It is still too early to predict the collapse of the Islamic State, but it is telling that the group’s own media, which usually keep to a narrative of unstoppable progress and battlefield success, have begun signaling decline. Last week, an editorial in the most recent issue of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter, al-Naba’ (“News”), well captured this new outlook. Titled “The Crusaders’ Illusions in the Age of the Caliphate,” it offers a grim view of the future, both for the Islamic State and for those seeking to destroy it. I provide a full translation below.

Much of the editorial echoes the downbeat sentiments expressed by the Islamic State’s official spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, in his recent audio statement of May 21 of this year. While in that statement ‘Adnani was sure to project a measure of confidence, remarking that the Islamic State is “becoming stronger with each passing day,” some of his comments betrayed the starker reality of a caliphate under siege. This was clear in the following queries: “Do you think, America, that victory will come by killing one or more leaders?” “Do you reckon, America, that defeat is the loss of a city or the loss of territory?” Responding to his own questions, ‘Adnani declared that killing the Islamic State’s leaders would not defeat the greater “adversary”—the group itself—and that taking its land would not eliminate its “will” to fight. Even if the Islamic State were to lose all its territories, he said, it could still go back to the way it was “at the beginning,” when it was “in the desert without cities and without territory.” The allusion here is to the experience of the Islamic State of Iraq, which between 2006 and 2012 held no significant territory despite its claim to statehood. For this reason it was derided as a “paper state.” ‘Adnani is thus suggesting that even if defeated the Islamic State could take refuge in the desert, rebuild, and return anew.

The editorial in al-Naba’ emphasizes the same themes. Like ‘Adnani’s speech, it suggests that the Islamic State could soon degenerate into a paper caliphate bereft of its land and leadership. And yet, it adds, this is no matter, for the cycle of Islamic State decline and revival will simply recur. America’s victory will once again prove illusory. If America seeks to claim real victory, it will have to eliminate an “entire generation” of caliphate supporters the world over.

These prognostications offer a striking contrast with those of the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, from just two years ago. Back then, in an audio address commemorating the start of the holy month of Ramadan, Baghdadi proclaimed the dawn of “a new age,” telling his supporters to “rejoice, take heart, and hold your heads high.” Today, it is Ramadan again, but the once proud and tall Baghdadi is nowhere to be seen. His last audio address was in December 2015. It has been left to ‘Adnani and the editorial team at al-Naba’ to deliver the bad news. The message of these sources could be summed up in the phrase, “brace yourselves for a long and difficult ride.” There remains, however, a hopeful sense that Baghdadi’s “new age” will endure—an age in which the caliphate may rise and fall, but will never truly be erased.

“The Crusaders’ Illusions in the Age of the Caliphate”

The warriors of jihad did not lie against God or against the Muslims when they announced the establishment of the Islamic State. Nor did they lie when they said it would remain, God willing. And they did not lie against God or against the Muslims when they announced the return of the caliphate and chose an imam [viz., caliph] for the Muslims, as they did not lie when they said it would remain, God willing.

The crusaders and their apostates clients are under the illusion that, by expanding the scope of their military campaign to include, in addition to the provinces of Iraq and Sham, the provinces of Khurasan, the Sinai, and West Africa, as well as the Libyan provinces, they will be able to eliminate all of the Islamic State’s provinces at once, such that it will be completely wiped out and no trace of it will be left. In this they are neglecting an important fact, which is that the whole world after the announcement of the caliphate’s return has changed from how it was before its return, and that by building plans and developing strategies in view of a previous reality, they are making plans for a world that no longer exists at present, and will not exist in the future, God willing.

Just as the Iraq war before exposed the truth of the power of the world-dominating crusaders, demonstrating the possibility of defeating them and showing Muslims that jihad is the only way to establish the state and implement the sharia, so the establishment of the Islamic State revealed to them that the return of the caliphate is something possible without first having to adopt the enfeebling ideas developed by factions and parties claiming to be Islamic, which parties with their ideas sowed hopelessness in Muslims’ hearts about the possibility of establishing the religion before the appearance of the Mahdi and the descent of Jesus, on whom be peace.

Therefore, the polytheists everywhere ought to be sure that the caliphate will remain, God willing, and that they will not be able to eliminate it by destroying one of its cities or besieging another of them, or by killing a soldier, an emir, or an imam—we ask God to protect them all and maintain them as a thorn in the eyes of the polytheists and apostates. For the Muslims after today will not accept to live without an imam guiding them upon the prophetic path: an imam around whom they can gather, behind whom they can wage jihad, to whom they can deliver a fifth of the booty and pay the zakat tax, following thereby the practice of the companions, may God be pleased with them, whom the death of the Prophet, may God bless and save him, did not prevent from choosing for themselves someone to succeed him in establishing the religion and implementing the sharia.

They ought to know that after today they will not be able to deceive the Muslims with idolatrous regimes ascribing sharia qualities to themselves, or with wayward parties and organizations claiming to raise the banner of Islam, while these adopt the pagan beliefs of democracy, patriotism, and others, and make war on those who call to God’s pure oneness and seek to unite the community of Muslims.

The State of the Caliphate has shown all mankind what the true Islamic state is like, how the sharia is applied in full and not in part, how polytheism is destroyed from the earth in which God establishes the monotheists, and how “the religion is God’s entirely” (Q. 8:39). It has thus done away with all the myths of popular support, all the lies of gradualism, and all the fears of the revenge of the crusaders.

They ought to be sure that their terrorizing of Muslims will no longer be effective, that their scaring them from establishing the religion will no longer be effective either, and that the jihad warriors have rejected the argument of the unbelievers when they said, “If we follow the guidance that is with you [O Muhammad], we will be snatched away from our land” (Q. 28:57), as they have rejected their fear of those other than God and their dread of them. What their actions have begun to say is: “We will follow the guidance, establish the religion, compel the community, and fight for this till our heads are cracked open and our limbs are torn apart. Then we will meet God, having been deprived of excuse.” There is no greater evidence of this than the pledges of allegiance, one after the other, to the Commander of the Believers, in spite of the vicious crusader campaign against the Islamic State and its soldiers, to which thousands of jihad warriors have rushed from east and west to throw themselves into the furnace of this war, preferring death under the banner of the community to life in the shadow of the ignorance of factions and parties.

They ought to reevaluate and redesign their plans on this basis. If they want to achieve true victory—and they will not, God willing—then they will have to wait a long while: till an entire generation of Muslims that was witness to the establishment of the Islamic State and the return of the caliphate, and that followed the story of its standing firm against all the nations of unbelief, is wiped out—a generation that knew God’s oneness and saw its adherents, that learned how to make of the doctrine of association and dissociation a lived reality, and how to make of the Qur’an, the Prophet’s practice, and adherence to the ancestors a path of life.

They will have to wait till this entire generation is over to reproduce the generation that was raised at the hands of idolatrous rulers, that grew up under the care of wayward parties and at the hands of evil shaykhs and palace scholars. For the generation that has lived in the shadow of the caliphate, or has lived during its great battles, will be able—God willing—to keep its banner aloft, as was the generation that grew up in the shadow of the Islamic State of Iraq able to bring it back in a stronger form than before, after the crusaders and their clients thought that it had been eliminated and that its trace had vanished from the earth.

The Islamic State will remain, God willing, and the caliphate will remain, God willing, upon the prophetic method, “till there is no persecution [viz., polytheism] and the religion is God’s entirely” (Q. 8:39).

The Extremist Wing of the Islamic State

Posted: 9th June 2016 by Tore Hamming in Islamic State of Iraq

[Welcome to Tore Hamming, a PhD candidate at the European University Institute working on inter-movement dynamics within Sunni Jihadism with a special focus on the al-Qaida-Islamic State relationship. You can follow him on Twitter @Torerhamming.]

 

In a chapter titled “Destructive Doctrinarians,” the author Brynjar Lia describes Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s critique of Salafi rigidity in doctrinal matters. Suri, a Syrian strategist associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and later al-Qaida, fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and was a supporter of the Taliban. Unlike Suri, many of the Arab foreign fighters in the region despised the Taliban, especially the Saudis and Egyptians who considered them religiously deviant.[1] According to Suri, their extreme focus on correct doctrine became a severe obstacle to successful jihad.[2]

There is a similar debate today inside the Islamic State, despite the group’s reputation for religious extremism and uniform belief.[3] The hardline of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is soft in the eyes of some of his followers, and the very doctrine the State uses to justify violence against its enemies is being turned in on itself.

Fragmentation within the Islamic State

In a recent interview this author did with an al-Qaida sympathizer, the interviewee described how the Islamic State ideologically can be divided into two movements: People following Turki al-Bin’ali, the Head of the Fatwa Committee in the Islamic State, and people following Ahmad al-Hāzimi, a Saudi Salafi sheikh imprisoned in the kingdom since April 2015.[4] Because of the rivalry between al-Qaida and the Islamic State one always have to be careful with accusations made by one group about the other, but when looking further into the debate and discussing it with Islamic State supporters,[5] it is clear that a dispute is ongoing between the two factions.

The dispute has to do with whether someone can be excommunicated if they are ignorant of a religious requirement. The Hāzimis, as the followers of Ahmad al-Hāzimi are referred to, adopt the position that ignorance is no excuse and argue that those who excuse the ignorant are themselves infidels. This position eventually led one of the trend’s most prominent figures to excommunicate Abu Bakr al-Baghdādī. The dispute has now spread to include senior theorists within or at least affiliated with the Islamic State and has filtered down to its rank-and-file members who discuss the matter intensively on platforms like Twitter and Telegram. The initial response of Islamic State was to handle the issue by executing the proponents of the Hāzimi trend.

