Even from behind bars, the influential jihadi scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi continues to command a following. Last week the Ansar al-Mujahidin forum launched a media campaign demanding freedom for the Palestinian-born shaykh, who was imprisoned in Jordan in September 2010 and is serving a five-year sentence. Tellingly, the campaign to free al-Maqdisi (observable on Twitter at #أطلقوا_العلامة_المقدسي) drew far more attention on the jihadi forum than Ayman al-Zawahiri’s most recent statement marking the anniversary of the Nakba. No one, it would seem, possesses jihadi cachet online like the imprisoned Palestinian. (For more on his influence and ideology, check out Joas Wagemakers’ new book.)

“The Ibn Taymiyya of Our Age”

This contrast says much about the nature of the Jihadi-Salafi community, where it is often independent writers and thinkers—more than the al-Qaeda leadership itself—who chart the ideological course of the movement. Al-Zawahiri himself has acknowledged his debt to al-Maqdisi, describing him as a “teeming ocean of knowledge and scholarship…and deep-rooted steadfastness in the face of the idolatrous rulers of the age.”

Even more flattering is a recent comparison with Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), the persecuted Hanbali scholar from Damascus whose writings, controversial in their day, now form the scholarly core of Salafi Islam. As one of his colleagues recently put it, al-Maqdisi has become “the Ibn Taymiyya of our age”: suffering abuse and ridicule and repeated terms of imprisonment, and standing accused of “extremism and deviancy” in religion. The passage of time, it is believed, will vindicate him.

The United States and (most) Arab governments hold a different view: that he is a terrorist agitator. His incarceration is counted a blessing. Last week the State Department issued a report praising Jordan as “a steadfast partner in counterterrorism” and summarizing (with a hint of approval) the charges brought against the Palestinian ideologue: “plotting unsanctioned acts that would subject the [Jordanian] kingdom to hostile acts, undermining Jordan’s relations with another country, and recruiting persons inside the kingdom to join armed terrorist groups and organizations.” Al-Maqdisi holds that his imprisonment is simply a function of his beliefs and writings.

Prison Life

The last three years have not been kind to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. As Joas Wagemakers has noted, prison terms have previously been some of his most productive periods in terms of writing. Yet since this latest arrest almost no new writings of his have surfaced online. Meanwhile, he has suffered significant personal hardship: losing his wife and being denied permission to attend her funeral; enduring a hunger strike and being refused medical care; and undergoing 60 days of solitary confinement (beginning in March) for angrily destroying a telephone in the prison visitors’ area. In a more heroic account circulated on jihadi media, this punishment was meted out after a physical fight that al-Maqdisi instigated with six prison guards.

Jail time, al-Maqdisi has previously written, can be an opportunity or a danger for jihadis. In his words: “Prison is a trial—either fruitful, or destructive, or deranging.” Fruitful because it can offer one ample time to write; destructive because it can lead to “defections” from the jihadi methodology; and “deranging” because it can transform jihadis into radical takfiris (extremists in the excommunication of fellow Muslims). This may not be a fruitful prison term for al-Maqdisi. He does claim success, however, in indoctrinating fellow inmates in jihadi thinking. He has also managed to publish a small number of writings in recent months.

Toward an “Islamic Spring”

Since March, a trickle of essays, fatwas, and poems has appeared on al-Maqdisi’s website. These writings, dated between December 2012 and May of this year, offer advice and encouragement to the jihadi community as it grapples with the post-Arab Spring environment. The author, despite some criticisms, conveys an unbounded optimism. This is glimpsed in a poem describing a tree shooting up between the cement cracks of a prison courtyard, symbolizing for him “resolve, hope, and the power of the weak to triumph over the strong”:

Arise, o dawn light

for we desire brightness.

After darkness is not but

dawn light emergent.

Bloom, o spring of Islam,

fill the world with radiance…

Along these lines, al-Maqdisi’s writings outline a general strategy for transforming the Arab Spring into an “Islamic Spring.” In the following I draw on two essays in particular: “From Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi to His Monotheist Brothers” and “Dear Advice to the Supporters of the Lofty Shari‘a.”

Jihadi Unity

The first theme taken up in these essays is that of jihadi unity. Al-Maqdisi says it is a shame to see jihadis engaging in infighting while their enemies (secularists and others misguided) combine forces to thwart the advance of Islam. Unified leadership and coordination of efforts are needed.

Particularly distressing to him is reported infighting among jihadi scholars, an issue to which he devotes several pages. This is almost certainly a veiled reference (al-Maqdisi typically writes in an oblique manner) to the Mauritanian Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti and his series of vicious attacks against the Syrian Abu Basir al-Tartusi. To remind readers, this dispute between the two jihadi ideologues peaked last year after Abu Basir criticized the al-Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and endorsed voting in elections in limited circumstances—among other things seemingly unbecoming of a jihadi. Al-Shinqiti condemned him in several book-length monographs as having deviated from the jihadi methodology and called on his followers to abandon him.

