-zarqawi

  1. Jeff C says:

    Brynjar, Tom, Anne: Great work! Really looking forward to future analyses and wish you all the best.

  2. Jeff C says:

    Outstanding post, Tom! There was a good piece written several months ago by E. Alshech (MEMRI, June 2008) on contextual and scholarly authority versus battlefront credentials, and how this impacts the ideas of jihadi infallibility. See http://www.memri.org/bin/latestnews.cgi?ID=IA44608 .

  3. Joas Wagemakers says:

    Dear Brynjar,

    Great work! I believe that your assessment that this discussion has something to do with the general relations between scholars and fighters is correct. Jordan is, as you mention, not the only area where fighters’ frustration over the scholars’ meddling is aired. In the Jordanian context, however, I believe that this conflict between fighters and non-fighters goes back to the 1990s, when many of these people were in prison together. While they went to gaol sharing more or less the same beliefs, once they were in prison the differences started to surface. One of these differences was related to battlefield experience and the willingness to go to a foreign front and fight the far enemy. In prison, divisions started to rear their heads between those who’d been in Afghanistan to fight and those who hadn’t, with the former group increasing in stature in the eyes of many inmates. I believe that the current conflicts that you describe and that Jihadica has written about before are partly rooted in frustration over this issue that dates back to this period, when Al-Zarqawi, ‘Abd al-Hadi Daghlas and others risked life and limb by joining the fight in Afghanistan or Iraq while Al-Maqdisi and others preferred to stay in Jordan and, perhaps more importantly, to focus on da’wa. While these conflicts did not come to the fore until years later, I believe that the seeds of the fighters’ resentment towards Al-Maqdisi c.s. were sown in the 1990s. Knowing this, one can imagine that Al-Maqdisi’s criticism of Al-Zarqawi and others in 2004, 2005 and 2008 was interpreted by the fighters with this resentment still in mind. Several people saw his criticism as further proof that Al-Maqdisi is a hypocrite who talks the talk but when push comes to shove, he doesn’t have the guts to back up his words. I believe this accusation does not do justice to Al-Maqdisi’s views, which are more complex than this reasoning suggests, but it nevertheless was and still is a not uncommon view among certain Jordanian Jihadi-Salafis.

  4. [...] MS directed similar accusations against Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad a few weeks ago. As Brynjar pointed out then, we didn’t use to see this type of bickering over copyright in the past. It is hard to say [...]

  5. [...] forum debates over Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s alleged turn to moderation have not ended since our last report. On the contrary, the forum Midad al-Suyuf (MS) has escalated its campaign against al-Maqdisi and [...]

  6. [...] historical analysis’ of the jihadi forums on the web. Considering Mihdar’s record as a somewhat controversial figure – for other controversies involving Madad al-Suyuf, see here or here, the study should be taken [...]

  7. [...] Afghan war against the Soviets; within the al-Qaeda Senior Leadership over tactics in Iraq; and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi against Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, also over Iraq. This dispute in the Caucasus, between the [...]

  8. [...] More Fitna in Cyberspace: Mihdar vs al-Maqdisi — jihadica I believe that this conflict between fighters and non-fighters goes back to the 1990s, when many of these people were in prison together. While they went to gaol sharing more or less the same beliefs, once they were in prison the differences started to surface. One of these differences was related to battlefield experience and the willingness to go to a foreign front and fight the far enemy. In prison, divisions started to rear their heads between those who’d been in Afghanistan to fight and those who hadn’t, with the former group increasing in stature in the eyes of many inmates. I believe that the current conflicts that you describe and that Jihadica has written about before are partly rooted in frustration over this issue that dates back to this period, when Al-Zarqawi, ‘Abd al-Hadi Daghlas and others risked life and limb by joining the fight in Afghanistan or Iraq while Al-Maqdisi and others preferred to stay in Jordan and, perhaps more importantly, to focus on da’wa. While these conflicts did not come to the fore until years later, I believe that the seeds of the fighters’ resentment towards Al-Maqdisi c.s. were sown in the 1990s. Knowing this, one can imagine that Al-Maqdisi’s criticism of Al-Zarqawi and others in 2004, 2005 and 2008 was interpreted by the fighters with this resentment still in mind. Several people saw his criticism as further proof that Al-Maqdisi is a hypocrite who talks the talk but when push comes to shove, he doesn’t have the guts to back up his words. I believe this accusation does not do justice to Al-Maqdisi’s views, which are more complex than this reasoning suggests, but it nevertheless was and still is a not uncommon view among certain Jordanian Jihadi-Salafis. [...]