In September 2014, the Islamic State executed one of its Shari’a judges Husain Rida Lare (aka Abu Umar al-Kuwaiti) under mysterious circumstances. Originally from Kuwait, Abu Umar allegedly entered Syria in 2012 where he established the Soldiers of the Caliphate battalion, which developed into Jama’at al-Muslimin before finally pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.[6] Already before joining the Islamic State, the vocal Abu Umar became infamous for his takfīri inclination when he pronounced takfīr on Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.[7] As a Shari’a judge in the Islamic State Abu Umar also argued in favor of pronouncing takfīr on Ayman al-Zawahiri because the al-Qaida leader was unwilling to make takfīr on the Shia as a group; he claimed that Zawahiri was subscribing to the principle of ignorance as an excuse.[8]

Abu Umar finally proclaimed al-Baghdadi to be an infidel. The Islamic State responded by executing him for his “excessive takfīri tendencies”.[9]

Abu Umar al-Kuwaiti was a follower of the so-called Hāzimi trend within the Islamic State, which refers to followers of the Saudi sheikh Ahmad al-Hāzimi. The currently-imprisoned Hāzimi is not officially part of the Islamic State, but many of his followers are. Hāzimi is the main proponent of the principle that ignorance is not an excuse and he claims furthermore that if a person does not excommunicate a Muslim who merits it then he becomes an infidel himself.[10] Based on this principle, Zawahiri is considered an infidel because he does not excommunicate the Shia and Baghdadi is an infidel because he did not excommunicate Zawahiri.

A member of the Islamic State told me that the “al-Hāzimi manhaj [methodology] ideology is forbidden within Dawlah [the Islamic State] due to its extremism and wrong understanding of the 3rd nullifier of Islam”.[11] In the words of the former Saudi mufti Abdelaziz bin Baz, the third nullifier of Islam refers to “Whoever does not hold the polytheists to be disbelievers, or has doubts about their disbelief or considers their ways and beliefs to be correct, has committed disbelief.”[12] To say that this Hāzimi ideology is forbidden within the Islamic State is probably a too formalistic way of looking at it as – at least to the author’s knowledge.

No official ruling or communication has been issued on the matter by Islamic State officials. However, it is clear that the Hāzimis are not being tolerated within the movement. When I first asked an Islamic State source whether he knew of “al-Hāzimi”, he answered “Hāzimi the takfīri?” This sums up how al-Hāzimi and his followers are perceived even within the Islamic State.

Ahmad al-Hāzimi himself has not commented on the dispute between his followers and the Islamic State. This is partly because he has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since 28 April 2015 and thus prevented from any public comments; it’s also because he tries to abstain from engaging in this kind of discussion. Hence you will not find lectures of Hāzimi pronouncing takfīr on anyone or commenting on tangible disputes. He is rather providing the interpretations, or tools, that his eager followers can then apply. Another example of such ‘facilitation’ is when Hāzimi argues that everyone can proclaim takfīr on a group or an individual and that it is not a privilege of religious scholars,[13] thus enabling his followers to attack people they do not consider to follow the correct manhaj (methodology).

The Islamic State leadership’s clamp down on proponents of the Hāzimi trend did not stop with the execution of Abu Umar al-Kuwaiti. In August 2014, the month before Abu Umar was executed, a number of second rank Islamic State leaders and members were arrested also charged with accusations of excessive takfīr. The most prominent were Abu Jāfar Al-Hattab and Abu Musāb Al-Tunisi. Al-Hattab, a former member of the Shari’a Committee of the Tunisian Ansar al-Shari’a group, had released an audio recording declaring his view on takfīr including his rejection of ignorance as an excuse to excommunicate other Muslims. Some supporters of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State accused al-Hattab of issuing a fatwa stating that all opponents of the Islamic State are infidels, much like the GIA fatwa from 1996[14] that proclaimed takfīr on the entire Algerian population. Al-Tunisi was emir in Deir ez-Zour, but became unpopular within the Islamic State ranks when he allegedly called the Taliban and former al-Qaida leader Usama bin Laden infidels.[15] Although al-Tunisi himself dismissed the takfīr charge as hypothetical, he clearly falls into the Hāzimi trend. He also pronounced takfīr on AQIM and Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia.[16] Like al-Kuwaiti, al-Hattab and al-Tunisi were executed by the Islamic State[17] although little information seem to exist on al-Tunisi’s death. Other supporters of the doctrine were arrested.

 

Takfīr on Twitter

The dispute within the Islamic State has recently erupted again online. Since the start of May this year, several long debates between Bin’ali supporters and the Hāzimis have taken place on Twitter,[18] with each side accusing the other of extremism and deviance. Supporters of the Bin’ali trend frame Hāzimis as khawārij and ghulāt (extremist) while claiming their methodology results in “chain takfīr”. The Hāzimis retort that Bin’ali’s supporters are murji’a (“postponers” who accept the principle of ignorance as excuse) and that their loyalty is to people rather than to God.

The recent resurgence of the dispute has not gone unnoticed in official Islamic State circles. On 12 May 2016 an Islamic State affiliated Telegram channel[19] (re-)published several pieces on the issue of takfīr as a critique of the Hāzimi trend. First, it re-published an explanation titled “Details regarding the questions of takfīr on al ‘āthir” by the Saudi sheikh ‘Alī Al Khudayr, originally from March 2016, in which he gives his interpretation of the third nullifier of Islam.[20] This was followed by a piece on the Ansaru Khilafah website on the same topic, but attached with the Islamic State’s official interpretation of the third nullifier as it is taught at their military camps.[21] From this document it is clear that the Islamic State’s position on takfīr follows the interpretation of Turki al-Bin’ali rather than the Hāzimis.

This is not the first time that the Islamic State feels the need to engage in the dispute. Al Ghuraba Media Foundation, which is an unofficial Islamic State communication channel, previously published four articles and one book criticizing the methodology of Ahmad al-Hāzimi.

The Islamic State also continues to crackdown on followers of the Hāzimi in its ranks. A Hāzimi source, who does not consider himself part of the Islamic State, told me that the Islamic State recently executed another 15 Hāzimi supporters and that many have been put in prison. This raises the question, why are the Hāzimi joining the Islamic State in the first place and why do they not leave the movement when they come under attack? This there are no clear answers when talking to both Bin’ali supporters and Hāzimis. Perhaps it’s because the Islamic State is the Jihadi-Salafi movement that comes closest to the doctrine and manhaj of the Hāzimis. Perhaps many Hāzimis joined the Islamic State before they were influenced by the teachings of Ahmad al-Hāzimi. Or perhaps leaving the Islamic State is not as easy as one may imagine. As another Hāzimi source told me, they are often not welcome in their countries of origin and, the Islamic State will kill them if they try to leave. But as it is now, staying within the Islamic State but sticking to their belief seems just as dangerous for the Hāzimis.

A Path to Self-Destruction?

In her book ‘The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction’, Nelly Lahoud argues that jihadis’ reliance on the concept of al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ (loyalty and disavowal) will eventually lead to the movement’s fragmentation and destruction. When the latter part of the concept, disavowal, is taken to its extreme it results in groups or individuals excommunicating one another. This was what happened with some Kharijite groups during Islam’s second civil war and the Islamic State confronts the same problem today.

So far, the confrontation between supporters of the Bin’ali and the Hāzimis has not destroyed the Islamic State as an organization. The Hāzimis are a small minority within the organization and are not represented on a leadership level – especially not after the string of executions in 2014 when the Islamic State killed or imprisoned the leading proponents of the trend.

But excessive takfirism does run the risk of severely fragmenting a movement that is already showing signs of decay in some aspects. Twitter is now full of debates between the two trends, which extend far beyond the organization. The dispute is not about tactics, strategy, or power ambitions, which characterize the conflict between the Islamic State and al-Qaida. Rather, it is a doctrinal dispute over the acceptable boundaries of Muslim belief and practice. As an Islamic State supporter argues, “The dispute between the followers of Hāzimi is deeper than Dawla’s [Islamic State] dispute with JN [Jabhat al-Nusra]”. Although it will not cause the downfall of the Islamic State, the group’s leaders can no longer focus solely on the enemy outside. Its own extremism has bred a new enemy within that may one day challenge it just as ISIS challenged al-Qaeda.

[1] A survey conducted by jihadis in Afghanistan in the late 1980s shows that members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad believed “nothing is to be hoped for from the war in Afghanistan, nor will there arise an Islamic State there, on account of doctrinal/ideological defects among the leaders and the masses.” Paul Cruickshank, “Al-Qaeda’s New Course Examining Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s Strategic Direction,” IHS, May 2012.

[2] Brynjar Lia, “‘Destructive Doctrinarians’: Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri’s Critique of the Salafis in the Jihadi Current,” in Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, ed. R Meijer (London: Hurst & Company, 2009), 281–300.

[3] Ayman Al-Zawahiri, “March Forth to Sham!,” As-Sahab Media, May 2016, www.justpaste.it/u576.

[4] Author’s interview with Ahmad al-Hamdan, May 2016.

[5] Based on several interviews the author did with Islamic State supporters through Twitter, April-May 2016.

[6] Abdallah Suleiman Ali, “IS Disciplines Some Emirs to Avoid Losing Base,” Al Monitor, September 2, 2014, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2014/09/is-takfiri-caliphate.html.

[7] Jérôme Drevon, “How Syria’s War Is Dividing the Egyptian Jihadi Movement,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 9, 2014, http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=54139.

[8] Abdal Wahid Al-Ansari, “انقلب السحر.. «داعش» يكفّر بعضه بعضاً .. والبغدادي يَعتْقِلُ رجاله لـ«المناصحة»!,” Al-Hayat, 2014, http://www.alhayat.com/Articles/4257230/انقلب-السحر—-داعش–يكفّر-بعضه-بعضاً—-والبغدادي-يَعتْقِلُ-رجاله-لـ-المناصحة-. See also the following debate forum on this issue: http://www.dd-sunnah.net/forum/showthread.php?t=173503

[9] “ISIS Executes One of Its Sharia Judges,” Middle East Monitor, March 10, 2015, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20150310-isis-executes-one-of-its-sharia-judges/.

[10] For Hāzimi audio on ignorance as excuse, see Youtube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oURlSSItr4I

For Hāzimi audio on the pronouncement of takfir on a person who do not make takfir on a kāfir, see Youtube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuJkKXeivps

[11] Author’s interview with Islamic State supporter on Twitter, May 2016.

[12] For explanation of the Nullifiers of Islam, see Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz, “The Nullifiers of Islaam”: https://theclearsunnah.wordpress.com/2007/05/05/10-nullifiers-of-islam/

[13] See Ahmad al-Hāzimi, “Takfir is not a boogeyman,” [Youtube Video], 2016, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuJkKXeivps [Accessed May 11, 2016].

[14] Middle East Monitor, “ISIS Executes One of Its Sharia Judges.”