Al-Maqdisi, without addressing the details of the debate or the names of the parties to it, plainly rebukes al-Shinqiti for causing a “distraction” that has threatened unity in jihadi ranks. Frustrated by the one who “exhausted paper and wrote pages and long refutations on the internet” against “our brothers,” blowing out of proportion “minor issues,” al-Maqdisi cautions the unnamed individual (al-Shinqiti) against divisive provocation. Dialogue among jihadis ought always to be elevating, he says, quoting the Prophet’s statement that “whoever believes in God and the Last Day should say something good or remain silent.” This is quite a strong refutation of the Mauritanian, who serves on the Shari‘a Council of al-Maqdisi’s website. Al-Shinqiti, who offered the generous comparison of al-Maqdisi to Ibn Taymiyya, seems to have desisted from his campaign to stigmatize Abu Basir.

Adapting to a New Reality

The new political situation in the Arab world, following the Arab Spring, is a welcome opportunity in al-Maqdisi’s view, entailing a change of emphasis in jihadi strategy. In countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia the appropriate strategy for the moment is not violent jihad against the new governments but rather da‘wa (peaceful propagation of Islam). This is not to say, he makes clear, that the new governments are led by legitimate Muslim rulers. They are not, for these new rulers do not rule according to God’s law and so may be deemed apostates. Nonetheless, he advises against violent confrontation with the powers that be for practical reasons.

The rise of Islamist governments in the wake of the Arab Spring is generally analogous, al-Maqdisi says, to the rise of Hamas rule in Gaza in 2007. Concerning Hamas, he previously advised that while the Hamas and Fatah governments may be equally unbelieving, this did not mean that it was suddenly appropriate to excommunicate the entirety of the greater Hamas movement. One was also to recognize that it was better to have Hamas in power than Fatah as a practical consideration. The appropriate strategy was not to fight Hamas—except in cases of self-defense—but rather to engage in “jihad with the tongue,” or da‘wa.

Such also applies to the post-revolutionary Arab states, where al-Maqdisi says it would be “politically stupid to open up battle fronts at this stage” with the rulers. Clashing with the governments and people will only put further distance between jihadis and the masses. Rather “patience and gradualism” (al-sabr wa-l-tadarruj) are in order as jihadis take advantage of this opportunity “to reorganize their ranks and instruct their brethren…and engage the masses by bringing them da‘wa, spreading tawhid (God’s unicity), and educating them in their religion,” in addition to engaging in charitable activities to earn their goodwill. In a sentence, al-Maqdisi summarizes the logic of this strategy: “As long as the supporters of tawhid remain too weak to overthrow these regimes and seize the reins of power, then it is unwise for our brothers in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere to embroil themselves in fighting and clashing with these governments.”

Of course, al-Maqdisi is not the first jihadi to outline such a strategy. Al-Zawahiri, for example, does not call for revolution against Muhammad Mursi in Egypt. Al-Maqdisi’s strategy is rather the new jihadi orthodoxy represented by groups across the Arab world calling themselves Ansar al-Shari‘a (the Supporters of Shari‘a). Indeed, al-Maqdisi praises the proliferation of Ansar al-Shari‘a groups that have refrained from both violence and the temptation of participating in democracy. Wisely, he says, these groups have avoided using the unpopular and alienating al-Qaeda brand name.

Syria

In his commentary on the civil war in Syria, al-Maqdisi heaps praise on Syria’s al-Qaeda branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. The group in his view represents the maturity of jihadis and their ability to learn from previous missteps. He notes the group’s ingratiating approach to Syrian society—helping those in need, distributing food and clothes—and its wisdom in having a Syrian leadership. It would be a mistake, he says, for the mujahidin leadership of one country to come from another, even if in theory we refuse to recognize the Sykes-Picot boundaries that falsely distinguish between Islamic lands.

From these remarks one can assume that al-Maqdisi would have opposed the attempt by the Islamic State of Iraq’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to assert authority over Jabhat al-Nusra last April. Al-Maqdisi says he is opposed to founding separate emirates in jihad theaters, particularly when they are controlled by foreign jihadis. This type of activity only alienates the population that jihadis are trying to win over. He writes that after the fall of the Asad regime the real battle with the world (the United States and Europe) and neighboring states will begin, and that is why it is necessary to earn popular support now.

Gradualism

As he has before, al-Maqdisi emphasizes that it is the “near enemy”—regional tyrants—who ought to be the focus of jihadis’ attention. Even Syrian jihadis, observing the watchword of  “gradualism in jihad,” should avoid provoking or even speaking about “one of the greatest of our enemies”—Israel. At this stage jihadis must work within the parameters of the Sykes-Picot borders, which define the modern Arab states and Israel, even while the final stage envisions the erasure of such boundaries. Elsewhere, jihadis should know that this is not the time “to attack the world all at once, sending out threatening statements left and right.” They should avoid attracting negative attention with calls for “death to all the infidels” and provocative actions such as destroying shi‘i shrines. This is, for al-Maqdisi, more than ever before a campaign for hearts and minds.