[15] Ali, “IS Disciplines Some Emirs to Avoid Losing Base.” and https://justpaste.it/el0d

[16] For Abu Musab al-Tunisi’s takfir on AQIM and Ansar al-Shari’a, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvHnfeaBQ9E

[17] Raniah Salloum, “Streit Über Scharia-Auslegung: IS Lässt Eigenen Richter Hinrichten,” Spiegel Online, March 12, 2015, http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/islamischer-staat-koepft-seinen-schaerfsten-richter-a-1023127.html.

[18] For Twitter debates examples, see https://twitter.com/LaysalGhareebM/status/729713368550932481 and  https://twitter.com/Wideyed90/status/727028979593523200

[19] Link to the Telegram channel https://telegram.me/constantsofjihad7 [worked on 13/05/2016]

[20] Alī Al Khudayr, “Details Regarding the Masā’il of Takfīr on Al  ‘Āthir,” Published on March 17, 2016, https://justpaste.it/AliAlKhudayrAthir.

[21] Ansary Khilafa, “The Talk Regarding the Third Nullifier – a Light on the Matter,” May 11, 2016, https://ansarukhilafah.wordpress.com/2016/05/11/the-talk-regarding-the-third-nullifier-a-light-on-the-matter/.

Two months ago, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the leading Jihadi-Salafi scholar known for his fierce opposition to the Islamic State and support for al-Qaida, released an essay that was widely interpreted as a softening of his position toward the Islamic State. As Hassan Hassan recently pointed out, al-Maqdisi has made other pronouncements of late that would seem to point in the same direction, including a December 2015 tweet in which he said: “There is nothing to stop me from reassessing my position towards the [Islamic] State and enraging the entire world by supporting it…”

But is al-Maqdisi really ready to reassess his position? The answer is no, though he has added a little nuance and hope to it over the past year. In the same tweet, al-Maqdisi conditioned his potential reassessment on “the Islamic State reassessing its position toward excommunicating, killing, and slandering those Muslims who oppose it.” He knows that this is not in the offing.

Al-Maqdisi has actually always been a bit softer on the Islamic State than some of his peers in the jihadi scholarly community. The differences between them and himself come out clearly in his most recent essay, but have actually been on display in his writings for almost a year now. The differences center on two key questions: Should the Islamic State be considered a group of Kharijites (in reference to the radical early Islamic sect by that name)? And should it be fought proactively or only in self-defense? Al-Maqdisi is against labeling them as Kharijites, and he is against fighting them proactively. It is a position with potential implications for the future unity of the Jihadi-Salafi movement—or so he would like to think.

Four scholars and a fatwa

In assessing al-Maqdisi’s position, it is helpful to view him in the company of three other jihadi scholars of like mind, age, and stature: Abu Qatada al-Filastini (b. 1960), Hani al-Siba‘i (b. 1961), and Tariq ‘Abd al-Halim (b. 1948). Like al-Maqdisi (b. 1959), Abu Qatada is of Palestinian origin and lives openly in Jordan; al-Siba‘i and ‘Abd al-Halim are Egyptians living openly in London and Canada, respectively. In September 2015, in the first installment of his (very boring) six-part audio series on “the Islamic Spring,” al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri singled out these four for praise, describing them as strong supporters of al-Qaida amid the controversy surrounding the Islamic State. Yet while Zawahiri lauded these “scholars of jihad” for remaining “steadfast upon the truth,” they were not all on the same message when it came to confronting the so-called caliphate.

The differences between them began to surface in the aftermath of a fatwa issued jointly by al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada, and several others in early June 2015. Al-Maqdisi had already, a year earlier, denounced the Islamic State as a “deviant” group that should be abandoned in favor of al-Qaida. This fatwa was his first public statement on the permissibility of fighting the group. It was prompted by the Islamic State’s assault on certain Syrian Islamist groups in the Suran area of Hama, Syria. Describing the Islamic State as “the Baghdadi-ists” (al-Baghdadiyyin), it authorized repelling their assault on the grounds that doing so was legitimate “defense of the assault of those assailing Muslim lands.” Whether the assailants were Muslim or not was beside the point, the fatwa stated. The Islamic State was oppressive, aggressive, and flawed in methodology.

For al-Siba‘i and ‘Abd al-Halim, however, the fatwa did not go nearly far enough in condemning the Islamic State. Responding on social media, the two Egyptians decried the term “Baghdadi-ists”—a weak insult and an offense to Baghdad—and called for a more proactive approach. Al-Siba‘i wrote that fighting the Islamic State should not be limited by the principles of defensive warfare, as this would all but ensure further aggression by the group. Its fighters would retreat to safety only to return once again “to cut off heads and blow things up in homes, mosques, and markets.” ‘Abd al-Halim made the same argument, adding that the Islamic State should be fought so as “to root them out” and that its members ought to be described as Kharijites. The spat attracted some media attention, with one site making a collage of the four scholars.

Resisting the Kharijite label

The battle lines seemed clear enough. Al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada were on one side, al-Siba‘i and ‘Abd al-Halim on the other. But there was also a minor difference between al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada concerning the appropriateness of pronouncing the Islamic State Kharijites. Al-Maqdisi refrained from doing so, while Abu Qatada did so liberally. The difference, however, as both have admitted, was only surface deep.

In late June 2015, following the jointly issued fatwa, Abu Qatada issued another fatwa on the same subject, which al-Maqdisi endorsed. Titled “A Fatwa Concerning Defending Against the Assault of the Kharijites,” it came in response to some Libyan questioners facing a conundrum. Jihadis themselves who were fighting the Islamic State, they had qualms about wishing ill on the “the Kharijites” (i.e., the Islamic State) when they came under aerial attack by the forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar, leader of one side in Libya’s civil war. Abu Qatada assured his correspondents that their wishes were appropriate, but he reminded them that these “Kharijites” were still preferable to the “apostates” constituting Haftar’s forces. He clarified that by “Kharijites” he did not mean all those fighting on behalf of the Islamic State, but only “its leaders, commanders, and overseers.”

As his endorsement indicates, al-Maqdisi’s views were the same. But he resisted using the Kharijite label even with Abu Qatada’s qualification.

In a short essay written about the same time as Abu Qatada’s fatwa, titled “Why Have I Not Called Them Kharijites Even Till Now?” al-Maqdisi explains his reasoning. He begins by noting that many jihadis who oppose the Islamic State, which he describes as “the State Group” (Jama‘at al-Dawla), have lambasted him for refusing to use the Kharijite label. Some have even purportedly told him “that many men and scholars have temporized in fighting them, using the fact that I do not call them Kharijites as evidence.” But al-Maqdisi says it is wrong for anyone to see in his reluctance to use the term any indication of “praise or accommodation.” For, he affirms, some of the group’s members are “worse than Kharijites.” To illustrate the point, he relates part of the story of his attempted negotiation with the Islamic State for the life of the Jordanian pilot Mu‘adh al-Kasasiba, who was immolated in a well-known video released in February 2015. That the negotiation was a hoax dawned on al-Maqdisi when the group sent him a password-protected file containing the video, the password being “al-Maqdisi the cuckold…” (This confirms the Guardian report with similar details.) Al-Maqdisi holds Islamic State leaders Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani personally responsible for the slight. They are Kharijites through-and-through.

Yet for al-Maqdisi, the fact remains that not all of the Islamic State’s members are Kharijites. He does not fault Abu Qatada for using the label with qualification, but he will not use it himself since “most people do not know and do not understand this qualification.” The Kharijite label might lead people to fight the Islamic State “in order to root them out,” which would only serve “the interests of the idolatrous rulers,” the West, and the Shia. One must, he says, still hope that the Islamic State prevails against these enemies, notwithstanding its deviations. One cannot “support the apostates against them.” He also suggests that declining to call the group Kharijites could help in reaching out to certain of its fighters and in encouraging them to repent.

Not to be rooted out

In mid-March 2016, al-Maqdisi released the essay mentioned at the top of this post. It is mostly an extended justification of his position toward the Islamic State. He notes that “most of [the Islamic State’s] enemies” find his position “oppressive” but that he is going to stick to his guns, defending “the State Group” against the charge of Kharijism and criticizing those who fight it “in order to root it out.” According to his own account, al-Maqdisi delayed releasing the essay several times lest it appear at a “bad time” and be interpreted as justifying the Islamic State’s crimes. But with many in the Syrian opposition cooperating with the West and Turkey to fight the group, even accepting Western arms and directing the airstrikes of the U.S.-led coalition, he decided the time was finally right. The Islamic State, for all its faults, is still in al-Maqdisi’s opinion preferable to groups fighting on behalf of democracy—a form of polytheism in his opinion—and seeking the help of nonbelievers against Muslims—the Islamic State’s members still being Muslims in his view.

Al-Maqdisi reiterates his view that the Islamic State is not to a man a group of Kharijites, and argues that, even if it were, this is irrelevant. For even the Kharijites were still Muslims, he says, claiming the support of the majority view of Sunni Muslim scholars throughout history.

What has upset him in particular is the use—or misuse—by certain opposition groups in Syria of two Islamic texts concerning the Kharijites. The first is a statement attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, who says of the Kharijites that “if I could reach them, I would kill them as the the ‘Adites were killed.” The ‘Adites, as described in the Qur’an, were a recalcitrant Arabian tribe who rejected the preaching of the Prophet Hud, one of Muhammad’s prophetic predecessors. The importance of Muhammad’s statement lies in its suggestion that he would fight the Kharijites aggressively, not just in self-defense. The second text is a fatwa to the same effect by Ibn Taymiyya, the fourteenth-century Hanbali scholar from Syria whose writings form the theological backbone of Salafism. Ibn Taymiyya describes the Kharijites as worse than mere political “rebels,” ruling that they should be pursued until destroyed. Both texts thus suggest a “rooting out” approach to the Kharijites.

Al-Maqdisi argues that such texts are inapplicable to the case of the Islamic State. He rejects the comparison of the group with the early Kharijites for the reason that the Islamic State has good intentions—indeed better intentions than many of its opponents in the Syrian theater—while the early Kharijites did not. In his view the Islamic State is seeking, however misguidedly, to implement God’s law, and so possesses “an exculpatory interpretation” (ta’wil). This is in contrast with the early Kharijites, who rebelled against God’s law.

Al-Maqdisi also expresses hope that the Islamic State can reform itself, noting the potential for more moderate elements in the group to take over. “I know,” he says, “as the Shaykh [Abu Qatada al-Filastini] knows, that in the [Islamic] State are those who oppose al-‘Adnani and even hope that he and those extremists like him will fade.”

As was to be expected, the Islamic State’s opponents censured al-Maqdisi for allegedly softening his position toward it. In early April, he responded with a statement printed in the Jordanian press, avowing that he had not changed his mind at all: he still condemns the Islamic State’s actions in terms of spilling Muslim blood and believes that Muslims should fight it in self-defense.

An eternal olive branch

In considering al-Maqdisi’s hopeful outlook, one should recall just how wrong he has been about the Islamic State before. In early 2014, he thought he could bring about a reconciliation between the Islamic State and al-Qaida. He wrote to al-Baghdadi and one of his chief religious authorities, Turki al-Bin‘ali, only to be spurned. A year later, he was duped by the group for a whole month into thinking he was negotiating for the pilot al-Kasasiba, only to be spurned again. His read on the Islamic State does not appear to be very good. The optimist in him cannot help but ceaselessly extend the olive branch.

It is also important to note that al-Maqdisi has failed to set the tone of al-Qaida’s messaging vis-à-vis the Islamic State. Just this week, Ayman al-Zawahiri deployed the Kharijite label against the group for the first time, describing it as “neo-Kharijites.” Zawahiri still called for unity among jihadis in the face of the “crusader” aggression, but the hardening of his rhetoric seems at odds with al-Maqdisi’s more hopeful expressions. The Syrian al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, meanwhile, has long referred to the Islamic State as Kharijites, even using the Prophet’s statement about the ‘Adites. The jihadi civil war is nowhere near over.

ISIS and Israel

Posted: 6th November 2015 by Will McCants in Islamic State of Iraq, Israel

[Jihadica is pleased to welcome Dana Hadra. You can find her on Twitter @dhadra20. -ed.]

 

On October 23, 2015, ISIS released its first video in Hebrew addressing “the Jews occupying Muslim lands.” “Not one Jew will remain in Jerusalem,” a masked ISIS member warns. “Do what you want in the meantime, but then we will make you pay ten times over.” This video is the latest in a string of statements made by ISIS threatening to invade Israel and slaughter its citizens.

Does ISIS’s rhetoric match its strategic reality? Does it really have its sights set on Israel?

To be sure, Israel has seen an uptick in ISIS activity along its southern border in recent months. In July 2015 ISIS’s Egyptian affiliate “Wilayat Sinai” claimed responsibility for three rockets that exploded in southern Israel. The Gaza-based jihadist organization Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigade, which might have ties to ISIS, launched a rocket attack on the Israeli port city of Ashdod in May 2015.

ISIS itself makes the occasional threat. In February 2008, for example, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, then leader of the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), announced his intention to oversee “the liberation of Al-Aqsa,” stating, “…we ask God and hope that the [Islamic State of Iraq] will be the cornerstone for the return of Jerusalem.” In widely circulated videos released in June 2014, an ISIS member states that Anbar is “only a stone’s throw away from Al-Aqsa Mosque.” In another video message released in July 2015, ISIS members threaten to “uproot the state of Jews,” which will be “run over by our [ISIS] creeping crowds.”  More recently, ISIS released a series of videos encouraging Palestinians to engage in lone wolf attacks against Jews. “Bring back horror to the Jews with explosions, burnings, and stabbings,” says one ISIS militant in a propaganda video, circulated with the hashtag “#The_slaughter_of_ Jews.”

Despite its threats, ISIS tanks won’t be rolling into the Holy Land anytime soon. Overthrowing the Israeli government is not a pressing priority for the ISIS high command. It’s more interested in taking over Sunni lands where state authority has broken down. Dabiq, ISIS’s English-language magazine, summarizes its strategy: weaken Muslim governments through terrorism, thereby creating security vacuums (literally, “chaos” or tawahhush). ISIS fighters will move in and  establish new state-like structures (idarat). So far, ISIS has stuck to this plan; its fighters are most active and successful in areas where there is a security void. Israel, which has one of the mightiest militaries in the Middle East, is the opposite of a security void.

Theologically, the defeat of Israel is also a low priority. Unusual for a Sunni group, ISIS is motivated by Islamic prophecies of the End Times—or at least pays a lot of lip service to them. Those prophecies envisage the conquest of Jerusalem and a war with the Jews as the final act in the End Times drama. ISIS is still in the first act, the reestablishment of the caliphate. It still has to spread the caliphate throughout the world and defeat the Christian infidels.

So despite its combative messaging, ISIS’s threats to storm Israel are empty, meant to recruit Muslims angry about the occupation rather than signal an invasion. ISIS is focused on consolidating its state and expanding it into Sunni Muslim lands; its gaze will remained fixed on Jerusalem but it won’t try to plant its flag there anytime soon.

The “Islamic State’s” Networks of Influence

Posted: 26th October 2015 by Nico Prucha in Strategy
Tags:

The media strategy of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (IS) is effective and successful. The professional use of social media to project a coherent worldview has enabled IS to be both resilient to account takedowns on social media platform and attempts to deploy “counter-narratives” (or: “alternative narratives”) against the group. IS publishes videos on an almost daily basis: from gruesome execution videos the group is notorious for to movies showing the “statehood” and reconstruction of infrastructure, IS deploys a rich blend of narratives that are conveyed in pictures and related to a corpus of writings of thirty years of jihadism. By establishing a “state” (Arabic: dawla) and by rendering the borders between Syria and Iraq as irrelevant, IS has realized what AQ has pledged for decades: to erode the borders of Sykes-Picot and establish a “state” on the very theological grounds of extremist interpretation.

IS embodies the “new AQ”, applying AQ ideology within territories in the Sunni-Arabic heartlands of Syria, Iraq, and to a varying decree in Libya, Sinai Peninsula, Yemen etc. Hence, the majority of foreign fighters among the rows of IS are Arabs and the overwhelming majority of IS videos are in Arabic, addressing and targeting a likewise rich and disperse Arab(ic) target audience.

By projecting a physical “Islamic State”, IS embodies a positive worldview, provides a clear cut videotaped “Sunni Muslim identity” and uses Arab and non-Arab foreign fighters for their media productions to boost the image of this “state”.

Fighting for Hegemony: Claiming Sunni-Muslim identity and “Prophetic Methodology”

This is a fight for hegemony and identity: what does it mean, being a Sunni Muslim in times of war and sectarianism? To answer these questions, the “Islamic State” has taken the lead in producing mainly Arabic language videos to incite a global Arab audience by popularizing their fighters, ideologues and preachers as ultimate role models, modern day Islamic warriors, or simply as defenders of Sunni communities in time of suffering. IS is a Arab movement fighting for independence, yet welcoming non-Arab Muslim foreign fighters into their ranks who are used strategically and on a tactical level for jihadist media, the battlefield or the hinterland where they can be of value to the state-building efforts. Non-Arab foreign fighters tend to address their target audience in their respective language, and oftentimes are featured in special videos with Arabic and non-Arabic titles. This accounts for Brits, Germans, Austrians, French, Russians, and so on, while the overwhelming majority of IS and AQ videos are in Arabic featuring native Arabs.

With the influx of foreign fighters among the ranks of The Islamic State from the European Union and the United States, the use of social media has reached an unprecedented dimension – with an immense input from both Arab and non-Arab foreign fighters in various languages on respective social media sites. These foreign fighters have the potential to have particular resonance for Islamic communities in their respective countries of origin, as the grievances and framing of “injustice” can vary depending on the local context, while the ideology is tied into the Arabic religious reasoning as expressed by writings and most important as conveyed by audio-visual means. With Arabic as the most important language for Islam, as the Qur’an is the speech of God (kalimat allah), revealed in Arabic, the lingua jihadica is likewise Arabic. Arabic key words of the jihadist segment, as a consequence, have become a mainstream substrate in many non-Arabic languages where Islam has found a home, providing non-Arabic speaking sympathizers of jihad an everyday slang to identify with and to use for their religious rituals and codes of identification. This is of importance when studying Arabic jihadist materials, perhaps even more so important in regards of the social media jihad, as the questions and answers provided within this framework for operational or plainly ideological purposes produce new key words for the jihadist lingual substrate worldwide.

Sympathizers and media operatives use key words strategically alike with the aim to widen the appeal of the jihadist ideology, while assuming a monopoly over the mainly Qur’anic terminology in by extremist definitions. Deriving from the original Arabic, the key words are transcribed in Latin letters and are the most integral part of any non-Arabic language production. The use of these key words is significant to grade and understand what impact the Arabic dominated ideology has on non-Arab majority societies, expressed both on- and offline, whereas non-Arab foreign fighters project influence and the extremist hegemony of what it means being a ‘true’ Sunni Muslim by injecting such keywords into their target audiences. The interaction of social media platforms calls on the sympathizers to engage with such videos and role models, hence popularizing specific key words and having a potential impact on the local non-Arab milieus within non-majority Islamic societies such as in Europe and beyond.

Videos are the most important medium through which to demonstrate the manifestation and realization of jihadist creed (‘aqida) and methodology (manhaj), for which IS claims to fight, as described in an earlier post. Re-enacting the extremist understanding of the conduct of Prophet Muhammad and hence claiming being “upon the Prophetic Methodology” as one of the most important video by the same title clarifies.

The Media Works of IS

IS occupied swathes of territory in the Sunni-Arab heartlands of Syria and Iraq in June 2014. In a blitzkrieg style, the “Islamic State” was able to take over major cities and declared a “caliphate”.

The valorization of achievements is expressed in a young and highly visualized language. When the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, prior to the declaration of the “Caliphate” in a surprise move was able to gain a momentum and take control of vast parts of Iraq, including the urban hubs of Mosul, Tikrit and Samara’, the jihadist self-esteem was boosted in their conviction of being the chosen few to act on behalf of God and the prophetic conduct. This found its expression in a most modern format on Twitter by sympathizers. By taking Hollywood movies, sympathizers frame and reframe their perception of what is happening on the ground. Pro-IS Twitter users part of a cluster network of English language supporters were quick to remodel movie posters of the film “300” to visualize the victorious “800” mujahidin of the “Islamic State”, citing the Guardian as a source.