 

Office Space

Posted: 31st May 2013 by Will McCants in AQ Leadership, AQIM, Zawahiri

Earlier this week, the AP’s Rukmini Callimachi revealed one of the memos she discovered in the sixth trashbag full of AQIM documents she collected in the aftermath of the French attack on jihadis in Timbuktu in January. The memo, dated October 2012, is from the shura council of AQIM to the shura council of the Masked Brigade, a subsidiary of AQIM at the time. Until October 2012, the Masked Brigade had been run by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the most infamous jihadi in Africa. We previously knew that AQIM leadership had removed Belmokhtar from his position in that month, afterwhich he established his own group, the Blood Signers left to run the Masked Brigade as a separate organization. But we did not specifically know why AQIM had taken its decision until now.

The memo is AQIM’s response to a letter sent by the Masked Brigade that criticized AQIM leadership and recommened a course correction. For AQIM’s leadership, the letter was a final act of insubordination in a long history of such behavior by Belmokhtar, which they recount in scathing detail.

Several things stood out:

  • Belmokhtar wanted to sever his group from AQIM and pledge allegience directly to AQ Central. In addition to being a play for more autonomy, the move calls to mind the recent attempt of Nusra to get out from under AQ Iraq’s control and pledge allegience directly to Zawahiri. Combined with Shabab infighting over leadership and appeals to Zawahiri to intervene, the three episodes suggest that AQ Central does not have a firm hand on the reins.
  • Zawahiri is hard to reach. In rebuffing Belmokhtar’s desire to pledge allegience directly to Zawahiri, AQIM’s leadership explains that it would do nothing to elicit more attention from AQ Central because the organization rarely communicates with AQIM as it is. AQIM states that they have received just a few letters from Bin Laden and Zawahiri and a handful from Atiyya and Abu Yahya al-Libi, “despite our multiple letters to them for them to deal with us effectively in managing jihad here.”
  • Al-Qaeda is run like a business or government agency. As long-time AQ watchers know, Bin Laden established orderly administrative procedures for conducting the business of terror. AQIM’s memo is one more window into how the adminisrative machinery functions. The leadership gripes at Belmokhtar for not filing expense reports, not playing well with the other vice presidents (ie emirs) in the region, and not returning headquarter’s phone calls.
  • Even if jihadis recognize Internet communication is compromised, they still do it. The memo from the Masked Brigade to AQIM reminds AQIM’s leaders that they should not try to communicate with their subordinates over the Internet, referencing a message from Zawahiri saying the same (anyone know if this letter was public?). AQIM’s leadership retorts by observing that Belmokhtar is the one who is carelessly communicating with Internet forum administrators (they mention Ansar al-Mujahideen forum in particular) and airing AQIM’s dirty laudry to the media.
  • Spectacular attacks can be motivated by petty infighting. It is natural to look to a group’s ideology and strategy first when explaining a sudden change in attack patterns. This year’s attack on the gas fields in Algeria elicited just such commentary. While such explainations paint part of the picture, the AQIM memo suggests infighting can also be a big motivation for action and target selection. According to the memo, Belmokhtar criticized AQIM’s leadership for not carrying out any “spectacular military action” over the last decade despite having the resources and permission to do so. AQIM turns this charge back on Belmokhtar, saying that he was the one who was charged with carrying out such attacks. Belmokhtar answered by carrying out the spectacular attack on the Algerian gas field three months later.
  • Something is brewing in Libya. AQIM and Belmokhtar trade barbs over who was the first to try and consolidate jihadi groups fighting in Libya. I’ll leave it to folks like Clint Watts and Andrew Lebovich to surmise how successful AQIM and Belmokhtar have been in that endeavor. I’d only note that in the midst of their success in Mali last year, AQIM was already looking over the horizon at Libya as the next theater. If the jihadis in Mali continue to be squeezed by the French and others, they may head northeast.

Many authors have tried to fill in the gaps in the historical account of how al-Qa’ida’s central leadership came to reside in Jalalabad for part of 1996, with mixed results. Yunus Khalis has become a fixture in these narratives largely because he was the best known person that Bin Laden interacted with in the summer after al-Qa’ida’s leadership fled Sudan for Nangarhar. For many authors, Khalis’s fame and prominence in the region combined with his known interactions with Bin Laden provide an adequate explanation: al-Qa’ida must have come to Nangarhar in 1996 because of the importance of the Khalis-Bin Laden relationship.

This is, of course, a vast oversimplification, and I hope that the report I recently published for West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center will go some way towards exposing the most obviously untenable parts of this narrative. But as part of the research for this monograph, I have also found a primary source which upholds what I had long believed to be the most unlikely component of the accepted account of al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan: the idea that Usama bin Laden called Yunus Khalis a father.