The fans and sympathizers, not only create their own fan-content, or user-generated content, but understand and know the movies and codes popular within the specific circles – crafting a connection between hard-core mujahidin and popular global culture, dominated by Western elements and movies in particular. This mechanism of relaying the on- and offline worlds is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the modern usage of the Internet by jihadist activists to develop a deep-rooted movement in the Middle East and North Africa region. Simultaneously, within the “state”, within consolidated “provinces” of IS the Internet is the main hook to connect to the outside world to call on Muslims everywhere to – at least – support and – at best – join this project. The logical consequence, perhaps, with IS making gains in Iraq and declaring an Islamic caliphate, media activists embedded along the front lines and their global support networks, the media mujahedin, valorize their achievements in HD video and Hollywood film style posters which are distributed via social media. The public diplomacy and cultural relations organizations mandated to counter violent extremism require strategies based on network concepts to counter it.

Jihadi subculture online is characterized by a culture of individual participation whereas user-generated-content enriches the propaganda by IS. This user-created-content should not be underestimated or underrated. While some favor gory videos or movies from the frontlines, others are more attracted to the “civil side” of “the state”, whereas IS presents itself as a functioning state providing the population with energy, water, the reopening of grocery stores, or by showing a fire department brigade in Raqqa. This is a niche hardly covered by other players in Iraq or Syria allowing IS to claim sole responsibility for the (Sunni) civilian population and fosters the image of the soft side of the terror group as a savior handing out aid for their brothers and sisters in need.

Perimeter control: Resilience of IS networks and a coherent ideology as a mental safeguard

IS is a revolutionary group that deploys a highly professionally and ideologically coherent media strategy. It systematically makes use of the Internet like no other terror or interest group to market their messages and narratives to a global audience in multiple languages. Time and again, IS has proven to be skillful to adapt, respond and to reconfigure. The first year anniversary of the coalition airstrikes against the group, that had been launched to retaliate the filmed execution of U.S. citizen James Foley and others was mocked by the group in videos showing members of al-Hisba, the “Islamic State’s” police, patrol the market of Aleppo and address the audience of the futility of the war against IS. Responding to the refugee crises, IS not only claimed the drowning of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi as God’s punishment for wanting to leave the “Islamic abode” in the English language magazine Dabiq. In several Arabic language videos, IS dignitaries decreed any Sunni Muslim turning away to Europe and elsewhere as a legitimate target for the group. These statements were enriched by accounts of local Syrians and Iraqis expressing their gratitude to be finally able to live out the true Islamic identity and have protection. These films are usually in Arabic featuring local Arabs – reaching out directly to a target Arab audience in neighboring countries, within refugee camps worldwide and within societies outside of MENA region. Such messages are part of the rich blend of videos released on an almost daily basis. These videos, to share the links to watch or download, are talked about on social media where users across a wide range of languages respond and engage personally to foster the “Islamic State” as the only legitimate source and physical representation of “Islam”.

In this regard, Twitter is the most important platform for IS. Despite the tireless takedowns of IS accounts by Twitter, the extremists are disseminating their material more decentralized, relying on mainly Arabic language hash tags and have given up to re-establish “official” IS media Twitter accounts.

This adaption of their marketing strategy is successful. Accounts are replaceable, the consistent use of specific hashtags (#) on Twitter ensures an undisrupted flow of content and information that seek to indoctrinate and initiate the consumers into jihadist ideology. The Arabic hashtags used are not limited to the “Islamic State” or “IS will remain and expand”, an early slogan crafted in the critical phase of the first half of 2014, as crafty supporters also use current trends, such as world sport events or global news items (even Apple key notes) in an attempt to reach a most diverse audience.

Like ants, IS has proven to act like a swarm and reconfigure their networks to maintain their ability to project influence on social media platforms. Even when several accounts are deleted, enough hard-core followers and plenty of supporters remain active to immediately promote both the current content as well as new IS accounts. Dissemination strategies in combination with the consistent and coherent (and mainly Arabic) IS content gives a grim outlook that IS is winning the Online Jihad against the West, as also noted by the New York Times.

No disconnect between online and offline

Because of the immense quantity of videos as well as the frequent “photo reports” from within the respective “provinces” of the “caliphate”, IS propaganda is overly present within social media channels.

(Non-Arab) foreign fighters are not only featured in the videos but can communicate directly with their friends and relatives in their country of origin by mobile phone. This non-Arabic input from inside the “caliphate” further enriches the overall output and allows the media tacticians to target milieus that had never been breached before inside western societies.

The visual culture and massive quantity of qualitative videos allow for the constant repetition and showcasing of doctrines that disparage non-believers and sanction the collective punishment of “apostates” (murtaddin) and Muslim “hypocrites” (munafiqin). This theological led discourse can be defined as “discursive guidance”; through the constant repetition of extremist-laden theological interpretation and its practical implementation, jihadi media consumers and participants are provided with a framework to become active and engaged in the jihadist ideology.

The al-Qaeda (AQ) ideology has provided the theoretical framework that IS employs and exercises. While AQ has been pledging for decades to erode the borders of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, IS was able to do so within few months – with proper tabloid styled reporting of the event for their electronic English language magazine “Dabiq” as well as several videos in Arabic, English, Spanish and other languages. One may thus argue, the AQ ideology cannot be separated from IS, rather, IS is the recent evolution thereof. With the consolidation of territory by IS within Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, local Arab traditions are subjected or forced to adapt to the application of its “state” ideology – based mainly on AQ ideologues and their rich theological corpus (mainly writings).

AQ propagates multi-layered theological and Islamic jurisprudential narratives advocated in writings and advertised in videos as “discursive guidance”. However, IS has the ability to re-enact and implement this “discursive guidance” within the Sunni landscape inside Arab countries and thus produce new audio-visual content to booster their messages and their self-proclaimed “state-” and “manhood”, based on the extremist understanding of acting “upon the Prophetic Methodology.”

 

*This research is funded by VOX-Pol, an FP-7 funded Project of the European Union.

Why Is ISIS So Bad?

Posted: 15th September 2015 by Will McCants in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

Why is ISIS bad? It’s a basic question that I encounter a lot, along with the related question, why is ISIS so evil?

Good and evil are value judgments, so everyone will have a different opinion about what deserves the labels. But we can at least say that ISIS (aka the Islamic State) is out of step with mainstream morality in most Muslim and non-Muslim countries.

Still, that begs the question: why is ISIS so bad relative to mainstream culture? The answer lies in ISIS’s needs and desires.

  • ISIS wants to revive parts of Islamic scripture written in the early Middle Ages. Perhaps those parts reflected mainstream morality then but they’re out of step with today’s mainstream.
  • ISIS wants to terrify the local population to subdue it. As you’ll see in my book, ISIS could govern and fight differently but it doesn’t think the alternatives are effective.
  • ISIS needs to raise money, which is hard to do legally when everyone wants to destroy you.
  • ISIS needs to excite young men to fight for its cause. Sex and violence is one way to do it.

Most of what ISIS does arises from one or more of those needs and desires. They combine to motivate some of ISIS’s worst atrocities, like slavery, destroying and looting antiquities, and beheadings.

ISIS atrocities 9-15-2015 (2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more on what motivates ISIS, read The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.

Baghdadi’s Family Tree

Posted: 9th September 2015 by Will McCants in Uncategorized

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State and self-proclaimed caliph, claims to be a descendant of Muhammad. That’s not surprising since most Sunni Muslims believe only a descendant from Muhammad’s tribe can be caliph. What makes Baghdadi’s lineage interesting is that he claims to descend from Muhammad through ten of the twelve Shi`i imams. That’s an unusual and sadly ironic genealogy for a man hellbent on eradicating the Shia. I mention Baghdadi’s genealogy in passing in my profile of him but you can read a fuller discussion of it in my forthcoming book, ISIS Apocalypse. There you’ll learn about the apocalyptic prophecies that his pedigree supposedly fulfills.

Baghdadi's family tree

To all appearances Turki al-Bin‘ali, the 30-year-old Bahraini scholar presumed to be the Islamic State’s top religious authority, has been silent for nearly a year. Within weeks of being profiled on Jihadica in July 2014, Bin‘ali suddenly went dark, letting his Twitter account go inactive and discontinuing his incessant online writing. Overnight the Islamic State seemed to lose its most prolific protagonist.

Yet Bin‘ali has not actually kept mum over the past 11 months, rather being hard at work in more important—if less prominent—capacities, his responsibilities expanding notwithstanding his withdrawal from the limelight. Meanwhile, pro-al-Qaeda jihadis have stepped up attacks on him as the symbol of all that is wrong with the Islamic State: overzealous, contemptuous of seniority, and lacking in religious knowledge. In May 2015 some of them circulated embarrassing stories about him using the Arabic hashtag #Bin‘ali_leaks. They are not the only revelations of the past year.

Silenced

As will be recalled, Bin‘ali, who moved to Syria around February 2014, was the most high-profile voice within the Islamic State during its run-up to the caliphate declaration of June 2014. He authored glowing biographies of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, as well as stinging refutations of big-name jihadi critics like Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada al-Filastini, Abu Basir al-Tartusi, and Iyad Qunaybi, among others. Defending the Islamic State’s every move and castigating its every critic, Bin‘ali’s disappearance from the internet marked a dramatic change.

What accounts for the change is not entirely clear, but most likely is that Bin‘ali was silenced by the Islamic State leadership just as he was promoted into it. In November 2014 the Twitter account @wikibaghdady, which periodically leaks Islamic State secrets, noted the group’s new prohibition against its scholars’ writing online without receiving prior approval. Accordingly, Bin‘ali and his cohort seem to have removed themselves from the internet. Rival scholars in Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, by contrast, including Sami al-‘Uraydi and Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, maintain Twitter accounts. The Islamic State’s scholars, for whatever reason, speak not to the outside world.

Promoted

Also in November 2014, @wikibaghdady informed of Bin‘ali’s elevation to the post of chief mufti of the Islamic State, and circumstantial evidence would seem to corroborate the claim. (Contrary to what the Guardian recently reported, “scholar-in-arms” is not Bin‘ali’s official position. And contrary to widespread rumors, it is highly unlikely that Bin‘ali is in Libya, though he did visit there in 2013 and may play a special role in outreach to the country.)

The most detailed information about Bin‘ali’s role in daily Islamic State operations came in a recent four-part special (see here, here, here, and here) for Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat by journalist ‘Abd al-Sattar Hatita, who interviewed five former Islamic State shari‘a officials. In each installment Bin‘ali plays the role of supreme shari‘a authority.

The former officials, all young men in their 20s, described Bin‘ali as “the head of the apparatus for commanding right and forbidding wrong.” They also described him as charged with providing “books, pamphlets, and fatwas” for Islamic State training camps, literature that is published by “the Council for Research and Fatwa Issuing.” Much of this, they said, is written by Bin‘ali himself, and some of the works are for some reason exclusive to the training camps, including three booklets on theology, jurisprudence, and governance, respectively. The latter, titled “Informing the Flock about Public Law,” is almost certainly written by Bin‘ali. (I managed to obtain a copy only when a low-level Islamic State member on Twitter uploaded it in a series of photos in February.)

Policing extremism

In addition to his work as mufti and author, Bin‘ali appears from Hatita’s account to be intimately involved in settling religious disputes in the fledgling caliphate: namely, toning down some shari‘a officials’ more extremist tendencies.

In one instance last summer, Bin‘ali summoned several of the shari‘a officials in question from their battlefield posts in Aleppo to Raqqa for a talk. The men stood accused of spouting views too extreme for the Islamic State on certain doctrinal matters, particularly takfir—the excommunication of fellow Muslims. The young officials deemed al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri an unbeliever and considered al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra a group of unbelievers through and through. On a more theoretical level, they adopted an uncompromising stance on the theological principle of al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl (lit. “excusing on the basis of ignorance”), whereby Muslims can be excused certain errors of belief on account of not knowing better. These officials went so far as to insist that anyone engaged in such “excusing” was himself an unbeliever. In a two-and-a-half hour conversation in Raqqa, Bin‘ali, “anger and malevolence pouring from his face,” failed to make any headway with his interlocutors.

Ultimately the shari‘a officials reached the point of excommunicating the Islamic State itself and very carefully escaped to their home countries. Not all officials of their bent have been so fortunate. As Hatita relates from his sources, dozens of these Islamic State uber-extremists have been imprisoned, and some even executed. One of those killed was the prominent Tunisian scholar Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab, who penned the first extensive defense of Baghdadi’s expansion to Syria in 2013. Twitter jihadis were discussing rumors of his death back in September 2014.

All in the family

None of this is to downplay the extent of Bin‘ali’s own extremism. Indeed, the radical tendency seems to run deep in his branch of the Bin‘ali family in Bahrain (though the larger Bin‘ali clan seems to be moderate and close to the government.)

In late January 2015 Bahrain issued a decree stripping 72 Bahrainis of their citizenship, citing numerous reasons all to do with jihadism. On the list were four Bin‘alis, including Turki (#17) and two of his full brothers, ‘Ali (#50) and Muhammad (#60). On the backgrounds and whereabouts of the two brothers there seems to be little information, though the second brother is on Twitter and clearly supports the Islamic State. So too do Turki al-Bin‘ali’s father, Mubarak, and a third full brother, ‘Abdallah.

In April 2015 Bahraini authorities arrested the third brother, who is also on Twitter, at Bahrain International Airport attempting to flee the country for the Islamic State. (Ahlam al-Nasr, the so-called “poetess of the Islamic State,” wrote a poem to mark the occassion.) Upon learning the news, Bin‘ali père himself started a Twitter account, from which he began decrying the arrest, even complaining that the Bahraini kingdom was preventing his son from “emigrating for the sake of God.” The father’s caliphal sympathies are manifest in other Tweets as well. On April 25 he wrote: “May God reward you well, my sons, for your honorable stance”—i.e., the four sons’ stance on the Islamic State.

In March Turki al-Bin‘ali was pictured holding what is assumed to be his infant son, thus apparently beginning the third generation of Bin‘ali extremism.

Making a peep

On Feburary 15, 2015 Bin‘ali broke his silence, releasing a short, angry refutation of his former teacher, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, written under the pseudonym Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari (on which more below). While Bin‘ali had inveighed against Maqdisi before in a lengthy essay from mid-2014, the friendly ties between the two had not yet completely unraveled. In fall 2014 Maqdisi had reached out to Bin‘ali in hopes of securing the release of American hostage Peter Kassig, as the Guardian reported, and although the effort failed the pair seemed to enjoy a “warm exchange” over the phone.

Not to be disheartened, Maqdisi again reached out to the Islamic State in January 2015 in an effort to secure the release of Jordanian pilot Mu‘adh al-Kasasiba, whose plane had gone down over Raqqa in late December. As Joas Wagemakers discussed in detail, Maqdisi proposed a prisoner swap: Kasasiba for failed female suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi. In the course of these efforts Maqdisi dispatched a voice message to someone in the Islamic State, subsequently made public, hoping that there remained a semblance of “brotherhood” between himself and Bin‘ali. “I still expect there to be mutual esteem between us,” he said, “notwithstanding the severe criticism and exchange of words that has gone before.”

But when the Islamic State released the video of Kasasiba’s immolation on February 3, an infuriated Maqdisi took to Jordanian airwaves to denounce the Islamic State yet again. “They lied to me,” he complained. “They are beheading (lit. slaughtering) mujahidin!” He continued: “Immolation!? The Prophet said: ‘No one punishes by fire except the Lord of Fire.’” “Jihadi-Salafism is innocent of these acts!” “What caliphate is this?” “They have distorted the jihadi current.”

12 days later Bin‘ali issued his response, a five-page polemic titled “Maqdisi: Falling in the Mud and Abandoning the Religion.” The take-down is intensely personal, the author at one point addressing Maqdisi with the name Abu Muhammad al-Sururi, associating Maqdisi with an early teacher of his, Muhammad Surur Zayn al-‘Abidin, notorious for opposing the jihadis. The rest of the refutation is concerned with Maqdisi’s failure to condemn the title of the television program on which he appeared—“Pilot Mu‘adh al-Kasasiba the Martyr”—and with the merely “legal matters” of ransoming apostates, beheading, and immolation.

On the subject of ransoming and immolation, Bin‘ali’s opinions are nearly identical to those given in the fatwas that I translated in March (see no. 52 and no. 60). In short, his argument is that ransoming apostates (i.e., Kasasiba) is only permissible when absolutely necessary. Punishment by immolation, he says, was approved by the Hanafi and Shafi‘i schools of law in addition to being approved by all four schools in the case of reciprocal punishment. As to beheading, Bin‘ali cites the standard prooftexts invoked by jihadis supporting the practice, including the Prophet’s statement, “O people of Quraysh, by God, I have come to you with slaughter,” and several reports in which the Prophet seems to approve of those carrying severed heads.

A month and a half later, a member of the Shari‘a Council of Maqdisi’s website published a 30-page critique of Bin‘ali’s refutation, subtitled “a refutation of the lying shari‘ia official of the [Islamic] State hiding behind ‘Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari, and a defense of our Shaykh Maqdisi in the matter of the Jordanian Pilot.” The work is too detailed to summarize, but the author makes two noteworthy charges. One is that Bin‘ali is the author of the essay in question and is “hiding behind” the pseudonym Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari, which information he says came from “two reliable sources” close to Bin‘ali. Second is that Bin‘ali’s subtitle, “abandoning the religion,” unmistakably amounts to takfir, or excommunication, of Maqdisi. In other words, the chief shari‘a authority for the Islamic State has excommunicated Jihadi-Salafism’s most preeminent ideologue. Two counter-refutations (see here and here) supporting Bin‘ali appeared in the succeeding months. Neither disputed either charge.

The Other pseudonym

Oddly enough, Bin‘ali’s critics failed to mention that he had written under the name Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari before. Searching online, I found 12 essays under the name from the period March-May 2014, and in terms of style and content (and even formatting) they are unmistakably his work. Their appearance furthermore coincides with the period in which the Bahraini was extraordinarily active online, writing under two other pseudonyms and also under his own name.

In April 2014 Bin‘ali confessed to being behind the two pen names Abu Human al-Athari and Abu Sufyan al-Sulami but did not mention Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari. Perhaps he wanted to leave one name unacknowledged for future use. At all events, what further confirms the pseudonym’s belonging to Bin‘al’i is his statement that he only chooses pseudonyms that accurately reflect who he is. And according to his biography, he descends from the Mudar clan (Mudari is the ascriptive).

Adding Mudari to the count, one finds that Bin‘ali wrote some 45 works between October 2013 and May 2014 (see the “Inventory of Bin‘ali Writings” below.) In some cases he published more than one work on the same day. Possibly he wanted to give the impression that more jihadi scholars supported the Islamic State than was actually the case. Thomas Hegghammer has observed “how single media-savvy individuals can dramatically increase the perceived size and strength of [a jihadi] organisation.”

The 12 Mudari writings are not otherwise particularly noteworthy. Here Bin‘ali is occasionally more pointed than usual (he identifies 16 grammatical errors in a statement by Jabhat al-Nusra scholar Abu Mariya al-Qahtani), but generally they are just more of the same: the Islamic State is great, al-Qaeda is flawed, the Taliban is flawed, Jabhat al-Nusra consists of traitors, etc

Dreaming about Hani al-Siba‘i

In May 2015 a certain jihadi opposed to the Islamic State released 19 emails from Bin‘ali to jihadi scholar Hani al-Siba‘i, dated between 2009 and 2012. Siba‘i, a London-based Egyptian in the top tier of jihadi scholars along with Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini, has like his peers stood firmly opposed to the Islamic State and supported al-Qaeda.

According to Siba‘i, who later spoke about the email affair in a recording, Bin‘ali sent him some 40 to 50 emails over the years, using various pseudonyms. Siba‘i had circulated 19 of these to fellow jihadi scholars, one of whose students subsequently posted them to Twitter without permission. Though surprised, Siba‘i did not regret the leaks, using #Bin‘ali_leaks to poke fun at his one-time pupil. Most of the emails were mundane, with Bin‘ali flattering “my teacher” and calling himself “your pious student.” Several bore requests for Siba‘i to contribute forwards to his books.