The biographical material on Yunus Khalis is extensive and appears to be growing relatively rapidly. Some of his biographers, like Haji Din Muhammad, are still aligned with the government in Kabul and so have clear reasons for downplaying the connections between Yunus Khalis and the erstwhile al-Qa’ida leader. Other biographers,  like Puhnamal Ahmadzai, take a different approach by either ignoring the issue entirely or by actually playing up Khalis’s contact with Bin Laden for one political purpose or another. One of these latter biographers, ‘Abd al-Kabir Talai, states explicitly what has heretofore only been the subject of speculation and hearsay: that Usama bin Laden called Yunus Khalis “the Father Sheikh.”

Although this is so far the only known primary source that makes such an argument about the relationship between these two, Talai gives a clear and believable reason for why Usama bin Laden had such a warm view of Khalis. I encourage anyone interested in the specifics of this exchange to read my report, but for now I’ll simply say that apparently Bin Laden appreciated that Khalis was not a “fair weather friend.”

In any event, there was nothing particularly exceptional about someone calling Khalis by such a familiar name; the titles of two of his biographies refer to him as “Khalis Baba.”  In Pashto and Persian “baba” can be either “papa,” “granddad,” or simply a term of respect for an older man, and it is entirely possible that Bin Laden was just following the practice of Khalis’s Pashtun friends by using this term of endearment.

Although I was frankly surprised to find a confirmation of this particular historical tidbit about Bin Laden’s fondness for Yunus Khalis in my primary source research, there are a number of excellent reasons to believe Old Man Khalis was peripheral to the growth of al-Qa’ida as a major terrorist organization. So far there is every indication that Yunus Khalis was dismissive of Bin Laden’s calls for jihad against the American presence in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. And in any event, by 1996 when the al-Qa’ida leadership returned to Afghanistan, Khalis was nearing the end of his productive working life.  Although he remained engaged in attempts to promote negotiations between the Taliban movement and various mujahidin factions, he would soon be too ill to have much effect on the operations of groups like al-Qa’ida even if he had wanted to.

The exciting thing about discovering these kinds of historical nuggets in the biographical material of mujahidin leaders like Yunus Khalis is that it reminds us how little we still know about both Khalis and other, much more famous people like Usama bin Laden. And as more sources become available in print, I suspect that we can look forward to all kinds of unexpected adjustments to the current mujahidin myth cycle.

For the second installment of our Jihadi Twitter Activism series Ali Fisher and Nico Prucha explore data collected from Twitter related to the Syrian AQ branch Jabhat al-Nusra. This post identifies key ‘influence multipliers’ for Jabhat al-Nusra’s strategic communication and an overview of the content that these multipliers disseminate via Twitter.

Read the rest of this entry »

Western authors commenting on various mujahidin leaders involved with Usama bin Laden often seem to go out of their way to make the individuals in question seem extra villainous. This has been especially clear in the case of Yunus Khalis. In English works on al-Qa’ida, we learn little about Khalis except that he a) helped to host Bin Laden in Jalalabad in 1996, and b) he apparently married a much younger woman when he was already an old man. There is disagreement about her age, but estimates range from 14-18 or so, with several homing in on the age of 17 years.

Read the rest of this entry »

Jabhat al-Nusra: A Self-Professed AQ Affiliate

Posted: 8th May 2013 by Will McCants in AQ in Iraq, Syria

[Jihadica is pleased to welcome a guest post from Charles Lister (Charles_Lister), a London-based terrorism and insurgency analyst. The views expressed below are entirely his own and do not represent those of his employer.]

An article recently released by EA Worldview claims to refute the widespread belief that Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) is an al-Qaeda affiliate; rather, it is a “local faction” in the Syrian insurgency that respects al-Qaeda but maintains its autonomy. According to EA Worldview, when JN’s leader, al-Golani, recently renewed his oath of allegiance (bay`a) to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on April 10th, it was merely a formal nod of respect without significance for command and control.

EA Worldview’s interpretation of Golani’s oath of allegiance is wrong & here’s why:

Read the rest of this entry »

Asiem El Difraoui, a senior political scientist and an award winning documentary filmmaker, has recently published a new book on the subject of Jihad videos as the most important propaganda phenomenon. He currently is a senior fellow at Institute for Media- and Communication Policies in Germany.

In his book, The Jihad of Images – al-Qaeda’s Prophecy of Martyrdom, Asiem analyses the visual communication strategy of contemporary jihadism along the iconography and overall narrative jihadists have successfully promoted in the recent years.  Asiem has been engaged in studying jihadists and their propaganda for several years and is a regular member at conferences (here and here).

Out of the range of Asiem’s recent publications, his study jihad.de is of particular interest (in German, click here).

Here is the English book description by the publisher (for French, click here):

“Without the creation of a highly complex propaganda strategy with videos as its most efficient weapons, Al-Qaeda and its Jihadi allies might already have ceased to exist. The Jihad of Images not only retraces the history of Al-Qaeda’s propaganda from its beginnings and the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan – thus offering a unique insight into the history of the Jihadi movement – it also analyses in detail the symbolism of Al-Qaeda’s revolutionary visual language in Islamic terms and the different genres of propaganda videos. Most importantly, the author illustrates that through its video production, Al-Qaeda hijacks the mythology of Islam and its symbols to create its own eschatological myth of martyrdom, presented as the sole path to salvation. This myth includes a cosmology in which leaders such as Osama bin Laden become prophets in Max Weber’s sense of the word, and the so-called “martyrs”, saints. In this way, Al-Qaeda qualifies as a sect. Yet despite its failure to mobilise the Muslim masses, Al-Qaeda, through its videos, has nevertheless succeeded in creating a culture of Jihad that is recognized by a considerable number of Muslims today and could inspire future generations. The research for this book was not only based on the screening of hundreds of Jihadi films but also on impressive field work including rare interviews with: leading Jihadi propagandists, Jihadi sympathisers, captives of jihadi groups as well as those engaged in the fight against global Jihad and its propaganda – from Afghanistan and Iraq to the United Kingdom and the United States.”

 

 

 

Al-Qaradawi and the Help of the Unbelievers

Posted: 1st May 2013 by Joas Wagemakers in Ideological trends, Syria, USA

 

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the famous Egyptian Muslim scholar who’s often described as the most influential Sunni scholar alive, is well known for his comments on politics, society and other practical issues that believers have to deal with. Yesterday, I read in an article that he has added a new comment of that type to an already long list: he has called upon the United States to “hit” Syria. This may not come as a surprise to some, but it is nevertheless a position that is worth taking a closer look at.

“Please sir, I want some more”

In a recent Friday sermon delivered in the Qatari capital Doha, al-Qaradawi thanked the United States for giving 60 million dollars’ worth of weapons to the Syrian rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Asad. This is remarkable enough in itself, but al-Qaradawi even added to that by asking for more help from the US.

Interestingly, after claiming that the US fears Israel and dreads the idea that Syrian rebels will cross the border into that country, he makes his request for more American aid to Syria quite explicit and asks: “Why hasn’t America acted [in Syria] the way it acted in Libya? America must defend the Syrians and adopt a position of masculinity (waqafat rujula), a position for God, what is good and what is just.”

Libya

As mentioned, it may not come as a surprise that al-Qaradawi takes this position. After all, the article states, al-Qaradawi had more or less the same view about Libya when that country’s leader, Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, was still in power and faced revolts against his rule: “Whoever can kill Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi”, al-Qaradawi is quoted from an earlier speech or sermon, “let him kill him. Whoever can shoot him, let him do it, so that the people and the umma are rid of the evil of this madman.”

Necessity

Like al-Qaradawi supported the call for (the “un-Islamic”) NATO to help the Muslims in Libya, so he now supports asking the Americans for aid in Syria. Apart from the Libyan case, such calls for non-Muslim help in conflict or even jihad are not without precedent. The most famous contemporary example of this is probably the Saudi King Fahd’s 1990 plea for American protection against a possible attack from Iraq, which had just invaded Kuwait at the time.

This decision to invite 500,000 US troops in 1990 was not only highly controversial in Saudi political circles, among the Saudi public and in the Middle East in general, but it was also a fiercely debated religious issue. The major Saudi scholars at the time legitimised their decision to allow the US troops to come by pointing to the necessity of keeping the country secure.

Asking unbelievers for help

Not everyone agreed with the decision of the major Saudi scholars, however. In fact, as I pointed out in an article published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies last year, this decision sparked a debate over whether it was allowed in general to ask unbelievers for help (al-isti’ana bi-l-kuffar) in conflicts, particularly when this help was directed against other Muslims.

The famous Salafi scholar Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (1914-1999), argued that such calls for non-Muslim help were not allowed against other Muslims. Scholars stating that former Iraqi President Saddam Husayn was no longer a Muslim because he was a member of the socialist Ba’th Party were dismissed by al-Albani since the Iraqi army, which was going to do the actual fighting, did consist of mostly Muslim soldiers, he said.

The example of the Prophet

According to some Muslims, there are indications in the main sources of Islam – the Qur’an and the Sunna – that asking non-Muslims for help during conflicts is, in fact, not permissible. Q. 5: 51, for instance, says: “O believers, take not Jews and Christians as friends; they are friends of each other. Whoso of you makes them his friends is one of them.” Similar words are expressed in Q. 60: 1, although the statement there is more specific and clearly refers to a particular episode in Islamic history.

Perhaps more clearly military in nature are some sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, in which he rejected seeking assistance from unbelievers in certain battles. At the same time, however, one hadith does state that the Prophet sought help from the Jews of the Medinan tribe Banu Qaynuqa’ against another Jewish tribe, namely the Banu Qurayza.

Fighting against whom?

The above suggests that the sources may not be entirely clear on asking unbelievers for help against others, despite assertations by some Muslims to the contrary. The last example given above, however, deals with asking unbelievers for help in fighting against other unbelievers, not against fellow Muslims. This is obviously an important distinction and one that could explain why al-Qaradawi made his statement.

Bashar al-Asad, important parts of his regime and parts of his elite troops are ‘Alawi Muslims, who are often seen by Sunnis as being so heterodox that they are really not considered Muslims anymore. If al-Qaradawi agrees with this, asking American unbelievers for help against the Syrian regime is then, in his view at least, not directed against Muslims, but simply at other unbelievers. This, in turn, would justify making a theological distinction between asking the Americans for help in fighting, say, Iraqi soldiers and ‘Alawi special forces from Syria.

Of course, it has to be borne in mind that all of this theological reasoning may well act as nothing more than a religious justification ex post facto, rather than an actual reason for al-Qaradawi to make his call for American help in the first place. Al-Qaradawi may well have been inspired to call on the US to help by the killing which the Syrian regime is responsible for and nothing more. Still, his statements did provide me with an opportunity to expound on an important ideological issue among jihadis, which is never a bad thing I suppose.

 

 

Ali Fisher and I have recently exchanged thoughts and data regarding the increasing Jihadi use of Twitter. By taking an interdisciplinary approach of social-media analysis and cluster network assessment, we decided to start a series on Jihadica on the parts of the overall jihadi, primarily Arabic language propaganda resonating among the audiences online. We plan on delivering updates on the subject as we move along and kick-off the series with an overall introduction to the theme.

In future posts in the series, we will highlight and decipher some of the core content most often shared on Twitter, allowing conclusions to be drawn about the parts of jihadist propaganda which resonate with a wider audience (and hence shared over and over again).

Introducing the theme

The recent essay by Abu Sa‘d al-‘Amili on the state of global online jihad (discussed here) lamented a general decline in participation in jihadi online forums. Furthermore, al-‘Amili issued a “Call (nida’) to the Soldiers of the Jihadi Media” demanding that they “return to their frontiers (thughur)” elevating their status. Al-‘Amili himself is one of the high-profile clerics, a “prolific “Internet Shaykh” (Lia) on the forums, but is also quite active on twitter (@al3aamili).

Two interrelated causes identified by Abu Sa‘d al-‘Amili were the periods when forums were offline and the migration of users to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. This is exacerbated by the movement of “major [jihadi] writers and analysts” (kibar al-kuttab wa-l-muhallilin) from the forums to social media platforms. This has perhaps increased the momentum of members of tier-one jihad forums to expand onto twitter while twitter as a massive communication relay has become the basis for a new generation of sympathizers, posing another intersection. Twitter is a further medium of choice to (re-) disseminate propaganda material in general and is a platform where activists, sympathizers, and actual fighters upload audiovisual and other types into the jihadi hub.

Jihadists have aggressively expanded the use of twitter, in addition to Facebook and YouTube, especially since the outbreak of violence in Syria. During 2011 members of Jihadist forums issued media-strategies and advisory to fellow members prior, as for example is stated in this posting here of the al-Ansar forum. The posting, initiated by the member Istishhadiyya is basically a very elemental guide, comprehensive and for beginners, highlighting the effective and fast communication capability. The same posting was copy-and-pasted by Shumukh member Basha’ir shortly afterwards. A handbook, compiled by Twitter user @osamh ended up on the jihadi forums to further underline the importance of Twitter as well as its difference to Facebook, where jihadists already have a strong presence.

It took a while for jihadi activism to fully unravel on Twitter, and they have maintained a cohesive as well as detailed presence on this social media platform since the Syrian conflict turned violent in 2012.

Twitter, and as such social media in general, is in the meantime an integral part of jihadists’ media endeavors on the Internet, with the majority of jihadi forums having their official account advertised for on the main pages of the forums.

The role of the media activists, or in jihadist speak the “media mujahid” has since the death of Osama bin Laden in May of 2011 been promoted, highlighted and approved. AQ related documents have made this role model prominent. The role model of the “media martyr” any “media mujahid” can be become, is backed by the call to take the fight on a greater level on al channels online issued by al-Fajr in their response of the killing of bin Laden:

“The Internet is a battlefield for jihad, a place for missionary work, a field of confronting the enemies of God. It is upon any individual to consider himself as a media-mujahid, dedicating himself, his wealth and his time for God.” (Analysis here, Arabic original here)

At first, the strategies to promote Twitter among members of jihadi forums failed to develop substantial traction, but this changed drastically during 2012. When jihadists in and outside of Syria started to use and incorporate twitter as a medium to disseminate and re-post al-Qa’ida and other propaganda material.

Twitter activism and jihadi supporters

At first Syrian non-violent activists used, and continue to use, twitter as a medium to document human rights abuse and war crimes of the Assad regime, but jihadists quickly adapted that content and the platform for their propaganda.

Social-media smart and professional jihadists adopted this treasure grove for their propaganda. By rebranding and reframing the content created by civil society activists, jihadi propaganda used these grievances to support a key jihadist self-perception; the obligation to respond by force to defend and protect the Sunnites in Syria.

Due to the effect and success of the Syrian based Jihadi groups, other jihadi groups as well as the main forums are adopting the twitter activism, advertising official forum accounts on the main pages with users within the forums using twitter hashtags (#) or references to twitter users (for example: @al_nukhba). A list of “The most important jihadi and support sites for jihad and the mujahideen on Twitter” was recently posted on the Shumukh al-Islam forum, allowing users to identify key accounts they might wish to follow.

Individual sympathizers and all those feeling inclined to contribute to the media jihad re-disseminate authoritative files of al-Qa’ida on twitter on a larger scale. Now all major jihadi media departments, part of militant networks, have their own channels on Twitter, linking to content from the jihadi forums and other social media platforms, primarily YouTube, Facebook, and pictures in general.

Twitter has turned into a primary hub for the distribution of jihadi agitprop files. These Jihadi information sharing networks using Twitter coexist, autonomously, with the classical forums. These networks carry, for example, samples of the wide range of jihadi propaganda files, in some cases placed first on Twitter, posted via mobile phones from the front lines. As a brief overview, a few samples consisting of:

 

  • martyrs in general and martyrdom operatives (istishhadiyyun) announced and identified by their hashtag and Twitter account;
  • calls for donations with phone numbers and social media contact information; taking care of the orphans of the martyrs among other civil elements;
  • general material of incitement, and the impact of online attained propaganda files used offline are popular and gain plenty of traction,

What are they sharing?

In addition to disseminating their own propaganda, jihadi media activists repurpose content from social movements and non-jihadi groups for their own purposes, framing the non-jihadi actions or demonstrations as part of the global militant struggle. This has created another ‘grey area’ where analysts have to carefully monitor and decipher such content. The forum administrators and media-activists also are starting to incorporate and misuse Twitter for their purposes, in coordinated attempts to virtually infiltrate legitimate social movements by using the same hash tags and a similar rhetoric to create ideological cohesion – and placing extremist views and files in that virtual sphere while claiming to fight on the ground for the sake of the people.

To analyze jihadi media networks, their sympathizers and followers we have used a combined approach focused on a unique interdisciplinary analysis of the data acquired by technical means and the subsequent and immediate analytical process of its content.

Using these methods we have asked a range of questions, how have jihadi propagandists been able to gain traction and a foothold online? How do they disseminate propaganda content to a global, multilingual audience and what resonates most with that audience? What are the networks through which their content flows and what are the different roles users play within these networks? Ultimately do the different jihadi twitter accounts reach a range of different communities, or is it a small densely interconnected echo chamber?

 

In an official statement issued yesterday, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) officially claimed Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) as its own product and subsidiary. The audio message from ISI’s emir, Abu Bakr al-Husayni al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi, confirmed once and for all JN’s status as an al-Qaeda offshoot established by ISI—a link JN leaders have long played down or denied. It also significantly revised jihadi nomenclature for the region. The names of “the Islamic State of Iraq” and “Jabhat al-Nusra,” decreed al-Baghdadi, are hereby void; the two groups are now combined under the joint name of “the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria” (al-dawla al-islamiyya fi al-‘iraq wa-l-sham; ISIGS). Thus will the “banner” of jihad achieve further unity.

A commitment to global jihad

JN, according to al-Baghdadi, was from the first an “extension” and “part” of ISI. Providing little in the way of details, he explains rather matter-of-factly how ISI early on sent—“deputized”—Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, one of ISI’s “soldiers,” to Syria along with a number of foreign colleagues to establish JN and recruit local Syrians. Al-Baghdadi justifies not proclaiming the connection between ISI and JN until now out of fear that the media would engage in harmful “distortion.” It is unclear why he finds this particular moment so different.

What the announcement makes very clear is that the group once known as Jabhat al-Nusra ought to be seen as a jihadi-salafi organization distinct from its homespun salafi counterparts, such as the groups comprising the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). While JN and the groups fighting under SIF have long campaigned together on various fronts in the Syrian civil war, and while they praise one another publicly, JN has always stood out for its secretive nature and lack of interest in adhering to the SIF command structure.

In his new report on “Syria’s Salafi Insurgents,” Aron Lund persuasively makes the case that JN is unique among Syria’s salafi warriors. Its leadership is “clearly part of the global salafi-jihadi trend” and sees “Syria as a front in [a] larger war against the West and Arab secularism.” This much is clear from how JN’s announcements and other literature are routinely posted to al-Qaeda-linked jihadi forums by the forums’ administrators. It has also been clear in the organizational distance between JN and the SIF, the latter of which has become a broad coalition of like-minded salafi fighting groups. JN, Lund confirms in communication with SIF leaders, was invited to help found SIF but wanted no part in it. Al-Baghdadi’s announcement yesterday makes clear why: JN’s objective is an Islamic state that includes Syria; the goal of the more nationalist-oriented SIF is an Islamic state within Syria.

An Islamic emirate foretold

The ISI’s announcement that its nominal authority now encompasses, by means of JN, the territory of modern Syria might strike some as surprising. Indeed JN has largely avoided violent excesses that alienated al-Qaeda in Iraq from the local population, as several commentators have pointed out. But JN was never truly meant to be, as its full name indicated, “the salvation front for the people of Syria, by the mujahidin of Syria.” The name was deceptive, as JN’s purpose was all along to enlarge the authority of ISI. While jihadi media did not state this purpose clearly, some jihadi writers, both on the fringes and in the mainstream, have consistently emphasized JN’s distinctiveness and priority among salafi fighters in Syria, sometimes even calling for an Islamic state.

In mid-March one jihadi author, an obscure Abu ‘Abd Allah Anis, explicitly called for founding an “Islamic emirate” in Syria in the jihadi magazine Majallat al-Balagh, a product of the media group Fursan al-Balagh. The author wrote (pg. 44): “We hope to witness [in Syria] in the near future an alliance of jihad powers and their establishment of a broad shura council leading to the announcement of an Islamic emirate.” He went on to talk about unifying all Islamic groups and battalions in this proposed alliance, which he saw as rightfully being led by JN. This vision of an Islamic emirate is certainly different from what al-Baghdadi announced yesterday, but it nonetheless captured the direction JN was headed.

Perhaps even more foretelling of the turn JN’s leadership would take was a fatwa issued back in February by the influential Mauritanian shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti. Writing in his capacity as a member the Shari‘a Council of Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, the website of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, al-Shinqiti strongly discouraged anyone interested in fighting jihad in Syria from forming or joining any group apart from JN. While he did not denounce or disparage other salafi groups fighting in Syria, he made it clear that he viewed their existence with skepticism. The mujahidin ought to “heed the command of God (who is exalted above all) to be one community, not separate communities; to fight under one banner, not different banners; to obey one commander, not multiple commanders; and to call themselves by one name, not by separate names.” It was therefore not appropriate to form or join a jihad group that did not pledge allegiance to JN’s leader.

The Islamic opposition at odds

It is as yet unclear what effect al-Baghdadi’s announcement of “the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria” will have on the armed Islamic opposition. Whether other salafi groups choose to distance themselves from ISIGS and its global scheme or not, it seems certain that ISIGS will henceforward more clearly emphasize its mission to achieve an Islamic state that exceeds the bounds of the Syrian nation.

Importantly, this mission includes an emphatic rejection of democracy in any form. In his statement al-Baghdadi warned the people of Syria not to “exchange these years of oppression for the religion of democracy, which the people of Iraq have preceded you [in accepting],” along with others in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. From the emphasis he lays on it, it seems that al-Baghdadi views democracy as al-Qaeda’s greatest threat in the near future, in Syria as elsewhere. Evidently he worries that salafi groups of more nationalist bent currently fighting the regime, like the SIF, could one day disarm and form political parties along the lines of Egypt’s salafi Nur Party. The difference that al-Baghdadi implicitly posits is one between salafis who adhere to the jihadi-salafi global mission of al-Qaeda (a minority) and those disposed to accept national affiliation—and possibly even to participate in a particular nation’s democracy.

It is noteworthy in this regard that the SIF leadership seems to hold a different outlook on democracy from that of JN (now ISIGS). As Lund points out, while SIF leaders have criticized the potential institutionalization of Western-style democracy in Syria, some of their statements exhibit tolerance for democratic practices such as voting and forming councils of elected officials. One informal Syrian adviser to the SIF, the prominent jihadi ideologue Abu Basir al-Tartusi, has intimated he would support the holding of elections in a post-Asad Syria. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, along with al-Qaeda leaning ideologues like al-Shinqiti, condemns the very practices of democracy, including voting, as shirk, or polytheism. Whether or not al-Baghdadi’s announcement heralds a newfound rift in the Islamic opposition’s daily business of waging jihad, it certainly confirms the presence of an ideological rift between Syria’s salafis.

Update (10 April 2013): In the above I suggested that JN’s leadership played a role in the decision to announce the new Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. Apparently this was not the case. In an audio message released today JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani claimed not to have had prior knowledge of the decision to scrap the JN and ISI labels in favor of the ISIGS; in fact he only learned of the decision from the media. While clearly unhappy at the way that this news reached him, al-Jawlani nevertheless agreed to “comply with al-Baghdadi’s request.” He then affirmed (and reaffirmed) his allegiance, and that of JN’s “children and their general leadership,” to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Yet it appears that al-Jawlani was not willing to comply fully with al-Baghdadi’s request, objecting to the instruction to dispense with the name Jabhat al-Nusra. He stated: “the banner of the Jabha (Front) will remain as it is with no changes.”

Apparently JN’s leader is concerned that too open an association with al-Qaeda could have a negative impact on JN’s reputation and perhaps alienate opposition allies. Al-Jawlani’s chosen solution seems to be to maintain the JN franchise name that has earned so much respect on the ground (encapsulated by the popular phrase “we are all Jabhat al-Nusra”) while professing allegiance to al-Qaeda and acceding (at least nominally) to the ISIGS. The message makes it unclear exactly what JN’s and the ISIGS’s next moves will be or what the operational linkages between the two (overlapping) groups really are.