Others were stranger. In one from October 2011, Bin‘ali said that he recently dreamed about Siba‘i. “I dreamed about you several days ago,” he wrote. “I dreamed that I had traveled to you intending to study under you. I came to London and arrived at your house. I went inside, seeing there a great verdant garden, and I proceeded till I came to you. I sat with you and spoke with you at length.” In the same email Bin‘ali asked Siba‘i to send him personal photographs, “like you behind your desk and the like.” In his comments Siba‘i, laughing, admitted to sending one photograph. He also said that there were other emails with some “very personal things” that “I did not publish.”

In addition to jeering at him, Siba‘i expressed serious regret about Bin‘ali, a mere “youth” who was soliciting fatwas from his seniors just years ago and now deigns to “give fatwas to the entire Muslim community.” “I hope that he turns in penitence to God,” he said, but unfortunately “he cannot come back. He would be shot.” Indeed, the Islamic State does not permit its members to leave.

Siba‘i went on: “This community is the graveyard of extremists…and only the truth shall prevail…You will know, succeeding generations in the future will know, that what I am saying is right.” Yet in all likelihood it is Siba‘i and his ilk who are headed for the graveyard first. Perhaps symbolically, Siba‘i’s once-acclaimed website was permanently deleted within days of his comments. Impressively, the silent mufti seems to be quietly winning.

 

Inventory of Binʿalī writings since August 2013:

The name used by the author is indicated in parentheses. Binʿalī=Turkī ibn Mubārak al-Binʿalī, Atharī =Abū Humām Bakr ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Atharī, Sulamī=Abū Sufyān al-Sulamī, and Muḍarī=Abū Khuzayma al-Muḍarī.

August 5, 2013           Mudd al-ayādī li-bayʿat al-Baghdādī (Atharī)

October 16, 2013        al-Maʿānī qabl al-tahānī (Sulamī)

November 13, 2013    Nawāfidh ʿalā ʿālam al-jinn (Binʿalī)

November 17, 2013    al-Mutaʿassir fī kalām al-munaẓẓir (Sulamī)

November 25, 2013    al-Ikhṭiṣār fī ḥukm qaṭʿ al-ashjār (Sulamī)

December 4, 2013       Ruʾyā gharība fī mawāṭin ʿaṣība (Binʿalī)

December 11, 2013     Rafʿ al-labs fī ḥukm madḥ al-nafs (Binʿalī)

December 15, 2013     Khaṭṭ al-midād fī ʾl-radd ʿalā ʾl-duktūr Iyād (Atharī)

December 22, 2013     Taḥbīr al-dawāh ḥawl ḥadīth “wa-mā lam taḥkum aʾimmatuhum bi-kitāb Allāh” (Sulamī)

January 5, 2014          Risālat naṣh wa-ʿatb li-ahl Ḥalab (Atharī)

January 8, 2014          al-Thamar al-dānī fī ʾl-radd ʿalā khiṭāb al-Jawlānī (Atharī)

January 19, 2014        Tabṣīr al-maḥājij biʾl-farq bayn rijāl al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya waʾl-Khawārij (Atharī)

January 29, 2014        Risāla ilā ʾl-ʿulamāʾ waʾl-duʿāt li-nuṣrat al-mujāhidīn al-ubāt (audio; Sulamī)

February 18, 2014      Bayān al-ukhuwwa al-īmāniyya fī nuṣrat al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya (signatory; Atharī)

February 28, 2014      al-Naṣāʾiḥ al-ʿaṭira li-junūd Jabhat al-Nuṣra (Binʿalī)

March 4, 2014            Mukhtaṣar al-suṭūr fī ḥiwārī maʿa ʿAdnān al-ʿArʿūr (Binʿalī)

March 13, 2014          Mufāraqāt bayn al-imāratayn (Muḍarī)

March 16, 2014          Mukhtaṣar kalāmī fī ʾl-radd ʿalā Abī ʿAbdallāh al-Shāmī (Binʿalī)

March 16, 2014          Bayn al-umma waʾl-Dawla al-Muslima (Muḍarī)

March 17, 2014          al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fī ʾl-ʿIrāq waʾl-Shām maʿahā siqāʾuhā wa-ḥidhāʾuhā: fa-mā lakum wa-lahā? (Muḍarī)

March 20, 2014          Waqafāt maʿa khiṭāb Abī ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sūrī (Binʿalī)

March 24, 2014          Kullukum rāʿin: risāla ilā shaykhinā Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī (Muḍarī)

March 26, 2014          A-laysa fīhim rajul rashīd? (Muḍarī)

March 29, 2014          Hal al-jihād ghāya am wasīla? (Binʿalī)

March 29, 2014          al-Duktūr Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī wa-biṭānatuhu (Muḍarī)

March 31, 2014          ʿAyyina min jahl al-ʿArʿūr (Binʿalī)

April 2, 2014              Hal al-jihād farḍ ʿayn am kifāya? (Binʿalī)

April 4, 2014              Zubālat al-milal waʾl-niḥal (reissue with new introduction; Binʿalī)

April 5, 2014              Tanẓīm al-Qāʿida al-sharʿī wa-Tanẓīm al-Qāʿida al-shaʿbī (Muḍarī)

April 11, 2014            al-Qaṣīda al-Binʿaliyya fī dhamm al-jinsiyya (Binʿalī)

April 15, 2014            Mukhtaṣar al-lafẓ fī masʾalat dawarān al-arḍ (reissue with new introduction; Binʿalī)

April 16, 2014            al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya waʾl-tajdīd (Muḍarī)

April 18, 2014            Hal yuqās ḥālunā ʿalā ʾl-marḥala al-Makkiyya am al-Madaniyya? (Binʿalī)

April 19, 2014            Waqfa maʿa baʿḍ al-alqāb (Muḍarī)

April 25, 2014            Hal al-maṣlaḥa fī ʾl-jihād am fī tarkihi? (Binʿalī)

April 29, 2014            al-Ifāda fī ʾl-radd ʿalā Abī Qatāda (Binʿalī)

April 30, 2014            al-Qiyāfa fī ʿadam ishṭirāṭ al-tamkīn al-kāmil lil-khilāfa (Binʿalī)

April 30, 2014            Jadwal muʿayyan lil-mubtadiʾ fī ṭalab al-ʿilm fī ʾl-dīn (reissue with new introduction; Binʿalī)

May 1, 2014               La-qad ṣadaqa ʾl-Ẓawāhirī (Muḍarī)

May 3, 2014               Taʿlīq awwalī ʿalā kalimat al-duktūr Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī (Binʿalī)

May 10, 2014             Hal yajūz lil-Baghdādī an yatarājaʿ? (Muḍarī)

May 18, 2014             Sībawayh Harāra (Muḍarī)

May 19, 2014             Waqafāt sarīʿa maʿa mā yusammā zūran wa-buhtānan bi-quḍāt al-sharīʿa (reissue with new introduction; Binʿalī)

May 26, 2014             al-Lafẓ al-sānī fī tarjamat al-ʿAdnānī (Binʿalī)

May 31, 2014             Shaykī ʾl-asbaq (Binʿalī)

February 15, 2015      al-Maqdisī: suqūṭ fī ʾl-ṭīn waʾnsilākh ʿan al-dīn (Muḍarī)

 

On February 3, 2014, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (ISIS or ISIL) published a video depicting captured Jordanian pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasiba wearing the notorious orange jump suit. For the background information on the secret negotiation attempt for his release, please check out the detailed contribution by Joas. For this Jihadica posting, let us concentrate on the propaganda side – and works – of ISIS, as announced in our first part.
This post looks at three aspects;

• How this video fits into the greater puzzle of jihadist ideology including the intersection between text based ideology and the demonstration (via video) of this ideology in practice.
• How the elements of the Swarmcast ensured the video would reach a wide audience and maintain a persistent presence.
• The limited impact of the response, named #opISIS, by hackers linked to Anonymous seeking to disrupt ISIS media networks.

Content matters, as does the means of delivery of jihadist propaganda data and material. Both elements highlight coherence: ideologically as well as technically. The ideological coherence, the persistence of its narratives and pseudo-theological fundament that is translated so well by jihadist media activists into audio-/ visual works shows parts of the resilience and the media strategy, the incorporation of the ‘jihadist tradition’. The video seeks to attract Arabic-speaking and non-Arab audiences, published in Arabic with encoded subtitles in English, French and Russian. ISIS exercises technical coherence and resilience in terms of disseminating the video and its propaganda in general – which, by the way is neither special nor outstanding or genius but simple use of a range of platforms (social media, forums, YouTube) by highly dedicated individuals, which we term as media mujahiddin.
The video is entitled Shifa’ al-sudur, a reference to Qur’an (9:14), and used by ISIS to justify and project the message that they are acting on behalf of God to “heal the believers’ feelings” as al-Furqan translates the title. The reference shifa’ al-sudur is part of the jihadist propaganda ambition to appease their target audience with audio-visual content that showcases, among many elements, “revenge” or at least “retribution” for the civilian suffering inside Islamic territories – reserved for the Sunni population only within this notion and mindset of course. The successful media strategy employed by ISIS focuses on audio/-visual output claiming practical application and translation of ideology into action. This is juxtaposed with assumed seniority of al-Qa’ida, who are crafting jihadist dogma but have little to no space (or territory) for implementation.
ISIS understands the importance of making use of the territory they control and deploys media units in every “province” (walaya). As a result, they publish up to 4-6 videos a day showing; the “life in the caliphate”, executions, sentences of physical punishment (hudud) framed as an evident legal system, religious policing of communities, the destruction of shrines of saints as well as a romantic view on fighting, sacrificing and being passionate for the local Sunni population of the “caliphate.” In general, Jihadists seek to deceive and coerce by trying to conceal their human fallibility while portraying themselves as God’s spokespeople. Therefore, every piece of their oftentimes highly professional and sometimes sophisticated propaganda is part of a greater puzzle.
In this greater puzzle everything is sanctioned, scripted, subjected to ideology, and is an integral part of the Sunni ‘jihadist tradition’ dominated by Arab ideologues and primary Arabic language publications (textual and audio/ -visual). Ideology in theory and practice serves as the motivation and guidance, it is built on the fundamentals of theology and pieces of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), used and interpreted to serve the extremist cause. The citation of historical scholars such as Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), as well as quoting selected parts of Qur’an and Sunna out of context, are powerful tools for extremist ideologues and media workers. It provides leverage for a distinct identity established on the premises of being ‘true Muslims’ offering the ‘true Islam’ and openly challenging and discrediting the “palace scholars” (‘ulama’ al-salatin) worldwide.
The ‘state-owned ‘ulama’’ are defined as corrupt scholars who neglect the true nature of Islam and thus have become followers of the “program of falsehood (batil)” whereas the jihadi as the only true, steadfast servant of God portrays himself as the follower of the “program of truth (al-haqq). This is one of the fundaments of Sunni jihadist perception of community that has now led to the creation of an “Islamic State” where the “true” and “proper” principles and methodology of Islam can be realized.

Visual Culture

Videos are the most important mouthpiece to show the manifestation and realization of jihadist creed (‘aqida) and methodology (manhaj) for which they claim to live and die. The video discourse allows a constantly repetition and showcasing of doctrines that disparage non-believers and sanction the collective punishment of “apostates” (murtadd) and Muslim “hypocrites” (munafiq).
This theological led discourse can be defined as “discursive guidance.” By the constant repetition of extremist laden theological interpretation (texts) and its practical implementation (videos), jihadi media consumers and participants are guided into a specific notion that serves as the fundament to become active and potentially commit attacks.
The first posting regarding this video provides an overview of the video distribution via Twitter and the attempts at counter messaging. It shows that it is not enough to merely increase the volume of counter messaging, or even to be retweeted frequently; (counter) messaging must be able to penetrate the Jihadist clusters, especially across the range of languages, hence targeting the targeted audiences. If counter-messaging remains isolated, the result is less a counter message and more a separate conversation.
Shouldn’t “counter-messaging” or a “counter-narrative” rather seek to penetrate and at best infiltrate jihadist media clusters online in hopes of persuading consumers to turn away? On different levels?
In a future posting the specific messages that are encoded into this video will be detailed, for now let us assess some aspects of the Swarmcast phenomena through which the video was distributed; specifically, speed and resilience. The final section looks at the response from hackers who launched another wave of attacks on accounts they believed to be sympathetic to ISIS, or jihadist groups more broadly.

Swarmcast:

This section assesses some aspects of the Swarmcast through which the video was distributed; specifically, speed and resilience. Although some commentators and policy makers are tempted by the idea that suspending a few most active accounts could limit jihadist activity by reducing the number of users following selected accounts (discussed further here), data analysis of content distribution highlights that the Swarmcast can withstand such an approach.
Speed:

speedclick to enlarge

In the first six hours there were over 32,000 retweets containing the tag: #شفاء_الصدور . This is a combination of those actively disseminating the video and those engaged in counter-messaging. The volume of retweets and the speed with which that occurs renders the removal of accounts largely ineffective in disrupting the dissemination of content. By the time accounts are identified and suspended the content has been widely distributed.
Equally, the focus on retweets allows the analysis to focuses on a behavioral response – showing who Twitter users responded to – rather than those who are most active. Analysis of accounts that other users think are important is often more effective than examining the most active accounts – as these may have a lot to say, but that doesn’t mean anyone is listening.
Engagement Profiles:
The Engagement profile of frequently retweeted accounts shows the same pattern of rapid information dissemination, with most activity occurring in the first six to eight hours. The intensity of engagement with accounts attempting counter-messaging is broadly speaking at the same time. This is a significantly faster response than that during the release of “the Clanging of Swords, part 4” (48 hours on that occasion). This speed of response may be because of the video having been published on a weekday, rather than a Saturday.

engagement profilesclick to enlarge (interactive)

The data shows that trying to remove individual videos or user accounts one-by-one, leads to a global game of whack-a-mole, a strategy ISIS seems to be employing on the battlefield as well.
This absorbs resources, while the media mujahedeen move fast enough to maintain a persistent online presence.

Resilience:
As discussed in previous pieces, degree of interconnection between accounts gives the cluster of users disseminating Jihadist content a level of resilience which, in addition to speed discussed above, enables the network to maintain a persistent presence. This highlights the importance of challenging the networks that distribute content rather than chasing after lists of individual accounts.
As discussed in the earlier post the network image visually attests that there are different clusters of users sharing content and that users sharing counter-messaging were almost entirely isolated from core media mujahedeen accounts.

resilienceclick to enlarge

Focusing on the core cluster identified on the image, this cluster is large enough and has a level of interconnection to achieve resilience and persistence. The core cluster contains 9,719 accounts. If the outlying groups are removed, this number goes down to 6,826 accounts connected by 17,713 author / retweeted relationships. In this group, 575 accounts were retweeted at least once by five or more other users. Of accounts who are retweeted at least once, the average number of users that retweeted them was 12.7 (with a median of 3). This indicates that while there are some particularly influential accounts, much of the distribution occurs through a broad network of interconnected accounts.

This observation is further borne out by the metrics produced by social network analysis, which also show in greater depth the roles key actors play in the network.

Important findings from this approach include that the counter messaging is much more centralised around a couple of accounts. In contrast, the decentralised dissemination of Jihadist content – the swarmcast – means a range of accounts are reaching different communities, with sufficient levels of redundancy to allow information to continue flowing despite the suspension of some accounts.

This combination allows the swarmcast to maintain a persistent presence and reach communities which the Counter effort does not. This analysis using the network metrics, confirms the visual analysis from the network image and is also supported by the Key Actor graph. The Key Actor graph and specifically the horizontal spread of accounts shows that a relatively large number of accounts were important in the distribution of information to specific communities.

scatter plotclick to enlarge (interactive)

The combination of analyses and metrics produced by social network analysis, confirms findings from earlier studies, that the media mujahedeen distributes content rapidly, through a resilient network capable of reconfiguring when some accounts are suspended.

 

#opISIS:

There have been repeated stories over the last year of jihadist accounts being suspended, including in the aftermath of the beheading of James Foley, or the attempts by hackers linked to Anonymous to disrupt accounts as part of Operation No2ISIS.

On 6th February an article posted on Counter Current News claimed Anonymous had just “destroyed months of recruiting work for the terrorist network known as ISIS” and listed the accounts which they now claimed to control. The article also contained a video which describes the actions and rationale of the Anonymous RedCult team as part of #OpISIS.

opISISclick on the image for the video on YouTube

It is unclear how accounts are being selected as part of #OpISIS. However, when comparing the list of accounts that had been hacked, posted on the 6th February and comparing it to the users tweeting about #شفاء_الصدور – none (zero) of the users in the original list were involved in the release of the Cleansing of Believers’ Chests.

An updated list posted on the 9th February, listed over 700 accounts. Only 3.1% of those identified as priority targets with over 10 thousand followers appeared in the network of users disseminating the #شفاء_الصدور video. However, of all the accounts posted in the Feb 9th update, around 9.3% of these users were part of the dissemination of the Cleansing of Believers’ Chests.

Given the dispersed nature of the network and the relatively small proportion of users who were affected by #OpISIS and had been disseminating #شفاء_الصدور, the Jihadist swarmcast continues to exhibit speed and resilience. This allows the ‘media mujahedeen’ and those sympathetic to ISIS to maintain a persistence presence for their content online.

New Abbottabad Documents

Posted: 15th March 2015 by Will McCants in Uncategorized

In the course of the Abid Naseer trial, the U.S.  Department of Justice released several documents recovered from the raid on Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. As I did with the Abbottabad documents released to West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, I have cataloged the new documents and created a handlist with links to translations and originals.

The reference numbers in brackets are keyed to the original Arabic texts to avoid confusion. In the course of preparing the handlist, I noticed that two of the translations were attached to the wrong documents (translations of 424 and 432 were switched). I also saw that item 404 is actually three separate letters, none of which is translated (I split the document into three labeled a, b, c). If anyone wants to type up the documents and translate them, I’ll post your work here.

Of the authors and recipients, Sultan al-`Abdali “Qattal” al-Jadawi is unknown to me so I’m not sure if I transliterated his name properly.

  • Date: al-Sabt 7 Rabi al-Akhir 1430 (3? April 2009), From: Abu Bashir al-Najdi, To: Bin Laden, (Ar) [404-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD (a)]
  • Date: 7 Rabi al-Akhir 1430 (3? April 2009), From: Sultan al-`Abdali (aka “Qattal” al-Jadawi), To: Bin Laden (aka al-Walid (“the father”)), (Ar) [404-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD (b)]
  • Date: al-Sabt 7 Rabi al-Akhir 1430 (3? April 2009), From: ِ`Abd Allah b. `Umar al-Qurashi (aka Abu Damdam al-Qurashi), To: Bin Laden, (Ar) [404-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD (c)]
  • Date: ca. May 2010, From: Bin Laden, To: al-Hajj `Uthman, (Eng) (Ar) [426-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD] [date and author based on reference to letter by son Khalid]
  • Date: ca. May 2010, From: Bin Laden (aka Zmaray), To: al-Shaykh Yunis, (Eng) (Ar) [424-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD] [date based on similarities to Hajj `Uthman letter]
  • Date: 7 Rajab 1431 (19 June 2010), From: `Atiyya (aka Mahmud), To: Bin Laden (aka Abu `Abd Allah), (Eng) (Ar) [420-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD]
  • Date: al-Sabt 5 Sha`ban 1431 (17 July 2010), From: `Atiyya (aka Mahmud), To: Bin Laden (aka Abu `Abd Allah), (Eng) (Ar) [422-10-CR-109-S-4-RJD]
  • Date: al-Jum`a 26 Sha`ban 1431 (6 August 2010), From: Bin Laden (aka Zmaray), To: `Atiyya (aka Mahmud), (Eng) (Ar) [432-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD
  • Date: al-Thulatha’ Dhu al-Hijja 1431 (23 November 2010), From: `Atiyya (aka Mahmud), To: Bin Laden (aka Abu `Abd Allah), (Eng) (Ar) [428-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD]
  • Date: al-Sabt Awa’il Jumada al-Ula 1432 (5 May 2011), From: `Atiyya (aka Mahmud), To: Bin Laden (aka Shaykhuna (“our Shaykh”)), (Eng) (Ar) [430-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD]
  • Date: Unknown, From: Unknown, To: Unknown, (Eng) (Ar) [403-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD]